Bye Bye Buzzwords...

Why getting rid of them makes much more sense.

14 October 2009, by Tracey Swanepoel

When Bill Clinton was furiously campaigning for his second term, his advisers, in an effort to keep him on message, coined the phrase "it's the economy, stupid". When things go wrong in personal relationships or in business, it often crosses my mind that "it's communication (stupid!)".

Communication is named and shamed for almost every organisational pathology under the sun. It doesn't end there, read the agony columns, speak to therapists or even trawl through divorce papers... the C word is always a culprit.

We know all of this but why are we no closer to solving the communication riddle, either in business or personal relationships? Shockingly, organisational communication has not only failed to improve over the past 20 years, it is actually getting worse. According to proprietary research conducted in the UK, 55% of staff say the relevance of the information they receive about the company strategy and their jobs, has deteriorated; and less than 50% of employees know their company's objectives.

So ironically in a world more "connected" than ever before, staff are feeling alienated, uninvolved and directionless.

Blame it on the "stuff"

The SOS (as in Send Out Stuff) mentality has a lot to answer for. Mention the C (communication) word in companies and they will proudly tell you about the stuff that they send out. The 600 word e-mail that gets sent out weekly, the executive road show, the 100-slide Power Point strategy, all available on the company intranet.

Then there's the "do stuff" mentality: the meetings we do on autopilot (like weekly team briefings; strategic planning breakaways; even the quarterly performance appraisal) believing that somehow, somewhere all this stuff will magically make a difference. Won't it?

The answer lies in "New York"

Well, no! Simply because in most cases we have no idea what WE are talking about! We use buzzwords like "mission", "vision", "performance"., to name a few. When was the last time we stopped and checked if we all understand these words in the same way? Do they mean the same thing to all of US?

What do I mean by "meaning"? Words trigger certain mental pictures in our brains, which develop as a result of experiences or associations. Mental pictures differ among individuals. This is not the problem. The problem is that we assume all our mental pictures are identical and never stop to discuss or clarify the differences. (Incidentally, stopping to discuss or clarify our different meanings and interpretations would be one of the purest definitions of communication.)

Ask a group of people what the words "New York" bring to mind. No doubt you would hear a kaleidoscope of mental pictures from Frank Sinatra to 9/11. In a sense this is what we do all the time in the corporate context without realising or clarifying. Substitute an individual's unique and vivid image of their "New York" every time we use corporate jargon in the next sentence. This is what happens: "In order to achieve our mission (New York) made up of key objectives (New York) we will undertake various initiatives, such as continuous improvement (New York) performance driven incentives (New York). Is everybody clear on the strategy (New York)? No questions? Good!" No wonder everybody leaves that room with a completely different idea of what will happen next!

Buzzwords grease the wheels of confusion! These overused, meaningless phrases anaesthetise us into not even bothering to ask for clarification. That is the crux of the case against communication.

What does "unshared" meaning cost?

Imagine if we were to tally up the costs involved in "unshared" meaning: the lack of alignment to the strategy; the misdirected initiatives; the general chaos and confusion? If you think you have created shared meaning and understanding around your strategy you would be among a tiny minority (according to Harvard Business School Professors Collis and Ruckstad.). Could you summarise your company's strategy in two or three sentences? If so, would your colleagues put it the same way? In a lot of cases the problem is not creating a new strategy, it's that the existing one needs to have meaning, which is shared and understood by all.

Moving from buzzwords to meaning


It sounds easy. It's not! I'm not talking about feigning interest while we wait to make our very important point. I'm talking about "listening like an empty room", suspending judgement, and listening to understand rather than to persuade or influence.


Maps, diagrams and visuals work because they bypass buzzwords and jargon and provide a common reference point, one for all to see. It is well documented that we remember pictures at least 50% better than words.


There is no such thing as a stupid question! Every question clarifies meaning. Being brave enough to ask what is meant by XYZ will ensure that an interesting and enlightening conversation will ensue. And that's exactly the point. It works!

A health warning: meaning is addictive. If it sounds like a time thief, picture the ease with which a magnet attracts iron filings. It's the same way that a shared understanding of the corporate strategy could align behaviour... effortlessly.

Read published article on MoneyWeb site