Getting help from your worst enemy

My aim is to use simple terms and avoid jargon and business speak. I favour principles rather than rules but often flatly ban jargon, acronyms and business talk at the start of a project.

Onboarding. Reaching out. In terms of. Synergy. Bandwidth. Headcount. Forward planning. Multichannel. Going forward. We are constantly bombarded and polluted with nonsense speak. These words and phrases snag and attach themselves to our vocabulary like sticky weeds.

Words become walls.

Peer pressure in meetings to use new words

I remember in around 2011 when I first enthusiastically used the term “responsive design”. Nobody in the meeting knew what it meant but by the end of the meeting everyone in the room had latched onto the phrase and already used it in an inappropriate way.

“The design should feel responsive” or “Yes I agree, we need to be more responsive and proactive in how we design…”

Technical terms often outlive their original meaning

I redesigned a website that had a section of featured news articles on the homepage. These news articles were displayed in a scrollable carousel. I redesigned it so that it was a visible list of articles. Despite a carousel no longer existing the content team continued to refer to the “Featured News” section as “The Carousel”.

“That’s a great article, let’s feature it in the carousel”.

About two years later somebody joined the content team and said “Hey Ben I’m supposed to add this news article to the carousel but I can’t find any carousels on the website.”

Simple language isn’t dumb

We’re not dumbing things down by using simple terms. We’re being smarter. Metaphors and anecdotes can be used to illustrate complex concepts.

Simple terms are a great way to level the room and a brilliant way to avoid assumptions (which often get tangled and snarled up around the wires inside technical phrases).

Complex, business and technical speak alienates people and becomes contagious.

Simple language makes us approachable and trustworthy.

Your worst enemy is your best ally

However. Ignore all that. Sometimes you need to rummage in a bucket of filth or crawl down a sewage pipe to find freedom.

Despite my hatred of business speak there is one awful business term that is the most useful phrase I have ever discovered. It is my most treasured possession.

I am not sure where I first heard it or who first said it. But it has been with me for about six years. I will always use it. Because it works. It is the most powerful term known to humankind. I really synergise with it.

The “hard stop”.

Two words which have more power than the most sophisticated fire alarm system.

For the past 4-5 years I have made it a goal to finish work at 5pm. I had been burnt by startups where we’d start shipping a product at 8pm with everyone knowing they’d be working on the release until 3am. I’ve worked on ridiculous deadlines and last minute changes that happen at the nth hour.

Of course problems happen from time-to-time, things go wrong and it’s not unreasonable to occasionally work late to help out. But in some organisations there is a pattern to working late.

I’ve stuck to my goal of finishing at 5pm. I’ve not missed a single bathytime and have been there to put my kids to sleep every work night.

There is a great deal of hard work involved in a goal like this but I mostly owe this to the ghastly business term “hard stop”.

Why do I go against all my principles now?

Nobody questions the hard stop.

If the CEO grabs me at 4:45 and says “Oh I need to talk to you for an hour about that thing we agreed we wouldn’t do until the end of next year but I thought right now would be a good time to talk about it in depth…” I just reply “I have a hard stop at 5pm”.

I’ve been in meetings which have run over time with people I have never met before who at 4:49pm look at their watches and go “Oh, Ben you have a hard stop at 5. Do you want me to take notes for the rest of the meeting?”

I could try and analyse how the hard stop works. Does it make people question their own lack of planning which may be the cause of last minute requests? Do they consider the true value of the discussion they want to have which could be postponed until tomorrow? Is the healthy constraint of a fixed end to the work day something which quenches the fires of reactive behaviour?

I don’t care. It just works.

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