At a former job, Rachel Wright and a co-worker secretly would play a game during staff meetings, where they'd furtively check off “due diligence,” “impactful” and other words their boss frequently used.
After the meeting, they'd laughingly compare notes. Whoever caught the most buzzwords won; loser bought happy hour.
“I was so distracted by the words, I missed the actual message,” Wright said. “And versus looking intelligent, my boss looked like a robot.”
A recent poll of 960 executives by London-based Financial Times Publishing found senior managers on average use corporate buzzwords five times a day, whether in conversations, emails or presentations. Yet, fewer than 10 percent understand their actual definitions.
Terms such as “future-proofing,” “core competency” and “leverage” stumped all but a quarter of respondents. And fewer than half knew the definition of “paradigm shift” or the difference between “strategy,” or the what, and “tactics,” the how.
How many is too many?
Davide Sola and Jerome Couturier, professors at ESCP Europe — the world's oldest business school — conducted the survey to mark the publication of their new business guide, “How to Think Strategically: Your Roadmap to Innovation and Results.”
In a phone interview with The Oklahoman this week, Sola said business buzzwords can cost companies millions a year as stakeholders may misunderstand objectives and take longer to complete projects or tasks.
“The least damaging,” he said, “is not knowing the meaning. Worse is five different definitions, and such misalignment can occur in the same office.”
Among managers surveyed, only 9 percent were able to match a list of 10 buzzwords with their correct meanings. Still, buzzwords are commonly used, according to poll results, “to cement authority,” 53 percent; “look professional or intelligent,” 26 percent; “because colleagues expect it,” 15 percent; or managers simply “felt it was necessary,” 6 percent.
Sola urges professionals, if they're not using a glossary, to “speak as you eat,” and use words that are “easily digestible.”
Oklahoma City business coaches Mike Crandall and Tim Hast agree.
“Almost every client we've worked with to improve sales has too many buzzwords or acronyms,” said Crandall of Sandler Training. “The single greatest danger in using them is making clients, prospective clients or others feel not OK. When someone uses words we don't understand, we don't feel OK, which causes a tremendous psychological disconnect often leading to lost business.”
Hast advises clients to “lead with your most important thought, and don't use vague words or try to impress others with big words. The problem with buzzwords is that they very quickly become clichés,” Hast said, “and cliches are like polyester suits and white belts; they make us seem jaded and trite.”
Mike Joseph, an attorney with McAfee & Taft, maintains a list of drafting principles to give younger lawyers whom he asks to write contracts, briefs or memos. Rule No. 74 of the document is to avoid multiple terms and phrases, from apples to apples, bandwidth and “get on the same page” to proactive, synergy and win-win.
Oklahoma City human resources consultant Gayla Sherry says buzzwords especially are an impediment to younger workers.
“Most don't want the jargon,” Sherry said, “and prefer managers to get directly to the point and then move on.”
10 most used but misunderstood buzzwords: