Here’s a killer: “Just to touch base and affirm our mission-focused repurposing, we’re deploying you to be a change agent who will drill down with compatible bandwidth as we go forward toward a holistic solution.”
Say what? Or, in the words of Cool Hand Luke’s prison captain, “What we have here is failure to communicate.”
Yet, there are plenty of business people who speak like that these days, using fancy buzzwords and phrases that really say nothing at all. “It makes my teeth hurt and my eyes glaze over when I hear this kind of corporate-speak,” says Martha Barnette, co-host of the KPBS radio show A Way With Words. She calls it using fifty-dollar words to express two-cent ideas. “A lot of this kind of corporate-speak often arises out of an insecurity. People think that if they use buzzwords, they will seem like they know what they are talking about,” Barnette says.
The trouble is the audience doesn’t understand what the buzzwords mean, and the message is lost. “This would be funny if it wasn’t that I really believe that it can cost businesses a lot because they don’t communicate clearly. Every time this surfaces, companies waste time and money trying to figure out what someone was saying,” she says.
Buzzwords Vs. Jargon
Every industry has its jargon, which is a kind of language different from buzzwords. Jargon often has technical definitions that make sense in a particular industry. Some of them creep into common usage. Where would we be without baseball’s “home run,” high-tech’s “software,” or accounting’s “bottom line”? Those are words everyone understands.
Buzzwords are vague, ambiguous and serve little purpose. When we cross from jargon to corporate-talk, we’re in dangerous territory. That’s when we start hearing things like “customer-centered,” “de-proliferate,” “corporate anorexia,” “prairie-dogging,” “underload syndrome” and “post-traumatic job-switcher.”
“It’s kind of like we went into business, but what we all wanted to be were secret agents coming up with buzzwords that seem to make sense but really don’t,” says Jon Warshawsky, a management consultant for Deloitte Research and co-author of the book Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide (Free Press; $22). Warshawsky is concerned that too many people slip into using a term like “rightsizing” when “layoffs” would do just fine. “Not only are people confused, but the company fails to succeed because nobody knows what is expected,” he says. “If you’re in sales, for instance, and you use buzzwords, who is going to want to buy your product?”
When executives use buzzwords, it sends a disturbing message tumbling down through the organization. Warshawsky says it authorizes other employees to follow suit and use the same words without realizing that they are meaningless. “Buzzwords don’t lead to the thoughtful discussions we need to have to make better decisions in companies,” he says. “We need to hold a mirror up to people who use them so they can see what they are doing when they use buzzwords.”
Using buzzwords isn’t harmless. Just read this verbatim transcript taken from the annual report of a corporate giant in 2000: “We treat term, price and delivery as variables that are blended into a single, comprehensive solution. Our technology and fulfillment system ensures execution. In current market environments, these abilities make Enron the right company with the right model at the right time.”
Warshawsky cringes and swears the statement was orchestrated to be deceptive. A year later Enron stumbled into bankruptcy in one of the most spectacular corporate collapses ever.