Beating a dead horse: The right and wrong ways to use buzzwords, jargon and clichés

By Alyssa Hurst

Big data shows that innovation when it comes to communication in the business world is dead, so it’s time for all the thought leaders out there to stop reaching for the low-hanging fruit and start thinking outside the box. Disruption of a buzzword-charged environment is no cakewalk, but with a bit of buy-in and some etymological transparency, we just might find the meaning buried in all this business jargon. Did you get all that? Neither did I.

Beating the buzz

Words matter. But “somehow we’ve become uncomfortable really digging deeply and unearthing the right word or the right phrase to communicate what we really feel, what we really believe,” says Jack Schammel, founder of Leading Logic, LLC. Instead, some business leaders are increasingly relying on jargon, clichés and buzzwords.

Of course, leadership is time-consuming, and it’s hard to break a habit that has become so commonplace. But buzzwords, clichés and jargon aren’t just harmless crutches. Used incorrectly, such unclear language has a very real, negative effect on your employees and the outcomes you set out to achieve.

“When you hear a business leader using a tired cliché or an overused phrase, it can hurt their credibility. When a term has become overused and repeated, it loses its meaning to the audience,” says Ivy Naistadt, executive speaking coach at Ivy Naistadt Creative Communications. “They become bored and they tune out. If I’m supposed to really hear this leader’s words of wisdom and they’re using this worn-out term, the rest of the message is going to be business as usual.”

Just as the right words can be powerful, the wrong words can be detrimental — not just to employee engagement, but also to a company’s bottom line. “Words set the tone. Buzzwords and jargon aren’t going to cut it,” says Carol Vernon, certified executive coach at Communication Matters: Executive Coaching & Training. “Clear language is not just a good practice; it’s a strategy for getting to the outcome you want.”

In addition, Vernon says, “it’s an absolute necessity to be able to communicate clear expectations, clear directions or clear motivation.”

Take the word “transparency.” If an organization wants to adopt a more transparent culture, it will likely gather its staff and announce that intention. But what does transparency mean exactly, and more importantly, how will that organization implement it? Without that context, the word itself holds little meaning, or even too many meanings.

“[P]eople start to interpret it differently, and once there are multiple interpretations of a word or phrase, that’s when it starts to lose its impact,” says Schammel.

“You have to … provide examples and best practices of those who are implementing that buzzword in an actionable way,” says Brad Grossman, founder and CEO of ZEITGUIDE, a publication about trends changing the business world. The same holds true whether you are trying to transition smoothly to a new leader, implement a new sales strategy or reach a quarterly goal.

The trouble with words

So how does a word go from being a harmless arrangement of letters or a unique thought to a tired cliché? “It becomes a habit. It’s like anything else. We do it all the time and the buzzwords change over the decades,” says Schammel.

One example is the word “synergy.” “That was a buzzword for a long time and it was a concept for describing how if you combine two companies, the financial results are greater than what either company could have achieved alone. I’m thinking of the Time Warner and AOL merger. These were two giants and they thought by combining them … they would create synergy, but it didn’t work. It had to be undone,” says Naistadt. At that point, she says, the term “synergy” lost its credibility, but people continued to use it.

“People just use the same buzzwords that everyone else is, and it leads to more and more chatter, and more and more chatter. It’s a vicious circle,” says Grossman.

This has also been the case for “disruptive innovation,” a term originally coined by scholar and business consultant Clayton Christensen.

On his website, Christensen says disruptive innovation “is not a breakthrough innovation that makes good products a lot better,” but rather “transforms a product that historically was so expensive and complicated that only a few people with a lot of money and skill had access to it. A disruptive innovation makes it so much more affordable and accessible.”

“His viewpoint of disruption is different than how people are using it today,” says Grossman, which is usually as a way to describe the next big thing. “I think the biggest problem is when people try to put their own meanings on it, then it can change,” adds Grossman.

The effective alternative

This doesn’t mean we should toss out the idea of disruption, squash innovation and stop preaching transparency. Buzzwords, clichés and jargon can serve a purpose, if executed with intention.

It starts with the methodology behind how you interact with your employees and colleagues, says Barbara Pachter, president of Pachter & Associates. “What’s been going on in the past? What’s your relationship? Are you visible? Can you talk to people? Do you sometimes talk to people one-on-one?” According to Pachter, this can set the tone for proper communication, and helps CEOs establish a context for the language they use.

Once you’ve established a rapport, it’s all about making sure you are speaking to your audience. “Industry terms are fine to use with that industry. IT people communicating with other IT people. Finance with finance. When I’m with finance professionals, I’ll hear headwinds and tailwinds, and they aren’t referring to sailing,” says Naistadt. However, things like acronyms and other bits of jargon shouldn’t be used with outside audiences, because such terms just don’t hold meaning for them, and communication often breaks down, adds Naistadt.

Cultivating culture

One of the most effective ways to use buzzwords is as a tool in developing community within a company. “There are words that become part of an organization’s culture. If they are buzzwords that are part of creating a culture, that can be a really neat thing,” says Vernon.

But even in this setting, the rules still apply. You have to create a context for your buzzword, define it clearly within that context, and then use it around people who understand that context. Take Grossman’s own cultural buzzword: the year of experimentation. “I coined a term in my 2016 ZEITGUIDE. … Now that whole book has examples of why we called it the year of experimentation. Plenty of people could go around saying ‘It’s the year of experimentation.’ But you need to have concrete examples,” he says. “It’s like being back in college. You have to prove your thesis.”

The final aspect of implementing buzzwords as part of your company’s “community vocabulary” is to make sure they fit who you are as a person and as
an organization.

“[Jeb Bush] used the word disruptive or disruptor three or four times in one of his speeches. He was saying he had disrupted education as governor, and maybe he had, but it just didn’t go with his mild, kind of safe delivery,” says Naistadt. “You have to make sure it makes sense for you.”

Grossman feels the same: The word has to be representative of who you are. “If you’re Wal-Mart and you’re talking about innovation, … and you know that you’re an 800-pound gorilla, as opposed to 800 gazelles that can move nimbly, then you can’t use a term that you aren’t actually going to act upon,” he says. “But they feel like they need to because it’s a communications and marketing tool so that they can stay part of the conversation.”

Words are powerful tools, and it’s a leader’s responsibility to wield them with care at all times. Even in a world where immediacy is inescapable and a majority of our daily communication takes place across screens, “our words still matter,” says Vernon.

We asked local business leaders to weigh in on their least favorite buzzwords, and what effect buzzwords have on employees and clients.

Fran GrossFran Biderman-Gross
CEO and Strategista

“I speak in clichés and phrases all the time. I’m a story seller, so I want people to feel a certain emotion through an experience or through something that’s commonly known. I am just really conscious about what I use and how I use it. Too much of a good thing is always negative. It’s a matter of creating the match. Does the experience, situation or story, problem or opportunity match the example you are going to use? That’s the biggest piece of caution. We all use clichés, but as long as they accurately describe or convey that sentiment, they can be used.”

Anthony MongeluzoAnthony W. Mongeluzo
President and CEO

“Buzzwords sometimes make the person you are with feel like you are either trying to impress them with your knowledge and industry jargon, or make them feel beneath you. I always prefer simple English. For your employees and colleagues, buzzwords are great. It’s a sublanguage for your normal conversation. … They help people bond, show industry knowledge and create trust. When misused, they can have the opposite effect.”

Duane CareyDuane Carey
IMPACT Marketing & Public Relations, LLC

“Clichés and buzzwords are rampant in the marketing industry and, in my cynical view, built for obfuscation. Our corporate philosophy — and how we advise our clients — is to always cut the BS. The effect this has on our team, colleagues and clients is to demonstrate transparency and build trust. There are so many digital marketing terms that are foreign to clients that it can be really overwhelming for them, so the last thing we want to do is pile on with unnecessary jargon.”

Staci RedmonStaci Redmon
President and CEO
Strategy and Management Services, Inc. (SAMS)

“I think there are two main reasons why buzzwords aren’t effective. The first is that they don’t market your business as being unique. From an outward-facing perspective, what distinguishes us from other service providers if not the words we use? The second reason I try to avoid buzzwords is because they are so often used to describe an opinion, instead of demonstrating past performance. We’ve all heard the words: innovation, ingenuity, cutting-edge. … There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those words, but if there’s no evidence to show why we’re innovative, ingenious or cutting-edge, they fall flat.” CEO

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Are you trying to break your buzzword habit? Armed with these tips, you’ll be ready to take on the boardroom, staff meeting or stage with powerful, original and engaging language:

  • Speak plainly. “Instead of making themselves sound smart, [great speakers] use simple language, direct language, and they make their listeners feel smart,” says Ivy Naistadt, executive speaking coach at Ivy Naistadt Creative Communications.
  • Speak with intention. “I’m going to use very clear language. I’m going to slow down. I’m going to recognize the importance of using clear language and I’m going to move away from the negativity,” says Carol Vernon, certified executive coach at Communication Matters: Executive Coaching & Training.
  • Be unique. “Having a new approach can be very positive. Looking at things slightly differently and more creatively can be powerful. But again, you need to make sure that what you’re saying, your audience is going to understand,” says Barbara Pachter, president of Pachter & Associates. Remember that industry-specific language won’t work for a more general audience.
  • Speak from within. “If you are speaking or writing from the heart, you’ll find the right words,” says Jack Schammel, founder of Leading Logic, LLC.
  • Create a strategy. “Some people enjoy language more. They have fun with it. Some people don’t, so [they have to] create a strategy. Slowing down is one very important one,” says Vernon.
  • Develop a style. “The strongest leaders that I’ve worked with have developed a communication and speaking style that is clear, it’s concise and it’s authentic,” says Naistadt.

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