For years, my main compliant about corporate-speak (aka biz-blab) is that it adds verbiage but little value. However, after interviewing hundreds of executives, I've noticed that the quantity of biz-blab is inversely proportionate to the quality of thinking.

I originally thought this was because fuzzy minds were using fuzzy words to express their fuzzy thoughts. Today, however, I believe it's the other way around. As fuzzy words penetrate the mental vocabulary, they make people less intelligent.

How Words Change Your Brain

As I pointed out in "Train Your Brain to Think More Clearly", according to the latest neuroscience, the human brain uses neurons in the left visual cortex to process written words as whole word units. The brain combines these words and their stored meanings to remember and understand information.

Analytical thinking (crucial in good decision-making) is the process of remembering words and putting their meanings into context. This process is not simply accessing a mental dictionary. Every time you use words, you re-create their meaning.

The words you habitually use when you're thinking (and then expressing those thoughts) mold how you see the world. For example, people who habitually think (and speak and write) the word "hate" tend to find an ever-increasing number of things to hate.

This relationship between word usage and perception is hugely important in business. When you train yourself to speak and write using clearly defined words arranged into concise sentences, you're training your brain to think more clearly.

More important, when you write and speak more clearly, you increase your positive influence on your team. Due to their mirror neurons, they'll begin to imitate your clarity in their own thought processes. Clarity is contagious.

Conversely, if you habitually use fuzzy, ill-defined words crammed into long and convoluted sentences, you're training your brain-and the brains of your team members-to think less clearly. Confusion is also contagious.

Indeed, I've seen entire organizations full of otherwise intelligent people who can't take rational action because they've lost the ability to think clearly. They've contracted a mental disease that makes them stupid both individually and organizationally.

At the end of the post, I explain how I've learned to avoid the infection and help cure those around me. Before doing so, I'll deconstruct five common business buzzwords to show the connection between their fuzzy definitions and the fuzzy thinking they encourage:

1. "Leverage"

A lever is a mechanical device that transforms a small amount of effort into a larger effect. In business, the term was originally used for situations where a small amount of money is used to capture control of a larger amount of money (i.e. a "leveraged" buyout.)

In corporate speak, the use of "leverage" (as a fancy way to say "use") carries the implication that the effort involved is very precise and that the person taking action is cleverly using minimal resources to create the maximum effect.

Since this is seldom the case, the use of the word makes the action described seem efficient and well-advised when in reality it may be the opposite. The word "leverage" creates a patina of wisdom that discourages skepticism.

2. "Impact"

An impact is a thing that happens when one object strikes another, like a meteor hitting the earth, thereby creating an "impact crater." The term also has a special use in dentistry, as in an "impacted molar."

At some point, the word slipped into corporate-speak replacing the verb "affect" and the noun "effect." Thus, a market campaign "impacts the market" rather than "affects the market" thereby having a "market impact" rather than "an effect on the market."

The word "impact" sounds much more impressive than "affect/effect" which is why it's deceptive. It implies that the activity involved is of Jovian potency, like a lightning bolt hurled from Olympus, blasting all opposition into helter-skelter oblivion.

As such, "impact" makes everything--even the laughably trivial--sound as if it's vitally important when, in reality, it's essential (in business and elsewhere) to differentiate clearly between actions that are "effect"-ive and those that are in-"effect"-ive.

3. "Empower"

Unlike the previous two terms, "empower" is a coined phrase that's original to corporate-speak. The term is usually applied to employees and, less frequently, to customers who are being "given power" to do something.

The problem with "empower" is that it's a concept that sounds good but is vague to the point of meaninglessness. If you "empower" somebody does it mean you've given them authority to make decisions? If so, which decisions?

By contrast, the more precise term "delegate" means you've given the employee both authority to make decisions in order to accomplish a specific task as well as responsibility for getting that specific task done.

The term "empower" thus becomes a way for a manager to feel as if he's doing something beneficial ("empowering our employees") when in fact he's actually clinging to his own own authority while pushing responsibility downwards.

Used unthinkingly, this kind of high-minded rhetoric creates the impression of decision-making, thereby allowing the manager to scamp the difficult intellectual job of prioritizing and the even more difficult emotional job of giving up control.

4. "Disruptive"

This term entered the corporate-speak lexicon as a way of describing innovations that appear change the nature of the market. Uber, for example, might be characterized as "disruptive innovation" that's changing the taxi and limousine business.

The problem with the concept is that there's never one point where this supposed disruption has actually taken place therefore no single company or organization that's responsible for the actual "disruption."

For example, the smartphone is frequently characterized as a disruptive technology. However, did the disruption take place with the introduction of the iPhone? The Blackberry? The Pocket Computer? The Cell Phone?

Far from being a single event of disruptive innovation, the smartphone is a collection of technologies that all existed previously and a long series of incremental improvements that played themselves out over decades.

That being so, identifying the smartphone as "disruptive" adds no value to the discussion over how the product was introduced and became popular. On the contrary, the term draws your attention away from actually happened.

In exactly the same way, characterizing what you're doing as "disruptive" encourages lazy thinking. Why bother thinking about or working with existing technology and current competitors if they're destined to be "disrupted?"

Similarly, worrying about "disruptive" technologies can blind executives to opportunities that emerge from current business. Consider: Intel is making essentially the same product it's made for 40 years.

5. "Synergy"

Thirty years ago, "synergy" was just a cool word to use when playing hangman (although not as good as "syzygy"). Then it started popping up everywhere, usually to describe the reason behind a merger, acquisition or (more rarely) a partnership.

The implication of "synergy" is that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts, that the two companies together will be better able to address customer needs than they are separately.

However, this is seldom the case. In the real world, mergers and acquisitions are risky and messy. The more diverse the two companies involved, the greater the risk and the bigger the mess.

Constantly, invoking the term "synergy" allows executive to fool themselves, their customers and their investors into thinking that an ill-considered acquisition makes strategic sense, despite all evidence to the contrary.

How to Prevent and Cure Biz-Blab

Now that you understand that corporate-speak is an infection, your challenge is to prevent it from infecting your brain, as well as helping others to overcome the disease.

To do this, use the technique called "pin the Jell-O to the wall." Whenever you hear a buzzword, ask a question that forces clearer thinking.

Example:

  • Marketer: "This campaign is designed to impact sales."
  • You: "What exactly do you mean by 'impact?' Do you mean increase sales? If so, by how much and over what period of time?"

Example:

  • Consultant: "We can leverage our customer base."
  • You: "I'm not sure what you mean by 'leverage.' Is there some small action that we're going to take that will have outsized results? If so, what is that action, specifically?"

Example:

  • Analyst: "We believe this market is ripe for disruption."
  • You: "What constitutes 'disruptive' in this context? Do you mean that new products will have a much lower price? If so, how much lower? And over what period of time?"

Asking these questions with a genuine desire to understand (and without snark) will help the other person to clarify his or her own thoughts... to your mutual benefit.

The technique is also a method of self-improvement. Pinning your own Jell-O to the wall as you write and speak gradually cures you of any infections you've picked up at work.

Published on: Jan 19, 2016