Buzzwords vs. Mom (Mom Should Win…)

By May 17, 2011

Sometimes, one gets the feeling that entrepreneurs speak a different language from everyone else. Tech entrepreneurs especially. There are many market segments, and some of those have their own sub-segments. Each comes with its own set of jargon. On the other hand, it’s not like software engineers are plain speakers, either.

In startups where one of the founders is the non-technical “business guy” and the other one is technical, this can lead to tension. This is why product managers are valuable: they bridge the communication gap between the two. But what if there isn’t a product manager? What if the business guy and the technical guy just can’t articulate their respective visions to each other? It happens.

What I’m proposing is far from revolutionary. Businesses run on information. Conveying information (to employees, investors, and customers) efficiently is key, so instead of using industry buzzwords and technical jargon, run things through the “mom test” first, before explaining further. In short, if your mom wouldn’t understand what you’re saying, consider rewording it. Of course, much has been written about this. Every project and business management book emphasizes clarity, but they rarely explain why clear explanation is important beyond the obvious efficiency gains. The mom test ensures that everyone knows what they’re talking about, and that what they’re talking about means something.

This is it to say that jargon and buzzwords are bad, necessarily. Nor is it the case that they serve no purpose. Jargon is important. It creates social in-groups and out-groups. One becomes an insider by speaking the language. Jargon also serves to compact large and abstract concepts into easily manageable words or phrases. (An example: instead of saying “the smallest unit of processing that can be scheduled by an operating system, usually resulting from a fork in the program”, it’s easier to say “thread of execution” or, simply, “thread”.)

The mom test is a reality check. It brings the conversation “down to earth”. One can avoid pointy-headed academic showdowns over semantics. And, the mom test catches poseurs.

While it would be easy to find examples of overly-abstract business models backed by complex terminology—hey, that was basically the late 1990s—a poignant case study can be found in academia. In 1996, Alan Sokal submitted an essay to the postmodern cultural studies publication, Social Text. The essay “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity“, was a hoax undertaken by Dr. Sokal to reveal the emptiness of postmodern rhetoric. Postmodern and computer science essay generators now produce works that sound uncannily like Sokal’s piece.

Just as jargon pervaded some academic discourse and rendered it meaningless, it’s easy to see how the discourse surrounding tech entrepreneurship could lead to abstraction and farce not unlike Sokal’s. I can’t wait until one such hoax gets funded. Mom would be proud.