We’re all guilty of using the occasional buzzword or cliché at work. But it turns out that abusing these words and phrases can seriously hurt your credibility.
They’re annoying and confusing — and often meaningless — and when you’re communicating with busy people in the business world, they don’t have the time to decipher your message.
“You need to avoid business jargon and be clear in order to get your point across and be heard,” says Darlene Price, president of Well Said, Inc., and author of “Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results.”
She says most clichés were once a fresh, creative way of expressing a popular thought or common idea. “But because of long, excessive use, each phrase has lost its originality, impact, and even meaning.”
Here are 26 overused business clichés, and how to replace them with what you really mean:
“Drink the Kool-Aid.”
“Do you really want to refer to the tragic 1978 Jonestown suicides?” Price asks. If not, say what you really mean. Either, “I agree and give you my full support,” or conversely, “We need more critical examination before making this decision.”
“Break down the silos.”
“What’s a silo?” asked the employee to her boss, who used this phrase to describe how one department should collaborate with another, Price says. “Instead say, ‘share information,’ or ‘work together,’ or ‘cooperate with each other.'”
“Don’t throw him/her under the bus.”
“This murderous image may be replaced with, ‘Don’t name and blame another for a mistake,'” says Price.
“It is what it is.”
Not only can this phrase sound flippant and resigned, but what is “it?” Instead say, “We can’t change the fact that…; therefore, I recommend…”
“Do more with less.”
“This trite cliché is vague,” says Price. “Do more of what with less of what? At it’s worst, this stale phrase is a corporate euphemism for, ‘Do more work with less pay,’ or ‘Work smarter,’ as though the listener is not already doing so.” Instead, be specific, make your argument, and say exactly what you mean.
“Tee it up.”
Unless you’re a golfer, this phrase makes no sense. Instead say, “Here’s Bill to introduce our next topic.”
“Take it offline.”
“What does ‘offline’ mean?” asks Price. ” Be clear about your intended action: ‘Let’s continue this discussion at the break,’ or ‘I’ll send you a follow-up email with those details by noon tomorrow.'”
“Open the kimono.”
“Do you really want to expose the nudity of one wearing a traditional Japanese robe? Replace this odd and tasteless expression with words you actually mean: to clearly and accurately share all required and necessary information,” Price suggests.
“Take it to the next level.”
Are you referring to specific, measurable performance levels, which are familiar to the listener? “If not, don’t use this empty phrase because nobody knows what the next level looks like,” she says. Instead say, “We need to sell 30% more this year, and here’s why…”
“It’s a paradigm shift.”
This term is overused corporate jargon from the 1990s. Instead say, “fundamental change,” “major difference,” or “critical adjustment.”
“We can’t boil the ocean.”
Instead of saying this preposterous phrase, be direct and clear about an impossible or unreasonable task. For example: “We can’t produce, inspect, and ship 20,000 units in one week.”
“Please don’t refer to a prospect or customer as ‘fruit’ ready to be effortlessly picked,” says Price. “Instead say, ‘It’s easier to sell to these customers because…'”
“Let’s circle back.”
This phrase is corporate lingo for “Let’s discuss this issue at a later time.” So, just say that instead.
“Out of pocket.”
Avoid using this nonsensical reference in speech or auto-reply emails. Replace it with, “I’m on vacation through Friday. May I call you Monday at 9 a.m.?” Or, “I’m currently out of the office. For assistance please contact…”
“One throat to choke.”
This malicious-sounding phrase instills more fear than accountability in listeners. Instead say, “I want one point of contact for this project who is fully informed and available 24/7. Who’s it going to be?” Price suggests.
“Move the needle.”
“Unless you’re demonstrating an odometer or other measuring instrument, say instead, ‘Make a significant difference,’ or, ‘Have a measureable impact,'” says Price.
“Bite the bullet.”
“During the US Civil War, injured soldiers clenched a bullet between their teeth during surgery to distract them from the pain,” she explains. “Instead, say it clearly: ‘Make a tough decision,’ or ‘Take a difficult step.'”
“Run it up the flagpole.”
Price says this hackneyed catchphrase has been around since the 1950s. “Instead use the words, ‘pilot test,’ ‘focus group,’ or say, ‘Let’s present the idea tentatively and see if it receives a favourable reaction.'”
“On the bleeding edge.”
Lose this gory, painful image from the early 1980s, and instead say “the most advanced technology on the planet.”
“At the end of the day.”
Unless you’re speaking about an actual event occurring at 6 p.m., say, “Finally,” or “Ultimately,” or “When everything else has been taken into consideration.”
“Par for the course.”
“This timeworn term is senseless to non-golfers, and overused to those who do understand it,” Price says. Instead say, “This is normal and expected,” or “a common occurrence.”
“Think outside the box.”
“This phrase began sweeping the business world in the 1970s as management consultants challenged their clients to solve the ‘Nine Dots’ puzzle,” she explains. “Listeners unfamiliar with the analogy are likely to ask, ‘What box?'” Instead say, “Think differently,” or “Think from a new perspective,” or “Stretch your imagination.”
“Peel back the layers of the onion.”
The meaning of this predictable phrase is more clearly expressed by saying, “Take a closer look.” Similarly, replace “drill down,” “unpack,” and “double-click” with “carefully examine.”
Avoid using this technical computing term to tell someone you’re too busy to help. Instead say, “I’m swamped this week — would Monday work?” or, “I have back-to-back meetings all day. May we meet at 5 p.m.?”
“If/When push comes to shove.”
This worn out phrase may be replaced with, “If the situation worsens,” or, “When the condition becomes more intense,” or, “If absolutely necessary.”
This overused buzzword became popular 25 years ago in Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” she says. “It’s a powerful concept when stated simply and clearly: as Big Bird from ‘Sesame Street’ sings, ‘With just a little cooperation, we can make it through, me and you, me and you.'”
Every time you speak or write you have an opportunity to express an idea, suggestion, or insight that is distinctively your own, Price says. “It may be easier and quicker to fill your speech with familiar stock phrases; however, clarity — not convenience — is the goal. You’ll gain more credibility and engage with listeners more effectively when you say what you mean, in your own words.”
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