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Dramatic enough headline for you? I digress... Upon reading Lauren's recent post on industry-specific phrases and their lack of ubiquity across industries, I, as a professional charged with ensuring effective communication for my clients, couldn't help but take a broader look at the way we generally communicate in our working world. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that on any given day, in any given work-related situation, chances are you, and I, and everyone we know, regardless of field or position or geography, are probably subjected to the same mind-numbing business buzzwords we've been hearing for years. I, of course, am talking about those clichéd corporate stand-by's that slyly find their way into our everyday speech, adding nothing to the conversation and increasingly putting our mouths (and, by extension, our brains) on auto-pilot. So I ask you to indulge me as I discuss (rant about, even) the business buzzwords and catch-phrases most prime to hit the lingo graveyard and what we can do to break the habit of using them.
"Think Outside the Box"
If your birth year starts with a "19," chances are you've heard this one used as a call to unconventional thinking and creative problem solving. Its origin is somewhat obscure, but there's no questioning its ubiquity in the corporate world. But while its ubiquity has grown, finding echoes in everything from everyday speak to taco advertising, its core message has been depleted. The more widely it is used, the more it becomes a stand-in not for creativity but merely for the prospect of accomplishing a task. A word to those who use this phrase: maybe it's time you think outside the box with your metaphors.
Habit Breaker: don't dance around the issue - get straight to your request.
Supplement: "get creative"
Oft used as a parenthetical phrase at the beginning or end of a sentence to signal that something should continue, this stinker has, like the aforementioned, risen from mere business cliché to full-blown corporate slogan. The problem is, the phrase doesn't actually mean anything. Isn't a request inherently indicative that its asker would like it to continue from the moment the request is made? I have never heard a manager state "I'd would like to see better team-wide communication, but tomorrow only, people; let's not get too ambitious." This waste of breath may be your attempt at sounding forward-thinking, but actually merely displays your lack of faith in your audience's ability to follow through.
Habit Breaker: do your listeners (and your tongue, for that matter) a favor and employ some verbal editing (notice any missing clichés in that bit of advice?).
Supplement: nothing (this phrase really is that useless)
Unless you are a fighter pilot on a bombing mission, the crew of a rescue chopper looking for a missing person or disaster survivors, or an ever-moving shark on the hunt for dinner, the chances of your actually needing to "circle back" are slim-to-none. This widely-slung metaphor is a ubiquitous stand-in for "follow up," "re-engage," and a host of other phrases meant to suggest one thing: that a subject will be revisited with the party originally involved.
Habit Breaker: imagine yourself literally acting out everything you say. The image alone will help you divide what works and what's too ridiculous to make the cut.
Supplement: whatever method of communication you plan to employ, in verb form.
Whether it was borrowed from the internet concept of an IP testing if a host is reachable or from the sound of receiving a text message or email, to ping has become a stand-in verb for quickly contacting someone. As in, "I'll ping you tomorrow." As in, "this won't be important enough to warrant a full-blown discussion." The phrase waters down its subject, lowering it on your audience's already top-heavy list of priorities. You don't (at least I hope) text message your loved ones about important topics, so why would you "ping" your associates about important business? If its importance is the equivalent of a text message, it probably doesn't matter.
Habit Breaker: when you say "ping," try to emulate it as onomatopoeia. If that doesn't stop you, nothing will.
Supplement: as with "circle back," whatever method of communication you plan to employ, in verb form.
Yet another communication-based cliché, we usually toss out this gem when, unlike a conversation worthy of a "ping," the topic at hand requires a bit more serious consideration. Trouble is, what does it actually mean to touch base? What base are we touching? Where is this base anyway? These would be the questions you would undoubtedly ask if this phrase weren't quite as draped in the mire of subtext that is contemporary business communication.
Habit Breaker: try, if you dare, to imagine yourself literally "touching base." I don't want to know what you envisioned. Let's just assume it wasn't pretty.
Supplement: "talk" (simple, no?)
If my rant has any take-away, it would be that we need to take a more scrutinizing look at the words we let escape our lips. The golden rule when learning how to write is "trim the fat," so why shouldn't we, in our world of ever-amplifying white noise, learn to employ the same good practices in our speech? After all, what represents us more than what we say? As such, I implore you to free your mouth of arthritic communique, free your audiences from the burden of feigning enthusiasm for buzzwords old enough to rent a car, and do the following: in every conversation you have, imagine your audience is a foreigner just beginning to get a hold on the English language. If you imagine you'd have to explain any of the phrases and buzzwords you use, chances are you're becoming a cliché machine. And no one likes that.
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