The beauty of buzz-words

Why buzz-words and management-speak flourish, despite universal hatred for them.

The internet is replete with shouty, angry blog posts decrying the overuse of buzz-words and management-speak. There are people who have dedicated time and effort to creating buzz-word phrase generators, as a demonstration of the meaninglessness of such drivel. I myself once penned an ‘easy-reading policy” which explicitly precluded the use of an ostentatious word, where a plain one would do.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve actually ever met anyone who would openly say they were in support of management speak – have you?

And yet, despite this complete lack of support from the general population, the phenomenon persists. And thrives. I am constantly encountering new buzz-words, new “management speak” phrases, new clichés, new business jargon. Nobody I speak to in the industry is even vaguely making an effort to eliminate this element of their speech.

Why is that?

There are two reasons:

Management speech is an adornment of language which communicates the competence of the speaker, regardless of the content.

A familiarity with these buzz-words, empty phrases, clichés and jargon shows that the speaker is an expert in the realm of business. This phenomenon is not limited to managers. Every field of human endeavour has its own lexicon of terms, meaningful to its experts and inscrutable to others. In a beautiful meta-demonstration, the concept even has its own meme:


In a fundamentally linguistic way, saying “going forward” instead of “in future” is identical to saying “the genoa halyard” instead of the “the blue rope”. The actual information contained in the phrase is the same in each case, but I know which would give me more confidence in the nautical expertise of the speaker.

Management-speak can be an effective shorthand for a complex concept.

Jargon can act as a place-holder for a concept which doesn’t otherwise have a short, succinct expression. Can you think of a phrase which means “run the numbers”, but is shorter than that? “Ask our accountants to put together a spreadsheet of the relevant figures”? “Look at the costs in detail”? Neither of those phrases contains a single buzz-word, but they are undeniably more cumbersome and unwieldy as a result.

In the same way that a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, buzz-words and management-speak often reduce complex concepts to a familiar shorthand, easily and instinctively grasped. You don’t need to know anything about marketing or sales to understand that “low-hanging fruit” means “stuff that is easier to get to than other stuff”. Nobody would sensibly get behind a project which aimed to “boil the ocean”. These phrases create an image in your mind’s eye which effectively communicates the intended meaning, without requiring an MBA.

Additionally, sometimes the phrase doesn’t only provide a shorthand communication of an otherwise more complex concept, it also adds tone – an important factor in business and management communication. The much-maligned “going forward”, used as a synonym for “in future” doesn’t just replace that meaning, it adds movement and a sense of intent.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that everyone who uses management-speak does so mindful of these factors. There are certainly those who are emptily parroting these phrases in place of actually saying anything meaningful. But the concept of management-speak itself isn’t the issue there – it’s the management doing the speaking.

Stephen Fry, for those of you familiar with him (and for those who aren’t, please stop reading this, go find his stuff, it’s much better) is the sort of person you might expect to be particularly pedantic about the use of language and the unnecessary re-arrangement of words for no other reason than to give managers a new way to say the same thing. You may be surprised to hear, then, that Stephen is, broadly, in support of the creative use language, over pure adherence to technical correctness.

“It is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language”

Perhaps we can stop thinking of management-speak as unnecessary obfuscation and see it instead as adding colour to what can otherwise be the grey, monotonous language of business meetings. Remembering, of course, to maintain a ruthless scrutiny of those who use it to replace, rather than enhance, meaning.