Buzzwords are Buzzkill


I recently read an article in Fortune titled “Let’s not circle back on that: These 10 corporate buzzwords are the most hated in America.” Then I came across a report in the Harvard Business Review that said writing in the financial industry is so full of jargon and complexity that poorly written financial statements can actually harm a corporation’s market value.

As someone who’s written volumes of content for corporate America, I’ve spent years hunting down and snuffing out buzzwords. Expressions like “win-win,” “low-hanging fruit,” and “thinking outside the box.” Delete, delete, delete.

I’ve also been judicious about using jargon. There’s a difference between buzzwords and jargon. Buzzwords are trendy and have shorter shelf lives, while jargon is specialized language unique to a field or industry. Medicine, law, engineering, computer science, and even fiction and film use specialized language unique to their respective fields.

Corporate buzzword battle, Katie Martin/The Atlantic

In fiction and film, we talk about character motivation, rising tension, beats, sequences, forces of antagonism, denouement, and other expressions that have concrete meaning and are understood by those who practice the writing craft. Is it jargon? Yes, because it’s language unique to this industry, but these expressions aren’t meaningless buzzwords or gibberish.

Just today, I struggled over whether to include or replace the word “leveraging.” It’s one of those jargony words, but everyone seems to use and understand it. “Leverage” as a verb means to “use something to achieve a desired result.” But “using” wasn’t the right word to replace “leveraging” in this context. I wanted to imply not just using, but gaining an advantage, the way you could if you used a lever. I needed a word with more power. I ended up writing “leveraging each organization’s complementary strengths.”

By the way, that’s complementary (balancing, matching, or completing), not complimentary (admiring, approving, or flattering; or free). I often run across the wrong word being used. As for “leveraging,” at least I applied the word deliberately, with careful consideration of its impact on the intended audience.

Using specialized language with clear intent isn’t the same as mindlessly throwing out phrases like “in my wheelhouse” and taking a “deep dive.” It’s not lazily writing about “best practices” and creating “synergistic opportunities.”

Too many buzzwords and your reader or listener stops reading or listening. You’re just spouting nonsense. Too much jargon and sentences lose their meaning. Conversely, strategically and infrequently placed jargon that your audience is familiar with signals to your audience that you understand each other—or, in buzzworthy language, that you’re “on the same page.”

It’s a tricky balance. That’s why professional writers exist.

So let me circle back to the buzzy expression “circle back.” Who first used that expression? I would love to know. Because before “circle back” became trite and goofy, someone used it for the first time to mean “let’s talk about this again.” The first use of “circle back” was a fresh and innovative use of language.

One of my unfulfilled dreams is to come up with an expression so unique, poignant, and definitive that it becomes widely adopted by other writers and speakers, to the point that it becomes a cliché.

Wouldn’t that be “spot-on”?

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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