BAN THE BUZZWORDS Business jargon often meaningless
f you want people to feel connected to and able to relate to you, you have to use language they understand and use themselves. That’s Communication 101.
Still, sometimes we err in the wrong direction as everybody starts using the same buzzwords or buzzphrases until the room feels like a party where all the women keep walking in wearing the same dress.
This year, there’s an overwhelming winner in the most hated business buzzword contest.
A new report from cloud-based enterprise management company Workfront revealed the top nine buzzwords and buzzphrases most of us would like to bury in a landfill. The phrase “think outside the box” spurred the most loathing. About 47 percent of survey respondents stated this was the most overused phrase, with “synergy” and “bandwidth” tying for second place with 18 percent.
If most buzzwords stink, why do we keep coming back to them?
Andre Spicer, an author and professor of organizational behavior at Cass Business School at the City University of London, says the use of buzzwords serves social purposes.
“Jargon is often used for what economists call ‘signaling’ in the workplace. Expensive packaging for products sends a signal that what is inside is high quality . ... Using buzzwords can make you look like you are an expert in an area you are not. It is easier to copy the language than to understand the deep knowledge behind it. Also, we want to appear as if we are up to date. By using the latest buzzwords, we (show) that we are keeping up, even though our practices may not have changed. They can also signal you are part of the tribe. The problem is that general business jargon often covers up a lack of underlying knowledge about a particular issue.”
So then the question becomes,
how can you wiggle into the group and sound halfway competent and informed without diving into a pit of cliche? Spicer offers four tips:
1. Get specific
Instead of using general phrases like “think outside the box,” try to specify what kind of creative thinking or how that might actually happen.
For instance, you could encourage people to introduce new elements into thinking by saying, “Let’s come up with an idea that adds one new element we have not heard of yet.” Or you could encourage people to be creative by constraining them.
You might say, “Let’s come up with a solution which does x, y and z using the these five resources.”
2. Ask “What does that mean?”
When someone tells you that we need “synergy,” ask him to describe in everyday language what he specifically means in this context.
This will help to make the problem much more tractable, everyone will understand what the speaker is talking about and the speaker will be less likely to reach for general ideas.
If you want to be particularly brutal, you can do a grandmother test: Would your grandmother understand what you are talking about?
3. Ask for the evidence
When someone starts talking about the importance of creating bandwidth, ask what evidence she has that this is important.
This, hopefully, will stop people and get them to think about whether they are using buzzy words simply for the sake of them. Being specific and explaining the real issue is what’s important.
4. Seek the logic
If someone talks about “running it up the flagpole,” then you could ask “why?” Getting people to consider precisely the logic of how something would work often gets them to make better and more thorough decisions, as well as to be a bit less certain in their own knowledge and expertise (particularly in areas where they are not experts).
For the record, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be an insider or wanting others to see you in a positive light. That’s just human. But if you lean on the same phrases over and over, you might not help others understand who you are or the depth and rationale behind your ideas.
And as the Workfront survey shows, people do notice when you’re parroting, and doing it too much puts them off. The ambiguity and vagueness can strangle productivity, too. None of this does anything to foster innovation. So be brave enough to leave the path of least resistance.
Practice speaking with friends, with the objective of allowing anyone to follow your thoughts, regardless of their background or industry.
The more you can converse with focused simplicity, the more you truly can lead and pull people together.
Wanda Thibodeaux is a freelance writer and the proprietor of Takingdictation.com.