Monday, September 25, 2006

Buzzword Bingo!

For those of you who don't work in Internet technology, this may be of very little interest to you. For those of you, like me, who work in technology, we have a nasty little secret: our industry relies a gibberish of buzzwords to attempt to communicate. I'm positive that this isn't a big surprise to anyone, but we have to say: Enough is enough!

I've seen this my entire professional career. It started making "use" into utilize, turned into turn-key, cooked up soup to nuts, pausing midway to disintermediate, and now it utilizes solutions to solve problems (even I'm scratching my head at that one).

I've been railing about this problem for years, editing all the crap out of any document that crossed my desk, but it keeps cropping up. The worst offenders seemed to come from the big consulting companies (I'm looking at you Accenture).

At one former company, we even played "Buzzword Bingo" during company-wide videoconferences or other meetings. It's quite easy. Make a list of buzzwords. Place a check next to one of your buzzwords every time you hear it at the meeting. At the end, the person who guesses the most correctly wins the game. My personal best performance occurred in 1999 at a company-wide teleconference. I chose the terms "special sauce", "incentivize", and "900 pound gorilla". I kid you not.

It's been so bad for so long that it has (of course) inspired a parody. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Web Economy Bullshit Generator. The sad thing about this is that all these still meaningless buzzwords still show up surprisingly often, even though this parody is at least six years old.

What is the Problem Exactly?
As the article points out, "solution" used to a good word with a fixed and clear meaning. Now, it's used so much in the industry that it has become meaningless. I mean, does "business solutions" mean anything to you? A few years ago, I fought a protracted, and ultimately useless, battle to not include this word any where on the site I was helping to redesign and re-write. Even my current company has "solutions". Solutions to what problem, I'm not really sure.

Just Use "Use", Don't Utilize It
My first encounter with buzzwords was with the seemingly innocuous word, "utilize." Of course, this means to add utility to. However, I began seeing it used where the much shorter and more elegant "use" would be preferred. I'm not sure why this occurred. Maybe they think those extra syllables mean that it's a "smarter" word than the alternative. I say bullshit.

Being Smart Versus Sounding Smart
The running theme with all the buzzwords popping up boil down to using complex words to connotate ideas that don't require that level of complexity. This ignores one of the foundations of good writing: never use a 25 cent word with a 10 cent word will do.

Using buzzwords don't make you sound smart, they only make you sound like you're trying to sound smart.

A Solution to Solutions?
If you want to communicate clearly and concisely, remove all buzzwords from your writing, or as a former co-worker of mine marvelously put it: eschew obfuscation.

As with most things pertaining to the written word, you don't have to look any further than Hemingway for sage advice:
Be careful.... It is all very well for you to write simply and the simpler the better. But do not start to think so damned simply. Know how complicated it is and then state it simply.
This passage from The Garden of Eden has adorned every office or cube at every job I've ever worked. Working with words is my career, and I use it as the guiding principle for every bit of writing that I write or edit. It doesn't matter if the writing is for a mass audience on a Fortune 500 company's website or for my yearly review. I'd encourage everyone in the tech industry to do the same.

UPDATE: 37 Signals and Lifehacker jump on the bandwagon. And that example isn't that far from what I actually see.

NP: "Brand New Cadillac" - The Clash

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