I Just Work Here
May 20, 2013
I was dynamically engaging one of my fellow content marketers in the company brainstorming arena the other day, when I came up with a win-win value proposition for in-house onboarding of new talent to help us velocitize our organic campaigns. It's really a multichannel game-changer!
There's a good chance that paragraph made sense to some people. There's an even better chance that you wouldn't want to hang out with those people at parties.
Welcome to the world of workplace buzzwords.
Despite having a perfectly good and well-tested English language, corporate America continually cranks out new words and phrases, or applies existing words in new ways: consumerization, hyper-connectivity, value-added, leverage.
For some, these terms become part of the lexicon, a way of sounding important or, at the very least, in-the-know. But for others, they serve only to obfuscate.
Every day I get workplace-related press releases containing phrases like "quantifying the variables of trust" and "sub-optimize your vision and business plan." First off, why would I EVER want to sub-optimize my vision plan, and moreover, what in the heck are you talking about?
Bryan Garner, author of "Garner's Modern American Usage" and president of LawProse Inc., said there's an allure to concocting business terms.
"There aren't that many new ideas under the sun," he said. "People want to seem to be on the cutting edge — to use one of those buzzwords. There's this desire to be the first person in your own realm, in your own backwater, to bring these ideas to the fore. Sometimes it's something like 'total quality management.' If you could be the first one to know these techniques in your city or region, you then seemed to know something others didn't."
Ben Benjamin, co-author of the book "Conversation Transformation," said it's not unreasonable for people working in specialized groups to come up with shortcut terms. The problem is when those terms spread beyond the group.
"When you start using those words outside the group, people don't know what the heck you're talking about," Benjamin said. "It sort of cuts people out. Then when something becomes a buzzword, you tend to lose the deeper meaning of things. You lose the essence of what you're trying to do."
In a March blog post for the Harvard Business Review, Garner wrote: "Bizspeak may seem like a convenient shorthand, but it suggests to readers that you're on autopilot, thoughtlessly using boilerplate phrases that they've heard over and over. Brief, readable documents, by contrast, show care and thought — and earn people's attention."
That's the rub. In a working world where communication is lightning fast, we need to jettison unclear language. And let me assure you, terms like "rightsizing," "core competency" and "operationalize" are highly unclear.
"Even though I know some very technological things, whenever I talk I use simple terms so anyone who's listening to me can really understand," Benjamin said. "You might think you sound impressive saying, 'Let's leverage the low-hanging fruit.' But don't you just mean, 'Let's take the opportunities that are there for us?' "
This isn't to say all buzzwords are bad.
Garner said he considers the term "repurposing" appropriate, given that we live in an age when people can get the same information in many forms. For example, you might be reading this column in a newspaper, then someone else might cite the column in a blog post, and I might send a tidbit from the column out in a tweet that gets read on a mobile device in the bathroom.
Though I do not condone reading my column in the bathroom, that's repurposing what I've written. And there are certainly other examples of new terms that are applicable and necessary.
But if you find yourself relying on vague buzzwords and catchphrases, you might be what Garner calls an anxious communicator. These bits of nonsense act as crutches.
He cited George Orwell, who once wrote: "(M)odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug."
This applies to speaking as well. How many times have you heard someone spit buzzwords like watermelon seeds? It sounds, if I may get Shakespearean, like "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
So let's get smart about how we communicate. Buzzword proliferation is making communication harder, and companies should demand clear language.
"I wouldn't disapprove if a company said, 'We ban the phrase 'think outside the box,' " Garner said. "Don't use that phrase in one of our meetings or in any memo. And you could think of many other terms. It's a matter of encouraging better linguistic habits and encouraging people to think freshly and not just to spout cliches. That's a laudable goal."
And it's one that companies would be wise to consider, lest we be further overrun by people who talk at length while making no sense at all.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at email@example.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC