Channeling My Frustration
Words, words, words. Why don't they mean what they used to?
Posted Aug 1, 2009
  

For the rest of the August 2009 issue of CRM magazine, please click here.

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Memo from the desk of Marshall Lager, August’s Chief Terminology Officer:

There are certain words and phrases we throw around in the corporate world that veteran businesspeople automatically grasp—but would never actually use around normal human beings. Spend—as a noun. Leverage—as a verb. Eating your own dog food. I’m sure you can think of a few yourselves. It’s what we linguistics buffs call jargon.

Jargon is a phenomenon common to any somewhat-insular group. Serving as verbal shorthand for complex topics, jargon indicates familiarity and a sense of belonging, and helps keep the uninitiated in the dark.
In short, it’s a means of being a jerk in public and getting away with it.

Alas, people fall into bad habits, and the words they use don’t always fit the situation—or they do fit, but the listener can’t figure out how. Jargon often prevails in places where clarity should rule. (I am reminded once again of Inigo Montoya and The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Mr. Patinkin, I have cash money waiting for you.)

I first encountered this as a wee lad in the late 1970s, when I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons. The word of the day was level. The designers of that game (and its many iterations) were very clever, but weren’t always so keen on synonyms. Level could refer to, among other things:

  • the degree of experience your character possessed;
  • the magnitude of power in a wizard’s spell;
  • the depth of a particular dungeon area (or height of a castle); and
  • the challenge presented by a monster or other opponent.

Thus, you could usually spot D&D geeks by their ability to use level more than once in any given sentence. The situation persists to this day, but context helps us understand each other—you’d always say, “a third-level spell,” as opposed to “a third level.”

Since we’re here to talk about business and not my nerdy childhood (which became, as these things often do, a geeky adulthood), I invite you to consider the word channel. I’ll bet you’ve said it at least twice this week without even thinking about it. Whatever definition you intended, though, a listener might have heard something totally different. BusinessDictionary.com has the following definitions:

General: Conduit for delivering goods, services, or information.

Communications: Path an electrical signal (such as a telephone conversation) or electromagnetic signal (such as a radio or TV broadcast) follows.

Internet: Web site which broadcasts (pushes) content to subscribers.

Marketing: Means employed to distribute goods or services from producers to consumers.

So we could be talking about a distribution channel, a delivery channel, a communications channel, a broadcast channel—or even a sales, marketing, or service channel. And let’s not forget the “regular” (that is, nonbusiness) definitions of channel:

  • The bed where a natural stream of water runs.
  • The deeper part of a river, harbor, or strait.
  • A strait or narrow sea between two close land masses.
  • A way, course, or direction of thought or action.
  • A usually tubular enclosed passage.

Even the emerging world of social media refuses to change the channel—users of services such as Twitter and YouTube can be considered to have their own channels, expanding the parameters of the communications definition.

Oh—and did I mention that channel can also be a verb? So, in theory, you could channel your channel into exploring new channels in order to invigorate underperforming channels. Furthermore, you can do so while simultaneously posting to your channel, changing channels, and crossing the channel.

As you might imagine, I ran into a bit of difficulty in this area while researching an article on “Invigorating Channel Sales.” It’s fair to say I went stark raving mad, especially when I started leveraging my spend before I resorted to eating my own dog food. If you could only grasp the level of it, you’d see why I have to vent in this channel.

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Marshall Lager (marshall@3rd-idea.com), the managing principal at consultancy Third Idea, is on Twitter as @Lager — contact him through that channel, but beware: He might level you.

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