For the Sake of Clear Communication, It’s Time to Bury Buzzwords

“So buzzwords, what would you say you do here?” (source)

Stop me if you’ve heard any of these before — or if they stir up traumatic memories of your time in the professional world:

“Let’s circle back on those deliverables later when we have a bit more bandwidth.”

“We’ll take this offline and touch base on what’s mission-critical.”

“We need to leverage our assets to ensure we remain agile and achieve best-in-class results.”

No matter your profession, chances are you’ve encountered this kind of “corporate-speak”. Maybe even now after reading those examples, you’re running through a list in your head of all the buzzwords you use on a weekly or daily basis.

It’s not entirely clear why this kind of language has become so ubiquitous across so many industries, such that countless options for playing “Business Buzzword Bingo” are just a Google search away. Anne Curzan, an English Professor at the University of Michigan, theorizes that we use business jargon as an almost unconscious way of signaling ourselves as members of “insider” groups. In other words, when you start a new job, there’s no easier way to signal that you belong there than to start talking about your “core competencies” and how much you hope to help “move the needle.”

Whatever its origins, this lingo has become a running joke for office workers around the country. Many of us probably wish we could do away with it entirely with a wave of our hand, but it’s hard to push back unilaterally against language conventions that, at this point, have been embedded in the business world for decades.

And yet push back we should. In many fields, corporate jargon might be at worst an annoyance. But in the world of communications, public relations and public affairs, there’s something more serious at stake — buzzwords make us bad communicators. And if we’re not communicating as effectively as we can, our pursuit of virtually all our goals is bound to suffer.

Why exactly are buzzwords and jargon phrases such a thorn in the side of professional communicators? For starters, they run the risk of making your messages vague or confusing where they should instead be precise. If you’re firing off an email or kicking off a presentation and you open with a pronouncement that you need to “square the circle” on your biggest challenges before you end up trying to “boil the ocean,” you’re making a gamble that your audience knows exactly what you mean. The majority of the time, you’re far better off making your point as simply and concisely as possible.

But the risks extend far beyond the messages we share with our colleagues or even our clients. Thousands of companies every year grapple with how to best communicate key ideas or difficult decisions to their employees. Consider the case of Pacific Bell, which was formed as part of the government break-up of telecom giant AT&T in 1984. The new company brought on a management consulting firm to help invigorate the way it communicated with employees, investing millions of dollars in training exercises aimed at making nonsense terms like “task cycle” and “functioning capabilities” routine. These efforts culminated in vague, confusing value statements, like this one from 1987 outlining the meaning of “interaction”:

  • The continuous ability to engage with the connectedness and relatedness that exists and potentially exists, which is essential for the creations necessary to maintain and enhance viability of ourselves and the organization of which we are a part.

These endeavors weren’t just misguided or ineffective when it came to improving company communication — they sparked frustration and derision from the company’s employees, hurt productivity, and ultimately lead to intense media scrutiny and an investigation from state regulatory authorities.

We see this same spirit of trying to obfuscate simple ideas (and quite often, painful or unfortunate ones) again and again in corporate communications, particularly where there is a pressure to soften difficult news or make it feel more abstract than it actually is. Think of how many corporate memos from CEOs we’ve read that talk about the need to achieve “efficiency,” which is typically a turn of phrase for “restructuring” or letting people go — more bluntly, firing. Employees at firms across the world have read this language time and again, and they see through it in a heartbeat and have their confidence in their management lessened, because they know they’re being sold a line, which does significant damage to trust in the company over time.

So, what can we as communicators do when faced with this pressure to make basic ideas complicated, or lean on stilted phrases rather than plain language, simply because they feel familiar?

It starts with making an emphasis on natural language part of our everyday interaction with our colleagues and our clients. With every email we write, every phone call we have and every time we speak in public, we must always be focused on communicating exactly what really matters, and not leaning on those crutches of language that are easy to default to when we switch to autopilot.

Beyond that, it falls to us to challenge those we work with and advise to be upfront and honest in everything we need to communicate. Many messages are difficult, or even painful, to convey, but that doesn’t mean the intended audience will receive it any more positively if it’s sugar-coated. Delivering difficult news in a clear, dispassionate, honest and ultimately direct manner is almost always the best way to convince consumers or employees that you take them seriously. Anything less, and you’re liable to find yourself struggling to build trust and respect with those you need it from the most.