Why We Use Business Jargon & Why We Should Stop—and Think About the Words We Use

When I hear “at the end of the day,” my blood pressure rises. I can never not hear it. Even when I’m not paying attention to someone on TV, if they say it, the phrase infiltrates my brain, making me groan. If you ever see those words on this blog, you know I’ve been replaced by AI.

Jargonistic business speak infects us all. But admitting a problem is the first step to solving it, right?

business jargon exasperation

Why we resort to using business jargon

Corporate cliché is an easy way to avoid getting specific and thinking too hard. But sometimes business jargon serves as a status indicator. Per a Columbia Business School study, “Business jargon is often used by individuals feeling insecure about how they will be perceived.” People want to assimilate and speak the same language as peers and higher ups. They want to sound like they belong.

Business buzzwords “also tend to capture something real and true about our collective anxieties, aspirations and general state of mind at a particular moment of time.” Using them makes us look relevant and in tune. During the pandemic, everyone knew what it meant to ‘pivot’ during ‘unprecedented times’ toward the ‘new normal.’ We understand the feelings behind these words and the personal and organizational effort involved in experiencing them because we were all in it together. Sorry.

What’s the problem with using business jargon?

When you overuse a term, the words lose their meaning and color, a phenomenon called ‘semantic bleaching.’

Although business jargon might make you sound relevant, it allows you to avoid saying what you should say. You don’t have to spell out exactly what you mean, what you need, or what you plan to do and to what extent. We resort to jargon because we don’t know what to say. We haven’t done the tough work of analyzing an issue, defining the real problem, and coming up with solutions.

Jargon often represents aspirational goals or solutions. Everyone likes the idea of innovation. But why is it good for your association or your team, and how will it affect what you do? Too often we grab onto pleasant words like ‘innovation’ or ‘collaboration’ but don’t think about what it takes to implement them.

When you don’t communicate in plain language, people don’t always understand what you mean. Young people, people who don’t read the Harvard Business Review, and people who speak English as a second language or who come from another country may feel excluded from the conversation. Plain speaking and writing is especially important when working in remote or hybrid workplaces where you can’t always read body language or stop by someone’s office for clarification.

Think about how you use these eight examples of business jargon

We all hear these eight examples of business jargon every day in offices and Zoom meetings. Some merit discussion and definition, so you can use them thoughtfully, but some deserve eradication.

#1: Normal, new normal

Some people couldn’t wait to move beyond ‘normal,’ which they saw as a conventional, unambitious way of doing things. Some people still hanker for normal. They felt more in control, more relevant, and less uncertain about everything back then.

But there’s no standard definition for ‘normal.’ And what does ‘new normal’ even mean? Watch out, it might mean changing a few things and settling back into a slightly bigger rut. Normal seems like a low bar to achieve, and a culturally dangerous thing to pursue. After all, who defines normal and what’s wrong with thinking differently? You can do better than normal.

#2: Move the needle

The needle comes up when we made or want to make progress. We moved closer to achieving goals and have the metrics to prove it. So instead of talking about ‘moving the needle,’ describe what you did and its impact, including metrics, or the progress you want to make and how you’ll measure it.

business jargon - move the needle

#3: Digital transformation

This umbrella phrase means something different to every association. We once defined digital transformation as “transforming into an organization that uses data and technology to deliver relevant value to members, customers, and others in your market now and in the future.” But, as Reggie Henry, ASAE’s CIO, pointed out in a recent SAE meeting, shouldn’t it be digital evolution, not transformation? After all, you never reach a finished state.

Sometimes digital transformation is driven from above by a board directive, but usually it’s driven by staff who figure out what they need to do to serve the changing needs of members and customers. Digital transformation might require a change in business model, strategic direction, job descriptions, and culture—it’s a big deal. But the phrase alone doesn’t really mean any one thing. Every organization must undergo digital transformation or die. It’s a given. Be specific about what it means in your case. Describe what you are doing and plan to do.

#4: Agile

The word ‘agile’ became popular as a software development process, which inspired people to use it to describe a project management methodology.

Soon, everyone wanted to be agile. We especially want our governance to be agile so we can respond to changing conditions, make decisions quickly, and move in a different direction or start a new initiative without hesitation. If you really want to be agile, learn what it means for software development so you can steal the best processes from them.

#5: Innovation

The word ‘innovation’ has been cheapened by too many keynotes and articles. Innovation has its place in the life of every organization, but only when it serves strategic and operational goals. Innovative thinking can reveal better goals and solutions. However, innovation won’t happen unless your culture, performance standards, job descriptions, internal processes, and management styles allow it, which leads us to culture.

#6: Culture

How do the people who work for your association describe your culture? Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out? Values define your culture. But who defines your association’s values? Hint: employees should be a part of that conversation.

‘Cultural fit’ is a tricky idea. In the past, it often meant ‘like me,’ but we know where that led. But without defined cultural values and principles, what do you have to go on?

#7: Collaboration

An aspirational word, but what does it mean for your team, your department, and your association? Is it just something everyone agrees is important or do you actually take steps to make it happen? If you do, why? What’s the end-goal? How will collaboration impact what you do?

#8: Bandwidth

When you don’t have the bandwidth, you don’t have the time and mental space to do something. But maybe we need to be more explicit so people (bosses) understand the strain of workloads.

“I don’t have the time because A, B, and C already take me X hours a day/week to complete. I also spend much of my remaining mental energy thinking about backburner issues D, E, and F that must be resolved soon. If I had X hours of support or Y type of resources/technology, maybe adding this responsibility is a future possibility.”

Paint the picture of your current reality and what must change before another responsibility is added to your workload—it might mean sunsetting something you do now.

Hold yourself and others accountable for using clear language, not jargon, even if it means addressing elephants in the room (let’s keep that phrase) and asking uncomfortable questions. Hopefully, your association’s culture values a person who does that.

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