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    Buzzwords Are Not a Badge of Honor. (In fact, they're pretty awful.)
    The Vault

    Buzzwords Are Not a Badge of Honor. (In fact, they're pretty awful.)

    May 2016

    Ever played Buzzword Bingo?  It’s a somewhat sneaky variation of regular bingo, played during meetings or other office presentations.  In place of the numbers on traditional bingo cards, corporate buzzwords and phrases such as “incentivize”, “leverage”, “push the envelope,” and “wave a dead chicken” are written on the cards.  As the meeting progresses, participants mark off words and phrases as they are spoken and the first person with five terms in a row stands up and shouts out “Bingo!” and risks losing his job.  Actually, more often than not, he’ll use a more surreptitious method of announcing he’s won -- a specific gesture followed by silently mouthing “Bingo!”, for example -- and everyone laughs under their breath.  Sneaky, I told you.

    According to the legend, Tom Davis, one of the founders of Silicon Graphics, invented Buzzword Bingo in 1993 after seeing a number of jargon terms on a blackboard in a colleague’s office. Davis wrote a buzzword generator program and printed out cards full of corporate catch phrases.  He passed the cards out to employees with a note saying, “The ball’s in your court.”  Well done, sir.

    So what’s the point?  Organizations throw around a lot of words and phrases that describe themselves (“we’re game changers”) and/or their objectives (“let’s think outside the box”), but these buzzwords get highly repetitive.  It’s kind of like a pop song on the radio; it used to be cute and catchy but it got seriously overplayed and now we’re all just sick of it.

    “Stop me if you’ve heard it.”

    Buzzwords were meant to streamline the process of communication and, admittedly, there’s a place for inside lingo in most professions. But when you’re displaying yourself to a public audience, buzzwords don’t make you stand out.  When was the last time you looked at a company’s website and discovered it wasn’t “visionary” or “strategic” in its approach to business?  Though we use buzzwords to try and make ourselves stand out, they just make us look just like everyone else.

    At the other end of the spectrum, buzzwords can fly over everyone’s head with dreaded ambiguity.  “Onboarding.” “Core competency”. “Value proposition”.  Does anyone have a clue what these things are?  This sort of language might make sense to a select group of people (like business consultants), but they will fly over the heads of everyone else and weaken your message.  

    So how can your organization communicate effective messages without relying heavily on buzzwords?  Here are a few tips to help you sound like a normal person:

    1. Don’t try to be something you’re not.  In online and in-person presentations, use phrases that actually speak to you and your audience.  Just be yourself.  Identify the words you really use to describe yourself, and forget the silly corporate buzzwords that just reinvent language.
    2. Give your audience credit. Buzzwords are often viewed as an attempt to hide behind words and not fully divulge what your organization is actually doing.  Just ask the attendees of a “rightsizing” meeting how confident they are that they’re not facing layoffs.  Your audience has a B.S. meter.  Address your issues with confidence and understanding, rather than empty messages.
    3. Pretend you’re at a cocktail party.  You wouldn’t bore people at a party with big fancy words, so don’t do it inside of your business.  Talk more like a person and less like a company.  Simple language makes you more personable.

    What it boils down to is this: We’d all profit from disintermediating these excess phrases, so synergize and drill-down with your colleagues.  Don’t get granular, or you’ll end up drinking from the fire hose.  Or hosing down a fire. Whatever.  Take a bio break and circle-back.  At the end of the day, you’ll need to reinvent the messaging wheel.  Just please come up with a better way to say it.


    Our blog posts are intended to be family-friendly, so we can’t tell you some of the really funny stuff. For some mindless fun, go to YouTube and search “Buzzword Bingo.” You’ll recognize some of the players there. While you’re at it, search for “A Conference Call in Real Life.” Enjoy.


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