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Buzzwords are more likely to confound business communication than inform teamwork.

Business Communication Requires Clearly Understood Language

Idioms can fall on deaf ears of younger generations. Business buzzwords can have the same effect on younger workers. Mixed together, they can muddy workplace relations.

Idioms tend to be sayings passed down from an older generation that don’t always hold their meaning in contemporary conversation. Even if self-explanatory, idioms may fail to convey the intended message.

“Pull your own weight” or “get your ducks in a row” may mean one thing to a 65-year-old and something very different to a 25-year-old. The difference in interpretation can lead to serious misunderstandings.

Buzzwords such as “the new normal” and “lean in” are a form of business jargon that often cause more annoyance than understanding. Worker jargon such as “vibe” and “lit” can have the same effect up the chain of command.

Idioms and buzzwords add color and warmth to speech, not necessarily clarity. Leaders may use idioms and buzzwords at the expense of being direct to avoid bluntness and tough conversations, especially in multigenerational workplace settings.

Word sensitivity may strike some managers as hyper-sensitivity. Effective communication is a two-way street. What you say has to convey what you mean to those who hear it. You might call that “win-win” communication.

Complicating this communications puzzle is the constant evolution of words and phrases on social media, bestselling books or popular TV shows. “Lean in” blossomed into a buzzword in 2013 after publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. A male manager’s use of that phrase may mean something very different to female employees.

To avoid awkward and potentially damaging workplace relations, managers should take stock of phrases they commonly use in communicating with their subordinates. Examples are “take it up a notch”, “burn the midnight oil”, “talk shop” and “be one of the team”. A fellow manager might know what you mean but will your workers, especially younger workers?

These buzzwords convey a general meaning when managerial instructions should convey specific meaning. What exactly is “taking it up a notch”? How urgent is “burning the midnight oil”? Workers may feel like “one of the team” if they clearly understood what teamwork was expected of them.

Miscommunication isn’t just a top-down problem. Vocal patterns of younger workers also can by annoying and contribute to confusion. Effective communication centers on words with clear meanings, not filler phrases that may sound hip.

In a Ragan Communications blog, Sean Devlin writes, “When you’re managing communications for a multigenerational workforce, it’s crucial to use words and phrases that everyone understands. If you’re hiding your true meaning behind jargon, you’re increasing the chance that someone interprets your message the wrong way.”

If you’re hiding your true meaning behind jargon, you’re increasing the chance that someone interprets your message the wrong way.

Weird Al Yankovic explores the world of buzzwords in his Mission Statement video.

Buzzword Danger
Marketer Alex Lukashov says buzzwords are potentially dangerous as well as confusing. “We know that buzzwords are shortcuts for ideas we’re trying to express and are often generalizations,” he explains. “The reason we keep using them is to get someone’s attention or to easily get an idea across. Therein lies the danger.”

“Unwittingly we get accustomed to using buzzwords and they become so entrenched in our day to day we start using them as action items,” Lukashov adds. “We lose sight of the intended meaning and settle for generalizations that sound about right.”

His advice is worth following – Make sure to clarify, don’t close with buzzwords, don’t pretend to understand and write out what you mean. “Did you ever smile and nod in a meeting when presented with a bunch of buzzwords that technically sound good?” Lukashov asks. “Take responsibility and dig deeper. Don’t assume you’re not up to speed with the industry jargon – chances are a clarification is needed.”

If you need motivation to examine your business lingo, check out Weird Al Yankovic’s amusing Mission Statement video.