By Chew

Buzz Lightyear is focused on his mission and he is brave. Even in the most daunting circumstances, he said “this isn’t flying, this is falling with style”.

As a space ranger, his earthling friends are still trying to get used to his vocabulary: “We’re going into the attic now, folks. Keep your accessories with you at all times. Spare parts, batteries, anything you need for an orderly transition”. Or maybe we’ve been speaking the same language all along. Ask the former US President Barack Obama – he’d asked for an orderly transition in Egypt in 2011.

Buzzwords are very popular. They are the buzz in organisations, between organisations, and around the world. We’ve come to a space where it’s hard to tell if Lightyear or Obama or both had the right term when they said orderly transition. I’m a fan of both of them so they can say anything.

We often use buzzwords because we want:

  • to impress people, hoping that our audience will think we are knowledgeable and intelligent.
  • to create a divide between those who know and those who don’t. We would demonstrate belonging to an informed clique that supposedly shares the same terms that make up a body of knowledge.
  • to choose convenience over clarity. Buzzwords are sticky labels that we can quickly apply to situations without much thought. We simply box situations and apply labels. Thought is sometimes lost.

Buzzwords are sticky labels that we can quickly apply to situations without much thought.

I googled and found many who have written about this topic. Andrew Marder mentioned synergy, leverage, and low-hanging fruit. Adam Vaccaro let rip his distaste in this interview. Bill Sweetland shared a similar list. Howard Mustoe wrote an excellent piece on BBC News: “Use of jargon is not a new phenomenon, but businesses are leaving their customers and even their own staff scratching their heads about where their firms are going and where they themselves stand”.

One particular organisation in particular has had many of its terms lifted and applied in the business world: the military. We have marketing campaigns (I’m trying really hard to picture consumer goods parachuting onto Normandy). And campaigns can be strategic and tactical. We may have to negotiate for more headcount. Many of these words are misfits outside the military, but we’ve lost the war long ago.

“This is an intergalactic emergency”. We cannot win the war against buzzwords. While I am against using them, I use some every now and then. I may be moving forward. I can take a discussion offline. Something to look forward to at the end of the day. I can go on.

So, what can we do?

First, be mindful. Slow down and think about the words that we use. If we have a buzzword in mind, ask yourself:

  • Do we really understand what we are saying?
  • Would our audience know what we are saying?
  • Are there alternatives I can use?
  • Do I really want to be responsible for introducing a pesky buzzword to the organisation you work for?

Be inspired by role models who do not rely buzzwords. In Singapore, we can look to our first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. His speech is measured, understood, and effective — whether or not we agree with him.

Second, be active in seeking clarity. Whether it is words we use or words we hear, clarify for the sake of sanity and productivity. Working in the creative industry is especially challenging. “Strategy”, “ideas”, “approach”, “direction” and “concept” are words that have different meanings for different folks — even in the same organisation. Consensus is needed, in house at first, then between organisations. Leaders have the responsibility to lead by example to help promote clarity in communications. You save time, and sometimes face, too.

Leaders have the responsibility to lead by example and help promote clarity in communications.

Third, be conscious of it if you have to work with buzzwords. As George Orwell wrote in 1984: “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull”. I’ll admit, we are sometimes under pressure from clients and stakeholders to use buzzwords. If you have to say native marketing, say it, just take off your shirt. Resistance is futile. We may use words borrowed from a foreign language, but keep in mind our mother tongue,  and preserve our clarity of thought.

Finally, what is and what is not a buzzword is subjective. It is unlikely that any of us can be totally free of buzzwords. We have relative freedom to choose the words we use. But know the consequences. The real test is if Buzz Lightyear would report “…there seems to be no sign of intelligent life anywhere” here.

I think we’re better than that. Have a good week ahead!


*NASA ID: KSC-2009-5139, 2009-09-15. EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Disney’s space ranger Buzz Lightyear returned from space on Sept. 11 aboard space shuttle Discovery’s STS-128 mission after 15 months aboard the International Space Station. His time on the orbiting laboratory will be celebrated in a ticker-tape parade together with his space station crewmates and former Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin on Oct. 2 at Walt Disney World in Florida.


This article was first published on LinkedIn.

Photo credits: NASA

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