Jargon often gets a bad reputation. However, using the right jargon (or meaningless catch phrase) can help you navigate the minefield of conversations and situations that make up the development sector. 

1. Situation: Bunty Uncle has once again cornered you in the buffet line and instead of savouring the gulaab jamuns you have to deal with the dreaded, “So beta, what are you doing these days?” question. Now in the past, you may have been tempted to try and simplify your job and say something like, “I work for a nonprofit”.

That would be a BIG mistake as you are then likely to spend the next 30 minutes listening to Bunty Uncle’s own vast experience with this. For example, the recent contribution to the gaushala built by the neighbour’s guruji’s ashram support group (surely, you’ve heard of it?).

What you should do instead:  With a straight face and constant eye contact deliver the most incomprehensible version of your job description as possible. The aim is to be completely confusing, yet distinctly important sounding. Much like the privacy settings on your Facebook page.

The more jargon you use the better. For example, instead of working for a vocational training organisation you now ‘facilitate multi-faceted skill acquisition that delivers enhanced economic potential’.

If after this, anyone still has the temerity to say something along the lines of, “What the hell does that mean?” shout things like ‘ecosystem building’ and ‘systemic impact‘ till they leave you alone. Forever.

Related article: Common nonprofit terms and concepts and what they actually mean 

2. Situation: You’re half asleep in a meeting that you never wanted to attend but did because someone promised that there would be snacks.



Just then, your director asks for your opinion on your overpaid ‘innovation’ consultant’s the latest hairbrained idea. Now you could be honest and say this is the worst idea you’ve heard since the plot of Race 3 (seriously why would anyone cast Salman Khan in a movie about driving recklessly fast?).

But that would be poor form and not in keeping with the ‘disruption’  that your organisation is unleashing on the world.

What you should do instead: Instead, try using phrases that sound insightful and thought-provoking but are actually vaguer than Batman’s superpowers. My favorite two are ‘I think we need to zoom out a little,’ and, ‘What is it that we are REALLY, really trying to solve for’ (you can add another ‘really’  for dramatic effect).

These phrases while utterly useless to the conversation, make you sound like a ‘big-picture’  person and really hard to disagree with (everyone cares about the big picture). They also deftly allow you to have avoided having an opinion and continue focusing on real problems, like where to get those free snacks from.

For best results, precede them with a long pause and some thoughtful chin stroking.

Related article: Decoding development jargon

3. Situation: Now everyone is already familiar with the (over)use of jargon for job applications and resumes. People are often tempted to try and fit as many words like ‘scale’ and ‘sustainable’ as the word limit and decency allow. Especially when they are applying for that cushy UN job that comes with hazard pay (it’s only fair for having to live in a Lodhi Gardens bungalow with a mere five bedrooms). Unfortunately, these have become so overused that they are about as useful as family WhatsApp groups – and just as tiresome.

What you should do instead: Like Rahul Gandhi’s twitter game, it’s time to give your jargon vocabulary a makeover. The trick is to remember that less is more. Instead of trying to compete with the number of toppings crammed onto a Gujarati pizza, focus on a few trending phrases that have the maximum…erm…impact (shut up). Top picks include things like ‘outcome oriented’, ‘private sector engagement’ and ‘knowledge management’.

Using these makes you sound well informed, trendy, and thus perfect for the many hours you will spend on panels talking about these latest revolutions  (that is, when you’re not on your well-deserved month-long home leave).

We want IDR to be as much yours as it is ours. Tell us what you want to read. writetous@idronline.org
Akhil Paliath

Akhil Paliath

Akhil Paliath works with Central Square Foundation(CSF), as a part of the team helping the Gujarat education department design and implement a long-term quality improvement plan to improve learning. Before joining CSF he worked as a consultant with Lumen Consulting, a social sector consulting firm, and with Dasra as a part of the team that managed multimillion dollar initiatives such as the Dasra Girl Alliance and the Dasra Adolescent Collaborative. Akhil has a Masters in International Affairs from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna as well as bachelor degrees in financial markets and international relations from the University of Mumbai and London.

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