The company I used to work for did this “Annual Tour” where bigwig executives got us together at night, paid for a catered dinner, and gave these long winded presentations about the company. We played a drinking game – one sip for each use of the word “synergy”. 

Nobody made it past the first 20 minutes.

-from a Facebook friend
That, my friends, is what I mean by “the Ninth Gate of Buzz Word Hell.” As we discussed before, there are many roads to the Ninth Gate. Like most roads to hell, they’re paved with good intentions — wanting to say things faster, simpler, or appear stronger and more competent.
There is a right way to use a buzz word, and it’s an easy pattern to learn.

Unfortunately, there is one kind of  bad buzz word that we can’t address with tactful questions.  You know that one guy in your office who always uses the biggest, fanciest, new-est sounding words to say even the simplest thing?  He’s the $5 Word Guy — and he’ll never use a simple word if he can find a bigger word.  When you run into $5 Word Guy, all you can do is grit you teeth, scream into a pillow when you get home, and try not to become him. Here’s a couple of $5 words to avoid:

utilize: Just say “use” instead. Many people assume that utilize is the smarter, more strategic cousin of “use” — but that’s because they’ve only heard it misused in that context.  Utilize has a specific, scientific meaning: it means that a chemical or nutrient is being absorbed or digested properly. Grammar Girl talks more about it here.  Unless you’re a biochemist, drop this one from your daily vocabularly.  “Use” is simpler, clearer, and sounds less pompous.

intentionality:  This one is showing up more and more often, as a fancy way of saying intention or motivation. For example:  “I don’t understand our client’s intentionality in making so many changes to the specs,” or “Perhaps I’d understand your choices if you explained your intentionality?”  But intentionality has nothing to do with someone’s motivation. It’s a philosophical and neurobiological term that refers to a) the ability of the mind to process new information through experiences, sensations, and thoughts, and b) the ability to behave with a goal in mind and take action to reach that goal. It doesn’t refer to the reasons why someone did something. Just say “intention,” “motivation,” or (better yet) “reasons” instead.  You can read more about it (if the article doesn’t leave you cross-eyed) here.

Someone who is uncomfortable giving actual assignments and directions will almost always resort to buzzwords and motivational slogans, making vague statements like:

“Let’s reach out to specialists at our strategic partners”
“I think we need to invest in further discussion until we’re in alignment on resource allocation.”
“I’d like to debrief our last conversation.”
“Our onboarding process is a pain point for our budget right now. Let’s circle back later and ideate solutions.”
None of those statements include any clear instructions, goals, or expectations. Instead, they pushed responsibility for understanding the problem and taking action onto the listener.
Compare them to these:
“Jane, I need you to call the office managers at these companies and ask them this specific question.”
“We’re still disagreeing about these items on the budget. Let’s go over everything again and see if we can come up with some new options for reducing our travel costs.”
“I’d like to discuss these specific subjects from the last staff meeting.”
“Training new hires is taking up 15% of our budget right now. We need to decrease cost without decreasing quality. Everyone review the current training program, and we’ll meet back here at 2pm on Tuesday to discuss options.”

Tell us what $5 words you’re hearing in the comments below.

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.