Blog Post

Skip the Buzzwords and Say What You Mean

Cornerstone Editors

Last month when Microsoft laid off more than12,000 employees in an email, they didn’t just commit a management faux pas (firing over email isn’t recommended), they buried the announcement in the eleventh paragraph of a jargon-filled memo. Buzzwords, office lingo and industry jargon can be irksome to employees at best and at worst can lead to company-wide communication problems. To find out how office lingo can impact a company and what professionals should use instead, we spoke with Karen Friedman, author and communications expert:

Why are buzzwords and industry jargon so pervasive even when most people will admit that they find them annoying?

Most of the time people don’t even know that they’re doing it. People make the assumption that their colleagues understand what they’re saying because they’re in the same industry and at the same company. For example, I was in a meeting with an employee who was talking about a "feed" and because I have a background in broadcast journalism, I knew he was talking about a distributed information feed. However, another employee asked what he meant and he was surprised to have to explain the term. This happens all of the time — a phrase like "feed" is specific to an industry and if you don’t have a background in that industry you’re going to wonder what the speaker is talking about. The speaker thinks that they’re being clear when in actuality they are talking in jargon.

Do you advise professionals to avoid buzzwords and industry jargon or work with them?

It’s important to know your audience. Every industry and profession has their own words and language. Lawyers talking to lawyers don’t need to explain what litigation is. My advice to my clients is to aim to be understood and make sense of information. People go into a new company or industry and they want to sound smart, like they speak the language. However, this can lead to misinterpretations of information that will cause problems down the road. Less is always more. The more overwhelming, dense and boring your presentations are, the less people will listen. Employees who truly sound smart to management are those that can communicate clearly.

How are certain buzzwords unclear and what can professionals say instead?

Terms like "win-win," "paradigm shift" and "fighting fire" have become part of a corporate lexicon, but what do they really mean to the listener? They’ve become pervasive because everybody uses them, but that doesn’t mean that they are effective or clear. For example, if I ask someone to "think outside of the box," the assumption is that I am asking them to think differently. However, I haven’t said how I want that person to think differently. Am I asking for a new design, approach or something different from the competition? Create understanding, don’t just use the words because everyone uses them.

How can a reliance on buzzwords negatively impact a company’s culture?

For company culture, clear and concise corporate communication from the top of the company down is highly important. Bad communication spreads like a virus in an organization. If the heads of the company speak in jibberish, then that becomes an acceptable part of the company culture. In a meeting, ask employees to say what they have to say in 45 seconds. With those kinds of constraints, people drop the jargon and get to what they really mean.

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