If you want people to feel connected to and empathize with you, you have to use language they like, understand and use themselves. That's Communication 101. Still, sometimes we err in the wrong direction--everybody starts using the same buzzwords or buzzphrases until the room feels like a party where all the ladies keep walking in wearing the same dress. And this year, there's an overwhelming winner in the Can't-Stand-This-Buzzword-Anymore contest.

A new report from cloud-based enterprise management company Workfront revealed the top nine buzzwords and buzzphrases most of us would like to bury in a landfill. The phrase "think outside the box" spurred loathing more than all the others by double digits. Roughly 47 percent of survey respondents stated this was the most overused phrase, with the next-nearest competitors--synergy and bandwidth--tying for second place with 18 percent.

If buzzwords stink, why do we keep coming back to them?

André Spicer, author and professor of organizational behavior at Cass Business School, City University of London, says the use of buzzwords serves very specific social purposes.

"Jargon is often used for what economists call 'signaling' in the workplace. Expensive packaging for products sends a signal that what is inside is high quality. The latest business buzzwords are supposed to send a signal that the person using them is an up to date expert. Using buzzwords can make you look like you are an expert in an area you are not. It is easier to copy the language than to understand the deep knowledge behind it. Also we want to appear up appear as if we are up to date. By using the latest buzzwords, we [show] that we are 'keeping up' - even thought our practices may not have changed. They can also signal you are part of the tribe. If everyone else is talking about 'thinking outside the box', then using that phrase shows that you fit in.

"The problem is that general business jargon often covers up a lack of underlying knowledge about a particular issue. It is a way people can sound like they have nouse while simultaneously remaining vague and noncommittal."

How to leave the jargon behind

So then the question becomes, how can you wiggle into the group and sound like you're halfway competent and informed without diving into a pit of cliché? Spicer offers four critical tips:

1. Get specific. Instead of using general phrases like 'think outside the box', try to specify what kind of creative thinking or how that might actually happen. For instance, you could encourage people to introduce new elements into thinking by saying 'let's come up with an idea which adds one new element we have not heard of yet'. Or you could encourage people to be creative by constraining them. You might say 'Let's come up with a solution which does x, y and z using the these five resources'. 

2. Ask "What does that mean?" When someone tells you that we need 'synergy' ask them to describe in everyday language what they specifically mean in this context. This will help to make the problem much more tractable, everyone will understand what you are talking about and also you are less likely to reach for general off the shelf ideas. If you want to be particularly brutal you can do a 'grandmother test' -- would your grandmother understand what you are talking about? 

3. Ask for the evidence. When people start talking about the importance of creating bandwidth ask what evidence we have that this is important. This will stop people and get them to think about whether they are using fancy words for the sake of them.

4. Ask for the logic. If people are talking about 'running it up the flagpole' then you could ask "Why?" Getting people to consider precisely the logic of how something would work often gets them to make better and more thought through decisions, as well as to be a bit less certain in their own knowledge and expertise (particularly in areas where they are not experts)."

For the record, there's nothing wrong with wanting to be an insider or wanting others to see you in a positive light. That's just human. But if you lean on the same phrases over and over, you might not really help others understand who you are or the depth and rationale behind your ideas. And as the Workfront survey shows, people do notice when you're parroting, and doing it too much puts them off. The ambiguity and vagueness can strangle productivity, too. None of this does anything to foster innovation. So be brave enough to leave the path of least resistance. Practice speaking alone and with friends, family and coworkers with the objective of allowing anyone follow your thoughts, regardless of their background or industry. The more you can do that, conversing with focused simplicity, the more you truly can lead and pull together all the people you need to bring fantastic concepts to fruition.

Published on: Jul 17, 2018
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