Are business buzzwords more annoying than useful?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/nd3000
Feb 04, 2022

A recent Wall Street Journal article observed about business buzzwords, “Some are just hackneyed. Others signal something, but mean nothing specific. Others nod to a shiny virtual future, which they may or may not deliver. Some are just irritating.”

A survey of more than 1,500 corporate workers taken last November identified the most annoying business buzzwords as: “new normal,” “culture,” “circle back,” “boots on the ground,” and “give 110 percent.”

Yet the survey from Preply, the online language tutor platform, finds seven in 10 admitting they use such corporate jargon, two in five saying they hear it once a day or more and only one in five saying they outright disliking business buzzwords. More than three in four respondents believe using corporate jargon makes someone sound more professional, and 71 percent say they have used it for this reason.

A Columbia Business School study published in fall 2020 found business jargon is often used by individuals feeling insecure about how they will be perceived.

“Jargon is like a suit, a car or a watch — it’s a status symbol. Those who are insecure ‘dress up’ their words, believing it will make them appear smarter or cause others to take them more seriously,” said Adam Galinsky, a Columbia professor, in a press release.

Still, a recent Inc. article notes that, while mocked, buzzwords often become standard business speak. The article also notes that although they are often perceived as annoying, buzzwords “also tend to capture something real and true about our collective anxieties, aspirations and general state of mind at a particular moment of time.”

The Journal article included interviews with CIOs who identified “agile,” “digital transformation,” and “innovation” as some of the most overused tech terms of 2021.

Offering advice around business jargon use, Edward Wagoner, CIO at Jones Lang LaSalle, told the Journal, “I’ve started trying to challenge myself that if I’m using a tech buzzword that I would have to explain to my 80+ year-old mother (which is all of them), then I need to use more approachable, descriptive and inclusive language.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What buzzword or phrase do you find most overused at present? Would your general advice be to take advantage of their proficiency as a communication tool or limit their use?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

31 Comments on "Are business buzzwords more annoying than useful?"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Bob Amster
BrainTrust

I think that business buzzwords are self-centered individuals’ way of differentiating themselves and making themselves feel superior to their colleagues. Eventually, they are overused to the point that they lose their true meaning and are eventually forgotten and replaced by the next crop of buzzwords.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

The “new normal” might be the most overused and least accurate – nobody actually knows what this means. One of the first lessons I learned was to take jargon out of my reports, always. It’s a mistake to think that it’s an effective communication tool, especially when so much of business is multi-national. U.S. slang is not UK slang is not Chinese slang – get out of the habit of using buzzwords.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

Let me lean in and unpack this for you. I love acronyms like 5G, which actually mean something. But buzzwords? Not so much. Why communicate in plain language when you can obfuscate in real time. I love this topic!

Using corporate buzzwords is like saying “They gave a promotion to Mary and I,” because you didn’t pay attention in 8th grade English class and just think “I” always sounds posh. It doesn’t. They shouldn’t have given you that promotion. Just saying.

Stand up. The English translation: establish, implement. Stand up is a misspelling of stand-up, which is sometimes funny. Saying “stand up” when you mean establish or implement is just wrong. You can stand up a salt shaker that has tipped over on the dinner table. That’s a very good use of stand up.

Another “favorite” buzzword: Operationalize. Oh, that’s supposed to mean implement or: stand up.

David Slavick
BrainTrust

They shouldn’t have given you that promotion … hilarious line Ken, kudos!

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

“At the end of the day,” I believe we’ll all be “on the same page” and “circle back” in the morning to compare notes.

Wow, three of these buzzwords/phrases in my first sentence. It’s hard to get away from what is seen as cliche. At one point, when these words were used, it was not cliche. It’s their overuse that brings them to our attention.

If you want to stand out, don’t sound like everyone else. Limit such phrases and come up with your own.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

🙂 🙂 🙂

Al McClain
Staff

How about “collaboration”? I have been hearing that collaboration was going to solve all our problems for a very long time.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust
Richard Hernandez
Merchant Director
10 months 5 days ago

Collaborations are a good thing, but they definitely won’t solve our problems…

David Slavick
BrainTrust

Al, do I have to?

Jenn McMillen
BrainTrust

Well, my North Star is everyday, common language. I don’t know about you guys.

David Slavick
BrainTrust

I prefer Leo Burnett … “Reach for the Stars” … much more inspiring, right?

Carol Spieckerman
BrainTrust

The problem with cynical takes on jargon is that suitable alternatives are rarely proposed at the same time. As hackneyed as some terms may seem, I favor proficiency over disparagement until substitutes that elevate the conversation are presented.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

Buzzwords in business have always been annoying, and it seems the same people are the ones to latch on and make them so. My favorite from my corporate days was “drain the slide” when giving a PPT presentation. That’s enough to make me throw up in my mouth.

Jennifer Bartashus
BrainTrust

There is a fine line between embracing buzzwords to show you are “in tune” with current trends and turning people off. Everyone wants to be relevant but using buzzwords too much can create the opposite impression. It’s sort of like when you were a kid and your grandparents used slang to try to be cool. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn’t. For retailers and marketers, the key may be to use them sparingly, or as a launching off point for a fresh or new take on a situation, brand or product.

Rick Moss
Staff

These types of buzzwords and phrases fall into different categories. Some — like “digital transformation” — are used as a convenient umbrella term for trends that are far too complex and broad to describe succinctly in any other way, so in these cases, I agree with Carol — use ’em if they work. In other cases, though, people rattle off words and phrases involuntarily because their brains are idling in the middle of a thought — “like” … “literally” … “at the end of the day.” My only advice for these situations is to slow down, think before you speak and spend more time with your thesaurus.

David Spear
BrainTrust

I’ve always hated buzzwords and have tried to stay away from them. It’s hard because they are such a huge part of corporate lexicon and many believe it makes you appear smarter if you’re using them. My goal in any presentation, podcast or written communication is to simplify, simplify, simplify, and if a third grader can’t understand what I’m saying, then I need to edit some more. My most hated term is “circle back.” Who does that? Who thinks that way? No, if I need to address an issue or question and don’t have the immediate answer, then it’s a simple response saying that I’ll follow up promptly. Succinct, straightforward language is the art of precision and beauty.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Most of the clichés noted in the discussion are shortcuts used in meaningless thought. What is so hard about “Do we all agree?” “Let’s pick up the conversation in the morning.”

Their use shows a laziness of the mind and in fact are less communicative than actually saying what one means. I do not allow my students to use buzzwords or clichés.

But this isn’t a new phenomena. We have had these buzzwords in the business lingo at least since I started back in the ’70s. They were just different.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Some buzzwords become cliches because they are a lazy shorthand without specific meaning; “new normal” is a perfect example because nobody can define it. On the other hand, other jargon enters the everyday vocabulary and becomes a useful communication tool. (Did anybody say, “social distancing” just over two years ago? Yet now we all understand its meaning.)

A perfect example: “omnichannel” has become a useful definition for the seamless joining of a retailer’s e-commerce and physical stores, but it would have sounded like jargon just 10 years ago.

Al McClain
Staff

Dick, ten or twenty years ago, it was “multichannel.”

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

“Incentivize” isn’t even a word.

Ben Ball
Guest

I always wondered how the heck you “actualize” something.

Having just finished the “Picard” series again on Paramount+, now I get it. You “make it so.”

Ben Ball
Guest

My grandfather was a plain-spoken man of no formal education. He was also one of the wisest men I have ever known. He used to tease me during my college years for “using 25 cent words to spew a nickel’s worth of nonsense.” When I visited him after graduate school he surprised me by saying he could see that my investment in higher education had paid off. He said “now you use 50 cent words.” It took me another 20 years or so to figure out what he was really saying — “you sound pompous and silly.”

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Having been a part of the consulting industry for over half of my career, I admit that I have fallen victim to using this typical business jargon more often than I like. Business buzzwords of the moment are often overused, and while we are subconsciously aware of it, they come up in our conversations whether we like it or not.

While we shouldn’t expect the dreaded “circling back,” “take a step back,” “ideate,” “low hanging fruit,” “quick wins,” “take this offline” jargon to disappear anytime soon, we should be more prescriptive going forward. Before throwing AR, AI, VR, digital, agile, transformation, operating model, collaboration, terms around without genuinely knowing the context behind it.

Those emerging trends require context, knowledge, and understanding to use the jargon intelligently rather than make an impression. If you are going to throw the transformation, digital operating model, and other terms around, then include substance behind these to make it impactful.

David Slavick
BrainTrust

Love this topic! Big data, cloud, transformation, digital transformation, roadmap, personification, personalization, and now … metaverse. They are useful in describing something in a way that theoretically everyone can relate to, but not everyone in the room knows what is involved to “get there.” The new metaverse buzzword I hope and pray will have a short life ;-).

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Although the terms themselves may be drivel, they do serve a purpose: they tell how much — or often, how little — genius the leadership has.