Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Free Your Writing from Buzzwords

Have you used any of these words in your writing?

  • Low-hanging fruit
  • Learnings
  • Efforting

They are buzzwords, popular industry words that people use to impress others.

The biggest problem with buzzwords is their popularity. They become so overused, they lose their meaning...if they ever had any. Sure, low-hanging fruit creates a picture in the reader's mind of something easy to reach. But it's used so frequently that it's become cliché. Your reader doesn't pause to consider it.

Some buzzwords are nonwords, like learnings. You don't walk away from a workshop with learnings; you walk away with lessons or knowledge or teachings. Ann Handley wonders where this trend stops. Will we have knowledges? Informations?

Other buzzwords are so empty, one wonders what they're supposed to mean. Efforting, for example. In 2007, The Lowell Sun stated that it "is also efforting to get a transcript or clip of the segment." Perhaps the Sun is trying to get a transcript or clip, but the use of efforting gives me a feeling that they're not trying very hard.

"But," you say, "everyone in my industry uses that term. If I don't use it, I look like I don't know what I'm talking about." True, eliminating all buzzwords all the time might make you look like an outsider in some types of writing. When I edit, I sometimes have to turn a blind eye to words like impacting and incentivize because my client needs to sound part of the gang. It's a sad fact of business.

In those situations, limit the number of buzz terms you use, making the rest of your writing clear and concise. Put real thoughts, real knowledge, into your copy. Your readers will respond by putting more faith in your (mostly) buzzword-free writing than in the incentivized, Web 2.0-driven, learnings from the snake-oil salesman down the street.

Buzzword Alternatives

  • Low-hanging fruit: easy first step
  • Learnings: teachings; lessons; knowledge; information
  • Efforting: trying; making an effort
  • Web 2.0: Web 2.0 actually describes technology that allows us to do things. Just talk about those things.
  • Lean startup: startup (aren't all startups lean these days?)
  • Bandwidth: We are not pipes that carry data from one location to the next. Instead of "I don't have the bandwidth for that," try "I don't have the time for that," "I'm too busy right now," or how about the direct, "No, I can't do that." Just don't say you have too much on your plate.
  • Disconnect: As in, "The partners were experiencing a disconnect." Try, "The partners couldn't agree."
  • Face time: As in, "I need face time with the client." Instead: "I need to spend some time in person with the client." Or, "I need to meet with the client face-to-face." As long as you don't say you're meeting in meat space.
  • Utilize: use
  • Paradigm shift: fundamental change. Avoid sea change.
  • Incentivize: offer an incentive
  • Impactful: make an impact

Are there buzzwords that drive you crazy? Have some elegant solutions for common buzzwords? Share them in the comments section below!

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 24th 2010, 5:53 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
How long will it take before "easy first step" becomes a cliche once it's used in place of "low-hanging fruit." While you may deride these phrases as trite, hackneyed, and shopworn; they're effective and get the job done efficiently. They are not used to impress others; but rather to communicate in simple, colorful ways.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 7:15 AM
Comment by: Edson Lopes (SÃO PAULO Brazil)
Clichés give flavor to the text. Too much seasoning makes the food as unsavory as too little of it. If one must be creative in writing, freshly-coined clichés (which might not still be called so) are good pickle. Not-so-fresh ones, but which are making their ways into the industry, may convey more meaning and bring more focus onto the issue than plain language.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 8:01 AM
Comment by: Katy P. (Bloomington, MN)
Anyone efforting at low hanging fruit is experiencing a huge disconnect with the English language and needs some serious face time with Strunk and White.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 8:33 AM
Comment by: Irina G. (Vienna Austria)
Buzzwords keep editors at work !
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 8:33 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
Impactful nearly sends me over the edge.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Rosalind C. (St. Louis, MO)
Katy, your comment is hilarious.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 9:55 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sometimes buzzwords do help get the message across, particularly if they're part of your industry's jargon. And sometimes they keep your message from getting through, whether it's because the audience doesn't understand the buzzwords, are distracted by their novelty, or miss the point because they glossed over all of them. It's a fine line to walk, and it's good to have options.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 9:55 AM
Comment by: Adam J. (Pittsburgh, PA)
People use phrases that are easily understood and require less thought. While the language often become overused, your observation that people use these phrases to "impress others" sounds elitist to me.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 10:41 AM
Comment by: Geoff M. (HAWKER Australia)
Try "Bendable Learnings - The Wisdom of Modern Management" by Don Watson, Knopf Books, 2009 (ISBN978 1 74166 904 6) for a whole discussion of buzzword horrors.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Timothy O.
I must disagree with Adam. People most definitely do use these words to impress others, and *that* is elitist. I had the misfortune to be in meetings with IT people recently, and felt I was among people speaking a foreign language, not because it was tech talk, but because it was composed almost entirely of meaningless catchphrases.

I was told they were going to "loop me in," when all they meant was that they were going to keep me informed. I have since looped myself out.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Katy P. (Bloomington, MN)
Thanks Rosalind. Glad somebody sees the humor.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 11:43 AM
Comment by: TJ P. (Warrensville Heights, OH)
Around my office people keep referring to their phones as horns, as in "I need to jump on the horn with the client." I have also been forced to sit through multiple meetings where the dreaded buzzword "synergy" surfaces as often as "uh." I think there may be a correlation between using that word and not knowing what you are saying.

though these are more catchphrases than buzzwords, they have also been gaining popularity:

Walk before we run
circling the runway
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Becky C.
In my environment the term "learnings" is used to the point that every time I hear it I want to gag! "Bandwidth" is also used to the point of overuse. I think that these and other jargon are used if not to impress, at least to make people think you are part of a "special" group. As far as I am concerned, the "special" group is just verbally lazy.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 12:50 PM
Comment by: Beth @ Lunchbox Marketing
My personal most-hated buzzword/phrase is "pull the trigger." As in "we're just about to pull the trigger on that project." Or, more simply put, "We're about to start that project."
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 1:54 PM
Comment by: Marilyn B. (Wethersfield, CT)
Buzz words are silly and many times make the person using them sound pretentious and cloaked in their corporate personna. Some personal favorites are:
planful, circle back, level set, "socialize" (as in: we need to socialize this document)...
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 3:55 PM
Comment by: Rich (Aldie, VA)
The fact is, jargon is exclusionary. People use it to feel part of a group and to keep people not a part of the group from participating in the conversation. The more specific buzz words and phrases are to an industry or group, the more they approach the level of jargon and the more damaging they can become to open dialog.

With apologies to Nike, just DON'T do it.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 5:05 PM
Comment by: Paul L.
"At the end of the day" we all need an "exit strategy" from buzzwords. I don't know about anyone else, but after a long day at the office, I grow so tired of discussing "core competencies," being "customer centric," establishing "best practices" in a "brick and mortar" environment, that all I want to do is "circle back" and "drink the Kool-Aid."
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 5:07 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Geoff, that sounds like a great book! I'll have to pick up a copy.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 10:10 PM
Comment by: Geoff M. (HAWKER Australia)
Mark Colvin of Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) says is so much better than I can. http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/some-key-learnings-about-the-debasement-of-language/

To quote Mark Colvin:
I open his book of quotes at random: “We work at a strategic level to understand an organisation’s human capital needs so that targeted solutions can be designed and implemented to meet business objectives”.

Again: “Leaders are also taught how to reshape their companies’ genetic code ... by teaching them how to graft practices into their patterns of engagement”.

And again: “A Change Management Practitioner has mastery of the change principles, processes, behaviours and skills necessary to effectively identify, manage, initiate and influence change, and manage and support other through it”.

These buzz phrases don't get the job done efficiently, they cloud the meaning and make the reader switch off.
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 11:28 PM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
As for me, I sort of like buzz words.
Wednesday August 25th 2010, 12:11 AM
Comment by: James W. (Fountain Hills, AZ)
It seems cliches are the low hanging fruit of language.
Monday August 30th 2010, 2:02 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
I agree with the majority of your argument, particularly in bemoaning the use of nonwords like "learning" and "efforting." However, I disagree with you on two points:

I don't think most people are being elitist when they use catch phrases. I think they are simply talking the way people around them talk. Just as teens pick up slang, adults pick up the language others around them are using.

More importantly, I disagree with your definition of "low-lying fruit." When I or those with whom I work use that phrase, we are certainly not talking about an "easy first step." If I changed someone's writing in that manner, it would change the point of the sentence, and the writer would likely tell me I didn't understand her or his meaning. In our work, if we have to approach several organizations or people in order to collaborate, we would first approach those whom we expect to be receptive to our ideas. Thus, the "fruit" does not apply to a step but to a group of people. in this case, I think the cliche works perfectly and I would not change someone's writing who used it.
Tuesday September 14th 2010, 6:43 PM
Comment by: Mike G. (Reno, NV)
My usual response to buzzword-filled memos, meetings and e-mails is: Going forward, at the end of the day, it is what it is.
Monday August 29th 2011, 5:49 PM
Comment by: SammySunga
Oh my god, the word "utilize" has been used waaaayyy to many times from my classmates when they write essay LOL
Tuesday August 30th 2011, 5:08 PM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
This article reminds me of a quote by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784): "Do not accustom yourself to use big words for little matters."

I think some people do use some words to "impress others". In Spain, some people and even reporters use English terms such as "premier", "cash", "feeling", "fifty-fifty", etc. when they could use perfectly good Spanish equivalents. I suppose they want to sound "cool".
Monday October 24th 2011, 10:30 AM
Comment by: Tim R.
@Cody: I am not sure the people you are talking about would be happy to be referred to as fruit. The term has other connotations, which is often the danger with metaphor. "The first easy step" is still right in your context; in your case picking the low hanging fruit is approaching those most likely to be sympathetic to your approach -- the first easy step!

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