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Jodi Amendola is CEO of Amendola, an award-winning healthcare, health IT and life sciences PR and marketing agency based in Scottsdale, AZ.
The buzzword is to business writing what “hate-watching” is to TV viewing; they both make us cringe, but for some reason, we just can’t turn away or quit the addiction.
For many of us, the mere mention of the term “buzzword” conjures up a personal list of those overused cliches that we love to hate. At the top of my list are the ever-popular “synergy,” “low-hanging fruit,” “think outside the box” and “win-win.”
Nonetheless, these trite phrases pervade business writing—including healthcare IT writing, which my agency specializes in—like shuffling, groaning, tattered-clothing-wearing horror-movie zombies that just won’t die.
While the topic of buzzword overkill in the business world is one that is certainly crying out for more scholarly research, a 2018 survey of 2,000 American workers reveals the depth of Corporate America’s buzzword addiction. The survey found that 72% of workers admitted that they were guilty of using buzzwords out of habit. Of course, there are also other reasons to use buzzwords, with 29% of workers reporting that they use the terms jokingly, and 22% saying they use them for assimilation purposes.
For those who dare to utter buzzwords in the office (or virtual office), there is a cost: 27% of workers said they “can’t help but shut down and stop listening” when they hear these phrases in the workplace. (Additionally, the survey quizzed workers on their most-hated buzz phrases, with the top five revealed to be “give 110 percent,” “think outside the box,” “hammer it out,” “heavy lifting” and “throw them under the bus.”)
But what exactly is so bad about buzzwords?
Overused Words Lose Their Effectiveness
In healthcare, with its dizzying combination of medical terminology along with the usual business cliches, the problem may be even more acute. For example, in an article for Forbes Business Council, Howard Rosen recounts a story of his time working as a health IT vendor when his company contracted with a consulting firm simply to ensure it was “buzzword compliant.”
While that sounds slightly ridiculous, the investment may have paid off. Rosen’s company found that it was using a popular healthcare industry buzz phrase—“patient engagement”—in a different way than other companies. At Rosen’s company, the phrase meant what it implies—getting patients interested in their own healthcare. However, when Fortune 100 companies discussed patient engagement, they were referring to data collected from patients’ medical devices. (For my money, either one is a valid use of the term, which obviously only adds to the buzzword-caused confusion.)
The above anecdote gets to the heart of the buzzword problem. These annoying words and phrases are more than just overused; they are so tired that they have come to mean virtually anything to anyone, and in turn, they have lost all effectiveness in conveying a unique, memorable marketing and communications message.
While an author or supposed thought leader may choose to use buzzwords to sound smart and well-informed about the industry’s latest trends, the effect on the audience’s perception of him or her is generally just the opposite: Listeners are more likely to think the author is lazy, deceptive, amateurish, superficial and contrived.
Clarity And Brevity: Every Communicator’s Best Friends
The purpose of the majority of business marketing and communications content is to induce the audience to take a desired action: Click to learn more, schedule a software demonstration, contact customer service and the like.
If you don’t respect your audience’s time and self-interest, they won’t get anywhere near that desired action. They’ll have moved on to the next piece of content.
That’s why simple, clear, concise and brief language is an essential component of any business communication. Always keep in mind that you must answer a simple question that is likely to flash through the minds of every member of your audience: “What’s in it for me?”
Because buzzwords can be so ambiguous, confusing and cringeworthy, they often stand in the way of a communicator’s ability to deliver a clear answer to that critical question. Buzzword-laden marketing and communications materials are likely to turn off an audience, rather than motivate it to perform the desired action, leading to lost opportunities for the teams that rely on that content to pique prospects’ interest.
My best advice is simple in concept, but not always so easy to implement: Say what you mean in clear, plain language. Respect your audience, and don’t try to impress them with the same old familiar platitudes disguised as trendy, edgy corporate jargon. Buzzwords too often sound pretentious, and ultimately do little to advance messaging about what sets your company apart from competitors.
Leave buzzwords alone to ensure that no one will “hate-watch” your content.