Love them or hate them, there's no stopping corporate buzzwordsWe've all been there: That moment when perplexing corporate speak takes over a meeting. Photo: Thinkstock

Love them or hate them, there's no stopping corporate buzzwords

The fact that we need an English-Buzzword-Buzzword-English dictionary to figure out what some in the working world are talking about is absurd, writes Rex Huppke

The war against workplace buzzwords is a lonely one. To be a robust change agent in that sandbox you need to really drill down and shift the paradigm. RATS, I’M DOING IT AGAIN!!!

Eradicating this nonsensical noise seems a Sisyphean task. Whether it’s a colleague speaking perplexing phrases in a meeting or a baffling corporate memo, the business buzzword blitz shows no sign of abating.

And that led James Sudakow, a talent management consultant and fellow buzzword loather, to do something bold: He gave up.

More specifically, he gave up and wrote a book called “Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit … and Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World.”

Sudakow describes his surrender like this: “So as the expression goes: ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ Or as they might say in the corporate world: ‘If you can’t create a win-win proposition, effectively gain traction, and socialise your burning platform for a paradigm shift, bake yourself into the current process.'”

Business buzzwords. "Bake yourself into the process." Photo: Thinkstock Don’t just get involved – “bake yourself into the process”. Photo: Thinkstock

In other words, he writes: “Whereas at some point in my life I aspire to do something that creates positive social impact in the world, this book is not that thing. This book is merely an attempt to help people in the corporate world figure out what everyone around them is actually talking about.”

Sudakow’s book is a dictionary of dippy corporate slang, one that accurately explains what strange phrases like “increase the footprint” and “harness the organic process” mean. (They mean “increase our market share” and “build on capabilities or competencies we currently have within the organisation as opposed to acquiring them from the outside,” respectively.)

Along with being a helpful translator, the book is also quite witty and appropriately skewers the use of a language so few of us actually understand.

Businessman listening to presentation. Business buzzwords. What are they talking about? Photo: Thinkstock “Why can’t you just use normal words?” File photo: Thinkstock

In an interview, I asked Sudakow, who founded CH Consulting in California, why certain people gravitate toward corporate-speak.

“I think it becomes like this language and it allows people to look like they’re part of a special group that knows what this stuff means,” he said. “I think that’s why its so prevalent in consulting. They’re brought in to be experts on stuff and if they have their own language that makes them seem like they’re even greater experts.”

Except that it doesn’t.

“It’s the opposite,” Sudakow said. “It’s like their credibility actually goes down because people wonder, ‘Why you can’t just use normal words?'”

Young man sampling apple. Businessman picks low-hanging fruit. Photo: Thinkstock Sudakow’s book, Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit … and Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World, is a dictionary of dippy corporate slang. Photo: Thinkstock

The first buzzword to offend Sudakow’s ears early in his career was “glean.”

“I was in a team meeting and I was siting there listening to a senior-level partner and she must have said the word ‘glean’ about 13 times,” he said. “And I thought, ‘I’ve never heard anyone use the term glean in my life.’ Glean became like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. From then on I had like this radar for these kinds of words and phrases.”

He started writing baloney words down on a whiteboard in his office and telling co-workers they could not use those words around him. And if they absolutely had to use any of the words, Sudakow demanded that they make air quotes with their fingers.

He recounts in the book: “Unfortunately, the little experiment proved to do absolutely nothing to inhibit anyone from using these expressions. To my surprise, though, my colleagues adhered without any resistance whatsoever to the air-quoting requirement, which at times got distracting due to the sheer volume of finger bending occurring in my office.”

‘She must have said the word ‘glean’ about 13 times. I thought, I’ve never heard anyone use the term glean in my life. Glean became like fingernails on a chalkboard for me.’

Some wars, it seems, are just unwinnable.

For each word or phrase in the book, Sudakow offers the actual meaning as well as an explanation of what the word doesn’t mean. For example, “bench strength” is the “depth we have in the organisation for specific knowledge and capabilities.” It is NOT, “at all related to the structure and strength of the benches in the front lobby.”

It’s fun and legitimately helpful information.

A few of the author’s favourite (or I suppose least-favourite) phrases are: sexy project; baking people into the process; thoughtware; and singing from the same song sheet.

And he said there were “30 or 40 terms we didn’t include, as well as 20 or 30 that wound up on the cutting room floor.” One particularly disturbing biz-saying left out was a crude reference to a piece of women’s clothing.

“It means to be transparent and not hide anything,” Sudakow said. “But it’s pretty offensive, really.”

It’s actually all pretty offensive in how it slaughters the English language. And the fact that we need an English-Buzzword-Buzzword-English dictionary to figure out what some in the working world are talking about is absurd.

But that’s the world we live in. Sudakow tried fighting the good fight. He could have been seriously injured by an overly aggressive air quote.

In the end, it didn’t help. So he did the next best thing. He let the people who enjoy corporate chatter keep on speaking, and gave us a way to figure out what the hell they’re trying to say.

Chicago Tribune

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