A decade ago, Dan Ariely stood in front of the brightest minds in the country at Duke University. They were there to learn about behavioral economics from the renowned psychology professor.
Ariely’s lecture started with a basic question: What is behavioral economics? For the next two minutes, he launched into an absurdly dense definition as the packed lecture hall listened attentively.
“This brings us to the big question,” he said. “Why has no one asked me what the #$?@! I’m talking about?”
Ariely’s explanation of behavioral economics hadn’t come from a textbook. Instead, he was reading meaningless jargon generated by a computer.
But since everyone seemed to be paying attention and acting normal, nobody raised their hand to ask Ariely what the hell he was talking about.
The pluralistic ignorance problem
Scenes like this—where we have no idea what the hell is going on but pretend to understand because the person talking is an authority figure and everyone else seems to get it—is called pluralistic ignorance. (I first read about it in the book Humankind, by Rutger Bregman.)
Pluralistic ignorance plays out every minute of every day in the business world.
You’ve probably seen it before. A new leader comes in spouting jargon about “creating a dynamic new ecosystem in which we can leverage synergies to accelerate workflow processes and create a more unified structure.” The team nods along like they get it. The leader thinks he’s made a great first impression. Meanwhile, each team member feels completely lost and like they don’t have any idea how to do their job.
Or worse, the leader then takes that indecipherable jargon, put it all over the website, contaminates the sales pitch with it, and nobody says anything.
Pluralistic ignorance is the 7th plague of the corporate world. (The first six: the wage gap, micromanagement, Saturday emails, understaffing, management training, and mandatory office commutes. Whew.) It confuses the hell out of us. And it reinforces a terrible behavior: using jargony nonsense.
Pluralistic ignorance is the 7th plague of the corporate world.
Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of companies poison their marketing, sales, and internal comms with jargon. And poison is absolutely the right word to use. A recent Ohio State study found that product descriptions full of jargon actively turn people off, prompting them to argue against its benefits. Conversely, colloquial descriptions made people want to learn more about the product.
Even when the jargon is toned down a notch, we end up with crap like this:
Credit: Adam Baer’s great LinkedIn post
The storytelling solution
So what should we do instead? Tell stories, of course.
Humans are hardwired for stories. Stories are how we’ve passed down important information and lessons for tens of thousands of years. They’re what allowed us to band together and learn from each other. Neanderthals were actually much stronger than humans and had bigger brains, but the reason we became the dominant human species is because we had an incredible storytelling superpower.
Stories engage the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory encoding and decision-making. They’re what connect us to one another. Convince us to buy something. Make us feel like we’re part of a team.
It’s almost impossible to speak in BS when you’re telling a good story. So the next time you’re introducing yourself to a new team, don’t try to impress them with jargon. Instead, tell a story about yourself that illuminates your values and what you hope to achieve together.
It’s almost impossible to speak in BS when you’re telling a good story.
For inspiration, just watch this video of Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky announcing the launch of Trips in 2016. He didn’t brag about “a future-facing real-world experience platform that would change the face of travel.” He told a hilarious yet touching story about the magic of traveling with his mom as a kid.
Be like Brian. The next time you’re pitching a product or leading your team, don’t inundate your prospect with buzzwords. Instead, tell a compelling story of why you created a product, or a relatable story of how you helped a similar customer overcome their challenges. Give people a reason to care. To stay. To want to buy in.
And if you find yourself spouting buzzwords and people are nodding along? Well, chances are, you have a pluralistic ignorance problem.