My good friend and fellow TechRepublic contributor Chad Perrin remarked to me the other day how he was “shocked and disappointed at the sheer nebulous uselessness” of an article he had just read, in which the author “just spew(ed) buzzwords at a text editor,” as far as Chad could tell. He then suggested: “Maybe you should write an article soon about avoiding buzzwords in favor of being open, honest, direct, and (above all) clear when discussing business.”

Why you should avoid buzzwords when possible

A buzzword is a popular moniker for a phenomenon, idea, or practice. Some buzzwords start out as clever or insightful metaphors, but by the time they’re called buzzwords, any metaphoric value has died; and yet, the word continues to be overused, and it therefore becomes part of the “buzz” about a topic — often more background noise than substance.

Buzzwords represent a subset of a larger phenomenon: words that are used for an effect that lies beyond their strict definitions. The most extreme example of the class is the word uh, which stretches the definition of the word word. It has no denotation of its own, but its meaning when used is “I’m thinking about what I want to say next, but I don’t want to yield the floor to anyone else in the meantime.”

Another word that relies mostly on meta-meaning is basically. At face value, the word basically denotes the fundamental nature of something, or a summarization. In practice, though, it says “I’m giving you the short version that isn’t very rigorous, so don’t raise any objections to my rule — and you can assume that I know more on the subject than you’re able to comprehend.”

Buzzwords serve a similar purpose; these words often act as a stand-in for a whole knowledge domain. When someone uses a buzzword in conversation, everyone involved is presumed to know what it means and everything behind it. More importantly, the hearers are expected to presume that the speaker knows everything about the subject. For instance, how many times have you heard “in the cloud” or “cloud-based solution” without any explanation being offered or requested?

Buzzwords differ from jargon. Jargon is a collection of domain-specific terminology with precise, specialized meanings. When two people understand the same jargon, they can communicate on that subject more efficiently. Buzzwords, on the other hand, over-generalize a subject in an attempt to make the speaker’s content appear more significant than it is. Buzzwords provide the same function in conversation that raising the hackles serves in animal encounters: They’re a fake display of greatness, and they’re often born of the same kind of fears.

If you use a buzzword when addressing your clients, several effects may occur, including:

  • Your client may think it’s a technical term that he/she is supposed to know. They’ll be afraid to ask directly for clarification, and they’ll assume that you know what you’re talking about. That’s usually your intended result (consciously or not), but it can often backfire down the road.
  • Your client may ask you to define the term. If you can, then that’s a good result and a chance for both of you to consider things more closely — assuming you don’t stammer about through the maze of abstractions and tautologies into which you’ve placed yourself.
  • Your client may recognize the term as a buzzword and suspect you of puffing. That’s a very bad result, because they’ll never completely trust you again.

Given the potential bad outcomes, you should avoid buzzwords as much as possible. Even in the best case (the second scenario), buzzwords are a roadblock to effective communication that must be overcome. It’s far better to start with clear and concise terms that accurately express what you mean. If you aren’t sure what you mean, don’t say anything.

That’s not to say that you can’t use metaphors to express general trends or patterns. “Eating your own dog food,” for instance, paints a vivid picture of the good practice of subjecting yourself your own products — even if it has become a bit overused. You must not, however, allow the metaphor to stand in for something assumed and unexplained. Some salespeople and C-levels do that so frequently that they don’t even think about what the metaphor means. A whole class of humor is devoted to the real-life examples of the unbelievable mixed metaphors that proceed unconsciously from their mouths. Examples include:

“We need to jump out in front of the bandwagon.”

“We don’t want to get raped over the coals.”

“You’re not just blowing Dixie.”

“I’m just shooting off the top of my head here.”

These examples indicate that the speaker habitually hooks common phrases like boxcars onto his/her train of thought after it has already begun to leave the station.

The keys to clarity

Here are four tips for communicating clearly and concisely with clients:

  • Before you speak or write, think about what you want to communicate.
  • Consider your audience. What will they understand? With what can they identify?
  • Tell the truth.
  • Use as few words as possible to get your meaning across.

That last one seems counterintuitive. Surely, if you keep finding new ways to express an idea, something will stick, right? Wrong. The more noise you make, the less of it penetrates. Even if they don’t understand you immediately: Seven words are memorable — seven hundred aren’t.

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