A Flat PBR

That’s short for “Princess Bride Reference.” As in:

Buttercup: Westley, what about the R.O.U.S.’s?

Westley: Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don’t think they exist.

Cut to Westley being mauled by Ratzilla.

Funny stuff. In movies. But in business, particularly technology, acronyms are spreading like rats in a subway tunnel and becoming just as big a nuisance.

Take NFC. For the six of you who haven’t Googled it yet, it stands for near field communication, a proximity-based means of transferring data between two “aware devices.” A base application of the technology would be a “virtual wallet” which allows you to pay for things via mobile phone easily and securely. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, really. NFC has the potential to greatly enhance productivity (could we manufacture products in the U.S. again?), provide timely and accurate records transfer (no more amputating the wrong leg), and a host of other applications technically feasible if we’d only imagine them.

You’d think with potential like this we’d want the very best and brightest from all walks of life working on it, right? Not really. It’s still very much couched behind a byzantine wall of acronyms and jargon, accessed only by the secret password of the geekiest inner circles.

Why? My belief is that knowledge is power. If I know something that you don’t I lord that over you, consciously or unconsciously. It’s not surprising then that NFC is obligatory in every presentation within the Technology Marketing speaking circuit where all audience members are encouraged to pat the person on the left and right on the back for keeping the circle small. Conversely, if I don’t know something I might be tempted to use jargon you don’t know until you lose interest, become intimidated that you have no idea what I’m talking about, or just buy my bluff that anyone who talks like this must surely be a ninja at what they do.

Less cynical people think it’s the result of us (especially marketing folks) living in a 140-character world. Abrvtn bcmes rqrd. Possibly. I’m all about brevity. I firmly believe distilling complex things down to their essence is not just good communication, but good thinking. Filtering and Processing are twin towers of great minds.

But there’s shorthand and there’s inside baseball. I think this is the latter.

For instance, our company has a large operation in Montreal which I visit frequently. Of course, everyone is bilingual (at a minimum). I won’t go into the failings of our U.S. educational system as it pertains to language. I’m always so impressed by my colleagues seeking to communicate clearly based on their audience. If two people are speaking to each other it is nearly always in French. If I approach, they’ll invariably begin speaking in English whether they are talking about a project plan or last night’s Canadien’s game. Assuming it’s the same conversation continued so I can understand it, I think their fluency is remarkable, but even more so their manners.

That’s right. I said I admire greatly the manners of the French Canadians.

Contrast that with how we use language amongst ourselves here. Imagine you popped into a random meeting inside the company next door. (I’ve actually done this and the results were extraordinary. Farsi is easier to pick up than an hour-long conversation on Encryption.)

One thing I was struck by during the whole sub-prime debacle was how incredibly and obviously stupid it was once it was laid bare in plain English. Up until that point it was couched in jargon and rhetoric that when properly translated by experts said—“this is for us to know and you to (never) find out.”

This isn’t just in banking or government (the reigning BAD or “Best Acronym Deliverers”), it’s all of us. When jargon increases in our company, usually logic decreases. The beautiful elegance of a great product or concept is so wonderfully simple it’s easy to articulate. The inverse is true as well. I had a boss once who said if your corporate strategy couldn’t be written on the back of your business card it was too damn long. Today, most business cards would have to be the size of a Publisher’s Clearing House cardboard check to hold what could loosely be described as a strategy.

Check out this video from Google in which an engineer explains how Google uses social data in its rankings:


This is very complicated stuff presented by a very “inside” technical guy. And yet we understand every word. He breaks it down, makes it intelligible without in any way talking down to us.

If your simple questions are met with overly convoluted answers, hit pause—and for God’s sake don’t “just go with it”. “Believe me, it makes sense,” went out the window and down the toilet with so much written-off debt, the Pontiac Aztec, and several product briefs that have crossed my desk recently.

When you go back to your meeting rooms, listen to what your company’s working on with fresh ears. Better still, have a friend from outside the company (and preferably outside the industry) spend a day in your meetings. If he or she can’t make heads or tails of it even after asking for clarification, you may not be sitting on a bubble, but your business may not be ready to pop either. The skeleton key of gobbledygook has opened too many doors for too long. We’re on to it. There’s only so much hydro-, oxi, -ectate, and financial instruments we can be duped by.

Before the world calls BS on your alphabet stew, clean it up yourself. If your strategy won’t fit on the back of your business card, assuming you still have some of those lying around, it’s probably too damn long. And take a page from the French (Canadians), try speaking as if you actually want to be understood.

C’est si bonne.

This post originally appeared in iMedia.

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