The Problem with Buzzwords

Ever find yourself surrounded by people who seem to speak exclusively in acronyms and buzzwords? Feel lost among a sea of vocab that seems to cascade over your ears? Or maybe you’re wondering how to keep up with all the neologisms and invented-overnight-terms that seem to crop up on a regular? Well, you’re not alone. Earlier this month, I reached out to the start-up and founder ecosystem to find out what their least-favourite buzzwords were, and why they disliked them.

One thing became particularly clear…like a bad joke, everybody has at least one.

The problem with buzzwords, you see, is that they take a little bit of extra unravelling from time to time. The other problem is that they don’t always jive with everyone’s expectations – or definitions. They can often be loaded with subjectivity and mystery. The other problem is that they can often be time-consuming to understand, something that can get in the way of seamless conversation when it might seem like they’re speeding things up.

“Sorry, I was AFK. AFAIK, the KB should be updated for Q3 – FWIW, I’m not sure we need the KPIs for this, just as long as we have the OKRs everything should make more sense.”

There’s something not quite right with the sentence above. It lacks warmth and character – and the tone seems…curt. Buzzwords and acronyms have slowly taken over many people’s day-to-day lives, and it’s worth wondering if we should inject a little personality into our interactions, and think more deeply about the words we’re using – or rather, the words we could do without.

Javier Santoyo Director of Nulla Carbon – a company that is attempting to mobilize the world’s economy towards carbon net-negative emissions – says that his least-favourite buzzword has to be ‘climatech’.

“Basically, because sustainability, ESG, climate action, circular economy, purpose, etc. are very sexy buzzwords, many start-ups are ‘rebranding’ their services to sound like they are green digital businesses,” he said.

“For example, because the cloud can optimise processes and contribute to a more efficient use of resources, including power, [many] start-ups that provide cloud and digitalisation services…now they say they are a “climatech” solution. Because it is more attractive and can open the door to access green investment.”

It’s one example of a word with a seemingly innocuous meaning that could have a potentially exclusive effect on more active, maybe more authentic, ESG companies doing work that has a greater, positive environmental impact.

We asked founders the question: what buzzwords do you hate?

Yvonne Comer, CEO and co-founder of Irish start-up RugbySmarts said she wasn’t a huge fan of the word ‘pivot’.

“Pivot for me brings connotations of forced change, be that Covid or any other external pressure put on founders to move away from the original concept,” she said.

“Businesses will naturally grow and change as you gain feedback from your clients and customers. Taking this on board shows development of the brand, and the experience gained by the business while it becomes more established in the market and I think the word pivot almost devalues this part of the startups progression.”

Another person told me about a web developer who hated being called a ‘web master’ because to their mind it made them sound like someone “who wore a cloak to work”. A lot less harmful, it could be argued, but nonetheless it underlines that not every term is always okay to apply to everyone you think fits the bill.

The word ‘journey’, another person told me, made them want to throw up – which goes some way to telling me just how passionately they disliked the term. One article on Medium from a few years back described Helen Brown, a New York Times bestselling author, as calling the word ‘clichéd and melodramatic’.

Words like ‘disruptive’…and ‘web 5’ were other words that came up when I asked people the question recently; sometimes the reasonings behind the dislike of a particular word were very to-the-point, while others perhaps suggested a reaction to rail against new waves of technology that remain undefined.

Perhaps the most common reason from those who made their choice was that the word was overused and had lost any authentic meaning.

Founders – and the tech community – don’t like to be boiled down to worn-out phrases. And why would they? As some of the most innovative thinkers and outside-the-box ideators around, it sort of takes away from the work they do by describing them and their work in such, well…uninspired ways.

There are other buzzwords too that are just overly complicated – or wordy for the sake of being so; other words that seem almost too fast and loose, too up-in-the-air.

It’s interesting to think about the words founders and the tech community use to describe themselves – more interesting, still, is to think about the words they’d prefer not to have used. Not everyone will always agree, of course, on best practices, and there will always be terms that rub people up the wrong way, but it’s at least worth our while taking the time to be more thoughtful with the words we’re using, and to think about why we’re using them.

By Trevor Murray

Content Marketing Specialist at the PorterShed
Email: | LinkedIn | Twitter


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