Nodding your head

Jul 13, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.53.07 PM It’s easy to spout acronyms, tell inside jokes, and use empty jargon, but oftentimes, people are just pretending to know what you mean. Have you ever been in one of those meetings where a topic came up or an acronym reared its ugly head and you found yourself thinking that you’re probably the only person in the room who has no idea what everyone is talking about? I’ve been there multiple times. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. It’s the joke everyone laughs at, but you don’t understand. You just politely smile and nod your head. I saw this in action years ago while teaching a master’s level class on global logistics. My fellow instructor and I created an outstanding presentation with all kinds of facts, figures, and diagrams, and spent a day talking about logistics processes and the importance of “Tip-fid” discipline and what can happen if one doesn’t “follow the Tip-fid.” We fostered excellent dialogue with and among the two dozen graduate students. As an instructor, there’s nothing better than when you know your students “got it.” Except none of our students “got it.” The day after we returned home, I received an email from one of the students whom I had known for several years. He asked me if he could interview me as a subject matter expert for his thesis paper and then in a somewhat sheepish manner, he added at the bottom of the email, “By the way, what’s a ‘Tip-fid?’” In this case, I was referring to Time-Phased Force Deployment Data, a standard term to describe the priority process used to move Department of Defense people and equipment. It’s a well-known term, but only if you’ve been exposed to that level of logistics, which was not the case for my students. So, who was at fault for the confusion? Why, that was me. The next time I taught that course, I spent a half hour describing the term and its meaning, and the class went so much better than the first one. Is there something you say on a regular basis that you assume everyone around you understands, but in reality they may have no clue what you’re talking about? Is there an acronym or saying you use that may have different meanings to different audiences?
  • How confident are you that your clients understand everything you’ve proposed to them?
  • How many sports analogies do you make in your daily conversations? Have you ever called “audible” on a project or asked someone to “take a knee” when presented with a scope change request?
  • Do your biweekly production meetings occur twice a week or every other week?
Unambiguous speech is a force multiplier. It gets everyone moving in the same direction, as opposed to the classic: “I’m turning left, right?” There are several things you can do to help others avoid that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what you’re talking about.
  • Avoid using acronyms outside of your organization. If you must use acronyms in a presentation, spell them out the first time you use them.
  • Build and maintain a master list of acronyms and commonly used terms in your organization. They are immensely helpful for your new hires. They can also make a great addition to your contract proposal to ensure there’s no ambiguity between your firm and your client’s firm.
  • Sometimes using acronyms with a client can signal to them that you understand their issue on a deeper level or even that you understand their company’s culture. Cover yourself and use the full phrase at least once to confirm your understanding of the acronym is the same as your client’s understanding.
  • Know your audience. If you’re leading a meeting, make sure you understand the audience before you begin. If your discussion ventures into areas possibly unknown to others, throw them a lifeline and provide a brief summary or background on the concept at hand.
  • Avoid using faddish terms found in the latest business management books. What exactly is a BHAG? And I don’t know anything about your cheese or care about what’s in your bucket or what color hat you’re wearing. Chances are most people will not have read those books and they may view you as a smug bloviator. Don’t get me wrong. I have my favorite business books, but if I’m going to make a reference to a concept I found in a book, I translate it so that everyone around me understands the point I’m trying to make.
  • Minimize the use of slang. The Pentagon is a breeding ground for such extraneous nothingness. If I had a dollar for every time I heard about a “self-licking ice cream cone” – code for a purposeless, self-serving process – or a dog that won’t hunt, I’d be a rich man. It literally took me months to figure out the thing about the ice cream cone.
I don’t know anyone who likes to be the person who doesn’t get the inside joke. Do your clients and your audience a favor and speak in terms they’ll understand, because not everyone will get everything you’re saying – even if they’re smiling and nodding their heads.

Bill Murphey is Zweig Group’s director of education. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1153 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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