For the communication-challenged, plain speaking need not be a lost art.

By Roberta Maynard

The federal government, birthplace of the acronym, is notorious for communicating in terms that the rest of the world has trouble following. It's been suggested that federal employees do this deliberately. I think, though, they simply fall into the same trap as people in other industries. They grow accustomed to talking with insiders who know the lingo, and they don't think to shift gears when confronted with those outside their circle. If you've ever tried to get Form 220B from an office in which everyone refers to the document as the old 19A, you know what I mean. The connection necessary to achieve a satisfactory result just isn't happening.

Any organization that's heavy on bureaucracy is particularly susceptible to muddled language, as are businesses offering technical services because technical people so seldom get training in how to talk to non-technical customers.

To make matters worse, in the course of their busy days, it's common for employees to assume not only that everyone speaks the language of the business, but that they also know the inner workings and structure of the operation. "Hold for Sam," a receptionist once told me, without giving me a chance to object. "Who is Sam?," I thought, "and why am I being transferred to him?" If you've ever tried to get health records from a hospital, you know what I'm talking about.

This sort of sloppiness is a bad habit and a damaging one, particularly for businesses with a fairly lengthy buying process that is already fraught with opportunities for miscommunication.

Yes, it happens in home building, probably more than you know. Conversing with customers in shoptalk or sales speak can have more dire consequences than just putting them off or creating confusion. In sales, it can cast a very personal purchase in an unflatteringly cold light. Recently, while visiting a sales center in a new-home community, I overheard a salesperson telling a prospective buyer about the model's merchandising (ouch) and the how quickly the units were selling (ouch, again). To a buyer, they're not units, they're homes. One may eventually be their home. I hope, for the sake of the customer, that the conversation about financing was handled differently.

In construction, the failure to speak plainly makes customers anxious, unsettled about their buying decision, and on the lookout for mistakes -- long before they see their first satisfaction survey. People don't like being in the dark, especially when they're spending a few hundred thousand dollars.

Luckily, the tendency of people to become locked into their own lingo -- at the expense of effective communication -- can be remedied. Observation, training, and greater emphasis by management should do the trick. Role playing on video is a great way for employees to catch each other in the act of miscommunicating.

Most of us don't even realize we're being language obstructionist, unless we're alert to the puzzled expressions that sometimes result. If you've ever found yourself talking to a Girl Scout selling cookies in Atlanta about leveraging efficiencies in Denver, you know what I mean.

Roberta Maynard