We spend a lot of time in meetings. I did a rough estimate of my own time. It ranged from 30% at the low end to as high as 60% of my total weekly hours. Yikes! That’s a big investment in time and money. That’s many hours in rooms with other people trying to work together to make progress.
Of course, progress largely hinges on people’s ability to communicate effectively with each other. We all know this is so much easier said than done. Given how hard it is to clearly articulate our thoughts, and often even harder to truly listen, it’s no surprise that there are many head scratching moments in meetings.
So how does language make or break meeting effectiveness?
If you’ve been in a meeting with a professional facilitator, you’ve probably heard them talk about the importance of language. It’s generally in the context of not shutting down other people’s ideas, using ‘and’ vs. ‘but’, starting thoughts with ‘how might we’ or ‘what are all the ways’ vs. ‘how can we’ to help open up our minds to possibilities.
There’s another risk to effective communication in the room. It’s jargon. Jargon is defined as ‘special words or phrases used by particular groups of people, especially in their work.’ It can be used for good but it can also be a communication barrier.
On the good, jargon can act as shorthand when you are certain that everyone in the room will have exactly the same understanding of the words used. For example, the executive team at a cannabis company might talk about ‘backcrossing’ or ‘seed-to-sale’ and everyone knows exactly what they mean. Similarly, a digital marketing team might throw out words like CTR, CPA or conversion and they all understand these terms immediately and in the same way.
Jargon becomes isolating when it is used in broader company: new employees, suppliers or functional teams who are unfamiliar with the language. If they don’t understand, they might feel shy to speak up and expose themselves; they might zone out or get so wrapped up in what they don’t know that they miss out on contributing in areas where they have real expertise.
Jargon might also have risks for the user. We fall into routinized ways of thinking without taking the time to really consider what we are saying, what it means and whether there’s a better way to say it. For example, rather than saying ‘let’s take this off line so we can strategize on how to socialize the KPIs’, keep it plain and simple: let’s meet later to discuss how to share key findings.’ If I were betting on which phrase was consistently understood by attendees, all my money would be on the second phrase.
When you attend a meeting with someone who uses clear, jargon-free language, it’s energizing. There’s almost a collective sigh of relief – exclamations like ‘that’s exactly it!’, ‘you got it!’. People are able to contribute to the conversation or offer a solid challenge. In the absence of clarity, the momentum stalls and the conversation hits a dead end.
So, if jargon is a buzz-kill then clear communication is a stimulant.
How might we use language to create an energizing vs stifling environment? Here are a few tips:
1. Start by making sure meeting objectives are clear. You can’t expect clarity in the room when people are entering the room in a fog.
2. If you know there are some terms that will be widely used but maybe not as widely understood, call them out at the beginning of the meeting and offer a definition for team reaction. That way, you’ll catch any potential areas of misunderstanding early in the meeting.
3. Send out prework with clear, concise questions for each person to answer individually. You can even provide meeting participants with a template to guide how concise their answers are. This gives people a chance to gather their thoughts before the meeting so they can present them more clearly and concisely.
4. If group dynamics are right for it, use a ‘jargon jar’ to call out unclear language and give the user a chance to explain what they mean. Make this a fun exercise and not a way to embarrass people. For example, ask people to put a business card in the jar every time they use jargon and randomly draw a card at the end of the meeting. Whoever’s name is pulled is responsible for bringing the jargon jar to their next meeting and leading the game. Again, this approach will not work for every team but when there is trust and comfort among participants, it can be a light-hearted way to promote clear language.
How has language helped or hindered the effectiveness of your meetings? What tips can you share to make communication clearer and jargon-free?