The unofficial (slightly sarcastic) thesaurus for business buzzwords.


I’m a copywriter, which basically means I write words with the intention of selling a product or service. However, a lot of the copywriting work I do is with brands simply wanting to communicate what they do clearer, crisper and with less fluff (or sometimes with more fluff). It’s complicated.

Anyways, I’m a great big nerd when it comes to words and probably take notice of ridiculous words and phrases more so than the non-copywriter. It’s a curse not a blessing. There are plenty of moments when I find myself wanting to bang my head against a thesaurus after reading the same business buzzwords over and over again in emails, “about us” pages and white papers. Which, speaking of, can we not come up with a better term for white paper?

Long story short, I created this unofficial (slightly sarcastic) thesaurus of business buzzwords in hopes to not only get a few chuckles out of you, but also to promote bullshit-free communication in (and out) of the work place. If you like this piece and want to say thank you, all I ask is that you join my email list or send me $1,000, whichever you’d prefer.


Business Buzzwords: what they mean and what we can say instead.

I have a quick note before we jump in. If at anytime while reading this there is a business buzzword that comes to mind, please jot it down in the comments and I will be sure to add them to this thesaurus. Who knows, maybe together we can vanquish hideous phrases like “circle the wagons” from every meeting room in the world?


1. Core Competency

What does it mean and why is it ridiculous.

“Core” means the most important part of something. “Competency” means to have the ability to do something well. So, what this phrase translates to is “most important at having the ability to do something well”… which makes absolutely no sense.

Non-bullshit way of saying what it’s trying to say.

Instead of “Bob’s core competency is his ability to manage people” try “Bob is great at managing people.”


2. Move the needle

Folks love throwing around “move the needle” in meetings. In fact, if you’re worried about sounding as though you don’t know what’s going on — simply sprinkle “move the needle” into your conversations each day at work. Most of the people who use it aren’t saying anything specific, just making noise. But, what it means is to create positive change or results that can be measured.

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “Let me ask you this, Sarah, will this marketing spend move the needle?” try “Sarah, great idea, but how will this increase sales or traffic to our website?”


3. Buy-in

While this word should only be used in Poker, it’s often used in business to determine whether everyone is in agreement on a specific course of action that they themselves had no part in coming up with.

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “Let’s flash this idea to marketing and get buy-in from the rest of the team” try “Let’s see if marketing agrees with our idea.”


4. Open the Kimono

“Open the Kimono” is a really disgusting way of saying “let’s share our top secret plans.” Any time I’ve heard this business buzzword I’ve cringed just a little. Plus, I don’t understand the correlation. If a Japanese woman were to voluntarily open up her Kimono she would be agreeing to have sex with you? How is that transferable to sharing business plans with your team?

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “There is a lot going on here, maybe we should set up a meeting with the rest of the agency and open the Kimono” try something less sexist like “We haven’t been completely transparent, I think we should share this with the rest of the team.”


5. Empower

To give the authority or power to someone else. It’s almost like a superhero passing off his ability to fly to his sidekick. Generally, it is used by managers in hopes to get better results from employees — but to the employee it feels condescending.

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “Mark, I want to empower you to do a great job on this project” try being more honest and less arrogant with something like “Mark, I feel like you are capable of doing better on this project — how can I help?”


6. Bleeding-edge

For a while it was “cutting-edge” which was business buzzword-y enough, but somewhere along the way someone decided the term needed an upgrade to something more gruesome — bleeding-edge. It’s graphic. It’s morbid. And, it has nothing in common with creating innovative technology. But who cares, right?

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “In less than three years our startup will be on the bleeding-edge of artificial intelligence technology” try something like “In less than three years our startup will be well ahead of our competition .”


7. Drinking the Kool-aid

During the Johnstown Massacre of 1978 a religious cult leader named Jim Jones talked 909 people into “revolutionary suicide” by voluntarily drinking Kool-aid laced with cyanide — 200 of those murdered were children. Today in business it is tastelessly used to describe people following a cause blindly.

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “Are you guys seriously drinking the Kool-aid?” try something more tasteful like “I really think you guys should be more skeptical about this.”


8. Putting out some feelers

This phrase is used by business people interested in learning more but not ready to take any form of action. As a copywriter, I usually won’t respond to inquirers just “putting out some feelers.”

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “Howdy there Laura, just wanted to put out some feelers and gauge your thoughts on working with us down the road?” try something more direct like “Hi there Laura, would you be interested in working with us — we’re hiring for a new position in marketing.”


9. Human Capital

Hands down the worst term used to describe humans working for a company ever in the history of terms used to describe humans working for companies — save for perhaps a few nasty racial slurs your great grandpa has been guilty of using on more than one occasion.

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “Tabitha… Bob… do you think we have the human capital to get this product off the ground?” try something more humane like “Do you two think our team is capable of launching this product?”


10. Lots of moving parts

I’ve found business people use this phrase when they want to make their underwhelming organization, product, service or marketing plan sound more impressive than it actually is. “Lots of moving parts” is also used when managers don’t know what the hell is going on in their organization or aren’t willing to exert the energy to explain the shit storm that’s brewing.

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “I won’t delve too deeply here Samantha, there’s a lot of moving parts” try something more like… actually just don’t use it. If you can’t label all the moving parts you either have a communication problem or things are more complicated than they need to be. In fact, call a copywriter.


11. Double check

Everyone (and I mean everyone) is guilty of using this silly term. What’s funny is when we use it, normally we haven’t yet “checked” a first time. Essentially what it says is… “I haven’t checked on this yet but I want to ‘double check’ because this check is doubly important as a standard check.”

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “John — reaching out to double check on that website design” try “John — where are you at on the website design?”


12. Ducks in a row.

This was a phrase used in bowling before we had fancy schmancy machines to pick up and arrange the bowling pins for us. A bowler had to get his “ducks in a row” (or arrange his pins) before he could heave a bowling ball at them. In business we aren’t bowling nor are we birds. So, let’s retire the phrase.

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “Sorry Jennifer, let me get my ducks in a row and circle back around.” try taking ownership of your lack of preparation “Sorry Jennifer, I’m not prepared — I’ll let you know when I am.”


13. Working in silos.

A “silo” is a giant tin can on a farm that holds grain. No white collar worker would ever set up an office in one. However, we use it religiously to describe a team not communicating with one another. It seems that business individuals enjoy using the term “working in silos” more than they like finding ways to improve communication with one another.

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “Seriously guys and gals — we can’t work in silos and expect to meet this deadline” try something like “Why aren’t we communicating with one another and how can we fix it?”


14. It’s just business.

This is a phrase business individuals use to make themselves feel less guilty for acting like assholes to one another or to make themselves feel better about someone else acting like an asshole to them. When someone says “it’s just business” what they’re really doing is shrugging off responsibility for something unethical or unfair that took place or simply trying to get over it. This has less to do with communication but when you find yourself saying “it’s just business” take an extra hard look at what took place. It doesn’t have to be “just business”.

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “I feel awfully bad for firing Janice but it’s just business” try something like “I feel bad about firing Janice — I really respect the energy she brought to the workplace.”


15. Giving 110%

I’ve definitely been guilty of using this in my writing. Giving 110% is physically impossible. You can’t pour out 110% of a cup that is 100% full. Where the hell is that additional 10% coming from? People can’t give 110%. They can give 100% but not a 110%.

Non-bullshit way of saying what this business buzzword is trying to say.

Instead of “We’ve got a busy week ahead and I need all hands on deck giving 110%” try something like “It’s going to be a busy one and all of us will need to as hard as we possibly can without dying or getting divorced.”


More business buzzwords coming soon…

Alright, that’s it for now folks — after getting my ducks in a row I opened the Kimono and hit the ground running, giving you 110% — while there are a lot of moving parts in this piece hopefully I’ve empowered you to buy-in to double-checking your business buzzwords instead of drinking the Kool-Aid — together we’re really going to move the needle.

*currently cringing*

By Cole Schafer.

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