You hate them, you love them, and there’s almost no avoiding them. Business buzzwords are the office version of idiotic memes. The songs you love to hate and can’t ever quite shake out of your head.
Last week I took a refined, academic look at the nature of business buzzwords. I talked about some of the classics and took a long hard think about how we can keep the worst of them out of our workplace. This week, I’m throwing reason and level-headedness out the window and just ranting about the words that give me the most grief.
These are presented in reverse order of how much they drive me crazy. Without further ado.
After the last post, Capterra’s CEO, Michael Ortner, sent me an email saying he “had no idea that synergy was such a bad word.” It’s not. It’s just a word that I don’t think you can say without making everyone in the room notice. It’s a word that’s been overused in business and exclusively used in business. No one ever says that their chicken and wine had great synergy at dinner.
Synergy has real value, but it’s been beaten to death. It has to be on this list, but it’s not the worst kind of word.
19. Open the kimono
This one is shocking and horrifying. While it’s not one that I’ve ever heard used in good faith, my corporate friends tell me that it’s a real thing in their world. Imagery is a wonderful thing, but it’s also a dangerous thing. Opening the kimono has all the vividness of a Guillermo del Toro movie without any of the artistic merit.
18. Burning platform
Makes sense “if you’re a fireman,” a commenter told me, otherwise, leave it alone. This one is another vivid image, but it has the added benefit of being almost meaningless. Part of the problem is that just half of a phrase. The other part of the problem is that it’s a phrase meant to reference a 1988 tragedy where 168 people died. This is not a good way to talk about your need for a new cereal marketing campaign.
17. Action item
This one still confuses me. We decided not to just do things, but to make everything part of some explosive story about how we make photocopies and ask Margaret in accounting when her birthday is.
Getting a new pencil is not an action item, it’s a task.
As I said in the previous post, wheelhouse is an odd one for me. Here’s how the conversation always goes:
“So we need a report/chicken run/kimono opener. Can your firm handle that?”
Wrong: “Yeah, that’s right in our wheelhouse.”
Whatever you’re doing, these words do not apply. Your software that lets you compare likes on Facebook to likes on Twitter is not disruptive. No game is changed when you put the cheese on the bottom of the sandwich. Unless your name regularly appears in Wired, don’t use these words.
14. At the end of the day
Of course. Of course it’s at the end of the day. No one cares about outcomes that aren’t outcomes, which is what you imply when you say that something matters at the end of the day. This one is doubly fun, because it not only indicates an obvious time-frame, it also almost always precedes something that everyone already knows.
“At the end of the day, we need more sales.”
13. Circle back
“Can we circle back to the thing you were saying about pizza delivering dogs?”
“What did you say about pizza delivering dogs?”
See how much shorter and clearer that is? Circling back is not just a longer way to say something, it also brings to mind a longer way to do something. Why would you ever circle back when you could go back?
Circling – unless we’re talking about flight paths – feel like going the long way around.
12. Deep dive
“Research” is the word you’re looking for. You did research. Even that might be a stretch, as what you really did was stare at an Excel sheet dumped out of your Cognos Cube while your boss leaned on the back of your chair and said, “So, which one of these are the sales numbers?”
11. Take offline
This is supposed to be a nice way to say, “The thing you keep talking about is disrupting this meeting, let’s never speak of it again.” It never comes off that way. The most infuriating part is clearly the fact that you’re never online when you say this. When has anyone ever said, “Let’s get this conversation online,” when they want to start a meeting?
Maybe that’s how it works at GoToMeeting, I don’t know.
Another one that never appears outside of an office. No one ever leverages their cutting board to get garlic bread ready. The reason for that is, we don’t leverage things – we use things. If you’ve got a smart guy in the office or a new piece of software, you can just use them to solve the problem.
9. Begs the question
This is the philosopher in me. “Begs the question” doesn’t mean “brings up the question.” It’s a logical fallacy that means you’ve assumed the truth of your conclusion in the premises of your argument.
Bob’s always right. Bob said that he was right about a thing. Therefore, Bob is right.
Everyone will know what you mean if you say, “Rachel’s missing finger begs the question of what she did last night,” but I’ll be mad.
8. Reach out
Call, email, get in touch with, talk to, fax, page, send a smoke signal to, or any other communication option. Reaching out always sounds like a commitment to yell into a crowd before shrugging your shoulders and walking away. Take some responsibility for making sure you actually contact a person.
“Our new report [better yet, deep dive] surfaced some interesting results.”
No it didn’t. You just learned something, but it sounds childish to say that you spent $4,000 to learn that people like cheese more than they like edible flowers. Just say you learned – you can even “discover,” if you have to – something new.
6. Low-hanging fruit
Another idiotic way to say something that everyone already knows.
“Let’s go after the low-hanging fruit.”
No, let’s do the really hard stuff first and watch someone else do the easy things. Of course you’re going after the low-hanging fruit, your neck is too short to reach the good stuff up top.
5. Think outside the box
This one is clearly insulting. Telling people to think outside the box is telling them that, normally, their ideas are ‘in the box,’ which makes them stupid. Stop telling everyone they’re stupid or take responsibility and just tell them.
“Normally you all have bad ideas – this time, try having good ideas.”
Like leverage, but with an extra twist because it actually has another, accurate meaning. According to my good friend the Grammar Girl, “The word ‘utilize’ often appears ‘in contexts in which a strategy is put to practical advantage or a chemical or nutrient is being taken up and used effectively.’”
Not only are you using a bigger word when a smaller one would work, you’re using that bigger word incorrectly.
3. Thought leader
If no one is ever called a thought leader again, I’ll die a happy man. People can be smart or they can be experts or they can be leaders, but a thought leader makes no sense. You don’t lead thoughts, you lead people. If someone is influential, people might like the thoughts they have, but you’re never, ever a thought leader.
2. Going forward
We’re well into the point in this list where I have to step away from the computer while I compose these. Not only does going forward just mean “in the future,” it also is used exclusively in sentences where you could replace it with absolutely nothing.
“Going forward, we’ll be working closely with Jose and his team.”
“We’ll be working closely with Jose and his team.”
Is there a secret fear that someone might think we’ll be working with Jose and his team in the past? That we’ve created a time machine to go back and change what’s already happened? Of course you’re going forward, that’s how time works.
My least favorite business phrase of all time. In part because people use it because they think longer words are worth more intelligence points and in part because even smart people fall into this trap. If I’m collecting feedback on a plan, you can bring the feedback to me. Nothing changes if there’s another party involved. You can being the feedback to me or Martin.
You cannot bring the feedback to Martin or myself. Unless you’ve done something to your own person, “myself” should never pass your lips. I can see, shave, trip, and scratch myself, but you can’t touch myself.
If there’s a misstep that drives myself more crazy than myself, myself doesn’t want to know about it.
What did I miss?
This is a whittled down list, so I know there are more out there. Fortunately for me, I’ve been out of the deeply corporate environment that spawns these things for years now. What business buzzwords are you all hearing that’s pushing your buttons these days? Drop a line in the comments or reach out to myself leveraging your email.
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