The Draining Power of Buzzwords

Say "Buzz Off" to Buzzwords! A photo of a fly, representing buzzwords in communication.

Say ‘Buzz Off’ to Buzzwords!

Marketing is an opportunity for connection, communication, and creativity. (And also, apparently, alliteration.) Yet many people find marketing to be cheesy, coercive, and off-putting. Why is that? Because it often is cheesy, coercive, and off-putting. That said, marketing is like all things. Whether it stinks or not depends on what you do with it.

Today I want to chisel away at one tiny corner of the multi-faceted marketing rock: the buzzword. Let’s dismantle that thing, find out how it’s bringing us down, and see about doing better. Because, as any TV-viewing child of the ’70s knows, Knowledge is power.

The Terroir of Marketing

If marketing is an opportunity for connection, communication, and creativity, the actual results or products of marketing can be lackluster at best, malicious at worst. Marketing is powerful, so it’s important to be judicious about how we approach it.

That can sound pretty abstract, so let’s take it down to something tangible. Let’s compare marketing to red wine. Personally, I love red wine. The bouquet, the richness, the various flavorful hints of whatnot endemic to its specific terroir. Mwah! Lovely!

However, if I am to function in the world the way I want to — that is to say with a healthy liver and my wits about me — then it is incumbent upon me to love red wine selectively, as opposed to disastrously. Thus, I love some of the red wine some of the time. I do not love all of the red wine all of the time. I am discerning about both the wine itself and its place in the context of my life.

Deciding whether or not to have a glass takes many factors into account: timing, product quality, the occasion, and whether I’m supposed to edit anything. We can do the same with our marketing. We can be discerning both about the marketing language itself and marketing’s place in the context of our brand voice.

In other words, it seems healthiest to use conscious intention when loving red wine and marketing. There are lots of unpleasant versions of both, and both can lead to headaches and gastrointestinal distress.

What’s the (Buzz) Word?

So, what’s a buzzword? Many are the definitions and examples of buzzwords, depending upon the context and setting wherein said word is found. I define a buzzword thus: a word that has become so overused as to be rendered meaningless.

A buzzword is limp and lacks vitality. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s the waistband that lost its shape. It’s the “keeping up with the Joneses” of language. If you visualize the most pre-packaged, just-add-water life you can imagine and translate that image into language, you’ve got a buzzword. Or twelve.

Most importantly, buzzwords fail to connect with the reader or listener’s heart or mind; instead they connect with a person’s assumptions or opinions. They’re like little midges, buzzing about the ears, nose, and eyeballs, creating hovering clouds of obfuscated meaning between people. They lead to actual miscommunication.

Though buzzwords change over time, here’s a relatively recent roundup of a few of the most ubiquitous offenders in business:

  • Align
  • Synergy
  • Dynamic
  • Holistic
  • Organic
  • Move the needle
  • Value-add

The Problem with Buzzwords

Calling attention to the foibles of buzzwords is not the same as curmudgeonly gripes about “kids these days” using the wrong words. It’s not about being intolerant of an evolving language. Those kinds of ideas are generally aimed at slang, and often have the underpinnings of sexism, racism, and other -isms at their roots. Although slang can fall into this category, in general I’m a fan of slang. Slang can be useful, or at the least colorful and hilarious. In fact, there’s so much slang to choose from that it can be an art form — and it can be connective.

But few things dishonor communication like buzzwords. Although we choose our words, we are also shaped by the language we use. Too often when people start using buzzwords, they begin to truncate their thoughts into indeterminate, undeveloped attempts at communication. Buzzwords don’t speak our actual experience; they’re a prepackaged idea of what something means.

Sometimes we use buzzwords so we can hide behind those clouds of confusion and not fully reveal our thoughts. Sometimes we use them because we think we’re supposed to. Sometimes we use them because we don’t know any better, bless our hearts.

Using buzzwords is a choice, and we can surround that choice with lots of excuses, charts, and justifications. But when we remove the fluff, we know that we can do better. Unless we’re very conscious about what we’re doing, buzzwords keep us in what I call “thought jail.”

Thought jail is self-imposed mental and creative imprisonment. There are various degrees of thought jail: sometimes it’s a maximum security facility with solitary confinement and regular beatings. Other times Barney Fife might peek his head around the corner to play a game of cards. But it is creative confinement any way you slice it.

For many of us, thought jail feels secure. We may have varying levels of subconscious desires to leave, but very little ability to actually do so. The borders, fences, and structure are familiar. They’re reassuring. Everything within the boundaries of these mental cells reaffirms our experience, so we can remain unchallenged and safe. And (here’s the weirdest part) this holds true even if it’s terrible in there.

Thought jail can be functionally fine in some settings. But entrepreneurship provides an arena for people — customers and service providers alike — who are weary (and wary) of the “big box” experience. Unlike a gigantic conglomerate, you don’t have the luxury of posturing or posing, nor can you hide in your messaging. In small-to-medium business, true connection makes the sale. It’s crucial, then, for your words to reflect who you are.

Don’t Outsource Your Voice

So how does all of this relate to making language decisions in your marketing? It comes down to creating copy that liberates your message and amplifies your brand voice so that it’s distinctive. The bottom line is that unexamined buzzword use in marketing is corrosive to the power of voice. Marketing sprinkled with saccharine, imitation vanilla buzzwords becomes robotic and devoid of connection1. When a message is autotuned and sanitized, it loses its flavor. The terroir, alas, is decimated.

Now, it’s great to outsource tasks, especially if they’re not where you shine or are duties required to keep things running. By all means, hire people to help you get things done. But remember that hiring a copywriter is not the same as outsourcing your brand voice. Hiring a copycat copywriter is outsourcing your brand voice. Being a steward of your brand voice means uncovering that voice, NOT covering it up with external dicta and trends.

Being a steward of your brand voice means uncovering that voice, NOT covering it up with external dicta and trends.

MB Huwe

In other words, it’s far better to have a meaningful message in your marketing — one with a voice and a stance — than to hide behind popular buzzwords and become a faceless, non-entity in the eyes of potential customers. In the end, looking to the Joneses for your marketing voice is the ultimate sacrificial outsourcing technique.

Claiming your voice and eschewing buzzwords can be disconcerting at first. But pursuing meaningful marketing is the price (and the perk!) of liberation from that teeny cell in thought jail. And meaningful marketing works like a magnet, repelling and attracting the right folks for you, thank goodness.

Mary Beth Huwe is a writer, an editor, and a strategist. She helps companies identify, articulate, and translate their most essential messages into connective content that is both communicative and practical. These essays are forays into the art and essence of communication. They have not been subjected to the full scrutiny of said editor’s eye(s), and may contain typos. (But you’ll probably never find apostrophe abuse, because that’s just cruel.)

  1. Unless, of course, the format is fear-based marketing. In that case buzzwords may be put to work as predators of human vulnerabilities, and while that’s a certain kind of connection, it’s not the sort this post applauds.