read more from Matt Thompson on Poynter here

There are thousands of articles bashing buzz words. We get it — they’re often horrific, demoralizing, infuriating relics from the Ninth Gate of Hell. But they’re not all bad, nor are they always useless. Used properly, they can simply and succinctly communicate complex concepts. A lot of people — I mean, A LOT OF PEOPLE — use them inappropriately, but we can actually do something about that. We can understand:


how to use them appropriately
why people use them inappropriately
what to do when you’re in buzzwurgatory
 
How To Use Buzz Words Appropriately

Two years ago, Mike Myatt of N2Groths wrote this article in defense of buzz words. “Buzzwords are birthed from the necessity of human beings to simplify the complex,” he insists.  Myatt goes on to say that “I don’t have anything against buzzwords, techno-jargon, colloquialisms, acronyms and other forms of business-speak with the following caveat…that they are used in context, and by someone who possesses an underlying knowledge of what the phrase du jour actually means… Where most people get off track with the use of buzzwords is not understanding their audience. Communicating is about connecting, and if the words you choose to use don’t connect then you might as well be spitting into the wind. All great communicators use language that resonates with those to whom they are speaking. What I want you to understand is that buzzwords are not the issue – the inappropriate use of them is.”

I’ve spent most of the last 3 decades in military environments, where abbreviations, acronymns, jargon, and euphemisms are a necessary shorthand. A lot of the time, that shorthand saves precious time — and even lives – by simplifying communication between coworkers. But you know where it didn’t help? Working the front desk at the family support center. Acronym do more harm that good when you’re trying tell a new military spouse who to turn to and what forms to fill out when someone screws up their pay and they can’t afford diapers.

Why People Use Buzzwords in Inappropriately

1 – They’ve forgotten they’re using buzz words.

I once knew a guy — a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 100% Virginia farm boy — who spent two years working in rural Venezuela. When he came back, he had forgotten how to speak English. What he could remember came out with a heavy Spanish accent. It took him weeks to be able to form sentences and paragraphs again -and several months before he lost his accent. That was an extreme case, sure — but it can easily happen to anyone who gets immersed in a specific culture of communication, be it corporate, military, or ethnic.

That means that people using the buzz words aren’t always insecure or lacking in substance. They’ve just been surrounded by others who use them and picked them up unconsciously. They’re zeligs — human chameleons — who pick up language and traits from the people around them. It’s human nature. That SNL sketch up top is funny because it’s true. Immersion does that to people.

You respond to this behavior by asking questions. Buzz words and other watered-down language spread because people don’t want to look uninformed – so they never ask for clarification when someone uses a word their audience doesn’t understand.

2 – They’re concerned about their image

People who over-use buzzwords tend to worry about fitting in and being respected. That’s why, linguistically, buzz words usually fall into one of two catagories: elite tone and colloquial tone.

Elite buzz words make a task or process (and the speaker!) sound more sophisticated. Think of words like ideation, curate, learning, intention, disintermediate, alignment, debrief, and synergy. People who are drawn to these words usually think of themselves as great communicators and dynamic presenters. They want others to view them as educated, edgy, and up-to-date on current trends and data. They worry that others don’t think they’re competent. At best, they’re just confusing. At worst, they make you look pretentious and like you’re trying too hard. When someone uses elite buzz words, they’re trying to elevate others’ opinions about them and their ideas. It usually indicates that they’re insecure about how others view their competency and intelligence.  These buzz words were born because someone wanted to impress someone else.

 

Colloquial buzz words make a task or process (and the speaker!) sound more down-to-earth and clever. Think of words like circle back, over the wall, reach out, ping, out-of-pocket, and rightsizing. People who are drawn to these words usually think of themselves as likable, approachable, down-to-earth, friendly communicators. If they’re in leadership positions, they want to be viewed as approachable, clever, and relationship-focused. They worry that others think they’re dull or won’t recognize their good ideas. Over-using these words makes them look uninformed and lacking in confidence. When someone uses these words, they’re trying to manipulate their relationship with their listeners. It indicates that they feel they have to control both the tone of their work relationship and the amount of detailed explanation they actually have to provide.  These buzz word are born because someone felt uncomfortable in a leadership position, uncomfortable giving specific instructions, and uncomfortable answering questions.

Both groups are uncomfortable being specific, being criticized, being unable to control conversations and situations, and being obviously at fault for a mistake. Isolated, buzz words are just poor communication. When they run amok, they’re coping mechanisms to deflect difficult discussions, control others by always keeping them a little bit in the dark, and blame others when things go wrong. I should note that people rarely fit into one category or the other. It’s like a messy venn diagram, where elite, colloquial, and zelig users overlap and move from category to category depending on the day.

None of this means that leaders and managers who use buzz words are bad people. Far from it! It means that some of them feel insecure in their roles and responsibilities. They could still be extremely competent, accomplished, effective people. Insecurity is not a sign of incompetence. In fact, people who are extremely accomplished are often insecure:  Angelina Jolie has repeatedly said that she thinks she looks like a Muppet; Mikhail Baryshnikov still gets stage fright before performances; Winston Churchill lived in constant fear that he was an idiot, a failure, and a fake. But Jolie still tops Most Beautiful lists, no one can pirouette better than Baryshnikov, and politicians and statesmen still revere Churchill. Feeling insecure is a social and emotional reaction completely independent of one’s actual skill and competency.  

What to Do When You’re in Buzzwurgatory

Myatt closed his article warning others that we can’t afford to dismiss other just because they use buzz words. “It’s as if it has become more acceptable to bash users of buzzwords than to actually listen to what’s being said – this in my opinion is not healthy, nor is it productive… Not everyone who allows a buzzword to cross their lips is evil…they may just be pressed for time, and/or desire to be efficient in their communications. So I would ask that rather than dismiss someone solely on their use of buzzwords and business-speak, you first evaluate whether said use added value, was contextually appropriate, or whether the instance was born out of laziness or a lack of substance.”

Come back tomorrow for Escaping Buzzwurgatory: Part II – What to Do When Bad Buzz Words Happen to Good People.  I’ll share practical tips on what you can do when faced with buzz word overload.
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A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.