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Buzzwords
By Elaine Wiltshire

November 27 2009 issue


[Illustration by Jeremy Bruneel]
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Professionals looking to “leverage” their “cutting edge” skills and create a “synergy” in their “customer-centric” practice, not to mention those looking for “game changer” “solutions” to the “gloom and doom” “economy,” may want to rethink their use of clichés and buzzwords.

These types of words and phrases can become so overused — not to mention really annoying — that they start to lose their meaning and actually become a barrier to effective communication.

“Professionals — including legal professionals — are evaluated increasingly by their ability to communicate in the workplace, as well as with clients,” said Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal. “Overused terms, particularly in formal communication, can... actually be a detriment to their communication-style.”

Accountemps, a division of Robert Half International Inc., recently released the results of a survey that asked 150 senior executives at 1,000 of the largest companies in the U.S. to identify the most annoying and overused phrases or buzzwords in the workplace today.
“Particular phrases and terminology obviously have their place in the workplace, but when industry jargon is overused a lot of people just stop paying attention,” Volkert says.

Words that made this year’s list include “leverage,” “viral,” “disconnect” and “interface.”

A similar survey was conducted by Accountemps in 2004 and many of the same words and phrases appeared on both lists. Words, including “synergy,” “on the same page” and “at the end of the day,” were all labelled as “hall-of-fame” buzzwords for making an appearance on both the 2004 and 2009 surveys.

Daisy Yu, a business and technology lawyer with Heydary Hamilton PC in Toronto, says a phrase like “think outside the box” — a hall of famer — has become so overused it can actually create the opposite effect.

“It doesn’t really help anything when someone says that to you because they are basically telling something you already know,” she says. “It is sometime annoying because it doesn’t move the conversation forward — they’re just words.”

Ironically, said Yu, “it really doesn’t encourage you to think outside the box when someone tells you that.”

David Debenham, a partner at Lang Michener LLP, hears this type of business jargon on a daily basis but says he is not negatively affected by the phrases.

“If it’s easier for someone to get a thought across by using a little cliché, that’s fine,” he says. “I take a more relaxed attitude to it than other people because that’s just the way people, not only in the business world, but in all walks of life, use the language.”

When people overuse particular words and phrases, it really takes away from the original meaning, which could actually have been quite brilliant at some point, says Howard Richler, a language expert and author of Can I Have a Word With You?

“It’s just like sometime when people read Shakespeare for the first time, they can think it’s full of clichés because the phrases have become so overused,” he said.

Richler points to the use of “synergy” as an example. “It’s actually quite a brilliant concept but has really lost any cache it had because it is so overused. It seems that sometimes it’s said just to impress other people — which generally people can see right through.”

The use of some particular buzzwords also serve to illustrate what is currently on everyone’s mind — namely the economic climate.
 “Definitely some phrases cited in this survey suggest that executives are suffering from some recession fatigue,” says Volkert. “We can definitely tell that the economy may have impacted some of these buzzwords in 2009.”

Many words that made the list were directly related to the economic downturn. Words and phrases that made the list include “downsizing,” “gloom and doom” and, of course, “bailout.”

Richler said words can develop or take on different meanings as people try and put a positive spin on a situation, which may account for the recession-related words on the list.

Debenham agrees that many of the clichés he encounters on a daily basis are really based on trying to sound positive, pointing to phrases like “we versus I” and “changing problems into challenges” (which did not make the Accountemps list).

“I just find there’s an attempt to put a positive spin on everything,” he said. “Business has become politics in that sense and people are trying to be more upbeat about things, especially in the recession.”

He also says he sees a generational gap when it comes to the use of buzzwords.

“I find that young people use them more than people my age,” he said, adding that many of the buzzwords are directly influenced by technological trends and the younger generation is already comfortable with the terms when they enter the business lexicon.

Yu, who was called to the Ontario Bar in 2006, agrees that her generation is very familiar with some of the terms listed in the survey because of their use in conjunction with popular technology, like social networking sites.

“That type of technology is just part of our everyday lives. People use those words, and you don’t really blink an eye because you know exactly what they mean,” she said, referring to words like “viral” as it relates to websites like YouTube and Twitter. “It’s almost as if it’s always been a part of our lexicon.

“I don’t find I use those words so much in the professional setting, but just in casual conversation I definitely use those words,” she said.

Good communication means recognizing that there is a time and a place for these types of buzzwords — and in a professional setting it may not be appropriate.

“Employees need to be careful as far as their word choice and just make sure that they plan accordingly when they have a key communication discussion,” suggested Volkert.

“If we continue to use these buzzwords too much, they have less meaning, less impact within the workplace or if you’re (communicating) with a client. You just need to be careful as far as your word choice and communication style.”

So, “at the end of the day,” although buzzwords are annoying and can hinder effective communication, in terms of their use in the language, it just “is what it is.”

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