The Hot New Trend: Incomprehensible Technobabble

One of the perks of a career in technology and business is that you can tune into pretty much any conversation and know exactly what everyone’s talking about. At least, that’s what I used to think. Lately, you need a decoder ring to understand half of what some executives are saying. The jargon has become nearly incomprehensible.

It’s not that your knowledge or experience is outdated, mind you. They’re just finding ever-more creative and confusing ways of expressing what should be simple concepts. Why, I have no idea. I’ve always thought that, if you want people to understand you, you should speak in terms they understand. But what do I know?

I used to wonder why I could never understand Bob Dylan’s lyrics until I realized that’s just the way he talks. He probably thinks that way, too. In this excerpt from a 1966 Playboy interview, Dylan tries to explain how he got into rock-n-roll:

“Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I'm in a card game. Then I'm in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down.”

That goes on for quite a while. The house burns down three or four times. When he finally pauses, Playboy asks, “And that’s how you became a rock-n-roll singer?”

“No,” Dylan says, “That’s how I got tuberculosis.”

See what I mean?

If you think that no executive or business leader could possibly be that confusing, think again.

Last year I was watching an interview with Julia Hartz, the marketing veep of Eventbrite, a site for buying and selling tickets to live events. The question on the table was, “How much are Millennials into going out and doing stuff and what kind of revenue have you seen because of that?” Here’s how she responded:

“As you can see, Millennials are putting their share of wallet toward live experiences much more actually than material goods. [Eventbrite] is really empowering the masses to bring people together in live events,” she said. “And last year alone we had 1.7 million live events ticketed on the platform and so you see that connection and you see that share of wallet going towards these really important moments.”

And furthermore … “So you see this area of experientialism over materialism that really drives this need to connect,” said Hartz. “Millennials are sharing their live experiences online, which is driving social capital. So you know the selfie is the ultimate social capital these days, which is driving the promotion of live experiences. It’s a very nice virtuous cycle.”

Translation: Millennials are spending more on events because it’s cool to Tweet about a concert, not a new coat.

Not to pick on Hartz, but in a separate interview, she answered, “How do you make money?” by saying, “Our revenue stream is a small ticket fee – it’s 2.5% plus 99 cents – which really signals the democratization that Eventbrite has in the industry, because that is quite low.”

Translation: It’s cheap and affordable … I think.

When asked about going public, she said, “We’ve always used the IPO as an example of optionality.”

Translation: IPO is an option we’re considering.

The real question is, did words and phrases like “share of wallet,” “experientialism,” “empowering the masses,” “social capital,” “democratization” and “optionality” help to get her point across or make her about as easy to understand as Dylan?

Incidentally, Hartz was recently promoted to CEO. Must have been her communication skills.

Look, every industry has its own business jargon, but savvy executives are either trained or intuitively know that, when they’re talking to a broad audience, the goal is to simplify complex concepts – to communicate, not complicate. Lately, they seem to have that concept backwards.

Granted, language has always been a little like fashion. Colloquialisms come and go with the times. I guess that explains why corporations are now called “brands,” customers are “users,” self-employed workers are “solopreneurs,” teamwork is “collaboration,” debates are “conversations,” recruiting is “talent acquisition,” management is “leadership” and my columns are lumped into a generic blob known as “content.”

But when a business news program becomes a murky stew of asymmetric risk, programmatic advertising, big data analytics, over-the-top streaming video, self-organizing companies, autonomous vehicles, smart everything, [fill in the blank] hacking, and lofty “change the world” mission statements, something is not right.

Sometimes I wonder if vague terms like “transparency” and “authenticity” have become so popular because nobody simply tells the straight truth about anything, anymore. Best to keep it nebulous. Which is ironic, if you think about it.

Maybe that’s what this trend is really about. Maybe my assumptions are wrong. Perhaps some leaders make simple concepts sound complicated because they don’t want to be understood. That would explain a lot.

Growing up, a friend had a plaque on his wall that said, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull----.” Maybe not much has changed after all.