Leadership

An alternative to corporate buzzwords

So if corporate buzzwords are so hated, what can be used instead? Clear and simple language.

One of my readers wrote to me with a very good point. He said that he is guilty of using some of the corporate buzzwords in this blog and asked if I could provide alternatives.

I thought I'd take this on. The problem is that I want to avoid merely using synonyms for the words, because if people started using the synonyms ad nauseum, I wouldn't be able to live with myself.

I understand that buzzwords are an economic way of getting across an abstract point. I get the attraction of that. But I also understand that for the people who have to hear these terms every day of their lives, they become trite and even laughable. Look up "buzzword bingo" some time.

The only way around buzzwords is to use a few more words to get your point across. It may require some imagination and more work, but it's better than having your point lost on a Dilbertized audience. After all, your employees don't go home and talk to their families in jargon. They don't tell their children that they don't have the "bandwidth" to take them to both soccer practice and cheerleading tryouts. Men don't tell their harried wives they should establish "core competencies." (If they did, it could well be the last thing they ever said.)

So, for example, let's address "outside the box": It's ironic, don't you think, that the term that means to think outside normal parameters is being abused so much that it is now a normal parameter itself. Thinking outside the box means to go past your comfort zone and not let past restrictions or expectations reign in your thinking. Let your imagination go and think of what you'd like to see rather than what you think is feasible. That's what I would say if I were addressing my team.

You have to make a conscious effort to let go of buzzwords and speak to your employees like they're, oh I don't know, real people. Is something mission-critical? Just say it's really important. Low-hanging fruit are the tasks that you can take care of quickly and get out of the way. Just say that. A value-add is something that adds value. Why can't you just say this or that is valuable?

And, I hate even typing this word, but synergy is basically teamwork, or several elements that work well together better than any of the elements could work alone. An actual explanation of a working relationship is more informative (and even more inspiring) than a word that when most people utter it they put sarcastic air quotes around it.

I can't offer clear-cut synonyms for buzzwords, because that would be defeating the point. My best suggestion would be looking a buzzword up and then using the dictionary definition instead.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

32 comments
Justin Q
Justin Q

Thank you! No more NewSpeak. Buzzword is DoublePlus Bad.

Englebert
Englebert

Anytime you hear an executive say " I'm excited " , watch out. Especially if s/he really does appear excited. Don't ask me why, but whenever I hear this, inevitably the original excitement of whatever (new mgm, merger/acquisition etc) caused the excitement, tends to come crashing down when the honeymoon period ends. A " No-Brainer " , another buzzword as bad as " I'm excited "

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

isn't teamwork. And it's not things working well together, either. Synergy is something that can happen during teamwork, sure, but it's not teamwork itself. The problem isn't in the word, which is a perfectly good term (it's a name for something that didn't have a name before this name was coined) - but in how it is abused. What are buzzwords? Are they words that are inherently buzzy, or are they just words commonly used in buzzing? Of course, some buzzwords are never used outside of buzzing, but I think it's the buzzing (excitedly chattering without concrete content, meaning or relevance) which is the real problem. Blaming the words is only taking focus away from the drones doing the buzzing.

manish_grover
manish_grover

Good article. I also tend to agree with nhammond above that this point is somewhat moot. Buzzwords are bad only if used out of context and by people trying to show off. We use these words in our professional environment all the time and have no problem with them. Also as pointed out, buzzwords often have certain connotations that evolve with the organizational culture and domain as well. So just substituting plain English may send wrong messages.

douglas.geiste
douglas.geiste

For those who may not know this, "Outside the Box" was popularized from a nine dot puzzle in the 90's (drawing a single line to connect all the dots of a nine dot box. Required you to draw "outside the box," hence, think outside the box rather than just inside the box). Frequently used in team building exercises, where I was first exposed to it. You can read more about it on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking_outside_the_box

nhammond
nhammond

I use some of these and when I do, I'm not trying to be clever, just succinct. Misuse of buzzwords or hearing them come out of the mouths of people who don't really know what they're talking about is annoying, but I think this rage against buzzwords in general is a bit silly. If I'm hearing the same old ideas in a meeting and I say, "we've tried all that before; let's think outside the box here," everyone knows what I'm getting at. It's way faster than explaining, "Hey everyone, let's think past our comfort zones, and not let past restrictions or expectations reign in our thinking. Let's let our imaginations go, and try to think of what we'd like to see, without concern for how feasible it is." I bet I even lost some of you halfway through reading that. Same goes for "mission-critical." It has a very specific meaning beyond "very important." Lots of things are important (anyone who's ever done stakeholder interviews knows that EVERYTHING is "very important" to someone), but "mission-critical" means that objectively, you are guaranteed to fail if this thing doesn't happen. It carries with it a set of implications that the words "very important" just do not convey. If you over-use it and call everything "mission-critical" when it's not, then sure, it becomes meaningless. (Much like the word "important.") But the phrase itself is a useful shortcut when it's used in the appropriate context by someone who isn't full of crap. So don't hate the buzzwords, hate the bullsh*tters. If you're a competent person and you use the occasional buzzword to communicate succinctly, I don't think you should go out of your way to find new words. But if you consciously choose words because you think they make you sound cool or smart or geeky, you're probably not fooling anyone & should just speak naturally.

dnctopjob
dnctopjob

The company we're partnered with uses 'ping' for MS Communicator references. You're in a good spot if you don't hear the "let me 'ping' her and see if I can get you an answer" that I hear on a daily basis. It's not like we AREN'T working on a network related project where that word actually means something. I will try the "time=127ms" response the next time I get 'pinged'.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

That is really the cure right there. Unless you are actually talking about shutting down a manufacturing line or disconnecting a network connection say "talk after the meeting" or "talk later" instead of "take it offline". And don't "ping" me later unless you actually mean sonar echo location or network connection testing. It's as if one of the requirement for a Masters in Business Arts is being able to spout incoherent miss-applied babble with a strait face.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

Or is it the clueless people using the buzzwords? In my mind the difference between slang and buzzwords is a slang word has a meaning even if only to a few. While the buzzword is often meaningless no matter how many times you turn it over. It is often being used by someone who either thinks it is clever or they can manipulate the audience with it. Maybe I'm wrong. Many of the buzzwords mentioned in the previous discussion don't bother me. What bothers me is when the boss thinks the buzzword is a motivator or a deal closer. Even then I usually find it humorous rather than bothersome. For me conversation is about conveying meaning. I work with several people for whom english is their second language. To understand them you have to try to think like them. And vice versa. Just my 2 cents.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

It's "I was thinking". When ever the boss looks at you and says that be afraid, very afraid. :)

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

You shouldn't go around saying things like that! Your "I'm excited" scared me so much I splashed coffee on my keyboard!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Which is also why, in certain contexts, a so-called buzzword can express meaning. It isn't the form that matters here, it's the content.

rtillotson
rtillotson

"I have found the problem." OK, cool! "You can all leave early today." OK, cool! "How was your weekend?" Cool! "Let's all meet in my office at 3 p.m." OK, cool! --- "Cool" is often used for informal closure of a conversation, but when used everytime it gets "uncool."

JohnWarfin
JohnWarfin

Thanks for running those up the flagpole. Now, let's see how many salute! You included 'stakeholder' here, which has actually become dangerously confusing since the identity intended can mean completely different things to each listener. Do you mean 'everyone', or 'investors' or 'whoever can cause us trouble', or 'stubborn people I do not want to single out', or 'everyone within the sound of this communication'? Listeners that do not clarify the intended persons could attempt to do the intended thing with/for the wrong people.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

[i] "let me 'ping' her and see if I can get you an answer" [/i] especially with the 'sicko' quotes ;)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

"Ping" is a good example, I think. They become buzzwords by being overused to the point where they are no longer clever. The purpose of a metaphor is to stimulate thinking, whereas any overused term dulls thinking instead. So, think of a new metaphor, and use it only once. Someone else may turn it into tomorrow's buzzword.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

the problem is the word was overused when announcing mergers in the '90s and '00s. In many cases, there were two common results of these mergers: layoffs and a failure to achieve synergistic results. AOL - Time-Warner leaps to mind, where the sum of the parts was LESS than the whole. 'Synergy' is now synonymous with 'vaporware'. "Opportunity" or "challenge" as a replacement for "problem" is just flat-out lying. It's an attempt to put gold leaf on dog doo; it's still crap under the pretty wrapping, and everyone knows it except the 'motivational management' disciple using those words. For the most part, it is indeed the clueless individual wielding the buzzword like a chainsaw. He or she has attended one too many conferences on a subject he or she only partially understands (at best).

seanferd
seanferd

Sure, I think some buzzwords are rotten from the start. Some buzzwords are created due to extreme overuse and inappropriate application. They tend to obfuscate more often than elucidate. If you are communicating well, the buzzword aspect of something that has come to be considered a buzzword falls away. Buzzwords are more about selling and controlling concepts, or controlling minds, than communicating valid thoughts to another rational actor.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

The clueless mus-application of a word like "bandwidth" or "offline" by people who can barely turn on there own computers just makes my ears bleed. At the same time, the use of terms that are not industry specific like "down the bunny whole" and "synergize" just come off as shallow and empty platitudes; why get real work done when we can sit around spouting meaningless convoluted dribble. Alone, none of us are as dumb as we are together; quick, schedule a meeting! For someone working in a second language, this kind of convoluted use of terms must add to the problem.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

are the redshirts of the van Helsings of the world. It's a real nut-breaker to translate that one, but I do think I know what it means in most cases, it's just so vague in reference that it's hard to find a single word for it. It's strange; natural language usually has plenty of words that are formally ambiguous but which aren't ambiguous in practice (who does 'you' refer to, for example? In theory, compared to in an actual instance of use?). Buzzwords are often the opposite, like 'stakeholder' they're formally unambiguous (someone with something at stake in a topical issue), but often ambiguous in actual use (on what level do people have something at stake? Is the cleaner a stakeholder in decisions about the layout of the server room, for example? What about the people next door, annoyed with the hum of the AC? I think usually it's your third option that comes the closest... a stakeholder is whoever has the clout to muscle in on a decision.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

a little buzzazz. It's funny, apparently there are people out there devising these phrases with this effect in mind. And yet other people snapping those phrasings up and propagating them enthusiastically. Makes me think of zealots, whipping themselves into a frenzy. These words are like the opposite of mantras, empty words with a coating of apparent, misleading meaning - designed to cloud the mind and noisen up the thoughts. Maybe that's the answer - whenever you hear buzzing, simply say "Ommmmm". Under your breath if you have to.

bluerandy
bluerandy

"Go ping those guys and see where we are on the project." Uh, do they even know what ping means?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I have never heard 'ping' used in any sense except as typed in at a CLI to determine if one system can get a response from another, and I'm extremely grateful. Were I to hear it used as an apparent substitute for "Call me", I'd probably smack the person upside the head several times a second while shouting "Ping!" until the person starts responding with response times or yells "Control C! Control C!"

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The main gains to be reaped weren't ever about creating something new, but about "doing the same, with less". Which is why so many fusions bellyflopped - it's a losing mentality all around.

JohnWarfin
JohnWarfin

Respectfully- really- I LOVE the ironic image of supreme corporate misery that "down the bunny[,] whole" conjures up. Kind of summarizes the complex project timeline that has a non-threatening little line item for "finalize approvals". This immediately jumps above "I cannot recommend X too highly", "make your hair spin", "clean as a baby's bottom" in my inverto-slang lexicon.

bboyd
bboyd

The user seldom even has a good grasp of the abbreviation. My favorites are military ones. They developed because someone to stupid to really understand the long form needed a mental crutch. M1114-High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), -Humvee-Hummer, plus you add on a FRAG 6 kit for EFP and your mind starts to do cartwheels.

seanferd
seanferd

The network diagnostic for those who don't know any others. Also used inappropriately and too often, just like buzzwords.

Rick_from_BC
Rick_from_BC

I had a different image: swallowing the whole bunny, like a snake. Akin to biting off more than you can chew, it denotes an attempt to accomplish a complex job all at once, rather than doing it in manageable steps. Certainly invokes a strong image in my mind.