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Business jargon we love to hate: words and phrases to avoid

A blog post about the abuse and misuse of our beautiful language.

This blog post started life as an innocent comment on Facebook. What business gobbledygook do you love to hate, I asked?

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Plain speaking and writing

It’s a power game. We manipulate and mangle language to dodge difficult conversations; to confuse and complicate; and to sound impressive.

Organisations create their own vernacular that becomes adopted as a dialect. At best it’s lousy communication; at worst it’s divisive.

Here are phrases shared by my network that we love to hate. You’ll almost certainly have more to add. Please banish these from your spoken and written language.

Overworking creatives

Amplify, dial-up or maximise – all oft abused and misused terms meaning to increase.

Brainstorm, ideate, imagineering or thought shower – all terms used to describe two or more people debating and discussing ideas. Rarely creative.

Outreach, reach out, reaching out and reaching in – all ill-advised unless you’re the Four Tops or Mr Tickle.

Run it up the flagpole – a phrase for testing advertising with 1950s Madison Avenue Mad Men credentials.

Thinking outside of the box – the box is a metaphysical place that you learn about on MBA courses that constrains management thinking.

Thought grenade – an explosive idea, obviously. Let me know if you ever come across one.

Management meeting gobbledygook

Deep dive – pay attention to detail but don’t get stuck in the weeds.

Let’s caucus – politicos do this mainly in Washington DC instead of meeting. Allegedly. Blame the West Wing.

Low hanging fruit – it’s not low, it’s not hanging and it’s not fruit.

Moving forward, or going forward – as opposed to going backwards.

Push back – to disagree with a client or manager while remaining appropriately servile.

Put it into plain English – yes, really.

Resonate – musical notes resonate. Ideas don’t usually unless you sing about them out loud.

Revert – commonly used to mean reply. It actually means to return to a former state.

Touch base – touching anyone in a professional situation is ill-advised, proceed with extreme caution.

We need some white eye time, or let me see the white of your eyes – we need a meeting, face-to-face.

Wheels up – unless you’re flying an aircraft. See also how are we going to land this, and will it fly?

Innovation, but not as you know it

Baked in – bakeries are for baking; boardrooms are for management bullshit. Never mix the two.

Bandwidth – data capacity frequently misapplied to time and labour.

Bleeding edge – seek first aid and apply a plaster in the case of blood.

Let’s double click on that – Microsoft inspired term to show support for an idea.

On the radar – not aviation or marine banter. Used instead to acknowledge familiarity with a situation.

Stay up in the helicopter – take a high level view of an issue.

Not so plain speaking bullshit

Bio break or comfort break – a visit to the toilet.

Blue sky thinking, blue sky moment, blue sky idea, clear blue water, and blue unicorn – we love a bit of blue in the boardroom.

Gone dark – silence. Almost certainly a good thing.

Hygiene – a base level standard, no disinfectant required.

Key – used to unlock a door but frequently abused to add emphasis.

Lipstick on a pig – if you ever manage to put make-up on a farmyard animal please send me a photo.

Traction – it’s no surprise that your idea isn’t gaining traction, unless it is a mechanically propelled object.

People mismanagement

Deal with that in slow time, park it, put it on the back burner, or kick into the long grass – passive aggressive ways of dismissing an idea.

Full time equivalent – often abbreviated to FTE. That’ll be an actual human being.

It’s not in my gift – usually used by managers to decline requests for pay rises.

Let me unpack that for you – an offer for a situation to be explained in plain English.

On the same page or singing from the same hymn sheet – we’re in agreement, and we speak or sing, as one.

Sweat assets – usually involves sweating asses not assets.

Verb-al abuse

Invite – no, I’m afraid that I can’t accept your invite but you could try sending me an invitation.

Ladder – a tool used for climbing. Someone will get hurt if used to ladder-up ideas.

Socialise – share content or ideas with a wider public.

Surface – we have yet to surface a single view of plain language.

Workshop – we need to workshop this idea. Oh no we don’t.

Over-used

Words that are simply overused, and have become abused and misused.

agile
collaborate
community
disruptive
holistic
journey
legacy
leverage
narrative
proactive
solution
strategy
values
visibility
vision

The UK Government Digital Service has published an excellent guide to spoken and written style, spelling and grammar. It includes a long list of words and phrases to avoid in clear communication.

Thank you

Thank you to the following people for getting involved in the discussion on my Facebook page: Carol Arthur, Catherine Arrow, Henry Armstrong, Miles Ashcroft ·, Dom Burch, Gary Bates, James Bromley, Jonathan Bean, Lee Baker, Louisa Bartoszek, Andrea Breau, Adam Cranfield, Bob Cushing, Emma Crozier, Gabbi Cahane, Paul Clarke, Paul Coxon, Rebecca Caroe, Tim Callington, Ben Denison, Ian Delaney , Robin Dhara, Steve Earl, Nadiya Fyle, Paul Fearn, Sean Fleming, Diane Garfield, Mark Grainger, Philippa Goymer, Scott Guthrie, Bill Hilton, Derek Holt, Emma Harvey, Jack Hubbard, Jon Higgins, Jonathan Hopkins, Kate Hartley, Richard Houghton, Sarah Hall, Sarah Husband, Kristal Ireland, Nick Imrie, Natalie Jackson, RP Kumar, Chris Lee, Gabrielle Laine-Peters, Helen Laurence, Mike Love, Helen Moore, James Mayes, Mat Morrison, Rachel Miller, Steve Maybury, Becky McMichael, Graham Ord, Sharon O’Dea, Caroline O’Doherty, Sharon O’Dea , Giles Palmer, Simon Perry, Steven Porthouse, Jamie Riddell, Sarah Raad, Sarah Raad, Dan Slee, David Sawyer, Doris Steiner, Rob Skinner, Russell Slaymaker, Kevin Taylor, Martin Turner, and Andy West.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

81 Comments

  1. I agree with most of this BUT, as I have said before and I say again: I actually believe ‘Low Hanging Fruit’ is both OK and actually quite good!

    Despite being a trainer in Brainstorming (won’t bore you here with the reasons to stick with this one), I don’t actually talk about ‘Thinking Outside the Box’, BUT it is worth knowing that this arose from the puzzle De Bono used to illustrate the concept. Again, it’s actually quite good – as long as you know the context.

  2. Business jargon is a pet hate of mine. So glad that so many others, who are not prepared to just follow like sheep, share a similar view. ‘Reaching out’ and ‘reverting’ are my current pet hates.

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