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Breaking Free of Buzzwords

“At the end of the day” it’s easy to let jargon creep into your vocabulary at work. Learn how to express yourself using clear, concise language.

January 4, 2010
Sponsored by Robert Half Finance & Accounting

Most professionals know that their ability to communicate clearly and effectively is vital to career success. Yet, financial professionals — along with other business people — are often guilty of using industry jargon and buzzwords that are, at best, empty in meaning and, at worst, grating to others.

A recent survey by Robert Half sought to identify the worst linguistic offenders. Asked to name the most annoying or overused phrase or buzzword in the workplace today, financial executives singled out these familiar terms:

  • Leverage: As in, “We intend to leverage our investment in IT infrastructure to drive profits.”
  • Reach out: As in, “Be sure to reach out to clients who will be affected by this change.”
  • It is what it is: As in, “Our system is down and we can’t process tax returns right now. It is what it is.”
  • Viral: As in, “Our marketing campaign has gone viral.”
  • Game changer: As in, “Transitioning from a local firm into a regional one has been a game changer for us.”
  • Disconnect: As in, “There’s a disconnect between what clients want in this area and what we’re able to deliver.”
  • Value-add: As in, “We have to evaluate the potential value-add of the relationship before we make a decision.”
  • Circle back: As in, “I’m heading out of the office now, but will circle back with you later.”
  • Socialize: As in, “We need to socialize this concept within the firm.”
  • Interface: As in, “My job requires me to interface with all the business units.”
  • Cutting edge: As in, “Our cutting-edge technology gives us a competitive advantage.”

Other Contenders

These well-worn phrases join other “hall of fame” words that were named in both the most recent survey, as well as a similar one conducted in 2004. They include: “synergy,” “solution,” “at the end of the day,” “think outside the box,” “on the same page” and “customer-centric.”

Some additional words cited in the most-recent survey were a reflection of the gloomy times. These include: “do more with less,” “restructuring,” “bailout” and “overworked.”

While most people are guilty of using buzzwords from time to time — indeed, it’s been hard not to talk about “doing more with less” over the last year — they become problematic when they are so overused that they create a barrier to real communication.

In a corporate setting, for example, an over reliance on buzzwords and jargon could diminish your reputation with colleagues in other business areas who find you “hard to talk to.” Perhaps they leave meetings with you feeling that they still didn’t get definitive information about the financial implications of a new product or venture. In public practice, a failure to communicate clearly with clients might inhibit your firm’s ability to retain them.

Breaking Free of Buzzwords

Many people deliberately pepper their conversation with these words, believing that it makes them sound more savvy and “in the know.” The truth is, buzzwords can make you seem unoriginal and even boring, not to mention unintelligible at times. If you find them popping up frequently in your speech, consider how to convey your thoughts more clearly. Before you fall back on a familiar word such as “leverage,” for instance, think about why you’re really using it. Is it mainly because everyone else does? Is there a better, more straightforward word for what you’re trying to say?

Instead of “leverage,” you might say, “We can expand this service by building on our existing client relationships.” Similarly, before you tell a client that “at the end of the day” it won’t matter which accounting method is used, consider what you really mean to say. Do you mean that it literally won’t matter at the end of the day or that the outcome will ultimately be the same over time, regardless of the approach used? Make it a point to use language that best conveys what you’re really trying to express, rather than plugging in empty words.

Buzzwords can be off-putting in other ways as well. For instance, a client wouldn’t want to hear that the large and unexpected tax bill they’re facing “is what it is,” a response which would sound flippant at best.

Because buzzwords are so prevalent, it’s easy to let them creep into your vocabulary. You’ll be more effective as a communicator, however, if you steer clear of words and phrases that have become so overused as to be rendered meaningless. It may take more thought to express yourself in clear, straightforward language, but those on the other end of your messages will notice and appreciate the extra effort. As an added bonus, you’ll sound like yourself, rather than everybody else.

For more career tips, follow Robert Half Finance & Accounting on Twitter at @RobertHalfFA.