Buzzword Overload: Make it Stop


I recently dined at a restaurant I visit frequently, and noticed a few changes.  First, the word ‘craft’ was added to the name.  Next, I saw several menu changes, highlighting the ‘organic and healthy’ nature of the food.  This got me thinking: was there a distinct difference in the end product (e.g., the food) or was I just being subjected to buzzword overload? After a pretty typical meal, I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.

This brings me to the investment management industry, where buzzword overload abounds in many shapes and forms.  I started wondering if these buzzwords really added value and distinction to our conversations and end products, or if they merely provide us a means to sound intelligent or provide a ‘reboot’ to an old face. 

Buzzword overload…in my recent readings I’ve seen fintech, regtech, next-gen, customer-centric, digital transformation, innovative, finnovative, disruptive, thought leadership, and several variations of aaS (SaaS, BPaaS, DaaS, etc.).  I even saw the other day a reference to EaaS – yes, “Everything as a Service”.  How about that—now everything is available as a service!  Please make it stop. 

It’s a bit ironic I’m writing this blog, as admittedly, I’m a buzzword offender at times.  Maybe it’s the consulting background which has ingrained vocabulary words such as ‘best practices’, ‘thinking outside the box’, and ‘synergies’ into my learnings.  Or maybe it’s simply been a reinforcement of colleagues, mentors, and my environment. Either way, like most people, I’ve both drank the cool-aid and mocked the jargon. 

According to Wikipedia, a buzzword is “a word or phrase, new or already existing, that becomes very popular for a period of time.”  In a positive light, buzzwords can help establish rapport, provide brand messaging, and offer a quick means to level-set on more complex or technical topics.  For example, when I refer to a ‘SaaS’, most folks familiar with the term will understand ‘software, hosted, cloud, service provider, subscription-based, accessible, scalable, etc.’ 

However, more than the word itself, one has to consider who’s using the word, in what context, and what intent (e.g., to promote something new).  A downside of this emerging lexicon is vagueness in definition.  For example, I’ve seen SaaS providers offer other services as part of their ‘SaaS’ model (e.g., data, infrastructure, business process), whereby other providers will break out each service to their respective ‘aaS’ buzzword name (DaaS, IaaS, BPaaS). Wikipedia correctly notes "what people find tiresome is each firm's attempt to put a different spin on buzzwords. That's what gives bad information."

Taking a step back, I don’t think it’s fair to roll our eyes at the ubiquity of buzzwords. While it’s absolutely correct that overuse can begin to degrade the meaning of new terminology, adding to an emerging lexicon has some specific and beneficial use-cases in a business setting. The topic of buzzwords prompted me to think about how the words we use can impact our company, our colleagues, and ourselves. Consider these implications of subtle language choices:

Branding – Companies claim to be ‘innovative’, ‘quality-focused’, ‘customer centric’, etc. to provide differentiation.

Awareness Related to branding, many companies try to garner attention or build awareness with ‘disruptive’, ‘agile’ or ‘next-gen’.

Connection – Join a new company and find yourself using more three letter acronyms nobody external would begin to understand.  These help us bond.

Desensitization – Use of words like ‘workforce rebalance’ and ‘headcount reduction’ take the bite out of eliminating people’s jobs.

Political Correctness – Let’s put a positive spin on that department ‘consolidation’ and process related ‘opportunity improvement’.  Not that we were doing anything wrong.

Impression of Intelligence – Use of the words such as ‘smart-processes’, ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘deep learning,’ or any number of obscure buzzwords may give an impression of depth of knowledge (whether or not it’s apt).

Reflecting on the importance of the words we use helps underscore that buzzwords are not meaningless nor do they signify a lack of ability. If used sparingly—and with full knowledge of the meaning they’re supposed to represent—then they can go a long way towards enriching your work and allowing you to better communicate with your peers. If, however, you’re putting them in just for the sake of using them (or worse, using them without knowing what they mean), then you’d be better off avoiding them entirely lest you give the rest of us a bad name.

In closing, I ask you to take the buzzword challenge.  Think of five buzzwords you use often, but add little thought or true meaning to your everyday conversations.  See if you can substitute more telling words, which convey a thought or message ‘in your own words’.  If you get stuck, ping me later, and I’ll circle back with some innovative and disruptive ideas to drain the swamp of misused buzzwords.