What’s the Buzz All About?

What buzzwords pepper your conversations? Do you believe they make you sound knowledgeable? We have a tendency to adopt buzzwords, even when they aren’t applicable or hold little meaning. For example, Josh Porter on Bokardo highlights the words some clients use to provide feedback:

I was in a meeting the other day when someone said “I think we need to make the logo bigger. It needs to pop”. I looked askance…pop?

What on Earth does “pop” mean? Does it mean that you literally hear a noise when you look at it? Probably not. Does it mean that the logo actually animates a popping action when its loaded? Again, probably not. These two common meanings of the word, I daresay the most common, are not what the person meant.

Non-designers use lots of interesting words when talking about design. They say things like “make it pop”, “it looks sharp”, “it feels cluttered”, “the Web 2.0 look”. All of these things mean something to them, and it becomes the job of the designer to decipher that meaning and take actionable steps.

We rely on buzzwords to bridge the gaps in our knowledge. As in Josh’s example, non-designers trying to communicate with their designers use words and phrases that say little. The designer is left trying to decipher what the client really means. The difficult part is that the non-designer believes they’ve actually expressed a viable opinion. Josh mentions later in his post that he’s reached a point where he can interpret such comments. However, the problem with this habit goes beyond the client relationship.

We’ve started using buzzwords in everyday conversations, regardless of the audience. I’m guilty of this practice, too, especially when someone asks me what I do. Sometimes, it’s just easier to toss off these words than it is to stop and think about what we want to say. In essence, we’ve gotten lazy with our language. Isn’t it telling that a game named Buzzword Bingo has entered our vocabulary?

I blame some of our reliance on buzzwords to a decrease in book reading among American adults. Now, before you say, “Wait a minute. I’m reading {your blog, 100s of blogs, etc.},” the point is different types of reading accomplish different things. The great thing about blogs and other short-form content is just that, it’s short, it’s easy to digest, it’s easy to keep up with. However, those same pluses can also be minuses when they aren’t balanced out by other forms of information.

Unlike blogs, books require a commitment from beginning to end. If you check a blog on random days, it likely won’t impact your ability to understand what’s happening. With a book, if you skip around, reading a every other chapter, you’re potentially missing out. A book also demands that it’s author use powerful, creative language, otherwise the reader loses interest. Can you imagine a book made up entirely of buzzwords? Who would read it?

Short-form writing is less rigorous (notice, I didn’t say easier, because it’s not). Language can be looser, more casual. It’s also more reliant on buzzwords because of the timing and how quickly new content pushes it beyond our view. In order to communicate an idea quickly, we stick with familiar words and phrases, not necessarily because they are the best descriptors, but because that’s what people are used to. This increased exposure, regardless of our best intentions, can make it easy to rely too heavily on buzzwords.

I suspect many of you are wondering why I even consider this an issue. For me, it becomes a question of what happens next? I’ve had many conversations about how the quality of what we hear and read has deteriorated; for example, many speeches are written to better fit our sound-bite culture and end up saying very little. I guess I wonder when we’ll say, “Substance matters as much as brevity.”

How much easier is it to deal with issues if you know what exactly is at stake? How many meetings have you sat in wondering how to fix a problem that someone can only describe using catch phrases? For all that we discuss how much more we value our time and how we spend it, we seem willing to waste it on stuff that has little to no lasting meaning. My challenge to you is to have one conversation today that doesn’t use a single buzzword. Think you’re up to it? I’d love to know if you’re successful.



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September 2007
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