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Bury Those Buzzwords

How do you think "outside the box" while remaining "on the same page?" Can you achieve "synergy" by using a "holistic approach?" Wha? Despite the relentless attack on their use by the comic strip Dilbert and other enemies of corporate gobbledygook, buzzwords are prospering in cubicles and boardrooms across America.

Now comes a new study from Britain that says one in five employees believe they have to use business jargon to keep pace with their colleagues -- even though they don't know what many of the words actually mean. The survey of 1,000 employees, conducted by the large British employment agency Office Angels, also reports that 65% of Brits use buzzwords in the workplace.

Turns out, the language confusion on the U.S. side of the pond may be more dire, according to buzzword buster Steve Crescenzo, president of Chicago-based Crescenzo Communications. As an employee-communications consultant, Crescenzo works with clients such as Chevron, Siemens, John Deere, and energy company Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) to help them improve the way they communicate with their workers.

Crescenzo recently talked with BusinessWeek Online's Eric Wahlgren about how managers can find alternatives to buzzwords that will turn your company -- and everyone in it -- into a better communicator. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: So if one in five British workers uses buzzwords to keep up with their colleagues and yet may have no clue as to what they mean, what's the situation in the U.S?

A: I'd say in America it's probably three in five or four in five maybe, especially at the management level. Buzzwords often go right over the heads of employees. They don't go home and say things to their spouses like: "Hey listen, honey, you need to reestablish your 'core competencies' here." Or, "we need to 'shift some paradigms' here in order to be a 'world-class' family." They talk in real language.

Meanwhile, all these managers are hiring high-priced consultants, who are getting paid all kinds of money to come up with things like "core competencies" and "total quality." This means nothing to the employees. It probably doesn't mean anything to the managers, either. But nobody wants to say the emperor has no clothes. Nobody wants to say that these words are empty and meaningless and vague and vacuous. So they all pretend that they know. And they all continue to use them.

There's always going to be another guru who makes his or her money by coming up with terms that nobody else knows. I mean, if you're a guru, and you say "Hey, you've got to make your customers happy. You've got to keep your employees happy," no one is going to give you $100,000. But if you come in and say, "Listen, I've got this hot new thing called 'total quality' that will make everybody happy," then the company is going to want to know what that is.

Q: What are the biggest buzzword offenders today?

A: I'd say "total quality" is fairly big, still. But it has faded, thank God. Everybody wants to talk about being a "world class" organization. I'll give anybody in your audience $1 million if they can e-mail me a definition of what "world class" truly means. It's just a buzzword that everybody pops on. They want to use it to describe a really good company, a superior company, one that does stuff really well, or one whose customers are really happy. "World class" doesn't mean anything to anybody.

I'm afraid that "downsizing" is back big-time as a buzzword, because companies are starting to lay off. And God forbid that we ever say, "We're laying off." So we say, "downsizing," or "rightsizing."

"Synergy" is a big one these days. "We have got to create a 'synergy.'" That's not a bad word, on the face of it. But it doesn't really mean anything anymore because we have beaten it to death. So employees hear words like "synergy," and they're simply left cold. We're going to start hearing, "Employees are our 'greatest asset' again." They always trot that one out whenever they're laying off employees by the thousands.

Q: What does it say about an organization when its managers use a lot of buzzwords?

A: It shows that there's a lack of real thought there. That there's an emperor-has-no-clothes mentality. They're hitching onto every fad that comes along. It's going to be "total quality" this month. Next month, it's going to be "continuous improvement." Then it's going to be "quality circles." And then it's going to be "reengineering." It's a tendency to try to mimic what everybody else is doing.

I have a lot more respect for companies that don't deal in buzzwords but deal in the real world. If they want to say "continuous improvement," they should find a real-world way of saying it. I think anyone who uses a lot of buzzwords should take a hard look at the creative thought process. They should also look at their leadership, too, to ask, "Why are we hiring people? What's our business about? Why are we just parroting what everybody else is doing in business?"

Q: How do buzzwords seep into everyday language?

A: I think it's the quote-unquote gurus, the consultants. These are the people who somehow come up with the latest thing, and then nobody wants to be the one to ignore it. The business press, like your magazine, writes about it. Then managers start reading about it. So words like "reengineering" are created. People "reengineered." They took it to mean layoffs. Nobody could stop themselves because this was the latest thing. Finally, the buzzword dies out when the next one comes along.

Q: What happens when you get rid of buzzwords? Can an organization just stop using them?

A: I think managers have to make a conscious effort to get rid of buzzwords. We're not going to "level the playing field." We're not going to "proactively leverage" our talent. We're not going to do any of that stuff. We are going to speak in clean, simple terms to employees, whether it's in print, whether it's on the Internet, or even in a face-to-face discussion. We're going to train our managers to do that.

Talk the way you would talk if you were talking to your family. Your employees will have so much respect for you if you talk to them like a normal human being. You will cut through all that Dilbertized clutter that exists in Corporate America and be a real voice. When you're saying your buzzwords, when you're parroting what everybody else is saying, they're giggling up their sleeve at you.

I've found that employees are going into meetings and playing buzzword bingo. They have a list of all the latest buzzwords being espoused by management. As soon as the manager says the word, they cross it off and look at each other. Then, when they get them all crossed off, somebody wins the game. Companies need to set up editorial guidelines for publications, and for the Internet, that say: "We don't allow jargon. We don't allow buzzwords." People should be speaking in plain language that I would hear if I were at a backyard barbecue.

Q: Didn't the dot-com era give rise to a whole new set of buzzwords. Expressions like "talking offline" to mean discussing informally outside of a meeting, etc.?

A: I think the high-tech buzzwords actually have some root in meaning. A test for me on a buzzword is whether an employee would ever use the word with another employee. And in most cases -- with words like "continuous improvement" and "total quality" and "world-class" -- an employee would never turn to another employee and say, "You know what? This is going to be a 'world-class' product."

To me, a buzzword is empty. It has been used so much that it has no meaning. Some of those high-tech buzzwords still have meaning. But you line up 15 employees and ask, "What does it mean when we're supposed to strive for 'continuous improvement?'" Nothing.

Q: So buzzwords are bad. But you must have at least one buzzword that you can't help using.

A: I do. Let me think. Which one do I use? I tend to use "transitioning" for a verb, which I hate. I hate it. And as soon as I say it, I want to pull my tongue out. I tend to say, "If we're transitioning print content online, here's what we need to do." I really could just say, "If we're taking print publications and putting them online..."

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