Drilling Down Into Boiled Oceans: The Real Problem With Business Buzzwords

“Going forward! Over the wall! Reach out! Leverage! Opening the kimono!” Yeah, we know.

Drilling Down Into Boiled Oceans: The Real Problem With Business Buzzwords

In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell shows how loose language masks stupid thinking. To make his point, the author translates a passage from Ecclesiastes from good to modern English. Let’s review.


The old and beautiful:

  • “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

And the modern and ugly:

  • “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

Does Orwell’s lesson remind you of a learnings you’ve recently had? If so, your boss may be battering your ears with management-speak.

Why is this jargon-knotted language so dangerous? As Guardian writer Steven Poole observes, buzzwords deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations. So let’s get to the detangling.

Why do we leverage when we could use?

Because, as Orwell notes, vague, unconsidered writing and speaking is easy. The human default to ease is inborn and barely noticed, as Daniel Kahneman notes in Thinking, Fast and Slow: We take the nice-feeling, low transaction cost of cognitive ease to sign that we’re doing quite well–and we’ll continue on our merry, ignorant way unless we examine it.

An example: When you say you’re going to “drill down” a project, you don’t need to go through the messy mindwork of considering the details that you’re detailing. It’s vocabulary as Snapchat: quick, easy, disposable.


Sunsetting corporate speak

Poole’s piece reflects British office life–and if television has taught us anything, it’s well worth investigating its American analog.

And so let us get to three of the worst offenders:

Stakeholders: Poole notes that the “plump with cheaply bought respect” term came in from British New Labour politics, transforming stakeholders from vampire slayers to a people with financial interests in a project. And as business analyst Emma Sheldrick observes, when they say “manage our stakeholders,” they really mean “placate the people who are asking the intelligent questions about why something is being done.”

Sunset: Though less severe than when Orwell noted that when
setting huts on fire with incendiary bullets is pacification, sunset is of a similar retch-worthy euphemism: To say that you’re “sunsetting a task” is gentler than “killing” or “canceling” it–though the project perishes regardless of the verbiage.

Leverage: Poole diagnoses that “to leverage” is no more than “to use” or “to exploit,” yet for some reason we are compelled to leverage this unfortunate import from high finance. It’s blurry, opaque imagery waiting to happen, as the author illustrates:

  • Give me a place to stand and I will move the world, said Archimedes. He didn’t say he would leverage the deliverables matrix.

What’s your most-hated form of corporate jargon-speak? Don’t sunset your frustrations–leverage our comments section!

10 of the worst examples of management-speak

[Image: Flickr user Dwayne Bent]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.