IoT, AI, “Unmute yourself!”, pitch decks, growth hacker, FAANG and my favorite, “Frag the corpulent chatbots.” Either you know and use these expressions, or you will, underscoring the importance of creative and functional use of language. What is it that really matters, though, when we think about good communication?
Buzzwords, idiomatic expressions and almost-proprietary terminology appear like wildflowers or sometimes weeds in every industry and among all professions. A stroll down memory lane or pre-Silicon Valley life recalls dated phrases like ‘the bottom line’ and ‘running an idea up the flagpole.’ More recent history, like last week with my irrepressible 89-year-old mother, highlights the impact of more current technology-related language, including that born of a pandemic.
On our almost daily call, Mom asked, for the umpteenth time, how to activate her camera as she opened Zoom. Having just concluded three consecutive work-related Zoom marathons, I forgot where Mom’s priorities lay and responded, “The Zoom interface user experience has good visual hierarchy, Mom, but you tried using FaceTime last week with your iPad, and I think switching between devices is causing cognitive dissonance.”
“Davy,” she responded in exasperation – reincarnating my 8-year-old self, “I just want to show Cousin Richard in California my new living room set up. WHAT do I need to do?”
And with that, I shifted back into simple-practical-and-empathetic language guy, reframed my position to her perspective, and said, “Mom, you roll your mouse over the Zoom window. The line of icons appears on the black bar at the bottom. The Start Video icon is on the left. Click it.”
“Oh ... Oh … there I am. Very good!”, the joy returning to her voice and her face returning to the screen.
Why This Matters
In that moment, I am reminded how simple language can be – including the English language, despite many protestations, otherwise. Our basic structure is Subject-Verb-Object-Indirect Object, or This thing – does something – to someone or something – and here is additional information.
Over the past few months, I have been working with two advanced level, non-native English speaking Silicon Valley professionals – a VP of Engineering at a disc drive manufacturer and a Senior Data Scientist at a company monitoring big data. Both these smart people know what they are talking about. My job is to help them say it.
One area where they each struggle is to define terms that are critical to their everyday explanations. Definitions, for them, often begin in confusing conditional clauses, or come out in bursts of phrases marked by buzzwords but missing verbs or key prepositions.
In the training, we’ve come up with some engaging exercises to practice explaining things – essentially, a review of the grammar of formulating sentences. I ask trainees, when they get into the weeds, to go back to the beginning and:
- identify what it is (the subject noun) – We
- clarify what it ‘does’ (the verb) - design
- highlight the result from, with or by that doing (the object) – systems - and finally,
- add a secondary idea or action of the verb or object (the indirect object) – to help people.
We design systems to help people.
Using this process, one trainee defined his field this way: Data infrastructure / describes / the collection of hardware and software / that allows users to manage data; a beautiful sentence that he had never put together before.
Obviously, complex discussions require increasingly complex sentence structures, but one can’t get across that bridge without a simpler means of transportation first.
New buzzwords, idiomatic expressions and creativity with language will roll on. As a result, we will get to experience the joy of listening to youthful poets, but we also drown, at times, in painful waves of obfuscation. In these days of memes and tweets, twisted logic from leaders and critical explanations of deadly disease, let’s encourage each other to remember the core building blocks to all this communication: things that can be named – do something – in real ways – to achieve clear goals.
Good communication, emphasizing simple, clear statements of fact and thought, matters more than ever.
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For some fun with technology buzzwords, try this quiz – see what you know, what you think you know and what you definitely do NOT know!