Buzzwords. Every industry has them. For many they are useful shorthand on a fast-paced office floor. But could buzzwords be doing more harm than good?

Business talk

Between nine and five, we tend to speak a slightly different language than the one we speak elsewhere. A workplace is a closed system after all, peopled with familiar faces and routine tasks – it's only natural that colleagues develop an internal shorthand for tasks, processes, concepts, and latch on to buzzwords in the air to describe broader industry forces.

Most of the time, there's no problem – but because this process is a subconscious one, there is never any formal agreement or clarification of the words we're accustomed to using each day. The conversation about what we actually mean never happens.

Part of the reason of why this is may lie in the lived experience of language. No one announces when they expand the meaning of a seemingly small buzzword – inside, it feels like a growth in personal understanding. Combined with not wanting to look dumb in front of your coworkers. What happens is, slowly, as individual colleagues' understandings of industry concepts evolve at different rates, meanings can shift and gaps of understanding can grow.

Speak clearly

When we use buzzwords we open ourselves up to under-communication because we're relying on an assumption that we all know what we're talking about and what others mean by the same words.

The solution isn't over-communication, but clarity. Author and historian Stephen Bungay says it well in The Art Of Action - "What cannot be made simple cannot be made clear and what is not clear will not get done. What matters... is not the volume of communication, but its quality and precision."

So, how can you create a workplace culture of more effortful communication?

Where possible, speak in concrete terms over abstract fluff. When appropriate, ask for further clarification on what your colleagues actually mean when they use a particular buzzword.

To make sure nothing is lost in translation, a good habit is to 'back-brief' at the end of meetings. This makes sure that everyone agrees on what they need to deliver by when, and what roles or responsibilities each person has to own. You could even go as far as having a workshop in which everyone airs all the buzzwords they hear or use, what they mean, and then collectively assesses where misalignments lie and where words could be used. 

This isn't just helpful inside your own company. When briefing agencies or dealing with external stakeholders it's important to make sure you're clear about what you're asking for and what's being asked of you. In the long run, clear communication that's free of corporate buzz words, will mean that you save on project time and resources.

Simply being aware of common buzzwords in the workplace may just be enough to make them easier to avoid.