The Most Underrated Business Document

I think it’s the glossary.

I’ve read (and written) more BRDs, MRDs, PRDs, RFPs, agenda notes, and PowerPoint epics than I care to remember, and very few of them have included glossaries. This is too bad, because in many cases, that was the one document I really needed — a list of simple definitions for unfamiliar terminology, names, and the like related to the project/idea/problem at hand. There’s a reason you find one in the back of every textbook.

In my experience, most business ideas and concepts — even technical concepts — are simple enough for a smartish laymen to understand. And your typical company has no shortage of planning meetings dedicated to going over business ideas. Yet confusion runs rampant in corporate life. I blame vocabulary, at least in part (I have to give good ol’ BS top honors).

It’s human not to know some specialized terminology, so you’ll naturally miss words during some presentations and meetings. If you miss enough words, you can’t follow everything the speaker is saying — even if what he’s saying is actually very simple.

When you’re sitting at a conference table, you might not be able to look the word up until later. At that point, you’ve already missed the thread of the discussion. This is especially tricky when you’ve just started a new job, since companies tend to have their own house jargon on top of industry terminology.

In unhealthy teams, corporate psychology can pour gas on the problem. Mastery of terminology is a hard-won advantage at work, and there’s a natural tendency to keep your advantages to yourself. So, some people end up using specialized vocabulary to thump their chest (on an unconscious level, anyway). And if somebody else is confused by an unfamiliar term, he may not ask for a definition because he thinks it would be a sign of weakness. (Yes, I’m saying we are all just a bunch of apes with laptops and impressive titles.)

But even putting the psych 101 aside, time constraints and manners encourage this behavior. It feels disruptive to ask a speaker for a definition every 10 seconds.

So, it’s an uphill battle to stop speakers from spewing undefined jargon and encourage listeners to ask for clarification. But it does seem feasible for companies to make glossaries a corporate culture staple. If you’re already printing a stack of handouts for every meeting, why not include a cheat-sheet defining specialized terms, companies, technologies, or people you expect will come up?

It’s a good idea to maintain updated master glossary for each project too, and post it to your project intranet page, if you have one. I’ve seen company-wide glossaries on corporate intranets, which are also great, but they tend to become orphans. Project or team-specific glossaries have a better chance of surviving, in my experience.

I also like to maintain my own personal glossary. When I take meeting notes, I write down any term I don’t fully understand, and scrawl “vocab” next to it in the margin. By the end of every day, I take the time to look up any new terms, and add them to a master glossary I keep on my Backpack page. It’s my own personal “back of the book.” Flash cards optional.

One thought on “The Most Underrated Business Document

  1. Agreed! I’ve half-jokily proposed a glossary page on my library school’s website. It’s especially frustrating when you learn that ILS can stand for Information and Library Science OR Integrated Library System (the backend of online catalogs). Maybe I’ll drop the joke half and propose it whole-heartedly.

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