You Talking to Me? It’s hard to tell.

You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the *@$% else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here.

– Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) in Taxi Driver

Travis may as well have been reacting to modern corporate speak.

So often, well-meaning people tell us things that are intended for us, but you’d never know by the words they choose.

As a professional marketer and communications trainer, I spend a great deal of my life translating corporate speak into words that would not only make someone pay attention, but perhaps even motivate them to take action.

I often single out IT as the classic jargon-infused industry, because so many of us interact with IT pros, rely on them, love them and yet have no idea what they’re saying.

Or, as a colleague once put it, “You ask an IT person a question and they tell you how the earth was made.”

That’s why I smiled at the recent AT&T commercial with the two network guys, aka IT geeks.

Female office worker: “Excuse me, what are you doing?”

Network Guy 1, in an attempt to impress her:“We’re fine-tuning these small cells that improve the coverage, capacity and quality of the network.”

Clearly a corporate message point if ever there was one, written by people who are immersed in what they’re doing. It means something to them. The problem is, it doesn’t mean anything to this woman.

Fortunately, a second network guy swoops down to translate.

Network Guy 2: “It means you’ll be able to post from the break room.”

Office worker: “Great!”

Great indeed. Network Guy 2 passed the So What? test.

So what is what gives your message meaning. In fact, you should consider asking “So what?” after every message point and as you begin to prepare for any presentation.

In one of our bluefeet workshops, we do just that.

One person tries out a message point on a colleague, and the colleague replies: “So what?” The first person has to respond with a refined message. The process continues until the second colleague feels that the first has come up with something meaningful – that is, something that would matter to the target audience.

Often scientists and other technical people tell me that their audience understands the jargon. Great, but even if the audience knows what the words mean, it doesn’t give them the instant “get it” that makes an emotional connection.

And you do want to make an emotional connection. You’re talking to humans, after all, even if it’s about business or science or technology.

The challenge is, we’re often so close to our work that we don’t even realize it’s industry jargon. I’m guilty too. I was once buying a new video camera at a Best Buy and, having spent a lifetime in marketing, I asked the salesperson what the price point was.

“Price point?” he said.

How embarrassing. “It’s just a euphemism for price,” I told him. “What I really want to know is how much it costs.”

I once worked with an HR professional who started out her presentation this way: “Welcome new and existing employees!”

I had to laugh. If I’m new, does that mean I don’t exist? Is she putting new employees into an existential dilemma? I know this is the term they use in HR, and it makes sense on paper, but not out loud, when talking to actual people, new or existing.

This territory is rich fodder for parody, and Weird Al has taken the bait with his video, Mission Statement, a mash-up of corporate jargon set to Crosby, Stills & Nash soft rock. I doubt it will get us to stop using corporate speak, but perhaps it will at least sensitize us. May it be played in board rooms throughout the world.