Buzzwords that bug

Buzzwords can be as pesky as the peskiest bug. (Image: Pesticide Information Office.)

THE closing moments of a recent telephone conversation went as follows: “We’re on the same page then. The bottom line is that we leverage a win-win scenario by shifting paradigms and thinking out of the box…at the end of the day, we want to action an integrated solution as seamlessly as possible. I’ll fire off an email today confirming our discussion and let’s touch base when you’ve had a chance to revisit the timeline. I look forward to synergising with you.”

As if the blitzkrieg of buzzwords boomed by my associate from the other side of the telephone was not awful enough, I took the discussion to the next level by responding, “It’s a no brainer, but we’ll have to hit the ground running. I’ll keep you in the loop, going forward.”

There is only one thing more annoying than listening to someone who is attempting to communicate by stringing swarms and swarms of buzzwords together: and that is, when your mouth spouts the exact words that make your stomach turn – and it’s so easy to do. Buzzwords are pestiferous. After all, don’t they indicate that you are part of the in-crowd, and that you have coined the lingo and know the buzz? Why then, do buzzwords, particularly when used in business, wind so many people – including me – up? And they do.

A survey among 150 senior executives of 1 000 large North American companies listed “at the end of the day”, “win-win”, “thinking out of the box”, “synergy”, “alignment”, and “paradigm” among the most annoying buzzwords used in business. Respondents to the study said that although these fashionable words and phrases – and countless others – may once have been effective, their impact is vastly diluted by overuse and they eventually become meaningless. The survey found that buzzwords even have a negative bearing on communication because addressees ultimately switch off when they hear recurring and essentially empty phrases like “customer-centric solution”, “core competencies” and “value-added”.

Then there is the danger that jargonaholics appear either pretentious and/or as if they are trying to compensate for a lack of knowledge or intelligence. “A bit like wearing a Gucci suit to work, the overuse of management jargon is just another way for mediocre people to try and hide their mediocrity,” alleges a buzzword-busting vigilante I know.

Researcher Sandra Giberson concurs: “When people are not really knowledgeable about their subjects, they might be inclined to use buzzwords because they hope it will make them look smarter. If you know what you are talking about then you do not need to do that.”

The greatest problem with buzzwords however, is that they confuse speech and get in the way of communicating directly with people. While you might imagine you are being trendy by using vogue words and that these words represent a kind of code or shorthand in business, there’s the danger that people do not decipher the code. For the most part, buzzwords complicate simple things. For example, why risk confusing me by using a dog show metaphor – as in “best of breed” – in your sales pitch about the latest and greatest new computer? Why invite me to a “thought shower”, a “brainstorming session” or “to toss a couple of thought grenades” when it’s really just a meeting during which I will be told that various “issues should be taken off line”? And what’s with “increasing the bandwidth” when all that is required is more time or people on the job?

My favourite response to a protracted and exceptionally jargon-rich pitch came from a colleague recently: “Ah, indeed,” he said, rousing himself from a blurry-eyed state of semi-consciousness as the jargonaholic ended his oration. “I’m having a sense of deja moo here… For sure, I’ve heard this bull before.”

(Go to http://www.fightthebull.com to download the free “epoch-defining Bullfighter software that works with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint to help you find and eliminate jargon in your documents”. There is also a useful jargon dictionary at http://www.theofficelife.com, which will help you decipher those confusing buzzwords that regularly bug you at work.)

(This article was originally published in my column, If The Hat Fits, which was included in the Real Business supplement with Business Day in February 2007. Despite its age, it remains relevant and the websites mentioned above are still live.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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