It’s time to banish corporate jargon

Buzzwords and management-speak are not only bad for business, but for your career too

CAN WE drill down in the thought shower?” If this sentence makes sense to you, you could be under jargon’s wicked spell. And according to Deloitte, businesspeople are among the worst offenders when it comes to using pompous or inflated language.

Take, for instance, a recent Citigroup announcement that it would “reposition actions,” leading to “an optimised consumer footprint across geographies”. Baffled? Politicians are little better – last year, civil servants had to be issued with a style guide banning metaphors like “drive out” and “ring-fence”. And the chancellor couldn’t resist the odd buzz-term during yesterday’s Budget. “Fix the roof when the sun is shining to protect Britain from future storms?” “A resilient pound for a resilient economy?”
But while we may all love to hate the lingo, it could be holding us back. Here’s why it’s best avoided.

It may sound impressive, but a 2003 Deloitte report found corporate addiction to buzzwords is losing firms millions of pounds a year. “When jargon begins to take hold, it can have surprisingly positive effects, creating a positive image for the company. But this often comes with darker consequences: primary tasks are crowded out and stakeholder trust is undermined,” says professor Andre Spicer of Cass Business School.

And according to Terry Smith of Tullet Prebon, it may affect investor perceptions: company management speak could “represent a combination of woolly thinking and a desire to disguise or divert away from a problem.” Chrissie Maher of the Plain English Campaign, meanwhile, says financial jargon also leaves customers frustrated. “Terms and conditions, credit-card agreements – English is my first language and I struggle with this business gobbledygook,” she says.

But while jargon can be a quick and efficient way of communicating, if you find yourself using the word “deliver” when you’re not discussing pizza, it could be damaging to your career. Jennifer Chatman of Haas School of Business says it could stop you thinking hard and clearly about your goals. “And using words like ‘strategy’ dress things that are fairly unimportant as essential, making it hard to prioritise,” says Spicer.

Corporate lingo is also a big interview don’t. “People think it’s a good image-management technique, but overuse of jargon will just make an interviewer think you don’t know your stuff,” says Spicer. What’s more, a lot of jargon may be industry or company-specific. “So while you may think you’re impressing the interviewer with your vocabulary, it’s possible they won’t understand its meaning – especially if it’s with an HR department,” says Matt Weston of Robert Half.

The first step to recovery? Identifying the enemy. First, terms used for a meaning beyond their original purpose. “Key?” Not unless it unlocks something. “Going forward?” Only if you’re in a moving vehicle.

Second, words used in an effort to sound profound. “Dialogue?” We’re just talking. And avoid nouns that have been converted into verbs. See “action” and “leverage”.

Finally, there’s a wealth of wordy expressions to steer clear of. Try replacing “touch base” and “reach out” with “contact”. And a personal favourite, as shamed in the Forbes annual Jargon Madness list, is “open the kimono”. Perhaps stick to its less suggestive alternative: “share information”.

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