Boardroom buzz words that make my hair hurt

Just came out of a strategy meeting with my hair hurting, teeth grinding, and a renewed appreciation for simplicity in language — and thought. Indeed, as Geoffrey James maintains, language can shape thought. That’s why “fuzzy language” leads to “fuzzy” thinking, he says.

James, a contributing editor at, has written extensively on the neuroscience of word usage and perception. In his piece on Train Your Brain to Think More Clearly he says,

If you habitually use fuzzy, ill-defined words crammed into long and convoluted sentences, you’re training your brain–and the brains of your team members–to think less clearly. Confusion is also contagious.

That may explain why I left the meeting in a daze. (Actually, that only explains part of my confusion. The rest was due to a surfeit of political posturing and an absence of new ideas. But I digress …)

In an effort to remove some of the ill-effects from this encounter — and in the always-noble pursuit of clear language and thinking — I offer up some of the newest inductees into the corporate buzz speak “Hall of Shame” below — courtesy of

And, just for fun, if you should find your mind numbing to the drone of corporate jargon at a future meeting, try making it a “win-win” with this Buzz Speak Bingo Card.

Actionable [adj.]: Originally a legal word referring to anything that affords grounds for a lawsuit. In business speak, it’ s anything on which action can be taken.

Bifurcate [v.]: An overly complex word that HR uses when splitting your position into two separate jobs. Feel free to reapply for either of them.

Biome, Ecosystem, or Ecosphere: Environment or market. “We just can’t justify full-time hires in today’s regulatory biome.”

Boiling the ocean [v.]: Attempting to do something with too broad a scope. This is generally in reference to a project or initiative to avoid. “The client is living a pipe dream; when are they going to stop trying to boil the ocean?”

Cadence [n.]: A far too poetic way to describe how often a scheduled event is repeated. “If we just hit the right cadence on our sprint meetings…”

Circle-back [v.]: To revisit an issue. “I’m heading to lunch now, but let’s circle-back Friday am.”

Curate [v.]: Adds a whiff of sophistication to any mundane selection process. “As Chief Social Media Jedi, you’ll be deeply involved in curating our Pinterest identity.”

Deep dive [n.]:An in-depth study.

Deploy [v.] Execute; release to the public. Makes the speaker feel like he’s planning D-Day instead of some insipid PR launch.

Dialogue [v.]: To have a conversation; talk.  “Let’s dialogue later bout the Miller account.”

Drink from the fire hose [v.]: To be overwhelmed with information.

Drink the Kool-aid [v.]: To accept company policy without question. [An unfortunate reference to the Jim Jones mass suicide in Guyana.]

Drop-dead date [n.]: The REAL deadline. Missing it often means dire consequences.

Gatekeeper [n.]: A person who controls the flow of visitors and information to/from management. You should “do lunch” with this person.

Hard stop [n.]: The non-negotiable end of a meeting. Usually announced at the start. “Clients are visiting this afternoon so we have a hard stop at two.”

Ideation [n.]: An overused portmanteau of “idea” and “creation.” Psychologists have a legitimate use for this word. You probably don’t.

Lens [n.]: A point of view; a corporate microscope. “I want to make sure that we’re looking at this through the right lens.”

Level-set [v.]: To ensure that everyone is at the same ‘level’ of understanding. “You better level-set your team before you send them on-site.”

Leverage [v.]: To make use of a resource. (What’s wrong with “use”?)

Net-net [n.]: The verbally communicated summary of a lengthy event. “Just give me the net-net of your conversation with the client.”

Offline [adj.]: Used in business meetings to reference a more detailed discussion that won’t involve the whole group. “Let’s dialogue about these issues offline.”

Operationalize [v.]: To do. (Now was that so hard?)

Low-hanging fruit [n.]:Relatively simple problems that can be addressed with minimal effort.

Ping [n.]: To contact or notify. “Ping the boss about this one later.”

Put to bed [v.]: To conclude something. “We just need to put these last issues to bed.”

Pull up [v.]: Meet together later about an issue, just as a car pulls up alongside another car perhaps?

Rightsizing [v.]: A gentler way to refer to downsizing. Suggests that a round of layoffs is simply a labor surplus correction, rather than a symptom of deep financial problems.

Run it up the flagpole [exp.]: To find out what colleagues think of a new idea. This is roughly equivalent to the next entry – to “socialize” something.

Socialize [v.]: To facilitate group discussions about an issue. “Let’s give them time to socialize the new material with their teams.”

Speak to [v.]: To address. “Yield the floor, sir, and I will speak to your point!”

Swim lane [n.]: Field of responsibility. “Listen, client management just isn’t in my swim lane.”

Talk to [v.]: A self-important way of saying ‘talk about’. “I’m going to talk to the issues raised last week.”

Tasked [v.]: To be given an assignment. “I’ve been tasked with bringing coffee to the meeting.”

Value-add [exp.]: A typical biz speak reversal of ‘added value.’ “We have to evaluate the value-add of this activity before we drop any more money.”

Vision [n.]: The bold leadership direction that every manager claims, even if it changes every two weeks.

Win-win [n.]: A mutually beneficial arrangement for two parties. While the better negotiator is probably still at an advantage, both leave the table feeling great about it.

Embrace simplicity

Found this on recently and taped it near my computer as a great reminder that more often than not, less is more.

Thought it worth sharing with all of you. Enjoy!

Email advice


Thought for the day:

Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

                                          Henry David Thoreau

“Institutional” web site copy: My own March Madness

Working with a client this spring to develop new content for their financial services website that is straightforward, concise, and “human,” I was constantly reminded of just how difficult it is to reconcile the elegance of plain language with the client’s need to impress prospective clients by using corporate-speak and financial jargon. “This is madness,” I thought to myself (more than a few times).

This was a particularly difficult client because they were in the “institutional” investing marketplace. (And, no, that doesn’t mean their analysts were in mental hospitals or prisons — although a language survey some years ago uncovered that wonderful nugget! See my previous post: Are inmates managing your money?)

Of course it was understandable that they wanted to make sure their prospective clients knew they were experts in their discipline and members of an elite club of accomplished, knowledgeable financial analysts. So the jargon was code, as it is for attorneys and doctors, to demonstrate they had the required credentials.

Fortunately the web team I worked with was supportive of clear, concise language — in fact, they insisted on it. They also insisted that we talk in terms of “you” and use active verb forms to create strong connections with readers/site users. My marketing client was fully on board as well when I reminded her that good business and financial writing isn’t so much about telling your audience how smart you are, but instead, making THEM feel smart. (Thank you, Joseph Kimball, language guru par excellence!)

In any case, the site is up now and performing well. And even someone who isn’t “institutionalized” can understand it. Take a look!

What’s the “secret sauce” for a great team?

Ever wonder why some of the teams you’ve worked on have been highly enjoyable and productive, and others seem doomed to failure?

The Project Aristotle team at Google took this question very seriously as it embarked on a two-year quest to discover the common traits of the company’s best teams. And their findings were unexpectedly “squishy”– especially for a company that thrives on hard data and number crunching.

The “secret sauce” that differentiated great teams from mediocre ones had nothing to do with the diversity of the team or expertise of its members. Instead, the teams that out-performed were those where everyone felt psychologically safe.

Here’s how Charles Duhigg reported on their findings in his recent New York Times piece:

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

His conclusion is worth repeating as well:

Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.

Good to remember the next time I’m leading a client team or volunteer committee. Making sure all participants have psychological safety — a chance to be themselves, to offer out-of-the-box ideas and solutions without fear of judgement — is vital to producing better results AND a happier experience.