Let’s circle back to buzzwords because they’re holding you back

picture of an office

A dictionary of ways to avoid annoying readers

Early in the pandemic, many of my friends laughed when they heard their partners talk in zoom meetings for work. One friend said, “I didn’t know they were bilingual.” It turned out my friend’s partner was fluent in Management Speak. On zoom, they engaged stakeholders in paradigm-shifting dialogue to elucidate considerations for the forward-facing journey. With their family, they talked.

Linguists have a term for this: “code-switching” describes the changes you hear when a teenager turns from talking with a teacher to chat with their friends, or when a person alternates between two languages in one conversation. It’s a great skill – being able to get your point across well in different ways with different listeners. If you’re talking differently to your staff and customers than you do to other people though, you risk sounding inauthentic. 

Why not use buzzwords?

  1. They are hard to understand. They can be common words used to mean something different within the business world. “Appreciate” often means gratitude, but when a manager says they “appreciate this is a difficult time, but you need to work harder,” they are not giving thanks.
  2. Staff and customers may understand what you say, but not trust you because of how you say it. The longer the words used and the more jargon-y they are, the more negative the reaction. Readers or listeners think there’s a hidden message trying to be softened through indirect and vague wording. They can feel put down too – as though the one using the fancy words thinks they’re better than mere mortals who don’t utilize formality in dialoguing. They use the word talk. (Honestly, could we please just strike the word utilize from all documents everywhere? I made a macro in Microsoft Word to do just that. It’s very satisfying.)
  3. Buzzwords tend to be exaggerations. This Ricoh media release for printers (yes, the machines that put ink onto paper) calls them “key enablers of agility and innovation,” and well, that seems less likely to encourage sales than “they put ink on paper well”.
"Business leaders identify print as a key strategic asset for growth and innovation. ... European business leaders have identified new printing technologies as key enablers of agility and innovation." from www.ricoh-europe.com.

What words do people hate the most?

Utilize. I think I covered this above 🙂

Paradigm. Send me your sentences that you feel MUST have this word in them. I’m happy to make them simpler and less annoying.

Capacity-Building. I hear from many people they’re tired of asking for help only to be told they’re going to have their capacity built up. What does that mean? Are you teaching a skill? Say so. Are you doing something else? Please tell us what you’re doing. I’m at full-capacity for BS at the moment.

Think Outside the Box. In a 2017 survey, Workfront asked which buzzwords were most overused and this one topped the list at 47% of respondents wanting the box to please be banished. (https://www.workfront.com/sites/default/files/resource/file_pdf/2018-05/2017-2018-state-of-enterprise-work-report-u-s-edition.pdf)

Synergy. This was reported as the second most-overused word in the survey mentioned above. It’s a shame because it was a lovely word before the business world discovered it, but I see immediate eye rolls when it’s used in meetings. It also topped the list of hated buzzwords in a survey done by GetResponse (https://www.getresponse.com/blog/the-most-hated-business-jargon-corporate-buzz-words).

A Doom of Zooms

A cat with its mouth open in front of a computer screen.
my zoom companion

Like everyone, I find it hard to sit in zoom meetings all day and tend to check-out mentally, so I play mind games that keep me focused. I’m me, so they’re word games. One day, I decided to write down all the buzzwords used in my zooms. First I had a team meeting, and except for me saying I’d “touch base” with them later that week, everyone spoke in plain English the whole hour. I was oddly disappointed.

Luckily … I had a management meeting next! It wasn’t even called a meeting! It was a Huddle. I carefully wrote “huddle” at the top of my page. I need not have been so tidy because the next hour was a riot of sloppy handwriting as I tried to keep up with the deliverables, alignment and leveraging points. Whew!

Why does this happen? The people I work with are doing great work in a friendly environment. It’s not a competitive place where people need to ‘signal’ their superiority by using the jargon of the day. I think it’s a mixture of habit and fear. Fear of having hard conversations.

On a town hall zoom in my community, I paid attention to the function of the buzzwords used and found most of them were roundabout ways of saying, “I don’t know,” or “I disagree.”

Q: “When will this project be finished?”

A: “We’re thinking outside the box to find synergy with our external partners for capacity-building.”


How can I change?

Pretend you’re talking to your family or friends. If they asked you, “What are you hoping to tell people at today’s meeting?” What would your answer be? Use those words. (Except maybe the sarcastic or swear words that slip into your personal conversations … a little code-switching to basic politeness is always welcome).

Show your written work to someone outside your usual circle at work, or better yet to someone you hope would be a reader – a customer, client or random member of the public. Say, “Please tell me how this looks to you. Is it understandable? How do you feel reading it?”

Practice kind, direct ways to say hard things. Practice saying, “I don’t know,” and “I disagree.”


My shaded face looks back at me from the zoom screen with the start of a scream invisible to others.

“While I appreciate all players aren’t on the same page, we need to circle back to our core strategy with stakeholder engagement informing our paradigm.”

As toddlers learn to talk, they use the same word for asking, telling, and protesting. Understanding is noticing which it is.

She said, “I don’t know what that means.”

Women are taught to take up as little space as possible. Living out loud is dangerous.

It is easy to say, “I disagree.”

This is a poem I wrote for a writing class exercise with instructions for each line. The last line is a lie.

What jargon do you love to hate?

6 thoughts on “Let’s circle back to buzzwords because they’re holding you back

      1. We’re fine, but covid cases are suddenly on the rise here after being very, very low locally. As the weather turns, the lovely porch visits that got me through the summer will need to end. Lots to be grateful for still – home, job, healthy kids – so we’ll be fine, just need to find new ways to take the edge off the uncertainty and worry. Laughing at corporate buzzwords is good for that 🙂

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