I was reading Maria Hanson’s list of most annoying business trends for 2010 over at LiveCareer, and one of them gave me a serious case of déjà vu:
Overused jargon and inappropriate clichés: Value-add. Brain-dump. Incentivize. The list goes on (and on and on). Among the myriad troubling terms is "out of pocket." It's supposed to be about expenses (meaning an expense isn't covered, so you need to pay for it out of your own pocket). Now it's come to mean "out of contact for a while." Example: "I'll be out of pocket until 4:30!" your coworker says as he heads out the door. Duncan Phillips, of The Hodges Partnership, has this opinion on the phrase: "It needs to be officially retired from our lexicon."
Wait a second, I remember how annoying some of those same buzzwords seemed when I was working during the Internet boom a decade ago! It got me thinking: how many of these buzzwords that we demonize because they seem silly or don’t really appear to mean anything have become so ingrained in our culture of business that we can’t stop using them, even though they never stop being annoying?
With that in mind, I went back over several of the annual lists of “worst buzzwords” that get published every year. Indeed, there are several repeat offenders that just won’t go away.
First, let’s consider this year’s leading contenders, as compiled here and here, among other places. Most-hated buzzwords so far for 2010: Actionable, synergy, incentivize, value-add, best of breed, solution, outside the box, offline. Ok, fair enough.
Now let’s take a look back at the worst buzzwords of last year: Actionable, synergy, incentivize, value-add, best of breed, solution, outside the box, offline. Wow! Did we lose any annoying buzzwords from last year? Well, “brain dump” and “authenticity” seem to have lost some steam in the last 12 months, and a few others. And there are some new ones that have popped into the public consciousness this year, like “peeling the onion.”
But okay, that was just one year ago. Let’s jump back all the way back to 2006. What do we find? Several of the current least-favorites have been around for some time: Synergy, value-add, solution, outside the box, offline. Plus a few that still pop up on buzzword lists: low-hanging fruit, core competency, ROI, paradigm shift. At least we’ve shed a few of the worst from the middle of the decade: “free value” had to be one of the stupidest concepts ever mercilessly crammed into a two-word phrase. And “make it pop” is long gone. But still, five of the 10 most irritating buzzwords this year have been champs at least four years running.
Now, let’s go one better and go all the way back to Y2K. What were the most annoying buzzwords 10 years ago? There’s a nice little retrospective here, and one of the top choices jumps right out. Here’s Megan Barnett’s eulogy for “synergy”:
Synergy died in 2000. Time Warner murdered it in cold blood when it merged with AOL. No one knew about the funeral at the time, but in the following years, more and more people showed up to mourn the corporate term…Good riddance.
Alas, spoken too soon. In fact, synergy has made the bad-buzzword lists every year for the decade since. However much we may call it useless, it’s still in use. Same with “value-added”—this article explaining the concept is from 1997!
These, obviously, are the words we love to hate. Is it just that we can’t think of a better way to describe the alignment of corporate goals than “synergy?” Or is it that overuse has actually given these phrases a (get ready to cringe) value-add, because most people have at least a vague sense of what they mean? To put it another way, if we hate these words so much, why won’t they go away?
Sharlyn Laurby at HR Bartender makes an interesting argument: maybe buzzwords aren’t so bad after all. She doesn’t like worst-word lists, and here’s her buzzword-loaded explanation of why:
Let me circle back with my apprehension about these lists. My beef is that all they do is tell you what not to say. For example, leading one of these lists is the word “leverage”. If you aren’t supposed to say leverage, then what are you supposed to say? I’m having a hard time believing if I use the word leverage in a sales presentation, it all of a sudden becomes a game changer. I believe if you’re going to publish a list of the words that people should strike from their vocabulary…then reach out and give them replacement words. Interface with your employees by telling them what they’re supposed to say – it creates a real value-add. How difficult can that be?
My guess is we won’t stop using these words, or hating them, either. So if you want to get a jump on the “bleeding edge” of bad buzzwords, check out this list. Eat the frog? Drink from the fire hose? Bio break? Suddenly, synergy never looked so good.