Communicators and management jargon: why ‘buzzwords’ must not die

Posted by Domna in Uncategorised on 8th March 2011 | be the first to Comment »

Communication professionals should advise managers about language and communication; they should coach leaders in how to express themselves with clarity, how to adjust their style to their audience, how to use language and other codes to create an environment of trust and to engage employees behind common purpose. They should also tell managers where they get it wrong, for example where they use inappropriate or clichéd language, where they fail to listen or engage with their employees and where they confuse communication with transmission. But is it ever the job of communicators to ‘eradicate’ aspects of management language they don’t like?

The evangelical zeal with which hundreds of communication professionals contributed to an online thread titled ‘these buzzwords must die’, must worry us just a little. The thread which claimed to want to eradicate business jargon, passed sentence on several everyday business words and phrases – ‘synergy’, ‘strategic’, ‘leverage’, ‘localize’, ‘out of the box’, ‘going forward’ and ‘in my honest opinion’, were some of the outcasts.

There is no doubt that much formal management communication is full of clichés. But it is also the case that words and phrases in the management vocabulary, in any vocabulary, exist for a good reason – if they were not useful they would not be there. How can you ban the concept of ‘strategic’ in a business setting? Why is it such a bad thing to talk about ‘synergies’ or ‘localisation’ where these concepts reflect precisely what you are trying to express? And why would you want to restrict the use of very good metaphors such as ‘out of the box?’ It may be overused, but where it is used correctly, it does a different job to ‘new’ or ‘original’ or ‘innovative’ or ‘different’. In short, how is restricting the richness of language an answer to better communication in the workplace?

Of course communicators are right that many of the words and phrases they demonise are both overused and abused by managers and this inevitably influences how clear and how trustworthy managers are perceived to be. The answer to that should never be to ban anything, however, but rather to educate managers about their language use and its impact. To do this, communicators themselves have to understand how language really functions and how it interacts with culture and context to create meaning.

When communication professionals argue that words should be banned because they are overused or ‘do not mean anything’ they are wrong. When they argue that language should be stripped of anything that is unnecessary and redundant, they are wrong. Language is NOT simply a vehicle for data transmission. It is a means by which we build relationships, establish rapport, negotiate meaning, co-construct culture and shape and reshape our identities. To do this we use all language – the common and the rare, the simple and the complex, the creative and the banal. And we need it all. At the right time in the right context, with the right audience, for the right purpose; but we need it all. Nothing should be ‘eradicated’. Perhaps instead of looking to cast dreaded ‘buzzwords’ into oblivion, communicators should dare to rediscover the uniqueness and usefulness of some of the language they find so intolerable – particularly the rich metaphors that surround us and allow us to express so many things in such economical ways – ‘boil the ocean’ anyone?

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