Climbing out of the Buzzword Trap

Self-employed in publishing

This is a guest post from Jasmin Kirkbride. Jasmin is a regular blogger for BookMachine and Editorial Assistant at Periscope Books (part of Garnet Publishing). She is also a published author and you can find her on Twitter @jasminkirkbride

Last year, it was all about ‘disruption’, this year it’s all about ‘pivoting’. Buzzwords are a given part of any industry, but when do they start to do more harm than good?

Defining buzzwords

Buzzwords flag up concepts quickly and easily, alluding to an entire theory with just one word or phrase. Let’s take ‘disruption’ as an example. Each time somebody says ‘disruption’, they are referencing the act of innovating against the industry norm, implicitly in such a way as to scupper their competitors. It’s undeniably convenient to be able to sum all that up with one word.

But ‘disruption’ was old hat by mid-2014. Nowadays those in the know are ‘pivoting’ their businesses. Interestingly, when you analyse both of these ideas, they actually mean almost identical things. This not unusual, in fact it’s a critical part of a buzzword’s life-cycle.

Life-cycle of a Buzzword

A Buzzword comes into existence to explain an entire concept in a moment but, in the long term, there’s a huge problem with this. Like saying it ten times in a row, the more you use a word, the less you consider what it actually means. How often do you think about the meaning of the word ‘day’ as opposed to ‘equinox’, for example?

Being ‘creative’ was all the rage for a while, but the word got overused, its connotations changed and it unfortunately became synonymous with being away with the fairies. When a Buzzword is disassociated from its original context like this and develops a new meaning, it no longer serves its purpose and becomes redundant. In most cases, another word becomes attached to the old concept to reestablish its meaning and a so new buzzword is born. We don’t ‘Create’ anymore, we ‘Innovate’, but they come down to the same thing.

It’s a trap!

Of course, this cycle isn’t intentional, it all happens somewhere in the group subconscious, but it nevertheless creates traps for the unwary businessperson.

First, Buzzwords are references that give an impression of knowledge, even if little is present. The implicit understanding is that if you are using a buzzword, you are aware of concepts it encapsulates. Often that is not the case. In fact, the very existence of the buzzword life-cycle indicates the more a buzzword is used, the less anyone really understands it. At some point everyone uses buzzwords to cover a grey-area in their knowledge but we all know we shouldn’t do it.

This happens partly because we so often borrow buzzwords from other industries, which means we’re already looking in on an alien working environment. Worse, we also make a habit of creating buzzwords to explain movements from other industries that affect us. Rather than focussing on the business culture that allowed those innovations to arise, we end up instead focussing on a poorly understood buzzword which cannot actually assist our industry in moving forward. Furthermore, by taking on other industries’ terms and attitudes, we are constantly see ourselves in relation to their affect on us, not how we could affect them.

Lastly, because of the nature of the buzzword cycle, we’re in the habit of reinventing the wheel. Over and over again. ‘Innovate’, ‘disrupt’, ‘pivot’, ‘create’: they’re all ways of saying ‘come up with something new and brilliant.’

Climbing out of the buzzword trap

Antidotes to these issues involve a lot of self-policing. We need to be much more careful about the words we use. Watch yourself when you’re talking: are the words you’re using the best ones to explain the idea in your head? If in doubt, explain what you mean using the plainest language possible without any buzzwords at all.

Having said that, watch out for new buzzwords which do actually mean something different. When they come along tear them apart and get to grips with what they mean. A few to look out for this year are: ‘tribes’, ’tribal management’ and ‘mindfulness’.

Publishing revolves almost completely around words: we should take more care over the ones we use to define ourselves and our goals. Reimagine, redefine, rethink, rephrase. Create your own buzzwords for your business and our industry. Let’s discuss the future in our own terms.


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