Apt metaphor or annoying corporate buzzword?
Workplace buzzwords. We’ve all heard them. Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, says you need to stop using them. He provides a list of 25 corporate buzzwords you need to stop saying and gives this absurd example to make the point:
Listen Ray, I don’t have the bandwidth for it with everything that’s on my plate, but ping me anyway because at the end of the day it’s on my radar and I don’t want to be thrown under the bus because I didn’t circle back around on this no-brainer.
What’s the problem with using trendy expressions like these? Bradberry explains with a technical term from clinical psychology: they “annoy the hell out of people.” (You can find out the most hated buzzwords here.)
I agree that overuse of workplace buzzwords is annoying. I also agree that it matters. While trying to sound current and communicate more effectively, you can actually undermine your credibility and sound like a lightweight. Think about a great leader you respect. Does that person use a lot of trendy phrases like “take this offline” and “drill down”?
But I have two reservations about the critique of trendy buzzwords. First, all of us have certain phrases we like to use. Bradberry himself admits a fondness for “low hanging fruit.” Must we give up our favorite expressions just because someone might be annoyed?
Second, the best communicators use metaphors and expressions all the time. The right metaphor can instantly communicate an idea more effectively. Take the “low hanging fruit” example. In just three words it conveys the abstract concept that “we’re going to focus on the tasks that are easily accomplished first, and then we’ll get to the more difficult ones.” Why is that so bad?
This points to the larger question: How do you know the difference between an apt metaphor and an annoying buzzword? Because effective communication is such an important part of my job as a litigator, and because I like to overanalyze things, I will take a stab at answering this question.
Wolfe’s Unified Theory of Expressive Language
Let’s start with a taxonomy of expressive language. Consider these alternatives for saying essentially the same thing:
1. Non-expressive: I will communicate with my client about this issue and then communicate with you again.
2. Clichéd expressive: Let me get on the horn with my client so we can try to put this to bed.
3. Trendy expressive: I will ping my client to touch base and then circle back.
4. Concrete: I will talk to my client about this and then get back to you.
I admit the “non-expressive” example is a little artificial. Hardly anyone talks like that. It sounds like something a robot from a 1950s sci-fi movie would say. But the point is that using literal language sometimes sounds stiff and unexpressive. There’s a reason the instructions for putting together your kid’s swing set are literal while great poetry is metaphorical.
Yes, poetry is nice, but the two “expressive” examples just seem to be trying too hard. They strain to substitute an expression where just saying what you mean would suffice.
The “clichéd” expressions can be annoying because they are overused. They’ve been around as long as anyone can remember. The “trendy” expressions are even more annoying, because they are overused and trendy. They haven’t been around that long but have suddenly become ubiquitous, like a viral YouTube video.
In contrast, there is nothing irritating about the “concrete” example. It’s not as stiff as the “non-expressive” example, but it gets right to the point, without any overused buzzwords. In most situations, it’s probably the best of the four alternatives.
Also, notice that there is more than one kind of buzzword. Some, like “move the goalposts,” express an abstract concept in concrete terms, Others just substitute a trendy word for an ordinary one, such as “ping” instead of “email.” Or they use a fancy word like “synergy” to make something sound more complicated than it really is.
Five Buzzword Commandments
Manners and other social conventions cannot be easily reduced to logical rules. If they could, a show like Seinfeld wouldn’t be so funny. But I’m a lawyer, so I like rules. What rules can we take away from this analysis of workplace buzzwords?
First, the most annoying buzzwords are the ones that merely substitute a trendy term for an ordinary one. These terms don’t add any value. In contrast, an expression like “elephant in the room” at least adds some value by quickly conveying an abstract concept. (Plus, any expression George Washington uses in Hamilton is ok by me.)
The problem, of course, is that even the most apt metaphor can become clichéd through overuse. This gives us the second rule: stop using an expression when you see that everyone else is using it too much.
Third, trendy expressions are generally worse than traditional clichés. For example, compare “hit the ground running” with “I don’t have the bandwidth.” Both of these have become clichés. But “hit the ground running” has been around so long—and expresses the concept so effectively—that it has become a basic part of the language. In contrast, “I don’t have the bandwidth” is just annoying. You could just say “I’m too busy.”
The fourth and probably most obvious rule is that you should use expressions in moderation. Even the trendiest buzzword can be effective if used sparingly. Just don’t overdo it.
Wait a minute, some of you will say. Why should I care so much about what other people think about the way I talk? Using trendy expressions is just how I roll. Why should I change my style just to fit someone else’s narrow conception of effective communication?
Ok, I respect that. If using trendy metaphors is part of your DNA, then don’t stop. Just don’t start talking like that because you think it will make you sound clever. If these phrases don’t come naturally, you will sound even more ridiculous when you strain to use them.
In other words, the fifth rule is to be yourself. At the end of the day, that’s a no-brainer.
Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.
He often writes about issues in departing employee litigation, but this time he decided to think outside the box.