My mother phoned me yesterday just as I was wrapping up a team meeting in my New York office.

“Hallo Ma, kan ek jou terugbel?” I asked in my native Afrikaans. And just like that, a wall went up between me and my team, who didn’t understand a word after “Hallo Ma.”

Corporate-speak does the same to your customers.

Take this sentence, from a brief on my desk: “The final solution will optimize time-to-market and leverage the strengths of the supplier ecosystem.”

I actually know what it means, and you probably do too. But chances are that, to your customers, it might as well be Afrikaans.

Over the years, business has developed its own lingua franca that’s effectively a foreign language to “normal people”. Unfortunately, the people who work in big companies are now so fluent in this corporate gobbledegook that it’s become their first language at work. And once it’s ingrained, it’s very hard to change. Even worse, it’s distancing them from the very people they want to get closer to: their customers.

That’s the very reason it has to change, as more and more companies realize they need to become more “customer-centric” (ugh). If you’re going to stay ahead in this age of social media and instant backlash, you need to speak to your customers like the normal people they are.

Relearning normalspeak

It should be easy, in theory. None of us grew up speaking corporate-speak, after all (my mother certainly never asked me to “implement a table-setting solution” before dinner). But, as any bilingual speaker can tell you, your native language can get rusty very quickly when you don’t use it for a while.

I can vouch for that. After 14 years in London and two in New York, my mother tongue has become a bit… tongue-tied. I struggle to find the words when my mother calls me, and my emails to my friends can sound stilted and impersonal. That’s because I actually think in English now – and it takes a conscious mental effort to speak a language that once came to me without thinking.

It’s the same for businesses: to change the way your people speak and write, you ultimately need to change the way they think.

It really is like learning a language, and many of the same principles apply:

  1. It needs to surround you The best way to learn a language is to go to a country where it’s the native tongue and really immerse yourself in the culture. Make your company that country where your new language is integral to its culture. That means applying it in everything from your HR policies and the signs above the photocopier, to emails from senior leadership. This not only shows people that you’re taking it seriously, it gives them permission to follow suit.
  2. It takes practice…

    A while ago, we put our whole company through Spanish training. We had the app, we had the book, but probably the most useful thing was sitting around at lunchtime speaking Spanish to each other. Similarly, your people need the chance to practice their normalspeak: in their presentations to their teams, their emails to each other, and in their everyday conversations too.
  3. …and feedback When everyone’s actively listening out for words like “ideation”, “paradigm shifts” and “actionable solutions”, they’ll soon realize how ridiculous they sound. So encourage constructive feedback. It sure worked for me – when I moved to London 16 years ago, I had a colleague who called me out on every South Africanism that was alien to the British ear. This constant feedback helped me adapt my vocabulary much quicker than I would’ve otherwise.

And I never called a traffic light a “robot” again.