The 7 Iconic, Transparent, Empowering Business Buzzwords That Need To Die

When I started writing a blog to support my book, Talk Normal: Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle, I had an inkling that many of the words I loathed were common in the offices where I was working.

But this could be an illusion: Once we’re bothered by something, we tend to notice it more. So it could be that the business buzzwords that make me cranky are no more significant than the guy who bumps my chair when he walks past--which, on second thought, isn’t a big deal, he’s been doing it for years.

Not so, it seems.

I started to run quick statistical analyses of the published language when readers requested an investigation, and found that many idiotic, annoying, or just useless buzzwords and phrases really have infested our inboxes in the last 10 years. Some words are fun or informative. These words are not. If you find that these catchwords frequently litter your conversations or presentations, it's probably time to consult a thesaurus. 

  • "Issue"
  • When did we stop having problems and decide to have “issues” instead? The ratio of problems to issues in our magazines and newspapers show that there are about three times as many issues per problem as there were 10 years ago. Are we really so fragile? After all, if we can’t call what’s happening to the economy at the moment a “problem,” we’re setting the bar pretty high for the problems of the future.

  • "Passion" 
    The CEO of a firm emailed me to ask why all his interviewees claimed to be “passionate about marketing” these days. A quick Google check on what people are claiming to be passionate about in the last 24 hours: secured loan leads; transformation; rubbish; logistics; plankton. The recruiter’s question: “Are you passionate about...?” is now just a test to see how well we fake it. At least “passionate about plankton” would make a good T-shirt.

  • "Unique" 
    As a Brit I can be proud that HMS Unique was, confusingly, built as one of 49 identical submarines. Don’t let anyone tell you that we didn’t ruin the language first. Yet, as I write, there have been 826 press releases claiming that something is “unique” in the last seven days. Everything, we must conclude, is now special in its own exquisite way.

  • "Iconic" 
    We’re supposed to find a person or thing desirable, but we don’t know why. Iconicness seems to be a 21st-century phenomenon: Since 2000, we’re about eight times as likely to find something “iconic” in the press. Two areas in which this growth rate has been twice as fast: accountancy and solid waste. You can't make it up.

  • "Role" 
    Our parents had jobs or, if they were lucky, careers. We entertain ourselves by claiming we have roles, as if our work is a personal soap opera. During the long boom, the ratio of roles to jobs went from 10:1 to about 4:1. You will not be surprised to learn that, since 2007, this ratio has returned to pre-2001 levels.

  • "Transparency"
    Six times as popular in the business press as it was in 2002; about one in 40 press releases claim it. It’s taking over “honesty” and “integrity,” maybe because you can claim transparency without any suggestion you’re doing something that improves anyone’s life. Note: The glass industry uses “transparency” in marketing less than the average, but the audit industry uses it ten times as often. Draw your own conclusions.

  • "Empowerment" 
    Not a bad word in itself--but if I buy something from you, you are not “empowering” me. It’s a sneaky way of dodging what the wafflers call the brand promise: They didn’t say the jeans would make me a better person; their clothes just “empowered me” to lay claim to my own betterness. I get it: If my life is as crappy as it was before, it’s my fault. If it improves, all hail the denim.

Tim Phillips is a freelance journalist. He is the author of Talk Normal: Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle, Knockoff, Fit to Bust and co-author of best selling Scoring Points, all published by Kogan Page. 

[Image: Flickr user Vu Bui]

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33 Comments

  • Kathleen Much

    I'd add "new innovations"--if they are innovations, they are new.
    One I encountered yesterday in a business school article is "appropriability regime". I have NO idea what it means.

  • Loraine Antrim

    All disciplines have jargon and their own language.  Business, medicine, science or even auto repair have "in" phrases and technical language: when your car mechanic talks about a "Continuously Variable Transmission" who knows or cares what it is? But in business, this kind of obscuring  is just wrong. To cultivate customer loyalty, to motivate teams, we need plain speak spoken by intelligent people, not techno-speak mouthed by pompous CEOs and managers.  Loraine Antrim, Core Ideas Communication

  • Patricia Germelman

    Surely, you jest. A little more transparency, please. Buzzword monitoring is not your role.  But, alas, you seem to think it is and you've embraced it with unmitigated passion. Are you not the iconic leaders of the 21st Century? Once, you empowered us by leaving us the heck alone. Now we'll have to come up with more stupid words.

  • David

    A few years ago I created what I called my "MBA buzzwords" list.  It included all of the overused words that our CEO would use in his corporate-speak emails.  I combined as many as I could into these two sentences.  How does this sound?? 
     
    Kudos to the Innovation group for its multi-faceted strategic initiative in acquiring ABC Constructors, an integrated and dynamic construction company with a robust resume in the design/build arena.  This organic growth will provide a synergy to help leverage our strategic thrusts across multiple national and global platforms.

  • James Barnhart

    Interface is another word that needs to go or at least to be used correctly.  We talk to people, not interface.  Computers interface with each other. 
    And, why is the word "utilize" almost always used in place of the word "use".  I suppose that because it is a bigger word, it sounds more important? 
    I agree with all of you that there are many words and phrases that need to go, and be replaced with simple English.  Remember KISS. (Keep It Simple Stupid.)

  • Stephen Achilles

    A fun little piece that is right on the mark.  Clarity is central to good communication.  It has been my experience that clarity has suffered greatly in the last many years.  I have come to greatly appreciate a one-word or one-sentence answer to a question.  If you are trying to sell me something I expect clear direct answers.  Its amazing how much more ground we can cover with clear direct communication that does not include 'weasel' words which the ones in this article have become.

  • Christopher Jackson

    I apologize if someone already mentioned this one in the comments, but I think the biggest overuse of any word today is "Innovation" or "Innovate".

  • Martha Jane Holman

    Please add to your list: so.  Recently read an interview in Social Media magazine wherein more than half of the interviewer's questions and the interviewee's responses began with: so.

  • Bruce Till

    How about "leverage", which it seems has taken the place of the word "use"?  There's even a TV show called "Leverage".  It used to be called "Mission Impossible".

  • Bob Watkins

    The one I'm currently seeing a lot is "socialize", meaning to talk about an idea or policy before it's released upon the unsuspecting masses.  "We'd tell you what the latest re-org will be, but we're still in the process of socializing it."

  • Anthony Dina

    This is an awesome article and hilarious posts.  While living in the Tech Industry (computer manufacturer), I have encountered a few favorites of my own.  The most striking is "non-revenuable."  Yes.  Revenuable is not a word.  So putting the pre-fix to denote it's opposite becomes even more ridiculous. Why can't we just say, "we're not allowed to sell this one?"

  • Jump Start Jim Chianese

    Uhhhmmm, I was actually getting tired of hearing "Buzzword" and "Buzz" also. 
    From the sales training school of which term to use instead of contract, "agreement" is on the top of my list.
    From target marketing talk comes the demographic of "Generation" (as in generation whatever X, Y, Z)
    '"Impact" ""alignment" and "best practices" round out my list.

  • colum joyce

    Id add
    Bail out = Us Paying for being screwed
    Hair cut = Lost your money
    Retrench = Whoops
    CSR = Corporate Slimy Retching
    Banker = popular typo
    New = Old hat
    Give Responsibility = delegated the blame
    Bonus = Boned us
    Recession = depression for the rest of us
    Consumer confidence = Unicorns with cash
    Onshoring = result of washed up strategies

  • Donald

    I thought that all "issues" had become "challenges".  The organization doesn't have any problems or issues now, it has challenges that it must "meet", as if they had never met them before and didn't know who or what they were.  My favorite expression of criticism lately is "I'm not judging, I'm just saying," as in, "You really screwed that project up, but I'm not judging, I'm just saying."  It is as if I'm being "transparent" which is more politically correct than being judgmental.  On a linguistically related note, here in the South we use the expression "Bless his/her heart," to mean "What an idiot." This term is more frequently used by females in the South than males to disguise their judgment with a pretense of sympathy.  An example is "He really screwed that project up, bless his heart."  I'm not judging, I'm just saying.

    Don Osborne, Ed.D

  • Monica Hahn

    First a couple of observations on your list:
    Issue - Yes, we are so fragile. Companies are full of non-confrontational, passive agressive "leaders" who can't call a problem a problem or talk to each other honestly about what  really gets in the way of results. Those who are honest about "problems" usually only last a couple of years before moving on to the next "role."
    Role - Yeah, that's why we call them roles. Roles are short term, careers are long term. Whatever job you have today is not your career, it's just one step on that journey - or one role in the great movie of life.
    Some of the ridiculous terms I'd add:
    Learnings - See, even spell check doesn't like it. Learning is a verb, not a noun.
    Operationalize - I like this non-word, which is about figuring out how your theory or fad relates to the actual business you're in, but it's over-used & under-executed.
    Dimensionalize - Just another fancy way to say "show me the money."
    Echo Greg's mention of Synergies - a perfectly good word that got co-opted to justify paying fewer people less to do twice as much.
    The reason that buzzwords get overused is that people are trying too hard to fit someone's model of a perfectly modern manager instead of focusing their own talent & thinking on getting things done. Real leadership encourages people to bring their authentic self to the table & rewards honest discourse instead of mindless imitation.

  • Chris Reich

    I met with a couple of people from a "marketing" agency last week. The woman babbled on for 15 minutes about core competencies and result oriented activity targeting. I stopped and said, "I have no idea what in the hell you people do." The man said, "she writes press releases."  Thank you.

    She started right up with another round of babble which I cut short. I cannot foresee ever working with someone that annoying.  She sent an email as follow up with more babble in it. Do people think they sound impressive when they cloak their work in double nonsense speak?

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

    English!

  • Ravi Warrier

    I am sort of in two minds here. To an extent I agree with you. The world (driven by marketing and so-called "gurus") is seeing more and more words (either coined up in a arbitrary fashion or pulled out from the dictionary) used as jargon or business-speak. But, just because you don't like it doesn't mean your customers, employees, vendors and even your shareholders don't either.
    These are people who grew up in the same world, listening to the same marketing campaigns, the adverts, the gurus and they are used to hearing such terms and for some reason relate to it. 
    As a consultant, my customers take a slight offense when I say, "You have a problem." Because to them, a it means one or all of the following things:
    1. It's personal to them - making them sound incompetent or irrelevant
    2. I don't think it is big enough a problem. Saying that it is an issue makes people feel that I understand there are many small problems contributing to a bigger negative, which is a business issue.
    3. They start believing the problem isn't big enough. Telling a CEO that the marketing strategy has a problem, somehow implies in the CEO's mind that whatever is causing it to fail is a minor thing and can be fixed easily, readily or cheaply. While the real situation may be that his whole marketing team may be full of idiots. Now in terms of scale (where problem = small and issue = big), that is an issue.

    I have a problem with words and terms that are used to dumb up things or to be politically correct. If someone came up with a word (and I am sure there is one) to sugar-coat the term "issue" to make it sound small or inconsequential or polite, I'd stand up against it. Or the ones that blow it out of proportion falsely. Like calling a task "an initiative". That's just plain stupid.

    But most of the terms mentioned in the post and the comments are those that cannot be helped.