Corporate Jargon, the Harvard Comma, and Authentic Communication

Let’s stay laser-focused on the desired outcome: To identify paradigm shifts that could disrupt the market, unleash differentiated opportunities, and enable best-of-breed offerings. Start by prioritizing the low-hanging fruit; don’t try to boil the ocean. It’s essential that we leverage subject matter expertise and exploit our competitive advantage. At the next checkpoint standup, we’ll review progress on milestones and key deliverables. Is everyone on the same page?

If that sounds like nonsense to you, then you’d agree with my husband who occasionally reminds me to tone down the “corporate speak.” And he’s right. In business we too often fall back on jargon — buzzwords that carry little substance, euphemisms that obscure meaning, and acronyms that are annoyingly opaque. (You can have some fun with this gobbledygook generator and this buzzword bingo card at your next corporate meeting.)

Communication in business serves various purposes: to inform, to persuade, to inspire. And in all cases, I’d argue clarity is key; pompous language gets in the way of reaching the audience. Recall the old adage: Communication isn’t what you say but what others hear. So, if the above corporate speak is what I say, but what colleagues hear is “blah blah paradigm blah leverage blah blah,” then I’ve clearly missed the mark.

(As a small but important-to-me aside, I’ll share here my strong opinion on the essential use of the Harvard comma to help with communication clarity. Alternatively called the Oxford or series comma, it comes before the “and” in a list of three or more items. Without it, the text is harder to parse, which can lead to misunderstandings. Take for instance these phrases:

  • I admire my parents, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.
    This implies that my parents are, in fact, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie. This is sadly not the case.
  • I admire my parents, Albert Einstein, and Marie Curie.
    Here it is clear that I have high regard for each of them.

Yet this is a hotly contested issue in grammar circles. Technically, the Harvard comma is “grammatically optional.” Associated Press (AP) Style, which is used by reporters, does not require it, but it is mandatory in the Chicago Manual of Style and the American Psychological Association (APA) Style, commonly used by book publishers and academics. Since a primary purpose of communication is to convey information with clarity, I argue we should always use the Harvard comma to make sure our points are properly delivered.)

Today we’re witnessing a refreshing new era of corporate communications, a resurgence of what we used to call “straight talk,” characterized by more open and transparent dialogues, less scripting, and little polish. Internally this manifests as open office hours, “ask me anything” sessions, and candid feedback delivered in plain language by leaders engaging directly with employees. Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor outlines how managers can create an open culture that inspires teams to be their best.

For this to really work, expertise and honesty matter. No longer can leaders simply read from their written talking points or issue a defiant “no comment.” Instead, they need to think on their feet to build and cultivate trust. Leaders that succeed in such a world are those who aren’t afraid to share their voices and have something meaningful to say.

Business leaders are increasingly using digital platforms to communicate externally as well, leveraging social media for nearly limitless reach and dynamic interaction. This has bred a new level of authenticity. In videos, emails, blogs, tweets, posts, and presentations, business leaders are more apt to bring their true self, more likely than ever to be genuine and frank.

Take for example IBM President Jim Whitehurst’s bi-weekly video series, “An Open Conversation with Jim,” which averages over 40,000 views of his short, informal discussions about open cultures, open leadership, and open source. About half of the CEOs of the United States’ largest publicly traded companies have a social media presence, giving them access to customers and connections with current and future employees. Top connected leaders have higher approval ratings and are seen as more trustworthy than their unconnected peers. General Motors CEO Mary Barra is an exemplar as a connected CEO, with active engagement across multiple platforms, sharing an authentic voice. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon engages frequently on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook, where he takes stands on controversial issues and shares insights into the daily life of a senior executive.

I find this wide communication channel both refreshing and challenging. Early in my career, I’d been taught to be exceedingly cautious with what I say outside and to get legal and HR approval before publishing anything. Yet today’s corporate social computing guidelines encourage active participation in global dialogues, of course with appropriate disclaimers and without disclosing sensitive information. To this day, when I share my thoughts online, I still feel a slight hesitation, worried I should consult others first, self-conscious about whether I’m coming across in the best possible way. But I’m trying to find the balance: responsible, considered content that is also authentic and real.

2 thoughts on “Corporate Jargon, the Harvard Comma, and Authentic Communication

  1. years ago (around the 2012), I was able to participate in an initiative in Guadalajara to promote the use of social media (back then Connections) as a tool to engage with employees. While social media in our personal life was very common for communication, within the companies the “traditional” methods were (and are in some cases) still common (i.e. email, static wiki pages, this one-way communication channels where we were not able to provide feedback, unless we do it thru the formal channels).
    What this initiative I participated in allowed me to see is that coherent, open and honest communication (not only from top to bottom, but across all employees, and I mean ALL) is a cultural shift, something that need to be promoted, cultivated, encouraged.
    This buy-in is not only from employees to leaders, but I think also from leaders to employees.
    What I like about social media is that everyone has a voice. Basically in social media there is no hierarchies, and those with the most engaging message will be heard. In order to create engaging messages at corporate level, I think leaders need to be able to create those messages that are meaningful and coherent for employees based on the work employees are doing in their day to day job. AND also leaders need to promote open and honest feedback from employees. This is where I think Jim has done a great job from a communication point of view. (I am a regular listener of Jim’s videos).
    What I think is still missing (an area of improvement) in corporate communication is that, in some cases, we still value more the role, tittle, position in the hierarchy of the messenger (leader), that the message itself. That’s why, I think, employees are not engaging fully and openly in difficult and meaningful conversations. We still play this political game where the person that speak louder (with the bigger tittle) is still the one that is being heard.
    I am firm believer of open and honest communication because I think this kind communication creates better environments of collaboration.
    It is cultural shift, for sure, that needs to be nurtured everyday!

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  2. This is a very nice post, but communication must also be aligned with actions. In Fortune 100 businesses, this is very difficult to see both, and therefore words from the “c” suite execs will always be viewed with suspicion and/or derision. Take for example an actual example from corporate America. In 2020, the “C” suite execs at BIGTECHNOCOMPANY release a series of employee communications via blogs, recorded video messages, and e-mail blasts. The message was that the company must turn to some belt-tightening measures during the pandemic. As an employee of BIGTECHNOCOMPANY, bonus times come around in December and the coffee room buzz is that bonuses were cut by 15%. Yet, it later is released through corporate communications that BITCHNOCOMPANY had its best year ever, earning record profits in Q3 and Q4. These profits were in part due to the employee furloughs and cuts in benefits. Finally, the last straw is that it was reported that the “C” suite execs earned record bonuses and salary raises. In the Marine corps, which I proudly served for over 20 years, there is a saying—the “O”s (officers) eat last. This is because the officer’s lives on the battlefield are often determined by the health of the front line, enlisted fighting force. My point is that open communication must also be paired with a very clear message of dedication and loyalty to the workforce. Much like the Marine Officer, the “C” suite execs are only successful insofar as their employees will take them. So, just because you are the CEO/C-Suite exec doesn’t mean that you can’t make an effort to show how you are supporting the workers. Make a point to eat with your staff at lunch, park in the same parking lot, and even attend a seminar/training or two. Just because you are a “C” suite exec doesn’t mean that you can’t find an hour here and there to communicate in the most unfettered way—in person while actually showing your employees that you care.

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