What’s the origin of the buzzword?

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I could write an entire book on business buzzwords. Heck, I already did a full blog post on ’em back in the day. I think we’ve all sat in the meeting where someone says “at the end of the day” or “when the rubber meets the road” and/or “alignment” and “synergy” and basically cringed. In some meetings, this is literally all that ever gets said. We’ve got some research that 67 percent of senior leaders can’t name the priorities of their CEO, and more that 95 percent of employees don’t know the strategy of where they work. Now think about how most work gets done: meetings, calls, and emails. Those things are chock full of business buzzwords.

So if your whole day, week, year, etc. is a bunch of ass clowns meowing “35,000-foot view” at you instead of telling you what the priorities really are, well, of course most companies will have no priorities in such a world. But the origin story of business buzzwords is inherently ironic when you consider this.

The guy who wrote the book on business buzzwords

This dude James Sudakow literally wrote a book on business buzzwords, and here he gives an interview to Wharton. The interview is mostly about “silly corporate buzzwords” and they run through a bunch of ’em, including some mentioned above. But when Sudakow is asked where buzzwords come from, here’s an interesting answer:

One of the challenges that we have in the business world is there’s so much going on. There are so many initiatives, and they all start to blend together. I can see where someone might say, “Hey, you know what? If we say this a little bit differently, it might stand out and people will pay attention to it. I get that. There’s actually a kernel of value in there, where people are trying to speak in a way that gets people’s attention because it’s so hard to do in the business world.


So if you’re scoring at home…

… business buzzwords came about as a way to differentiate ideas, maybe. But, in so doing, they completely buried anything related to execution of the idea. Employees hear the buzzword, groan, and go back to doing exactly what they were doing before. Phrased another way: talking to me about “win-win synergy” doesn’t make me want to work harder. It makes me want to smack you in the face.

Is there a solution to business buzzwords?

Yes. Use them less. Have real conversations with people. Explain what needs to be done, why, and in what order. Be a manager instead of a gaping hole of humanity.

Why is this so hard for people, though? Many reasons: difficult conversations, of which there are many as a manager, make people uncomfortable. People would rather hide behind technology. That’s how email got to scale so quickly, and that’s why there are a million different portals for better managers for sale right now. Management also isn’t intuitive for many people, and the stuff that matters we tend to belittle by calling them “soft skills.” It’s not an easy road for many who walk it.

I agree with the business buzzwords theory above, but I’d add this: a lot of times, people use buzzwords because (a) everyone else uses them, and we all just want to fit in and (b) they really have no idea what they’re talking about in the first place. Buzzwords are great when you have no control of a topic but, because of salary or rank, you need to seem as if you do. Go talk to any old-school exec about “social selling” or something. Count the business buzzwords. I bet he hits 15–20 in the first three minutes. It’s like a form of “I have no clue but don’t expose me” filler. Fun to watch.

The broader picture on communication at work

It usually is a tire fire. Why? Some of the same reasons above. We could communicate better, but so long as we deign these ideas as “soft skills,” we never really will. Business buzzwords jump right into that chasm and give everyone’s eye roll muscles a nice little workout.

What else would you add on business buzzwords, including some of your faves?

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