This article by Jennifer Latson originally appeared in Rice Business, Fall 2016.
How to optimize verbiage for a robust value add — or how to not communicate effectively
If buzzwords like “synergy,” “value add” and “leverage” make you want to go big AND go home, you’re not alone. Few of us have the bandwidth for dated business jargon — and it gets dated fast. By the time we’ve learned the meaning of the latest lingo, it’s already annoying to the “gurus,” “rock stars” and “thought leaders” who likely coined it in the first place.
Take “future proofing,” a fresh concept when it appeared on the scene a few years ago to describe, well, pretty much what it sounds like: making something immune to the unforeseeable ravages of the future.
Future proofing was a game changer on the bleeding edge, in bizspeak — until it wasn’t. In 2013, the same year it began popping up in Wall Street Journal headlines (for example, “Barbers, Bakers and Bankers: Whose Job Is Future-Proof?”) it was listed as one of “The 65 Business Words to Strike from Your Vocabulary Right Now” by Bryan A. Garner, the author of the “HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.”
Garner took the phrase to task in a tongue-in-cheek Huffington Post article, advising, “Leading-edge leveraging of your plain-English skill set will ensure that your actionable items synergize future-proof assets with your global-knowledge repository.”
Part of the problem with phrases like “future proofing” is that, while snazzy, they are essentially meaningless. Making anything truly future proof is, after all, impossible, since no one knows what the future will hold.
Others are offensive because they’re wordier or showier versions of phrases that exist already and are perfectly useful. Garner, along with other wordsmiths, points out that using more or bigger words doesn’t mean you’re communicating better. For example, in lieu of the jargony “in light of the fact that,” he suggests a simple, elegant alternative: “because.”
James Weston, a finance professor at Rice Business, argues that buzzwords either make simple concepts more confusing or complex concepts more superficial. “Generally, buzzwords like ‘global synergies’ and the like are a big red flag to me that a shallow and meaningless argument is about to come my way,” he says.
Then there are the insidious euphemisms, such as “let’s communicate offline,” which Weston translates to “I want to tell you something and I don’t want it to be discoverable in litigation.”
Or the obnoxious exaggerations, like “thought leader.”
“I might punch the next person that says this to me in the face, but we should communicate offline about that,” Weston jokes.
But for sheer superfluity of meaning, the word “ideate” is unbeatable — literally. It won Forbes’ 2015 “Jargon Madness” competition, elbowing out contenders like “leverage,” “disrupt” and “growth hacking” as the term most abused by startup founders, developers and marketers.
Forbes defined the winning term as “a nonsense word meaning ‘think,’ ‘dream up’ or ‘conceive of an idea.’ Formerly known as ‘brainstorm.’”
If it irks so many of us, then, why is jargon so common? James Sudakow, the author of “Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit… And Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World” believes the use of buzzwords is driven in part by the urge to be seen as an insider — but it has a tendency to backfire.
“Sometimes people who overuse corporate jargon actually lose credibility,” he says. “Being authentic and relatable are more and more important in leadership these days. Talking in jargon hardly makes someone relatable or authentic.”
So how do we rid our vocabularies of the dreaded buzzwords? It’s harder than you’d think, Sudakow says. He once found himself using one of his least favorite expressions, “We’ll bake that into the process” — meaning simply “we’ll include it” — in a presentation. The phrase just popped into his head because he’d heard it so often.
“The reality is that corporate jargon is used so frequently, no matter where you work, that it is actually hard for it not to rub off on all of us and become a habit.”
You could be a regular buzzword user without even knowing it, warns Peter Cardon, an associate professor of management communication at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and the author of “Business Communication: Developing Leaders for a Networked World.”
“I was once coaching a manager with his public speaking. He used ‘at the end of the day’ at the beginning of every tenth sentence or so. In one presentation, he used the phrase nearly twenty times,” Cardon recalled. “When I mentioned it to him, he was shocked. In fact, he didn’t believe me. So, I showed him video of his presentation so he could see for himself. All of us are like this to some degree — we overuse and abuse certain words and phrases without even knowing it.”
When used sparingly, of course, jargon isn’t inherently evil, according to Janet Moore, the director of MBA communications at Rice Business.
“Jargon can save time, as long as everyone in the conversation understands it,” she says. “Problems arise when it excludes listeners who don’t get it — and are too afraid to confess their ignorance.”
But a surprising number of people, including seasoned veterans of the corporate world, aren’t familiar with every buzzword — especially the buzziest of them all, which tend to come from Silicon Valley and spread like wildfire, Moore says.
So is it worth trying to stay abreast of the buzz? Or will today’s future proofers soon go the way of yesterday’s paradigm shifters?
“Some buzzwords come and go quickly and never reappear,” Cardon says. “Others come in and out of fashion every few decades like bell-bottom pants. Many, like ‘synergy,’ ‘proactive’ and ‘win-win,’ have stuck around for a long time.”
And some corporate cultures are more infested by buzzwords than others. When Sudakow worked for a management-consulting firm, he says, he felt as though he’d entered an Olympic competition for jargon use — “with the winner based strictly on quantity.” Now, as an independent consultant, he tries his hardest to eliminate buzzwords entirely.
“Not using them is what makes you stand out these days,” he explains. “A client recently told me, ‘That’s why we like you. You talk like a normal person.’”