Monday, March 2, 2009

Top Buzzwords and Why to Avoid Them, Part I

I'm not against jargon. If you're writing for a company magazine or speaking to a group of like-minded folks who know your industry, jargon is a useful tool. So this post isn't about that. This post, and several to follow, will deal with specific buzzwords--business words that are overused and rarely examined for meaning.

Those who have followed these posts know that my least favorite buzzword is solution, especially when, God help us, it's used as a verb, e.g., "We'll solution marketing's ideas this afternoon." What's the point of a solution if a problem hasn't been articulated? And if you look closely at Web sites, you'll see that solution is often simply a substitute for program, product, or service--all perfectly lovely words that tell the customer something about what the company does.

Right up there with solution is the word leverage. It's almost as overused and just as nonsensical. Leverage, in the context we hear it today, comes to us from the world of finance. Investorwords.com defines it as "the degree to which one is using borrowed money." It became a very popular term during the Go-Go '80s. Everyone was buying companies with OPM (other people's money), using the assets of one company to purchase another, and dancing in the streets. Greed was good. Well, look where that got us. But I digress.

Today, business literature and Web sites leverage everything, e.g., "We leverage our core competencies, business synergies, and human capital to bring you best-of-breed service." I'll bet if you asked the perpetrator of that sentence what he or she meant by leverage, you'd be greeted by a great big silence.

As far as I can tease out from the Web sites where this word appears on page after page, companies are trying to tell you that they have a lot of different kinds of skills and they'll take full advantage of them to give you great service. Leverage has nothing to do it. It's just a buzzword that's run amok.

As I said in Talking Your Way to the Top: Business English That Works, buzzwords are not just meaningless; they can be dangerous. I believe most people use them because they think it makes them sound like the big guys. They become too lazy to dig out a thesaurus and look for an apt synonym for the phrase du jour.

But in the worst case, buzzwords can be employed to shade the truth, to make the picture look rosier than it is. By saying nothing and using a lot of words to do it, companies can sometimes hide the facts. Today, that's shortsighted. Customers are looking for the greatest possible clarity before they plunk down their hard-earned dough. They're fed up with lack of meaning. Show them you care by giving them what they want: direct, simple communication. It will pay off.

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