In defense of business buzzwords

Leave buzzwords alone!

Buzzword bashing is a staple food for marketing bloggers stuck for content ideas. In the past two months alone, LinkedIn has deemed 6 Buzzwords That Bad Managers Use and The High Cost of Cheap Buzzwords as articles worthy of the designation Recommended Articles.

On one hand, the seductiveness of bashing buzzwords is understandable. There’s a certain schadenfreude one gets from taking a Stanford Business lecturer down a peg for posting drivel like this:

“I have a deep love and appreciation of the different roles of product pricing, go-to-market, competitive differentiation, etc that make up the marketing value chain. I’m not discounting the strategic parts of making sure there’s a business model, but I’m focusing on the part that the vast majority of people think of as “marketing”. You and I might know this is more about promotions than the full range of marketing but most people don’t recognize this distinction.”

Here’s where I take issue – it’s not the words differentiation, strategic or value chain that make the above vapid. Their specific application is the source of that funny, hollow smell. To illustrate, consider this:

“A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy’s whole being).”

That little gem was penned by award-winning novelist William T. Vollmann. Notice that despite foregoing marketing buzzwords for more known concepts such as octopus and Berlin, the above passage is still unreadable and bereft of meaning.

Buzzwords that are okay to use

It’s okay to use these words in moderation

Many of the terms in the Buzzword Bingo chart have legitimate meaning that are well understood in the business world:

  • Empower = grant authority to
  • Core business = the work we’re best at
  • Go the extra mile = put in the extra effort that is needed to deliver desirable results
  • Stakeholder = Someone with a vested interest in a business’s operations
  • Do I need to keep going?

Yes, there are some stinkers on that list (synergy absolutely kills me), but the evil lamented by lazy bloggers is unclear communication – not vocabulary. If we can understand what a business buzzword means in isolation, who cares if it’s used so long as the resulting piece of communication is both clear and concise?

The best case against using buzzwords is that they serve the same function as writing as cliches. The problem with that argument is that, unlike in the literary world, business communication necessitates that creativity is subservient to clarity. A feasibility report that uses buzzwords but has a clearly understood point trumps a buzzword-free yet fuzzier report every time. Yes, we all have a duty to ensure that tomorrow’s world is less hackneyed and more beautiful than today’s. But I don’t think anyone should be made to feel as if they’re propagating doublespeak because their business report used included the phrase touch base.

That buzzwords can be abused isn’t the fault of the language but the individual wielding them. Let’s try to find bigger bullies to take down.


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