At a glance
We have all been there: the meeting where someone uses words or phrases that sound strange or artificial, but no-one wants to ask what they mean for fear of looking ignorant or old-fashioned. Some examples of buzzwords and jargon can be amusing but others can be a real problem, obscuring meanings and disconnecting people.
“Some of us use jargon for importance,” says Gabrielle Dolan, a leadership consultant and author of the recent book Real Communication: How to be you and lead true.
“We use it to sound more credible or knowledgeable than we actually are. Sometimes people default to jargon when they have something to hide.
“General Motors took this to a new level in 2018 when they referred to the closure of ﬁve plants, with a loss of about 14,000 jobs, as being ‘unallocated’.”
Dolan says the most common reason for the use of jargon is acceptance.
“One of our greatest desires as humans is to be accepted by our group, so we talk in a certain way to ﬁt in. But if we are speaking to people outside the group it can easily lead to misinterpretation and a decline in trust.”
When business buzzwords go mainstream
Many buzzwords find their way into mainstream business from the technology sector. Some come from popular books or consultant reports. The term “war for talent” comes from a McKinsey document. In recent years some buzzwords have come from US politics, such as White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts”, for example.
Dolan has particular dislikes: saying “pivot” instead of change; and “optics”, as in “the optics are poor” instead of “this won’t look good”.
Getting rid of jargon is by no means easy. It has to start at the top. Dolan cites Richard Branson as a leader who pushes his people to use plain language. A leader can require company reports to be written without jargon and acronyms, or might even establish “jargon-free Fridays” to highlight the issue.
“Companies, industries and generations have their own jargon and buzzwords,” says Dolan. “But if someone stops us to ask what they mean, and we find that we are struggling to explain it, it’s a strong sign there is a problem.”
The need-to-know business buzzwords of 2019
All in – depending on one new product for the future of the entire company. Derived from poker.
Bizmeth – short for “business method”.
Bleeding edge – originally, this meant more leading than “cutting edge”, and often referred to new, unproven technology. It has moved out of tech-speak to mean generally being a long way ahead of current trends.
Deck – the components of a visual presentation, as in a “deck of cards”.
Deserves the analog – likely to fail due to not being able to adapt to new circumstances.
Double down – increasing the rhetorical force of your statements in response to criticism.
Freemium – a strategy where the basic version of a product is offered free of charge, in the hope that customers will pay for an upgraded version.
Go live – originally used to describe when a tech product or website was made available to the public, it now means the public release of any new product or service.
Growth hack – this means marketing, usually by cash-strapped start-ups, involving free or low-cost methods such as blogging, social media, search engine optimisation (SEO), and content marketing.
Hyperlocal – the use of GPS data to geographically target audiences and provide location-based advertising delivered through online means, usually phone.
Ideation – the process of creating new ideas. Once restricted to marketing, it has moved into the wider business world.
ITL – acronym for “invited to leave”; that is, firing someone.
Jacking – commandeering content which formerly had some other purpose; it might include a journalist covering a story in a particular way to further a personal agenda (news-jacking), or a corporate takeover of a popular meme to market a product or service (meme-jacking).
Life hack – a tip or technique for accomplishing a familiar task more efficiently.
Limited bandwidth – meaning that you do not have the time or resources to undertake an additional task.
Mashup – originally used to describe songs that meshed two different styles of music into one song but soon came to describe a web application that combines multiple services. The evolution continues, so it now means combining any two things that do not, on the face of either one, belong together.
Move the needle – make a noticeable increase in outcomes through extra effort.
Omnichannel – marketing through a wide range of channels including traditional paid advertising, social media, and influencers.
Ping – once confined to the tech sector, this term is now generally used to mean sending a message, usually by SMS, a short email, or a messaging app.
Pivot – euphemism for failing at one strategy and then turning to another as if nothing had happened.
Push back – a response to criticism, aimed directly at the person making the criticism.
Ripe – likely to fail in the near future due to disruption from new competitors.
Ship/shipping – short for “relationship”. Originally, this meant a romantic relationship, but it has expanded to mean any relationship, such as between a business and its customers.
Side hustle – a small entrepreneurial business run separately to a person’s usual job. The term was used as the title of a book by Chris Guillebeau.
Snowflake – someone who will take offence, and possibly legal action, over any term that they define as hurtful to their chosen identity. These are people who were told by their parents “You are a special snowflake” (ie, unique, beautiful, fragile) and were foolish enough to believe it.
Sweep the sheds – popularised by a book offering lessons for success from the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, who were required to sweep out their locker room as part of their mental training; it means a humble attention to detail.
Trolling the media – manipulating the media to achieve a desired outcome; for example, creating expectations based on artificially low targets so that when the targets are achieved or surpassed the impact is greater.
UTTR – acronym meaning “up and to the right”, like a graphed-up trend of growth.
Yelling at the cloud – a meme derived from a long-running gag from The Simpsons. It means doing something stupid, pointless, and ineffectual. Not unlike buzzwords.