Is it time to buck the buzzword trend?
Deconstructing offending words and phrases makes them easier to eliminate. Illustration: Matt Davidson
Blue-sky thinking, paradigm shifts and low-hanging fruit – the modern workplace overfloweth with irritating jargon and impenetrable management speak. But there are benefits for those brave enough to give them a swerve.
An emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Queensland, Roly Sussex, says there can be cachet associated with being known for calling a spade a spade, rather than a long-handled digging implement.
“Plain English tends to be followed by people with confidence they can buck the trend, who don't like brouhaha,” he says.
“Some people at the tops of their professions are straight talking, like Ian Frazer [developer of the Gardasil vaccine for cervical cancer]. People are impressed with that. You don't have to strip away the flimflam.”
Conversely, less self-assured types believe there's some prestige attached to having conversations liberally littered with impressive sounding but empty phrases and fear appearing out of date if they're not spouting the latest jargon.
“It has a kind of insidious attraction if some of the image leaders are using it,” Sussex says. “In socio-linguistics it's known as 'prestige models' – about [copying] those whose properties we want to acquire. People use it at seminars and things and it sucks people in.”
Marketing and human resources folk are among the worst offenders in the waffle stakes, Sussex believes, while communications specialist Kieran Moore, the head of Ogilvy Public Relations, singles out the IT industry for dishonourable mention.
Management buzzwords are employed as a cover by those who don't know what they're talking about or are too lazy to explain it properly, Moore believes, and they do little for the user's reputation, among thinking types at least.
“It may impress the sort of people who are also impressed by ageing men with toupees and shiny red sports cars,” Moore says. “It makes almost everyone else cringe – especially people who know your industry.
"The key to successful communication is connecting with people … Big words and technical terms can stop that connection because people either don't understand what you're saying or perceive you as trying too hard.”
But going too straight can also have its perils, warns Sussex, particularly in sectors where style is valued as highly as substance. Get your facts wrong and you risk being seen as a bumbler or red neck; not qualities that will send you shooting up the corporate food chain.
“The danger is in coming out as uniformed or dangerous,” Sussex says. “You have to be head and shoulders above others to get away with it, especially in areas that rely a lot on image.”
For those who want to clean up their language, conducting a mental search-and-replace process can help. Deconstructing the offending words and phrases makes them easier to eliminate.
“Why say 'going forward' when you can say 'in the future'?” Moore says. “If your product is supposed to be an 'enhanced user experience', drop that phrase and tell people just how the product is better. Ask yourself if you know what 'paradigm shift' means and if 'different direction' or 'changed perspective' might have you sounding more like a normal person.”
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
The lexicon of management speak is continually evolving as new terms enjoy their moment in the sun, and on the lips. Executive Style has collected a sample of our favourite eye rollers of the moment:
Looking at something at a granular level – also known as examining the details. It's important to decide just how granular you want a report or document to be: coarse grained means you're focusing on the big picture, while fine grained sees you delving into the nitty gritty.
Pain points – Ouch! These are problems or issues pressing enough that people feel compelled to seek a solution to them. If you're hawking a product or service, it's highly desirable that it addresses a major customer "pain point".
Reaching out – the relentless growth of LinkedIn has seen this expression go viral, evangelistic overtones and all. Back in the day you just contacted people but that can sound a little cold in the social media era, where relentless "sharing" and "connecting" are the order of the day.
"Engaging with" people – a sequel to "reaching out", this is the skill formerly known as communicating.
Thought leadership – practitioners of this art, usually self-styled, are ideas people who share their clever notions with others in opinion pieces or blogs.
Taking a deep dive – a fancy way of saying you're having an in-depth look at something.
Quick wins – nothing to do with ducking into the TAB and putting $5 on a promising outlier. Quick wins are results that look good but can be achieved fast and with minimal effort – useful for keeping people enthused about longer-term projects.
Guilty of uttering the odd bit of management mumbo jumbo – or work with someone who does? Share some of the lingo being bandied around your office.