Terms like ‘think outside the box,’ ‘push the envelope,’ ‘change agent’ lock your trade’s door to the public. Here’s how to open it.
By Thomas Scott
I think I’ve finally decided which piece of horrid business jargon I detest most: “core competencies.” So help me, the next person who starts rambling on about their “core competencies” — especially if they’re referring to “utilizing” or “perfecting” them — gets a vigorous lashing from a noodle. It’ll be a wet noodle — this time.
What makes “core competencies” such a nauseating term is that it expresses a simple idea with words that suggest complexity, the kind of arcane notion only the best and brightest MBAs could possibly grasp. It is not. A pre-schooler could grasp it. Your core competencies are the things you do well.
For small and franchised businesses, core competencies are generally the reasons the businesses exist in the first place. Hi, welcome to Baskin-Robbins, where our primary core competency is selling ice cream. Why, thank you for clarifying that, Baskin-Robbins. Can you put that in an Excel spreadsheet for me, roll it into a cone and top it with two scoops of butter pecan?
Every field has its jargon. Education, especially K-12 education, is particularly horrible. Journalism has its jargon (lede, graf, pica pole). Goodness knows government is chock-full of wretched jargon (and word hash that doesn’t even rise to the level of jargon; try reading a Treasury Department memo sometime). Law, politics, medicine, urban planning — no field is immune.
But I’ve found business jargon is especially egregious in this sense: In law, medicine and financial services, at least, jargon can be justifiable; you’re dealing in many cases with irreducibly complex ideas, many rendered in Latin. Most times, businesses have no such excuses. Too often, business communication is filled with opaque language to mask the fact that the owners don’t have any better handle on their market and operations than you would. What does “maximize our earnings potential and ensure high ROI with best-in-class scalability levels” mean? It means “grow the business and make more money,” generally a good plan of action for a business.
At Brand Journalists, we do our best to translate this nonsense into Standard American English, which — and I really cannot stress this enough — is not the same as dumbing it down. We do not want to oversimplify the ideas behind the words; we want to render the ideas fully, but in the simplest, most direct language possible.
There’s a George Carlin routine that illustrates the idea perfectly. Jargon (which, really, is a kind of professional system of euphemisms, “memospeak”) exists as a buffer against reality, insulation against the notion that your work may not be as esoteric, intellectually taxing and difficult to perform as you’d like to think.
When you’re a business trying to attract franchise leads and connect with members of your community, physical or online, your language shouldn’t exclude, which is what jargon by its nature does. The secondary message behind “taking our best practices to the next level while maximizing disruption opportunities” is, “Don’t bother trying to understand what we do. It’s our thing. Keep out.” Heaven knows what the primary message is.
So here’s a list of 10 particularly awful chunks of business jargon you should ban in your professional writing and speech outright, now, forever, and some suggestions to replace them. I limit the list to 10 for the purpose of time and space, but believe me, it’s not an exhaustive list. Feel free to add to it. I doubt you’ll have trouble.
Example: “Your attendance at the strategic planning meeting next Wednesday is mandatory. We’ll be discussing our strategic goals for the coming fiscal year.”
Why it’s bad: What planning and goals aren’t, by definition, strategic?
Unjargoned: “We have a mandatory meeting next Wednesday to discuss our plans for the next fiscal year.”
9. Think outside the box (and variations)
Example: “In the last two fiscal years, we’ve used outside-the-box thinking to facilitate best practices and maximize efficiencies by switching to single- rather than double-ply bathroom tissue.”
Why it’s bad: This was clever and illustrative the first 6.3 billion times it was used. Now it’s just ridiculous, to the point at which, if you find yourself uttering the phrase “thinking outside the box” … you’re not.
Unjargoned: “We saved money because Brian suggested we use cheaper toilet paper.”
8. End user
Example: “Our new website maximizes interaction and efficiencies for our end users.”
Why it’s bad: Again, the simple made overly complex. “Customer,” you mean.
Unjargoned: “Our new website is easier for customers to use.”
Example: “We can leverage our HR staff to process these personnel files.”
Why it’s bad: The term comes from banking (leveraged buyout, leverage assets, etc.). At some point and for some reason, people in the business world began using it as a synonym for … well, “use.” So use “use.”
Unjargoned: “We can use our HR staff to process these personnel files. That is, after all, what we have an HR department for.”
6. Bandwidth (used in non-IT context)
Example: “I should have sufficient bandwidth to absorb that project once I finish this action item.”
Why it’s bad: It’s a hifalutin, pseudo-smart way of saying “time.” You’re a human being, not a segment of fiber-optic cable.
Unjargoned: “I’ll have time to do that when I finish this memo.”
Example: “It is absolutely mission-critical for this business that we consistently meet customer expectations.”
Why it’s bad: Anything critical is by definition mission-critical. Also, it has a hyphen.
Unjargoned: “This business has to satisfy its customers or go under.”
Example: “This fiscal year, the uptick in certain commodities prices has led to the rise of the microchip and processing unit markets as two of our key verticals.”
Why it’s bad: It’s an unnecessary nounification (I know, not a word, but you get the point) of an adjective.
Unjargoned: Sub it out for “growing” or “rising” markets.
Example: “The departments are siloed, which contributes to our chronic communication failures.”
Why it’s bad: There’s no reason to turn a perfectly good farm implement into a verb that never should be a verb. It conjures the wrong visual setting, too. Cold, furtive hoarding of business information just doesn’t mesh with an image of a bucolic cattle farm in Wisconsin.
Unjargoned: “Our departments are isolated and don’t share information, which hurts the company.”
Example: “With this collaborative agreement, our companies have a great opportunity for bubblegum-hard candy synergy.” Even worse when rendered in the plural: “synergies.” Blugh.
Why it’s bad: It’s rare that you can’t find a simpler way to say this.
Unjargoned: “Together, we can create a product better than anything we could on our own.”
1. Push the envelope
Example: “Our change agents have done a great job of thinking outside the box and pushing the envelope to drive adoption of our new pencil-sharpening policy.”
Why it’s bad: It’s a phrase that’s been stripped clean of meaning through sheer overuse — and it’s used incorrectly, like “I could care less.” The actual phrase is “push the edge of the envelope.” It comes from the early days of jet aircraft, when the Chuck Yeagers of the world were trying to break the sound barrier with ever-faster and more powerful planes. The “envelope” referred to an aircraft’s designed capabilities — speed, durability, mechanical integrity — and the phrase “push the edge of the envelope” meant “test the outer edges of the aircraft’s abilities.” Also, it’s not that the proof is in the pudding; the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Although it’ll probably come up if you push the edge of the envelope.
Unjargoned: “We went further than anyone ever had in testing how much work our team could do.”
I’d love to hear some of your favorites, the threadbare terms and stock phrases that, like “Hotel California” or “Call Me Maybe,” you never want to hear again. And by all means, if you run across a particularly gristly chunk of verbiage, let me know. I’ll do what I can to translate it.
No guarantees, though. My core competencies are still inside the box.