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Even original thinkers can fall into the business cliché trap. Here’s how to avoid 20 of the most tiresome buzzwords and expressions.
“Let’s get our ducks in a row.” “I’ll circle back on that.” “Ping me!”
Business jargon is everywhere in today’s workplace, and it shows no signs of abating. While there’s nothing wrong with specialized language for business-related concepts, buzzwords have a way of becoming easy substitutes for clear communication. That’s why they’re so overused — and so grating.
Even people who hate corporate buzzwords often fall back on them when a better word doesn’t spring to mind. Click on a link or two, and you’ll even find a few right here on the C2FO website. We’ll never eradicate them, but we can at least fight back. Here are 20 examples of overused business jargon, along with some plain English phrases you can use instead.
Synergize: This is one of the most common (and most reviled) of all corporate buzzwords. Business leaders use it all the time when trying to sound professional. “Synergize” comes from two Greek roots: syn, meaning “together,” and erg, meaning “work.” Hey, here’s a thought: maybe say “work together” instead.
“Think outside the box”: How old is this phrase? Decades? Centuries? It probably dates back to the invention of the box! It’s ironic that so many people use this worn-out cliché to encourage innovative thinking. What to say instead: “Think differently.” “Explore new ideas.”
Utilize: The verb “use” is clear, concise and unobtrusive. “Utilize” is just a puffed-up way of saying the same thing. Imagine Obi-Wan saying, “Utilize the Force, Luke!” Weak, right? Just say “use.”
“We need to have a conversation around that”: When did we start talking around things instead of about them? Talking around an issue sounds like we don’t want to address it head-on.
And why say “have a conversation” when “talk” does the job more efficiently? What to say instead: “We should talk about that.” “We should discuss that.”
Wheelhouse: Do we really need to compare ourselves to old-time sea captains just to say we’re good at something? Instead of “This is in your wheelhouse,” try dropping the metaphor. “You’d be great at this!”
Leverage: Whoever makes up corporate jargon loves to turn nouns into verbs. “Leverage” can imply a need to exploit untapped potential, but too often it’s just another fancy word for “use.” If you need something more nuanced than “use,” try “capitalize on.”
“Take it offline”: “Let’s take this offline” is an obvious euphemism for “I don’t want to deal with this right now.” It vaguely suggests that you might bring the issue back “online” at some point, but there are no promises. If you’re too busy to engage at the moment, it’s better to express it directly: “Can we talk about this later?”
“Drink the Kool-Aid”: This has to be the most tasteless of all corporate clichés. By alluding to the 1978 Jonestown massacre, it warns against following a dangerous trend or set of beliefs. This phrase won a 2012 Forbes Magazine poll as “the single most annoying example of business jargon.” What to say instead: “Don’t be misled.” “Think for yourself.”
Thought leader: Pretentious much? In these days of constant self-promotion, vague but lofty terms like this abound. “Thought leader” is puffery, as are “ninja,” “guru” and “rock star.” What to say instead: “expert” or “authority.”
Key learnings: Once upon a time, we’d conduct studies or market tests and come up with a set of findings. Not content with the existing word, the jargon makers turned “learning” into a noun, pluralized it, and added “key” for an extra dash of hype. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to return to “findings” or even “what we’ve learned”?
“Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze”: Okay, you probably laughed the first time you heard this one. Maybe you smiled the second time.
After the 3,000th time, it started to wear thin. When a joke has outlived its humor, it’s time to get back to basics: “Let’s make sure this is worth the effort.”
Core competencies: Think of your company’s aims and aspirations. Is “competency” really the highest goal you’re striving for? “Core competencies” has alliteration and lots of syllables going for it, but not much substance. A simpler alternative would be “what we do best.”
Results-driven: Some things just don’t need to be said. Every initiative the company undertakes is results-driven. What else would it be? Feelings-driven? Laziness-driven? There’s no good alternative for this one. Just leave it out altogether.
“Push the envelope”: How many people know the literal meaning of this? It first became popular when test pilots would push “the envelope,” meaning the limits for safe operation of an aircraft. In an office setting, it doesn’t make much sense. How much effort does it take to push an envelope? What to say instead: “push the boundaries” or “test the limits.”
“On the same page”: Is your audience a class of third graders following along as you read a story? Are you leading a church congregation in a hymn? If so, you need to make sure everyone’s on the same page. If not, you’re using an old, moth-eaten metaphor. What to say instead: “We agree.”
Low-hanging fruit: As a metaphor, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “low-hanging fruit.” Unfortunately, years of repetition have made it a tired, old cliché. What to say instead: “easy opportunities” or “easy pickings.”
Ecosystem: Don’t we sound smart when we use scientific terms to refer to our corporate environment? Or maybe we just sound pretentious? Might as well say “organization” or “industry” instead.
“Going forward”: Few people would ever say this outside of an office setting. In business, we always want to think of ourselves as moving forward, so this is a sly way to imply that you’re advancing boldly into the future. That may be true, but not because you used a stale corporate phrase. What to say instead: “In the future…” “From now on…”
“At the end of the day”: Even as a metaphor, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. How often is everything neatly tied up at the end of a day? Instead of defaulting to jargon, try something simpler: “In the end…” “When the results come in…”
Even if you could banish these 20 buzzwords and phrases forever, coworkers would still be reaching out from their swim lanes to touch base about laddering up to next-level productivity. Still, if you make an effort to use business jargon only when it really means something, you’ll improve communication and make employees’ ears hurt a little less. It’s a no-brainer, right?
All jargon jokes aside, if you need a fresh approach to managing your working capital and want to increase cash flow for your business, learn how C2FO can help.
This article originally published September 2020, and was updated October 2022.
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