Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley once told me that 90 percent of his job was trying to communicate. That's the case for many business leaders who spend a lot of energy  figuring out how to communicate in a way that gets people tuning in, rather than tuning out.

Overusing business jargon and buzzwords defeats any of that effort. It undermines your credibility as a leader, makes you sound like a mouthpiece spouting off the equivalent of business advice from a billboard, and just plain makes people not like you.

I was in corporate long enough to know the buzzwords and jargon that drove lots of people crazy.

Here are the top 11 examples as I see it, ranked from the least offensive (relatively speaking) to the most. I offer alternatives to each so that people don't have to fight back the gag reflex when they hear you say these things.

11. "Paradigm shift."

People who say this are trying to over dramatize what is actually shifting and are just trying to sound smart.

An alternative: "It's a big change." Short. Simple. Sweet. People will focus on the size and impact of the change you're communicating, not the size of the words you're using.

10. "Best practice."

Bleech. So overused. It's like assigning an unnecessary label to common sense. It's making what's simply the smart thing to do sound clinical and likely more measured and recorded than it really is.

An alternative: "What's proved to work." This sounds so much more compelling and so much less bloated. Who wouldn't want to follow proof?

9. "Work smarter, not harder."

Seriously? You might as well say "You're wasting your time with the way you're working now." You can't help but raise hackles here. Try it. Go tell someone, anyone, they need to "work smarter, not harder" and see if, even once, you aren't met with a clenched jaw. And how exactly does one work smarter, anyway?

An alternative: "Work more efficiently." At least I have an idea of what it is you want me to do here--learn some productivity hacks, stop surfing the web at work, pop in headphones. You get the idea.

8. "Think outside the box."

This just smacks of laziness because this has been such an overused phrase for so long. When people say this I can't help but think, "That's ironic because you're demonstrating right now that you need to think out of the box with the language you use." It has become a throw-away term for people who want you to think differently just for the sake of being different.

An alternative: "Consider non-traditional solutions." This establishes the contrast you're looking for--you don't want people thinking in terms of what's typically done, because the norm won't work.

7. "Raising the bar."

My experience with this term has been leaders generically demanding we raise the bar to an unspecified level that's a lot higher than today, and that's completely unrealistic.

An alternative: "Up our standards." I especially like the use of the word "standards" here because it implies that if you don't go above and beyond, you're OK with mediocre, the run-of-the-mill.

6. "Core competency."

Just, no.

An alternative: "Key strength."

5. "Touch base."

Where did this phrase even come from? It's the definition of a buzzword because it adds nothing over the zillion alternatives you could use. I suppose it's meant to indicate a casualness to communication--it's like an alternative to scheduling a meeting. I'd rather just schedule a meeting--it's more definitive and directive.

An alternative: "Let's communicate." Period.

4. "At the end of the day."

I always want to say right afterward, "It's night." 

An alternative: "What matters is ..." This gets right to the point and makes it much more easily understood that what follows this phrase is the most important thing.

3. "Give 110 percent."

This one says that you don't understand math (because you can give ONLY 100 percent,) and that you aren't ambitious. Why just 10 percent more? Why not ask them to "double-down"?

An alternative: "Dig deep, do your best."

2. "Synergy."

Huh? This is the one on the list that many people might hate just because they don't know what it means. By the way, it means a combined effect. Guess what the alternative to this word is?

An alternative: Combined effect.

1. "Stepping back."

This one is usually said by someone trying to prove they're more strategic than everyone else and that they're going to come down from the mountain to bring sanity to a clouded, misguided meeting. Give me a break.

An alternative: "If I could share a different perspective."

So tell these buzzwords to buzz off, before someone tells you to.

Published on: Sep 6, 2019
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