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#723: Does Anyone Understand What You Are Saying?

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, December 21, 2011
One of the first diagnostic tasks on an engagement is to review work of prior consultants for the client. Although I probably use more jargon than I should, some of these consultant reports are vague, unclear and some entirely almost unintelligible. Is this a problem for all consultants or just those my new clients have previously used?

Every profession has its jargon, concepts and approaches for which its practitioners are obligated to make clear to colleagues as well as users of their services. Do management consultants always do this? No, and there is one good reason for this. Our clients, in part, hire us for our experience in areas with which they are unfamiliar, for our perspective in seeing things in ways they may not, and for our insights into possibilities that they could not imagine. That sets an expectation that we interpret can only be satisfied by the new, the innovative and the complex. Adding to the mystery of this priestly concoction are terms and constructs unfamiliar to the reader. My own experience looking at reports done by some of the most highly regarded strategy firms in the world bear out that even heavily edited and professionally prepared slide decks contain stretches of imagination and presentation that clients assert don't make sense to them.

There are a few areas in which we need to improve. First is jargon, which doesn't sound like jargon anymore because we hear it all the time (e.g., "manage expectations," "boots on the ground," "results oriented"). Second is our use of concepts that sound good but make no sense in our work. These apply to both our application of the concepts we think we are using as part of our methodology and our communication of it to our clients. One good example is, "thinking outside the box." This implies both that you know specifically what the "box" is, and that you intend to frame the diagnosis or design in terms restricted to that "box," thereby precluding possible agility, innovation or disruptive concepts into your work.

Tip: A Forbes article on business jargon fairly well describes this phenomenon. Consultants, who are most susceptible to using it and are often in a unique position to influence it in a client's business conversations, are advised to closely monitor their use of jargon or tired business clichés.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  business culture  communication  consulting terminology  customer understanding  presentations  speaking  writing 

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Comments on this post...

Michael E. Cohen CMC MBA says...
Posted Thursday, December 22, 2011
I have read a lot of consultant reports, but I don't recall any that were "some entirely almost unintelligible." I usually was able to make them out. Perhpas the client kept the really bad ones away from me (lol).

I see the frequent knock at large firms with the comment criticizing the reports of "some of the most highly regarded strategy firms in the world." I've seen what might be considered excessive jargon in reports of firms of all sizes- large, medium, small and even solos.

I don't have a lot of jargon in my reports, because I don't know that much jargon. Although jargon to some may not be jargon to others (lol).
Permalink to this Comment }

Mark Haas CMC FIMC says...
Posted Friday, December 23, 2011
In my experience of picking up where other firms left off, which comprises about 20-30 clients, the quality of work seems related to the sophistication of the engagement design. There is an inherent bias here, because if the project was specified correctly, the engagement was designed and executed correctly, the client would likely have less need for my services. Probably the biggest complaint about past projects is that they were scooped based on a "standard and proven" methodology (possible from large or small firms) that was applied inappropriately to the client's current need. This usually happens with less experienced engagement directors (again, can be small or large firms). Over the past few years, I have been shown presentation decks from prior consultants (large strategy firm I referred to) that was editorially elegant but conceptually weak and misdirected, below the level of work I have known them capable of.
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Posted Monday, November 05, 2012
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Permalink to this Comment }

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