Imagine visiting a foreign country and struggling to express yourself because you don’t know the language. A simple request for directions becomes an animated affair; the experience is frustrating because you lack the basic vocabulary for connection. Now, imagine that scenario in the workplace.
Effective business leaders have the ability to make the complex simple, in part by choosing their words to deliver maximum impact. Yet business buzzwords have become commonplace, weaving their way into our everyday vernacular and spurring the creation of websites and software programs designed to translate corporate lingo into plain English. In some offices, clever employees place “jargon jars” in conference rooms, where colleagues have to deposit coins for every buzzword dropped during a meeting.
It’s easy to get seduced by buzzwords because we think they make us sound smart and give us the illusion that we’re in the know when it comes to the latest trends. However, they also create barriers between people, alienating employees and customers because the words they thought they knew now have a different and more obscure meaning. Who has time to hire an interpreter to translate vague corporate speak?
Clear communication, transparency, and authenticity are key to well-managed businesses, and jargon is the enemy of clarity. Most of us are guilty of using at least some of these creativity killers, but it comes at a cost: “I believe you lose credibility when you use jargon,” says Anne Bromley, writing instructor and consultant. “Jargon is boring and can make people suspicious about what you say. Give me numbers. Give me facts.”
Here are 60 cringe-worthy expressions to eliminate from your vocabulary, along with their jargon-free definitions:
- A 30,000-foot view: At high altitudes, everything appears insignificant. When it comes to business, the 30,000-foot view is about focusing on the bigger goals and objectives, instead of zeroing in on the details.
- All hands on deck: Whenever you receive an email requesting “all hands on deck,” know you’re in for a late night at the office parked in front of takeout and the glare of your computer screen. All employees are needed to complete a project that’s on a deadline. Life preservers are optional.
- Analysis paralysis: Psychologist Barry Schwartz coined the term “Paradox of Choice,” where he describes the feelings of anxiety and indecision that often occur when a person is faced with too many options. Have you ever found yourself overthinking a situation so much that nothing actually gets accomplished except hours spent feeling paralyzed by your thoughts? Cue the productivity killer otherwise known as analysis paralysis.
- Back-end: “Back-end” borrows from computer tech speak and it means all the essential work that goes into the creation of a product that a customer doesn’t see.
- Bandwidth: A term popular with the tech crowd, as it refers to the volume of information per unit of time that a transmission medium (like an internet connection) can manage. In management speak, it means capacity, as in “Can you take on yet another project?”
- Blue ocean strategy: The origin of this phrase makes Jaws look like a Disney film. Blue ocean strategy refers to how a business can differentiate itself by creating a new market for itself instead of competing in a bloody or “red” ocean of starved sharks, i.e., a crowded marketplace. The Australian wine brand Yellow Tail adopted a clever positioning tactic when breaking into the U.S. market by removing the complexity and snobbery of wine, offering a fun, affordable alternative.
- Boil an ocean: Picture a saucepan as big as the Atlantic on a five-burner stove. The idiom refers to undertaking an impossible project or task. If you want a jargon pile-up of ocean metaphors, you could say that “boiling an ocean” means “going overboard.”
- Brick and mortar: Twenty years ago, it was inconceivable to think that you could own and operate a business that didn’t have a physical location. Enter the online store, Amazon.com, in 1994. Consider “brick and mortar” the rotary phone of business.
- Bring to the table: The unique skills or value that someone can bring to your company. Typically, the “table” in question refers to a physical forum for the negotiation of business proposals.
- Buy-in: Accepting, or committing, to an idea or course of action. The phrase originated from the financial services industry, where it bears a negative connotation. In a financial buy-in, an investor is forced to repurchase shares of stock because the seller didn’t deliver them in a timely manner or deliver them at all.
- Buzzworthy: Although the PR term isn’t new, it’s taken on a new form in the world of social media, where consumer currency trumps traditional media outlets talking about your product or service. Now, “buzzworthy” is about getting the people talking — online and off. Often, it’s linked with its more terrifying cousin, “going viral,” #34 on our list.
- Change agent: A person who is the catalyst for business improvements or innovation. “Change agents” are focused on transforming an existing organizational culture and processes, so businesses can be agile and efficient.
- Circle back: An invitation to revisit a project or an issue with the goal of resolution. In reality, the phrase is a procrastinator’s paradise because it allows them to buy time to figure out a solution while sounding thoughtful. After they’ve “circled back,” don’t be surprised if they want to “close the loop” on the issue, jargon-jar phrase #16.
- Client-facing: An idiom that is the darling of the advertising agency industry, “client-facing” references any and all forms of communication that are shared with customers. So that internal, all-company email venting about your client using internet memes? Definitely not client-facing.
- Close the loop: “Closing the loop” is akin to achieving an outcome to an outstanding issue. Fun fact: The phrase borrows from the field of electrical engineering, where an “open loop” represents a gap between a wire, a battery, and a light bulb. As a result, electricity doesn’t flow. A “closed loop” is when the circuit is connected and in sync.
- Consumer-driven: Products, plans, and strategies that are motivated by consumer demand or expectations. Ten years ago it would’ve been laughable to stay in a stranger’s home or enter their car for a ride; however, advanced mobile technology, coupled with consumer demand for efficiency, has made companies like Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber possible and profitable.
- Core competency: A fundamental strength or advantage that differentiates an individual or company from its competitors.
- Cutting edge: By definition, “cutting edge” means the edge of a tool’s blade. However, in corporate speak, the blade’s sharpness implies the pioneering, or advancement, of a business idea, process, or technology.
- Deck: While we want to believe that spending time on a deck is a refuge from our overflowing email inbox, sadly, a “deck” in business parlance is shorthand for a set of PowerPoint presentation slides.
- Deep dive: The opposite of the “30,000-foot view,” a deep dive means a complete immersion into the details. No scuba gear required.
- Deliverable: Embedded in corporate speak for the past 25 years, “deliverable” hasn’t become any less vague or unbearable. Deliverable refers to a piece of work that can be delivered, such as a project plan, report, or product.
- Disconnect (used as a noun): A situation where expectations differ from reality, due to either a misunderstanding or difference of opinion.
- Disruptive: Perhaps Silicon Valley’s most overused buzzword. Tech and startup giants refer to the process of simplifying, uprooting, or replacing existing technology with the new and innovative, in hopes of attracting hungry investors. iTunes shifted the way consumers get their music; DVDs replaced videocassettes.
- Drill down: Whether it’s used in construction, computers, or business-speak, drilling down involves the in-depth examination of information to get more details.
- Drinking the Kool-Aid: Here’s a horrifying fact: “Drinking the Kool-Aid” originated from the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, where famed cult leader, Jim Jones, forced his 900 followers to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced punch. Today, the cult stigma has been downplayed to mean the blind following of a corporate culture, philosophy, or way of business.
- Elephant in the room: The obvious issue everyone’s aware of, but no one wants to talk about.
- Engagement: The marketing phrase of the moment, engagement refers to the act of consumers’ connecting with a company’s product or message in a meaningful way.
- Face time: In an age where it’s acceptable for people to exchange emails and texts within a few feet of one another, the act of talking to someone in person has become downright nostalgic. “Face time” accounts for time away from our devices to connect and communicate in-person.
- Front-end: The flip side of “back-end,” “front end” means all the components of a product that’s visible to the consumer. For example, reading this article is an example of the front-end of Small Biz Ahead, while the code that makes everything on this page function in the way it’s supposed to would be its back-end.
- Game plan: A strategy or course of action.
- Getting our ducks in a row: The act of getting all the details organized before the start of a project. The phrase was first used in 1932 in an article about getting “our economic ducks in a row”, but it’s commonly attributed to the formation of a mother duck’s offspring into a single line before traveling.
- Going forward: A relatively new development in corporate speak, “going forward” is supposed to imply a sense of corporate direction or purpose. In reality, it’s a fancy way to indicate the progression of time. You could easily say “next,” “in the future,” or “from now on.”
- Going viral: With the exception of “budget cuts,” no other phrase elicits more fear and terror in your marketing team. A content contagion, going viral refers to how fast a piece of content can spread across the internet.
- Hack (used as a noun): A shortcut — an easier or ingenious way to complete an activity.
- Heads-up: An advanced warning that something in the near future will require attention.
- Heavy lifting: Bearing the burden of the most difficult and time-consuming work on a project.
- Ideate: Who knew that the startup community could abuse a word so much as to make it a non-word? The mind-numbing term “ideate” is the act of forming an idea.
- In the weeds: The feeling of struggling, being overwhelmed, or losing control at work because of being too involved in the minutiae.
- Killing it: There’s no shortage of war metaphors in business, and “killing it” is no exception. Synonymous with another jargon-jar phrase, “at the top of your game,” killing it implies that people are doing their best work.
- Leverage: This noun-as-a-verb refers to how a situation can be manipulated and controlled in one’s favor. Example: “We’re leveraging our best assets.” English Translation: “We’re using our best people for the project.”
- Low-hanging fruit: A phrase that secured pinnacle cliché status in the late 1990s, “low-hanging fruit” refers to easy business wins achieved with minimal effort.
- Mission-critical: Not to be confused with astronauts at NASA, mission-critical means the elements vital to the functioning or success of an organization.
- Move the goalposts: Changing the parameters midway through the project.
- Move the needle: A staple when pitching venture capitalists, “moving the needle” implies how your product and business strategy surpasses that of your competitors. The phrase dates back to old-school Vu (volume unit) meters used in audio recordings. The louder the sound, the further the needle moved.
- Ninja, Rockstar, Wizard: From job descriptions to LinkedIn profiles, hoards of people are adapting these magical and mythic monikers — all variations of people who are great at what they do.
- Omni-channel: The concept of having your product or service in every possible place — whether it’s a catalog, physical store location, website, or advertisements on a mobile device — where your potential customer resides.
- Onboarding: The process of assimilating a new employee into an organization or introducing your product or service to new customers.
- On your radar: To bring awareness to your product, situation, or service.
- Opening the kimono: The act of revealing important information or the inner workings of an organization. This rather offensive term refers to a Japanese wife showing her naked body to her husband.
- Out of pocket: When the out-of-office auto-responder email fails to resonate, when someone says they’re out-of-pocket it means they are unreachable, even by mobile phone.
- Paradigm shift: Coined by the American philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, “paradigm shift” has trickled down to corporate speak, implying a fundamental change in the usual or accepted ways of doing business.
- Pivot: Blame entrepreneur Eric Reis (author of The Lean Startup) who reinvented the term “pivot” for the startup community. “Pivot” refers to a shift in business strategy or direction.
- Ramp up: To increase over a period of time, often used interchangeably with “getting up to speed.”
- Red flag: A warning of potential problems that require immediate attention.
- Rightsizing: An HR term that aims to soften the layoff blow, “rightsizing” means reducing the size of a company or organization through eliminating staff or restructuring.
- Scalable: The ability for a company to grow its business with little additional cost.
- Socialize: The practice of relentlessly exposing a new idea or process to the point of being unbearable…or simply the creation of a new norm.
- Takeaway: The key point of a meeting or interaction. Basically, people talk for a while and then take a way one fact.
- Touch base: An invitation to meet or talk about a specific issue.
- Value-add: A feature that provides benefits or value to your customers.
As a small business owner, you don’t need to rely on big business speak. By communicating clearly, you help ensure that everyone you work with knows exactly what you’re asking for. In general, say what you mean without the unnecessary wordplay. Your customers and employees will understand you, and your business will be better for it.
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