Buried in Buzzwords- A Business Lesson from Weird Al


A co-worker of mine alerted me to Weird Al Yankovic’s latest music video release saying: “Saw this and immediately thought of you.

Operationalize, world-class, core competencies, holistically, administrates, brand trajectory, market share, proven methodology, viability, client-centric solutions, monetize, value-added experience, bringing to the table, capitalized reputation, deliverables, cross-platform innovation, seamless integration, robust and scalable, bleeding-edge, next-generation, best of breed, globalization (I’ll stop here).

Thanks to Weird Al’s new song “Mission Statement” we now have a soundtrack chock-full of the meaningless buzzwords thrown about in business meetings, conference calls, sales pitches, and everyday office talk. Well done Al. Well done.

I’ve often joked about the absurdities of corporate jargon tossed around by all types of business people… including myself. In fact, a few years ago I shared an email that a good business friend of mine sent me after our conversation about business buzzwords. As I recall, I called Kevin to share my elation at scoring five completed B.S. Bingo cards after a long day of seemingly endless conference calls and meetings. Here’s Kevin’s response. Enjoy…

“Dear Will,

The comedian Steve Martin once said “Mambo Dogface to the Banana Patch”; explaining that if you intentionally and consistently jumbled your words when speaking around a toddler, that the toddler’s first day in Kindergarten would be extremely entertaining, and I really couldn’t agree more. The point is that when it comes to personal-level communications, the focus should be on the comprehension of the parties involved, not the extremes to which the lexicon is taken.

However, as a species, we have a long-standing tradition of attempting to “enhance” our communications with clichéd words and phrases such as “net-net”, “circling the wagons”, and the classic “at the end of the day”. Recently, social media has motivated the bastardization of traditional job titles with many professionals calling themselves “ninjas”, “evangelists”, and “chief happy officers”.

While we are all guilty of dropping the occasional “let’s think outside the box”, persistent use of buzzwords and catchphrases degrade your credibility and portend a lack of professional experience.  Show me a young 20-something that calls themselves a “guru” and I will show you someone who called their light peach fuzz a moustache.

Excessive use of buzzwords can also limit the opportunities available to your business. Some years ago I received a prospectus for a private-equity investment whose opening was reasonably close to this:

“Bob’s House of Programming” develops next-generation, best-of-breed managed services distribution platforms that provide a federated ecosystem that is focused on the SMB. Our inaugural offering, BobBook, is a third party aggregation and collaboration platform of managed services designed to educate, inform and transact with the SMB customer.

Despite having over 20 years’ experience in technology and enterprise software, I found that drunken Marines deliver more clarity in their Saturday night monologues, and each new chapter of the prospectus brought a cavalcade of paragraphs in which “boiling the ocean”, “gaining mind share”, and “evangelizing” produced the coveted “win-win scenario”.

Because we could not understand Bob’s vision for his company and thought that his current offering was a combination of crap and optimism, we passed on the investment.

In his biography, “Confessions of a Street Addict”, Jim Cramer shared how in the waning days of the dot com bubble, CEOs of the tech companies in which his firm invested, would come and visit his office. The CEOs that spoke with sincerity about the fundamentals of their company, and clearly articulated how they would defend their market share, would find that Jim’s company would maintain or even increase their investment. Those that came in overly excited, spoke nothing but industry jargon, and believed that their stock price was going to rise forever usually found that Jim’s company would dump their stock, sometimes before the CEO could get out of the parking garage.

If you are selling your company’s products or your company’s equity, it should be obvious that you will be far more successful if your target audience can comprehend the key points you are trying to convey. You should be warned that if you are trying to sell to someone whose old enough to have worn parachute pants in high school, we keep a secret list of key words and their true meaning. Here’s a peak:

  • “Win-Win” = One of us is going to lose
  • “Cutting Edge” = Untested
  • “We are not a vendor, but a partner” = You are a vendor
  • “That’s really thinking outside the box” = I think you are an idiot

What about internal communications?  Is it acceptable to consistently use buzzwords when speaking to your internal staff? No.

I posted a question on my social media account about the most hated office buzzwords and the response was almost immediate and very robust. Some of the most hated buzzwords and phrases include: “Table Stakes”, “Net Net”, “******** the pooch”, “Think outside the box”, “Circle the wagons”,” First world problems”, “Cut your teeth”, “The devil you know vs. the devil you don’t”, and “Boil the ocean”.

If you really want to annoy your staff, invent you own language. I had one boss who had a favorite expression for when she felt that we were overthinking a situation. In the heat of the battle, she would proclaim, “Guys, this isn’t rocket scientry.” (Yes spell-check, I know that is not a real word). If I had a nickel for every internal joke and snide comment that included “rocket scientry”, I would have a lot of nickels.

One tactic that I have used to rid our company from frivolous communications including buzzwords, clichés, and off-topic tangents, is to share that I have an undiagnosed intestinal condition that produces side effects of biblical proportions that are activated by confusing dialogue and wasted time. While this works great for increasing the productivity of our conversations, no one will have lunch with me.

But at the end of the day, the net-net is that this is a win-win.”

For more amusing banter, follow Kevin Sasser on Twitter at @kdsasser.

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Will Adams

Will Adams

Will Adams is the GM for Small Business Services for GoSmallBiz.com. Will leads the company’s efforts in serving small business owners and their employees through consulting, software, education, employee training, and advocacy. Will is also the co-founder of a successful Software as a Service (SaaS) business that currently serves small museums and family offices throughout North America. In addition to his business interests, Will serves on the board of Atlanta Children’s Foundation, connecting individuals, organizations, and resources to meet the needs of children in foster care.