KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A news release announces a “differentiated value proposition.”
A consultant offers to share her “key learnings.”
A business trumpets its “executives’ core competencies: the ability to scale businesses and improve execution.”
Communication leads the list of most wanted skills in business, but communication is falling way short. We are awash in a world of buzzwords, jargon, and nouns turned into verbs.
We incentivize, synergize, actualize, globalize, operationalize, utilize and — even this — bucketize.
We pluck low-hanging fruit, promise deliverables and proclaim a new paradigm.
“If you use words like that, you’re not thinking about the reader or the listener. You’re thinking about yourself or your boss,” said Annetta Cheek, board chairman of the Center for Plain Language, a national nonprofit group formed to promote clearer communication in business and government.
Cheek would like to see contracts, product instructions, regulations and laws written in clear, concise language that most people can understand. But that’s a wish, not reality.
And that worries Tracy Russo, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, who regularly battles fuzzy words and convoluted phrases.
“We miscommunicate when we use a term that has a specific meaning to us but means something different to someone else,” Russo said. “And many words can convey a range of meaning.”
“Empowerment” is used widely in company mission statements to convey the notion that workers have the right or ability to make decisions and do their work without extensive direction. In practice, management can think it means one thing, while employees see it something entirely different.
“Innovation” is claimed by many organizations. In some cases, it truly describes having the newest discovery. In others, it’s just another way to say they’re keeping up with product or social changes.
Even “ASAP” can have different interpretations. In some places, it means to drop everything and do it immediately. In others, it means to do it as soon as it fits in with everything else on one’s plate.
In any organization, any industry or profession, there’s always a learning curve to figure out exactly what words or phrases mean.
“If you’re new to an environment, you’ll soon adopt the practices of people around you,” said John Murphy, who founded the online MBAJargonWatch site after he was exposed to rounds of buzzwords, first in business school and later in an online business startup. “You want to feel like you belong. You want to use the terms they use.”
And that’s a point that most wordsmiths make: Jargon isn’t necessarily bad.
“Good jargon is used within a specific group when it helps members of the group communicate more efficiently,” Cheek said. “When everybody in the group knows exactly what the word or phrase stands for, they don’t have to use larger groups of words to explain it to each other. It’s like a secret language that insiders understand.”
But she warns, “When it’s used outside the group, others don’t know what you’re talking about. … Good jargon becomes bad jargon when it’s used outside the insider circle.”
Murphy gives a simple example. The word “ecosystem,” he said, is a perfectly good word that describes a complex topic. He’d certainly never give a scientist a hard time for using it.
But effective use depends on the scientist’s audience. If listeners or readers aren’t clear on what an ecosystem is, some of the message may be lost. So it may be a necessary step to define the word.
Dan Pallotta, an expert in nonprofit fundraising and marketing, emphasized that the nonprofit industry is as rife with buzzwords as business and government. He particularly rebels when he is in meetings awash in a sea of abbreviations.
He said he’s been in meetings where the abbreviations, used frequently by staff members of a charity — and central to the topic at hand — meant absolutely nothing to him, so he had no idea what was going on.
“Could have been talking about how to make a beurre blanc sauce for all I know,” Pallotta blogged.
Taking the time to define a term is a relatively easy solution. What’s hard is not using some terms in the first place.
Plain-language advocates see no reason to use “core competencies” when “what we do best” would be so straightforward.
And why make people try to figure out what exactly is a “differentiated value proposition”?
Murphy and Cheek think people use phrases like that when they’re trying to be impressive, but it’s a misguided tactic.
“It doesn’t impress,” Cheek said flatly. “Buzzwords are like Hula-Hoops. They’re fads. They don’t show off anyone’s expertise.”
FRESH OFFICE PHRASES TAKE ROOT:
Some buzzwords are too sticky to shake off. Some are too clever to want to lose them — at least not right away.
The recession and Dilbert-style office “cube farms” have spawned some truly clever terms, some of which might have staying power.
One that could last is “mancession,” coined to characterize the higher-percentage job loss among men than women, though the recent tide of public-sector layoffs now seems to be taking a toll on women.
Also likely to survive long-term is “staycation,” a vacation when you don’t go anywhere. The outlook is murkier for “furcation” and “fakation,” irreverent references to time off because of a furlough.
“Permatemping” has definitely entered the vernacular. It describes workers who move from temp job to temp job without landing a “job-job” — a full-time position, with benefits.
Some applicants aren’t getting job-jobs because they have “jobstoppers” such as tattoos, piercings, green hair or other reasons some employers disqualify them from consideration.
Many job hunters become “frugalistas,” or careful spenders. If they’re not, they may have a “moneymoon,” a period of happiness after buying something before remorse sets in.
The workplace continues to be a rich lode for words and phrases that communicate in a fun and descriptive way — once you’ve been clued in to their meaning.
Some favorites from the office:
—Prairie-dogging: When heads pop up over cubicle walls.
—Bobbleheading: When employees’ heads nod when the boss talks.
—Blamestorming: When something goes wrong and a scapegoat is sought.
—Clockroaches: Employees who watch the clock.
—Plutoed: When a project or person is lowered in status.