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The Boston Globe

Buzzword backlash looks to purge jibba-jabba out of corporate-speak

By Kate M. Jackson, Globe Correspondent, 4/17/05

If terms like "value-add" and "thinking outside the box" make you want to jam a laser pointer into your eye, you are not alone in your suffering. Having been asked to "leverage their core competencies" one too many times, workers all across the country are offering up a collective response: Stop the insanity.

Call it a jargon hangover or a buzzword backlash. Either way, it is clear people are tired of the disingenuous corporate-speak that flows freely at the office; a place where it is sometimes necessary to "drink from the fire hose" to prepare for a "brain dump."

"Everyone does it and hates themselves for it afterward," said Jessica McDonald, a human resources manager at Deloitte in Boston. "It's like we walk into the office and suddenly start using words and expressions that we would never use in everyday conversations. We don't tell our friends to 'circle back' to us with dinner plans," she said.

"People don't listen when they hear these inane catch phrases anymore. They're a big turnoff," said Bill Hayes, the president of the New England District for Accountemps, who recently sponsored a national survey on the most overused words and phrases in the business world. Some of the worst offenders: "win-win," "take it offline," "solution," and "get on the same page."

"We're coming around now to a time of simpler language and clearer communications. It's no longer enough to mention the 'value proposition.' You have to state what it is," Hayes said.

Therefore, business people who use jargon like Febreze should consider themselves warned: The world is wising up to the stale smell lurking behind your fragrant façades.

If businesses really want to be strategic, Hayes said they should jettison the corporate-speak. Like Hayes, the authors of "Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter's Guide," see opportunity in what they call this "epidemic of bull and boredom."

Written by three repentant consultants, the book details how an exceedingly generic corporate culture has starved workplaces of sincerity and wit, creating offices where workers would rather showcase their prom pictures than their personalities. If you can speak with candor and resist the urge to use the word "ballpark" as a verb, the book notes, you could be the next Richard Branson.

"Many people have become successful by being boring and conformist but we're trying to free people of that mindset," said Jon Warshawsky, co-author of "Why Business People Speak Like Idiots." "We know you have a shred of humanity left from your childhood. Keep your voice. We implore you."

Warshawsky and co-authors Brian Fugere, and Chelsea Hardaway are also the creators of the Clio award-winning Bullfighter software, which performs search and destroy missions for jargon on Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint presentations.

In this new endeavor, Warshawsky, a "recovering jargonaholic," said he hopes to rehabilitate otherwise smart business people who pollute their communications with terms like "results-driven" or "paradigm shift."

"Copernicus's revelation that the Earth revolves around the sun brought about a paradigm shift," he said. "Your revelation to outsource the payroll department probably shouldn't carry equal cachet."

Every profession creates its own jargon so insiders can discuss their livelihoods in a form of esoteric shorthand. However, jargon becomes a problem when it is used to lord over others or make them feel inferior, Warshawsky said.

"Some businesspeople use 50-cent words to make a 5-cent point because they think plain language makes them look less intelligent. That's why we say things like 'initiate project action plan' instead of 'let's get started,'?" he said.

Five years ago, snazzy lingo may have been a decent shortcut to looking knowledgeable. Today, it has the opposite effect, Warshawsky said. "Intelligent business people who are confident in their messages and passionate about their companies don't need obscure language to communicate - which is why you never see Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, blathering in jargon," he said.

To prove this point, Warshawsky and his co-authors conducted a study on how average people view corporate lingo. They set up shop in an Atlanta-area Starbucks and showed patrons one of two actual company writing samples. One was straight and clear, the other rife with jargon and corporate-speak. The authors asked the patrons to assign adjectives to each communiqué. The jargon-laden sample consistently earned words like "rude and obnoxious" while the clearly written one was called "energetic" and "friendly."

"Overall, people found straight talkers more likable," Warshawsky said. "In order to be successful in business today, you have to be persuasive. And you can't be persuasive if people don't like you."

That said, Warshawsky's book is aptly dedicated to straight talking Lawrence Tureaud (a.k.a. Mr. T), whom the authors believe said it best: "Don't gimme none o' that jibba-jabba."

Another common problem with jargon is there are so many words that are indigenous to a particular industry that, when used outside of their element, take on an entirely different meaning, according to Jon Moran, a media training specialist for Schwartz Communications in Waltham.

For instance, in the technology realm, the term "high availability" is a quality of a reliable computer system, not of someone with an exorbitant amount of free time.

Knowing your audience is important, but communications professionals say knowing the difference between impressing and informing is even more crucial.

"Some people write press releases hoping to impress their bosses, not to communicate their messages," said Moran, "If the management team is speaking in jargon, it trickles down through the entire company and many people don't feel comfortable challenging it. The best organizations and communicators are the ones who welcome and encourage feedback."

"I tell my clients to make sure what they're saying would make sense to the least-savvy shareholder or if they asked a person on the street," said Jon Goldberg, corporate practice leader at Porter Novelli in New York.

For those who are not buying into the backlash and wish to keep the lid on their personalities, a new book titled "OfficeSpeak: The Win-Win Guide to Touching Base, Getting the Ball Rolling, and Thinking Inside the Box" is here to usher you into obscurity.

Author D.W. Martin said the easiest way to master corporate-speak is to create your own verbs. "The verbs that are in existence today just don't cut it. So take your favorite noun, add a suffix like "-ed" or "-ize" and you have yourself a verb," he said.

Some suggestions: Watercooler (verb) - To spread gossip. "I watercoolered the news that Cliff got pink-slipped."

Cubicle v: To get demoted. "Did you hear they cubicled Barry back to sales?"

"Here's to Merriam-Websterizing your way to the top," he said.

A glossary of workplace buzzwords and what they really mean. If you feel compelled to use any of them, bang your head against the wall until the urge goes away.
  1. Best practice n. a technique, based upon experience and research, that has proven to reliably lead to a desired result.
  2. Brain dump n. the process of emptying the information inside one's head on a given topic. Typically occurs when someone is handing over an initiative or preparing a successor.
  3. Circle back v. "get back to me" (formerly follow-up).
  4. Circle slash n. the spoken equivalent of the circle with a slash through it insignia displayed when something is not allowed. Also used as a verb.
  5. Core competency n. a strength or talent, whatever one is good at.
  6. Drill down v. to elaborate, increase detail of.
  7. Drink from the fire hose v. to learn all there is about a topic in a short amount of time (formerly get up to speed).
  8. Empower v. to give responsibility to (formerly delegate).
  9. Enterprise-oriented adj. very concerned about the enterprise.
  10. Low-hanging fruit n. easy opportunities for new business.
  11. Smell test n. unscientific test that determines the potential success of an idea or product (formerly run it up the flag pole).
  12. Solution n. pretty much anything.
  13. Take that off-line n. Talk amongst yourselves.
Kate M. Jackson

Compiled from "Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter's Guide" by Jon Warshawsky, Chelsea Hardaway, and Brian Fugere, Survey: "Buzzwords Gone Bad: The Most Annoying Terms and Phrases in the Workplace (Dec 2004) " conducted by Accountemps, and personal anecdotes and contributions from Boston-area business people.

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