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Why We Must Suffer Bad Business Jargon

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Why We Must Suffer Bad Business Jargon

I try to end each year on a positive note, so it was with some chagrin that I accepted my last interview request for 2009, to speak with David Schepp at Daily Finance about “The Decade’s Worst New Business Terms.”

As we chatted, I identified six kinds of business buzzwords I would jettison as we start the New Year:

1. Muscle spasms: Some business terms become so overused, that they crop up in speech with no purpose, like the twitch of a Tourette’s patient. (Listen in your next meeting for the chirpings of “think outside the box,” “no brainer,” or “win-win.”)

2. Disastrous ideas: These words will forever stink of the economic ruin brought on by their brave new business concepts. (Think of “synergy” and the whiff of AOL-Time-Warner’s merger, or “leverage” and our decade’s mortgage mess.)

3. Invented synonyms: Too often we think old words are best replaced by shiny new ones that mean the exact same thing. Why should we talk, when we can “dialogue”? Why look for the lesson when you can ask for the “takeaway”?

4. Definition creep: Some words start out with a specific meaning, but then are stretched to apply to every possible scenario. (Thus “ROI” came to mean not just a specific metric of financial return, but the impact of any initiative that you desperately wish could be measured in dollars and cents.)

5. Cure-alls: Other words never get defined, so they come to mean all the things to all people, a panacea to all our business problems. (Listen for the word “engagement” burbling up in any room full of advertising people.)


6. Grammatical abominations: These verbal sins earn a spot in the lowest circle of buzzword Hell. Anyone using the term “value add” (“Boy, that was a real value add!”) must explain why it should be a noun in the English language before they can escape from Purgatory.

Why do we suffer such terrible verbiage in business, though?

Doctors, engineers, and sanitation workers, all have their own terms of art that seem opaque and inscrutable to the outside world (e.g. “Malpighian corpuscles”). But while their jargon is wordy or inelegant, it usually serves some purpose (e.g. to describe a part of your spleen).

By contrast, buzzwords are a much greater plague on the business community than on any other professional class – proliferating wildly, and suffocating clear communication.

My theory for the reason why is this:

We suffer from a misguided desire for all of business practice to be scientific, when in fact much of it is an interpretive art, or simply a craft based on learned wisdom, practice and experience.

At the same time, we businesspeople have an unceasing desire for the next new thing, the big new idea.

Yet, unlike truly scientific disciplines (anatomy, mathematics, physics), there is no mechanism for enforcing that a new term in business must have an agreed meaning and contribute a genuinely new concept before it can enter the parlance of the trade. (By comparison, a physicist may assert that stars are made out of “string-dynamic-fluctuations;” but her peers would demand a clear and precise definition.)

In short, we are damned by a desire for scientific-sounding terminology, a constant craving for the new, and no vetting process to enforce communal standards.

As a result, almost everyone in business (from authors like me, to agencies writing verbiage for their websites, to MBA students trying to brand themselves during job interviews) has a powerful financial incentive to invent and flaunt new buzzwords, their precise meaning be damned.

One of the commenters on David Schepp’s article lays bare the results:

A few years ago, I took an upper management position with a company. My first day I sat in a 3 hour meeting where the terms “Synergy”, “leverage” and “It is what it is” were passed out more frequently by the management team than candy canes by a Mall Santa. I came away from that meeting realizing I may have made a mistake in accepting the job. Turns out I was right. This was the most dysfunctional organization I had ever been a part of… I should have listened to my initial instinct to quit after that first day.

If we can’t stop the rising tide of business jargon in the New Year, at least we can follow this man’s advice. When you enter a room full of people spouting buzzwords, turn around quietly, and just walk away.

Read the original piece on Columbia Business School’s Ideas and Insights blog. 

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