I love Lucy Kellaway’s funny business-commentary podcasts for the “Financial Times.” But her June 16th edition, “Descent Into Drivel is a Sign of Apple’s Fall” is particularly strong. In it, she points to the language in Apple’s recruiting ads as a possible sign of its demise.

Kellaway dissects a job posting in which Apple says it is looking for a “thought leader”—an expression so clichéd we hardly even notice it. “What is that?” Kellaway asks. “I have trouble leading my own thoughts.”

Language is a big part of how companies get customers or potential employees to buy into what they’re doing. It’s character, trustworthiness, experience, values, consistency, and likability all rolled into one. For Steve Jobs, language was also a vital component of design. He kept (or so we think) the corporate BS at bay.

At its most effective—and Jobs was a master of this—language is a form of empathy. Speaking in a way that includes others makes them want them to understand and be a part of our world. It’s the way we demonstrate sensitivity to a different reality. It shows we’re capable of listening and that we’re focused on others’ points of view at least as much as our own.

But what about in our world of social innovation? Shouldn’t our pure souls and lofty ideals be obvious to the like-minded people we want to understand us? And certainly to those we want to help?

What is “social innovation” anyway? Or “impact investing”? Those expressions have become as clichéd as “thought leader.”  Tweet This Quote

No. In truth, we’re as guilty as any group of lawyers or engineers (maybe more so) in using jargon and shorthand to identify and evaluate each other’s places in the tribe. What is “social innovation” anyway? What’s “impact investing”? “Human-centered design”? “BOP”? Being “mission driven”? Take any of those expressions out of context and it’s clear how unclear they are. They’ve become as clichéd as “thought leader.”

Clichés weaken messages, which, if your goal is to convey meaning, is the exact opposite of what you want. And beyond simple clichés, overly complex business jargon creates barriers that actually shut people out. Without meaning it, your way of speaking and writing can convey the impression that someone is too poor, too rich, too young, too old, or simply too dumb to get what you’re talking about.

Entrepreneurs with a mission tend to think of language principally as a way to explain themselves—to attract supporters or to stand out in a crowded funding frenzy. They’re right about that, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Expressing ideas in a way that people will both hear and understand is a skill that takes time and effort to master. Just ask a few dozen social entrepreneurs what they do and why it matters and listen to them fumble for words.

It may be entertaining to poke fun at something as seemingly unimportant as a recruiting ad from Apple, but Lucy is right, it can signal the beginning of downfall. Obtuse, bureaucratic language may result in Apple struggling to hire the brilliant iconoclasts who helped define it. And without people who “think different,” Apple will be just like any other company. It will lose what made it great.

The lesson here is for all of us. As social innovation and social design mature, as we develop more shorthand language to communicate with each other, we risk making outcasts of both the people we need to recruit and those we hope to help.

Cheryl Heller

Author Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of design lab CommonWise, and a pioneer in social impact design. Cheryl received the AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014. She is the former Board Chair and founding faculty for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, a Senior Fellow at Babson Social Innovation Lab, and the Innovation Advisory Board for the Lumina Foundation. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi, which has given over $12 million to designers working for the public good.

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