Don’t speak gobbledygook

by Stephanie Zillman22 Jun 2012

Nonsense, jargon, gibberish, drivel, waffle, bunkum, twaddle, hogwash, claptrap, garbage, hokum, rot, hooey, boloney, tripe, prattle, babble, flimflam, guff, blather – these words all describe one thing: talking crap. So if the concept is so well described in the English language, why do so many corporates continue to leverage best practices, and shift paradigms?

Some of history’s most influential thinkers didn’t need to use elaborate terminology to say what they meant. Back in 1992, former US President Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville hung a sign in Clinton’s campaign office to keep the team on track. It said:

  1. Change vs. more of the same
  2. The economy, stupid
  3. Don't forget health care

The straightforward message has since entered the lexicon of political culture, and was perhaps one of the most effective messages in history.

In the case of modern day management speak, using jargon may in fact have the opposite effect of what’s intended. “Jargon masks real meaning,” Jennifer Chatman from the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business told Forbes magazine. “People use it as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others.”

Why is there so much business jargon?

Lois Kelly from Foghound said some reasons may be:

Insecurity: Part of the overuse of business jargon is insecurity – people think certain phrases and words make them sound knowledgeable.

Lazy thinking: An even bigger reason is that people have not thought through the ideas, so they dress up incomplete thinking with all kinds of blah blahblah. 

Fear: People are afraid to explain the facts, especially in touchy situations like redundancies. They think that if they couch things in obscure explanations, people won’t get upset or ask difficult questions. People see right through these wimpy attempts to avoid tough issues. Worse yet, obscuration erodes people’s trust in leaders who can’t just give it to them straight.

Here are some of the worst offenders as identified by Forbes:

Core competency

This expression refers to a firm’s or a person’s fundamental strength—even though that’s not what the word “competent” means. “This bothers me because it is just a silly phrase when you think about it,” says Bruce Barry, professor of management at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Business. “Do people talk about peripheral competency? Being competent is not the standard we’re seeking. It’s like core mediocrity.”

Empower

This is what someone above your pay grade does when, apparently, they would like you to do a job of some importance. It’s also called “the most condescending transitive verb ever.” Says Chatman: “It suggests that ‘You can do a little bit of this, but I’m still in charge here. I am empowering you.’”

Open the kimono

“Some people use this instead of ‘revealing information,’” says Barry. “It’s kind of creepy.” Just keep your kimono snugly fastened.

Lots of moving parts

Pinball machines have lots of moving parts. Many of them buzz and clank and induce migraine headaches. Do you want your business to run, or even appear to run, like a pinball machine? Then do not say it involves lots of moving parts.

Scalable

A scalable business or activity refers to one that requires little additional effort or cost for each additional unit of output. Example: Making software is a scalable business (building it requires lots of effort up front, while distributing a million copies over the Web is relatively painless). Venture capitalists crave scalable businesses. They crave them so much that the term now has become more annoying than the media’s obsession with celebrity diets.

Think outside the box

This tired turn of phrase means to approach a business problem in an unconventional fashion. Kudos to one reader who suggested: “Forget the box, just think.”

Leverage

Meet the granddaddy of nouns converted to verbs. ‘Leverage’ is mercilessly used to describe how a situation or environment can be manipulated or controlled. Leverage should remain a noun, as in “to apply leverage,” not as a pseudo-verb, as in “we are leveraging our assets.”

Vertical

This expression refers to a specific area of expertise. For example, if you make project-management software for the manufacturing industry (as opposed to the retail industry), you might say, “We serve the manufacturing vertical.” In so saying, you would make everyone around you flee the conversation.

Robust

This otherwise harmless adjective has come to suggest a product or service with a virtually endless capacity to please. A cup of good coffee is robust. A software program is not.

Learnings

Like most educated people, Michael Travis, an executive search consultant, knows how to conjugate a verb. That’s why he cringes when his colleagues use the word “learning” as a noun. As in: “I had a critical learning from that project,” or “We documented the team’s learnings.” Whatever happened to simply saying: “I learned a lesson from that project?” Aspiring managers would do well to remember that if you can’t express your idea without buzzwords, there may not be an idea there at all.

Impact

This wannabe verb came to prominence, says Bryan Garner, editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, because most people don’t understand the difference between the words “affect” and “effect.” Rather than risk mixing them up, they say, “We will impact our competitor’s sales with this new product.” A tip: “Affect” is most commonly a verb, “effect” a noun. For instance: When you affect my thinking, you may have an effect on my actions.

Giving 110%

The nice thing about effort, in terms of measuring it, is that the most you can give is everything—and everything equals 100%. You can’t give more than that, unless you can make two or more of yourself on the spot, in which case you have a very interesting talent indeed.

Take it to the next level

In theory this means to make something better. In practice, it means nothing, mainly because nobody knows what the next level actually looks like and thus whether or not they’ve reached it.

 

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