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- Research shows that using vague vocabulary can undermine trust in your message.
- Rather than focusing on phrasing, strive to make a clear and original point, says author Joel Schwartzberg.
- Many examples of corporate jargon are overused and imprecise. Substituting more specific alternatives will make a more compelling case to your audience.
Who doesn’t love mocking business buzzwords? It’s a game-changer to get buy-in for our new ideas as we do a deep dive and ideate. Ping me!
Many people added their corp-speak pet peeves to our community post about business jargon phrases, with examples like “action that,” “the ask is,” and my new (cringey) favorite, from community leader Brittany Joiner, “single throat to choke.”
But we can’t just make fun of overused corporate-speak. We need alternatives. Research indicates that clearer language helps people not only understand, but trust what you’re saying. When your messaging is precise, helpful, and includes relatable examples without overdoing the clichéd business jargon – well, it’s a win-win.
Focus on clear communication, not fresh lingo
“The desire to communicate ‘in fresh ways’ should be reframed as the desire to communicate authentically,” says Joel Schwartzberg, author of “Get to the Point!” and “The Language of Leadership.” “To convey authenticity, speakers should avoid and reject words and phrases that don’t match their natural speaking style or vocabulary.”
Schwartzberg adds that a great tool for conveying uniqueness and authenticity in a corporate setting is to tell personal stories to illustrate your points. “[But] the most critical part of strategic storytelling,” he says, “is not the story itself, but where the speaker says something like, ‘This story illustrates why.’ Without that line, the story may be riveting but not relevant.”
In terms of being “fresh” and relevant, Schwartzberg advises us to focus on conveying fresh points –versus fresh words or phrases. “Ultimately, you don’t want your audience to take away your words,” he says. “You want them to take away your point. Having a vibrant and original point is the best way to make sure it will have an impact. Tactical words and phrases support that delivery.”
At the end of the day (see what I did there?), whether you’re an entry-level employee or a member of the C-suite, it’s about having a command of what you’re trying to communicate. A “double-click” here and there could work. And let’s not forget, humans love slang, idioms, and parlance. It’s how we communicate, how we relate to one another in different settings. But “using corporate jargon,” says Schwartzberg, “even simply haughty words like ‘efficacy,’ ‘iterate,’ ‘synergy,’ and ‘robust,’ signal that the speaker is thinking of themselves and not the audience.”
And that’s really the crux, isn’t it? Whether or not you’re doing your best to communicate and help someone understand.
6 examples of bad corporate jargon – and what to use instead
1. Mission critical
Here’s the question: are you going to Mars? Any time I read about a mission, I mostly think…rockets.
The problem with constantly describing things as “mission-critical” is that it’s difficult to gauge when something is actually essential to existence or operation, versus a feature, tool, or update that’s important or even nice to have.
In short, use the phrase sparingly. Save it for when something is actually, honest-to-goodness so essential, your audience must have it.
Try instead: Essential. Necessary. Needed.
More than just using a different word, it’s all about what you’re describing. Aim for authentic reasons and clear points. Tell your audience a story or anecdote to help them understand. If you can focus on specific benefits to your audience, especially through strong real-situation examples, you’ll make more sense, earn trust, and get better results.
Especially with respect to technology and how apps play (or don’t play) nicely with each other, seamless is the desired state of being for everything. So, here again: this word is overused and imprecise. If everything is seamless, is anything seamless?
Try instead: Smooth. Continuous. Uninterrupted. Fast.
Again, more important than word choice is the what. What is “seamless?” The experience itself? How your product integrates with another? The user’s experience when performing an action or task? The more we can describe what we’re talking about with precision, the better we’ll be understood.
3. Full disclosure, full transparency
First off, these aren’t the same. To disclose means to reveal, especially something secret or unknown. And to be transparent, well, this excellent word means to “be easy to perceive or detect.”
Question: Do you, like me, wince when someone starts a sentence with “full transparency?” I start preparing myself for something awful. What are they about to drop on me?
So what’s the problem here? This statement is:
- Using “transparency” to mean “disclosure.”
- Making transparency seem like something one might, uh, wield.
Here’s the thing: I would certainly hope my teammates are being transparent. That is, having thoughts, motives, and feelings that are easy for me to perceive. And if there’s something I should know, something that might be relevant that’s hidden from me, I would also hope a teammate would disclose that information to me in the interest of clear and full communication.
Try instead: In truth. To be candid. I’m going to be straightforward. Let me be direct.
Don’t let pat phrases obscure your true intentions, especially when you might end up putting your listener on edge. What you mean to say is that you’re being honest. Good! Say what you mean, and don’t hide behind corporate jargon phrases.
4. Best in breed, best in class, best, best, best
Everyone wants their product or service to top The Best List. But overuse of grand phrases like these can quickly ring hollow. The key is description.
Are you saying, essentially, that among all the other products, yours is the undisputed best because of a certain designation or award? In that case, maybe “best” is fair. But too often, “best” is used for things that are among the best or even aspiring to be among the best.
Take it a step further and tell your reader more about what makes your product or service actually stand out in comparison to others, and let your audience decide.
Try instead: Uniquely crafted. Specially designed. Created by accounting professionals for accounting professionals. Brought to you by the team that invented Trello (or Jell-O, or whatever you’ve got).
There’s power in ditching the grandiosity and talking about what makes your selling point or value proposition outstanding.
Phweeet! The business-speak ref just blew her whistle. Yes, sometimes it’s a handy word that stands in for “takes advantage of” or “makes use of,” but be honest – don’t you flinch a little every time you hear it?
Adaptavist’s Nic Brough says he prefers to say “use,” because leverage is not an appropriate one-to-one replacement for “use,” and it can even have negative connotations.
Try instead: Makes use of. Connects to. Works with.
Leverage is a word that really illustrates the point: jargon often distances you from your audience. Use simpler language for clearer and friendlier communication.
6. Single source of truth
Have everything in one place for all to reference? You win! You might even call this your single source of truth. But be careful – overuse of this phrase sometimes dilutes its actual meaning. That is, if something is indeed your single source of truth, where stakeholders, contributors, and others alike can get the information they need, rock on. But too often that’s not entirely true.
A “single source of truth” should be the agreed-upon destination for a specific type of information. You might be able to get data from a variety of sources, but this page or tool is the final authority. It’s not so much about getting all the information, it’s getting the right information – in one place.
Try instead: Information or reference hub. Knowledge base. Storehouse. One-stop shop.
PSA: English idioms can be confusing for non-native speakers
This is an often overlooked but important element of any conversation about jargon. Community leader Nic Brough of Adaptavist wrote, “When your work is with countries where English (or variants such as Australian or American) are the primary language, phrases like ‘flogging a dead horse,’ ‘memory of a goldfish,’ or ‘dead cow’ are moderately understandable (if a bit animal cruel). They often have equivalent phrases or idioms in non-English languages, but idioms generally translate very, very badly. Which is why I always encourage people to speak in base English, without idioms or jargon.”
When it comes to idiomatic language and communicating with non-native English speakers (and non-American-English speakers, for that matter), Nic has an awesome suggestion: “Try asking ‘How do you say this in your language?'” This tactic serves the dual purpose of preventing a potential misunderstanding while also learning a cool new way to say something.
When you’re positioning yourself as a thought leader – that is, someone who knows what they’re talking about – the first rule of thumb is keep it simple. And the language we choose can make or break that simplicity.
As Charles Mingus, the famous jazz musician, once said: “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”
Save the marketing euphemisms for just the right time. Otherwise, take the time to say what you mean in a relatable and understandable way.
Check out Joel Schwartzberg’s article in Harvard Business Review, “Find the Right Words to Inspire Your Team,” for more of his insights.
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