Let’s hit the ground running and create the right synergy, so we can go after low-hanging fruit. If you don’t have the bandwidth, ping me – let’s touch base and think outside the box.
If the above statement annoyed or puzzled you, you’re not alone. The overuse of business jargon can elicit a number of negative reactions, from eye-rolling frustration to confusion and boredom.
One of the things I have learnt from Aman Gupta and Sameer Mehta, our co-founders at boAt is how simply and practically they communicate. Gyaan free communication as they say! No jargon or Shashi Tharoorisms. And yet they are very effective communicators.
This week, my message focuses on corporate buzzwords to avoid. How do clichés act as a roadblock to effective communication? Which are the top offenders, and what are some alternatives you can use instead?
When is the last time you hit the “refresh” button on your work vocabulary? Certain corporate words and phrases have been repeated so often that they have turned into clichés over the past few years. Some buzzwords are so deeply embedded in our lingo that we don’t even think of them as jargon, but simply as the language of doing business.
Like me, I’m sure many of you default to these tried-and-tested terms – from “the new normal” to “let’s take it offline”. When we use such phrases, our goal is obviously to enhance communication – but they usually have the opposite effect. Clichés frustrate your listeners, impede clarity, and can even hamper innovation. In his article on this topic, David Mizne elaborates:
Sure these metaphors were clever the first hundred times they were used – initially permeating the business lexicon as a way to create emphasis, connection, or to communicate more succinctly. Now they are having the opposite effect…. They create disconnection because people feel a lack of specificity, or that the buzzword user doesn’t care enough to elaborate. Why don’t you just explain to me why this is important, instead of saying it’s “mission critical”?
The use of buzzwords can also limit your thought process, making it lazy and predictable. Instead of entering a creative mental space and exploring new possibilities, the brain stays locked in autopilot mode. In this way, a clichéd vocabulary can reinforce clichéd thinking.
Used in excess, words tend to lose their resonance and impact. When you hear “let’s think outside the box” for the thousandth time, it’s hard to grasp its full meaning and feel inspired. Hence, once they achieve buzzword status, words don’t carry the same potency as they initially did.
Using jargon can make you sound too much like a mouthpiece – which is especially dangerous for those in leadership positions.
Do people perceive you as someone who uses trending terms without adding depth, nuance or a fresh perspective of your own? If yes, this can subtly undermine your credibility as a leader.
(Interestingly, a study by MyPerfectResume also outlined the least-hated buzzwords according to respondents. These include the following: agile, impact, robust, gain traction, deep dive, leverage, vertical, scalable, on the same page, and lots of moving parts.)
So, are you ready to spring-clean your work lingo? It’s time to give these seven buzzwords a much-needed sabbatical.
Grammar experts Kathryn and Ross Petras (the brother and sister team behind several “word nerd” books) interviewed professionals across the corporate world about phrases that ought to be retired. At the very top of their list: bandwidth! As the authors explain:
If you’re talking about internet usage, go for it. But today, a lot of people use “bandwidth” to refer to human capacities to take on a task – and it’s getting tired. It has officially become a buzzword that your business partners don’t have the bandwidth to keep hearing.
Instead, try simple, fuss-free alternatives. For example, instead of saying “We don’t have the bandwidth”, you could say “We don’t have the time/capacity”. This can also open the door to a larger conversation around increasing capacities, reviewing priorities or freeing up more time.
Declared Word of the Year by LinkedIn in 2020, “pivot” has become almost embarrassingly clichéd. In the business context, this word actually has a distinct and important meaning: it refers to a fundamental shift in direction. Unfortunately, it has been overused so much by one and all as to become practically meaningless. So, give “pivot” a miss and try options like “a major change in direction” or “adopt a new strategy”
3. New normal.
Interestingly, this phrase goes all the way back to 1918, when it was used to describe the altered global landscape after World War I. It rose to popularity once again in 2008, during the financial crisis. Today, thanks to the pandemic, “new normal” has become a household phrase, echoed not just in meeting rooms but also across dinner tables and WhatsApp conversations.
The usefulness of this term is undeniable. It has offered us a neat way to sum up massive shifts in the way we work, live and study. But after nearly two years of continuous usage, I think it’s a good time to bid this buzzword adieu. After all, the “new normal” isn’t that new anymore…!
4. Think outside the box.
Surely each and every person in the corporate world has used this phrase at some point. As Scott Mautz points out humorously:
When people say this I can’t help but think, “That’s ironic because you’re demonstrating right now that you need to think out of the box with the language you use.”
Since the idea of this phrase is to promote fresh thinking, you could say “let’s look for non-traditional solutions” or “let’s consider unusual ideas”. Mizne also suggests coming up with creative names for your brainstorming sessions, such as “an inspiration session” or “a zone of genius meeting”.
5. Let’s take it offline.
What started out as a useful way to keep Zoom meetings on track has rapidly become unpopular, now frequently voted as one the most-hated phrases in corporate parlance. Some people find it unnecessarily “techie”, while others feel it has become meaningless – given that many teams have gone fully remote and never meet offline at all.
This phrase also seems to be a convenient way to send uncomfortable topics into a black hole. Communication and teamwork expert Liane Davey elaborates:
When you had too much going on in a meeting and a deep dive on one issue would have taken you off-track, it made tons of sense to take things offline. Maybe this meant that you needed more information or that the conversation was only relevant to certain people. Offline was more efficient and more effective.
Until “Let’s take it offline” came to mean, “Whoa, this is getting a little uncomfortable. I might embarrass myself in front of everyone so let’s not go there”. Or maybe it meant, “I was hoping not to have to address that so maybe if I put it in the parking lot everyone will forget and I’ll be off the hook”.
“Take it offline” now makes you look like you’re trying to avoid something.
Instead, you could say “let’s talk about this in-person tomorrow” or “let’s discuss it on a separate call after this meeting” – essentially, attach a specific timing to make yourself accountable. Davey also suggests the following alternatives: “What is the right forum to address this?” and “Who needs to be in the room to make this decision?”.
6. Give it a 110%.
At a time when employees are placing increasing value on work-life balance, this phrase seems out of step. Not only is it mathematically impossible, it also connotes high stress levels and overwork. When a leader says “110%”, employees hear “14-hour workdays” and “no boundaries between personal and professional”.
Leaders can instead focus on “digging deep” and “performing at our highest calibre”, while also setting realistic expectations. Being specific is the key here. Team members may occasionally have to work longer-than-usual hours on an urgent or vital project. Create clarity around upcoming work hours and responsibilities, so people can plan their schedules accordingly.
7. To be honest.
This phrase is not restricted to corporate life, but I think it deserves a place on the list given how frequently it’s used. “To be honest” provokes an instant and visceral reaction in many listeners, which is: “So you were not being honest so far?”
Of course, what it usually means is “I’m going to be more frank than usual” – but considering the negative feelings it produces, this phrase is best avoided. Rather than replacing it, simply get to the point. Based on what you say, people will anyway understand that you’re being extra-candid – no need to spell it out.
Business communication is hard enough – why complicate it further by using clichés? Instead of driving people crazy by overloading your speech with “low hanging fruit” and “paradigm shifts”, strive to keep your language clear, simple and fresh. Find alternative ways to communicate these concepts, using words that will resonate with your listeners and create a real impact.
What other buzzwords should we avoid?