9 Buzzwords That Can Make You Sound Dumb

Are you guilty of using buzzwords like "pivot" or "bandwidth"? When used incorrectly or excessively, buzzwords can do some serious damage.
November 25, 2013

Language reveals a great deal about a person. The words you choose, how you choose to say them and to whom you say them gives clues about your level of education, your comfort level, even your outlook on life.

One of the worst language mistakes you can make in a business setting is using buzzwords the wrong way or after they've already “jumped the shark.” People who try to sound smart may leave the impression that they either don’t know enough about the topic or are insecure about addressing it. Here are some buzzwords and overly used terms you should think twice about using:


A business pivot is a change in business strategy in response to new opportunities or a failure in its current approach. Pivoting is a good thing, and many successful companies have done it. The problem is that now everybody wants to pivot everything: When someone changes her mind in a meeting, she is "pivoting from A to B," or your IT person might announce your company “is pivoting from using Microsoft Word to Google Docs.” No, my friends, you are simply changing your mind and switching from Microsoft to Google.

"It Is What It Is"

How insightful. That is almost as brilliant as “it’s not what’s it not” or “it can be what it can be.” This is an example of a circular definition, which, as we learned in grade school, should never be used. If you want to tell me something about “it,” please make sure that it’s something valuable, insightful and worth my time.


How many resumes, LinkedIn profiles and sales documents include this phrase? Too many! If you think you need to tell people that you're “results-oriented,” it gives the impression that you think this is a big deal. Being results-oriented in business is like being “alive” for a human; it’s a given. People who are not results-oriented wouldn’t bother trying to sell themselves to begin with, so relax and just tell people exactly what the results are that you can offer.


This phrase refers to the process of coming up with ideas. It used to be called “brainstorming” or “coming up with ideas,” but apparently that didn’t sound important enough, so ideation was born. I have an idea: Let’s call it quits on ideation and go back to brainstorming.

"Growth Hacker"

A growth hacker is someone who uses “growth hacks” to grow their business. A growth hack is a creative or otherwise nontraditional method employed to achieve revenue growth. Old people call this “selling.” Hacking sounds cool, and if you're going to do something cool like hacking, why not do it to improve your company’s numbers? This is a great concept but it’s completely over used. Now people who are just doing their job are labeled growth hackers. Sorry to burst your bubble, but launching a website or calling a potential customer does not make you a growth hacker.


Gamification is a fascinating concept. It refers to the use of rules meant to produce gameplay in things other than games. Many successful businesses today use gamification to increase user engagement. A simple example is awarding prizes to customers for completing certain tasks on your website. Gamifying your software could have valuable results. But before you start talking about this, it’s important to know what actually goes into this process. It's extremely difficult to successfully incorporate game mechanics into marketing campaigns, software and other areas.  


Synergy is the buzzword that just won’t die. It keeps coming back decade after decade. It refers to measurable benefits that are secured when different elements interact. The benefits would not have been achieved without this interaction. A development engineer, a marketing manager and a budget supervisor working together to develop a new product is an example. A U.S. company buying a European company is another potential example. The concept is excellent, but in hindsight, many opportunities that appear to have synergy turn out to have the opposite effect. It’s best to be cautious whenever labeling an idea, transaction or process as synergistic; most aren’t.


In business jargon, this refers to one’s availability. People are not modems. It sounds cheesy. Instead of saying, “I have some bandwidth for your project,” go with the oldie-but-goodie, “I have some time,” or try, “Yes, I can help you with that.”

"Key Takeaways"

I’ll admit that I use this one often. Typically it’s employed at the end of a PowerPoint presentation—usually as the title of the penultimate slide—to summarize the most important points. It’s important to remember that not all takeaways are “key,” and not everything is worth taking away. Be very picky when calling something a "key takeaway." If you call too many things out, you risk diluting the most important information. (Of course, if you really want to have your audience love you, prepare your presentation with the key takeaway slide at the beginning—everything else is just backup information.)

Don’t fall into the buzzword trap. In the right context, an occasional buzzword that's actively being used in a particular industry can be effective, but, in general, it’s best to use plain terms to get your point across.

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