Words by Theresa Lütge-Smith for Imaginet

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According to a recent survey, “thinking outside the box” (to look at things differently) and “going forward” (exploring future prospects) are two of many insufferable management phrases people not only find annoying and an obstacle to procuring new business, but also result in making English Language Puritans criticize the usage of excessive descriptive  terminology. While I must admit some examples of business jargon do seem bizarre, other expressions that are claimed to annoy utilize everyday language; either way, I find many phrases or buzzwords to be clever derivatives of longwinded concepts. I’m sure we’re all familiar with terms like brick-and-mortar, cutting-edge, framework, mind-set, negative growth, talking points and vision statement.

I admit I like buzzwords and believe them to have an important place in our fast-paced society, particularly an evolving discipline like marketing where brevity is essential. The usage of buzzwords is a powerful communication tool, on condition everyone involved shares a common understanding of all that the buzzword encapsulates. Yet if our language becomes distorted with all kinds of gobbledygook that is vaguely understood by only a few, the response is usually legitimate disapproval. It also has the potential to degrade the English language rather than enrich it.

Pundits, including renowned authors and university professors, tell us that good business writing should be clear, convincing, and credible. They advise that in order to communicate effectively business writing must avoid clichéd phrases and fabricated buzzwords. However, business communicators claim that jargon serves a valuable purpose; for instance, new terms are concocted to describe specialized concepts like “search engine optimization” and “online content utilization”, which may seem odd to non-tech people but completely rational to those who know what they mean. Most people today are tech-savvy to a certain extent and know to overlook many puffed-up terms and convoluted buzzwords; well-chosen meaningful phrases tend to make an impression and help procure business contracts.

Symbolic Language  

Fear positions itself as a pivotal factor to maintain comfort zones. Breaking out of your comfort zone is all about daring to think beyond the confined constraints of habitual mediocrity, reviewing past experiences and challenging current assumptions, which serves as an inspiration to “go forward”. In business, the one thing you can be assured of is continual change; as the economy ebbs and flows so new strategies and new symbolic language are signs of the times. Imagine you are attending a corporate meeting for the first time; you know how to behave because you take your cues from the people around you. You blend in well with your public image and tone of voice. However, if you can’t identify with the modern business lingo you might be “cut off at the knees” unless you make a concerted effort to expand your business vocabulary. Many believe that jargon masks real meaning, that it’s used as a substitute for analyzing strategies to attain goals and the direction they intend to give others. Bear in mind that business life today is fast-paced and that many corporations are overwhelmed in their commitment to remain competitive: decisions need to be made, information assimilated, models for continuous improvement implemented, messages delivered, and employees trained; and “going forward” to explore future prospects.

Expand Vocabulary

Other “misunderstood” buzzwords that top the list of being pretentious and ineffectual include circle back, value-added, paradigm shift, take it to the next level, win-win, on the same page, a lot on my plate, work smarter not harder, no-brainer, plus-up, flawless execution, best practices, boil the ocean, bring to the table, close the loop, critical path, finding fertile ground, drill-down, drinking the kool-aid, elevator pitch, gain traction, leapfrog, monetize, network effects, out of pocket, paradigm shift, peel the onion, ping, soup to nuts, turnkey solution, win-win and world-class. Parallel to criticizing the invention of management phrases, expert business gurus encourage individuals to explore progressive and innovative ideas. The question they’ve been promoting for over two decades is “Are you a Thought Leader?” By definition, a Thought Leader is a person (or entity) who is recognized by peers for having progressive and innovative ideas, and who shares these ideas and helps to effect change through those ideas. In today’s world, this communication includes symbolic language in order to build and gain momentum as media coverage and visibility are generated and sustained. Thought Leaders shape their story by providing insight and perspective on key issues. They educate us on a problem or issue, expose the pros and cons, and urge us to take action to explore possible solutions.

 Thought Leaders

What qualifies the phrase “thinking outside the box” as the most hated? The answer lies in evaluating another question: Why should anyone be content with the status quo? No ambitious soul should feel comfortable being constrained within conventional boundaries! The essential point here is if you are unwilling to break out of your comfort zone then you are unwilling to recognize your true potential. Regrettably many people are paralyzed by fear of failure (or fear of success), resist change, and make decisions based on habitual beliefs rather than tackling obstacles, all of which stand in the way of their very best outcomes. The contradiction lies in misjudging the connotation; while it’s apparently in poor taste to encourage individuals who are held captive by a poor sense of self (the idiom “thinking outside the box” promotes critical thinking) why then is the phrase “Grow to be a Thought Leader!” well-regarded? Perhaps it is time to upgrade our inner critic and start looking at things differently.

Thought Leaders are considered credible because they use language to create symbolic word devices to gain attention, apply controversy, and paint mental pictures through buzzwords or catchphrases. For communication to occur the parties must not only share a common language and overlapping experiences, they must also share the same mental models for interpreting the language. Modern cultures make use of a wide spectrum of thought and forms of expression developed throughout history. The important point is that the mental models we associate with words and phrases can limit as well as enrich our interpretations. But with so many objections to the usage of business jargon, one is tempted to question what alternative will suit. Do we simply inhibit creative thought and abolish symbolic phrases and buzzwords and revert back to communicating in grunts, shrugging and tongue-clicks, or compel business leaders to dumb-down every word or sentence?

Words by Theresa Lutge-Smith, owner of eCottage Editorial. eCottage [Electronic Cottage] creates platforms between companies and their customers through written material and multiple avenues to facilitate knowledge management and customer relationship management. We also assist authors to self-publish their work. CV – Writing Samples – Sample Articles


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