We all do it. We say things like “low-hanging fruit” and “transformational change” and “synergy” – cringe-worthy words that we (and many others) have overused into meaninglessness.

Why do we use these words when normal, clearer ones would work just as well? As communicators, can’t we do better?

We think so.

So at our company’s 30th anniversary retreat, the blog team unveiled a new Burness initiative: the jargon jar. Here’s how two of my colleagues, jargon champions Gideon Hertz and Sara Brinda, introduced it.

Gideon: The blog team was doing post mortem on a recent strategic initiative and we uncovered what seemed to be a pain point for us. We decided to have a quick brain dump on possible solutions to move the needle.

Sara: That’s right Gideon. We decided to take the issue offline, and circled back. Even though we are in different silos, we were able to engage in cross-team collaboration. We liaised about potential results-driven initiatives, and drilled down to find the sweet spot.  

Gideon: Not to get too in the weeds, but we wanted to address the low-hanging fruit and improve our core competency – reverbiagizing our sacred cow, to find the right-sized approach and take the pin out of this question.

Sara: Long story short, after getting all of our ducks in a row we pinged Andy to flag this for him. It turned out that he was on the same page, and after sharing our elevator speech, we got his buy-in on this paradigm shift.

Gideon: Now we know you all have limited bandwidth and we don’t think this will be a heavy lift. Hopefully everyone can be a team player in this new initiative: the jargon jar.

It’s like a swear jar, but for office-speak: The jargon jar sits in every Burness conference room and kitchen as an ever-present reminder for us to use better words. Each month, the company votes on a word or phrase that we then commit to avoid saying. Every time a Burnesser says the jargon word or phrase, he or she has to put a “Burness buck” in the jargon jar.

At the end of the year, thanks to the generosity of el jefe Andy Burness, we’ll donate the real-dollar equivalent of the Burness bucks to a worthy and to-be-determined charity.

We kicked off the jargon jar in June with the word “stakeholders.” We challenged each other to replace that vague term with specifics—to  identify exactly who we meant—because “stakeholders” could really include almost everyone on the planet (see Andy Burness’ post on this topic, entitled “We All Have a Stake in This Conversation”).

Over the course of the month, we made 49 Burness bucks—that’s $49 for charity!—off of Burnessers saying the word.

We polled some of our colleagues about the experience. Here’s what we heard:

  • “Not being able to say ‘stakeholder’ made me get more specific when talking about audiences.”
  • “I think that ‘stakeholder’ is a lazy term. If we’re talking about the people who stand to influence change, we should do what we can to name them: e.g., ‘elected officials, particularly mayors and county health commissioners’ or ‘Islamic leaders who are best positioned to use their influence to speak out about peace when terrorism occurs.’”
  • “I don’t really know what stakeholder actually means, so I shy away from saying it.” (Imagine this Burnesser’s relief when others had to stop saying it, too!)
  • “Woohoo! The month is finally up! You’re all a bunch of stakeholders! Stakeholders, stakeholders, stakeholders and more stakeholders for everyone!”

OK, so maybe the jargon jar isn’t universally loved…yet. But for now, it’s making us more precise with our language. And we’re having fun with it, which is most important.

Next month’s phrase is “circle back.” Suggested alternatives include “meet,” “discuss further” or “revisit this issue later.” (And bonus if you actually set up a specific time and place to revisit the issue, as we all know that we’ve used “circle back” to mean, “Let’s never talk about this again!”)

We’re looking forward to seeing the results – we’ll circle back with an update next month!