If I’m being honest here, the office tool may be you. No worries, brah. I reached out to my Kool-Aid-drinking teammates in the word industry to get a 30,000-foot look at the elephant in the room. And that elephant is office lingo. At the end of the day, using phony, outdated, corporatized, robotic, or empty-headed speech (as in how I began this post!) can mark you as a tool. The kind who sounds like he smears hair gel over his sentences: slick, trying too hard, slightly off.
Not that jargon is all bad. If people around you speak their own special tribal dialect, it’s a good idea to do the same—as long as your mates already consider you a member of the tribe. A special, exclusive language brings people together. In my book I call it code grooming—doing with words what chimps do when they pick lice from each other’s fur. Strange to outsiders but great bonding.
The problem arises when you use lingo that’s dated, outsiderish or meaningless. It makes you sound stupid, dated, or like an outsider. Instead, if you want to sound smart, try coming up with original expressions that people end up using. Scroll to the end to see some examples.
Otherwise, let’s open the kimono of jargon to avoid.
Words that make you sound like a phony
We’re starting to hear the expression If I’m being honest… used around the office. Does that mean you’re usually not honest? Also, people are reaching out when they mean “talking to.” And when lose their train of thought they say, “Stay with me here…” This sort of lingo marks you as insincere and overly dramatic.
Words that make you sound like Dr. Evil
Any officemates under 30 probably aren’t into white space or raising the bar, and you won’t catch them picking low-hanging fruit. They don’t get their ducks in a row. When they say Über they mean transportation, not super. They don’t push the envelope with game-changing, big-ass hairy goals. That’s like saying “I’m hip, I’m cool” while trying to give a stiff-armed hug.
Here are some other dated office expressions
Under the hood : Cars are computers now, friend. Back away from the hood.
Wheelhouse, as in “PR isn’t in my wheelhouse.” You’re not in a wheelhouse either, cap’n.
On (or under) the radar : So now you’re in a fighter jet?
Bag of tricks: Not unless you’re a party magician.
Cross-pollinate : Drones say this to worker bees.
Paradigm shift : Does anyone really know what a paradigm is, let alone a shifty one?
Words that make you sound like you do nothing at night but read business books
Long Tail. Black Swan. Outlier. Lean In . If you’re using book titles, you’re not selling an idea, you’re selling a bibliography.
Words that make you sound like you flunked poetry
Boring, meaningless projects don’t become exciting and meaningful just because you got all metaphorical, especially if your metaphors are really just clichés. Here are some you should avoid like, well, like the plague.
Looking for a unicorn : An impossible solution, replacing magic bullet. Do you still have a crush on Harry Potter?
Green field : A white space filled with low-hanging fruit. Meaning, “opportunity.”
Praise sandwich : Flattery.
Boiling the ocean : An impossible ambition. Try your own metaphor, like mining Pluto or something.
Singing from the same hymnbook : Holier than thou way of saying “Agreement.”
Helicopter view : Replaces “30,000-foot view,” introducing the need for perspective. How about “Flip the telescope”? Just as stupid, more amusing.
Cascade down : Like trickle-down, only with volcanoes and other disasters.
The long pole in the tent : A colleague getting too many resources or too much attention. Avoid it unless you’re just waking up in bed.
Journey : Everything is a journey now. In content marketing, they talk about the “consumer journey,” the noble path to buying stuff and liking companies. Save it for uncomfortable foreign places.
Words that make you sound like you don’t have a thought in your skull
At the end of the day it’s all about the consumer : Analyze every phrase and tell me if it contains a particle of sense.
Unpacking : Analyzing, breaking something down into constituent parts. Often used when the speaker doesn’t actually know how to break a concept down.
Pain points : Vulnerabilities or needs. Usually refers to people and companies who are making too much money anyway.
Disrupt : Dramatic term for “change.” Unless you use a sword, sledgehammer or air horn, just say “change.”
Customer-facing: Not facing the customer at all. Just something the customer sees after you open the kimono and show your junk.
Curate : Collect and edit. Do you really want to sound like you belong in a museum?
Words that make you sound like a corporate tool
Circle back Synergies. Level-setting. Buy-in. Stake in the ground. Decision-critical. Onboarding. Hard stop. EOB (end of the business day, whenever that is). Deliverables. Avails.
If you never hear an expression outside of a corporate meeting, don’t use it, even with your office mates. It makes you sound like drank the Kool-Aid. (Which, of course, refers amusingly to a cult’s mass suicide.) Also, avoid words that some corporate tool nailed together for the amusement of other tools: Ideating. Calendarize.
Words that make you sound like a robot
Interlock, meaning, make it fit well or play nicely together.
KPIs. Key Performance Indicators. Humans say “facts and numbers,” or, if you really have to, metrics or analytics.
Upskill : Teach new skills. A.k.a. “teach.”
Touchpoints : Moments when a customer is seeing your message. Fortunately doesn’t involve touching anyone.
Bandwidth : Staff time and resources. As in, “We don’t have the bandwidth to boil the ocean.”
Start your own lingo! Words that make you sound original
Take jargon from professions, hobbies, or the entertainment world and use them in novel ways.
Air-kiss : Insincere praise, as in, “They totally air-kissed our presentation.”
Anaerobic : An unsustainable pace. From sports, when a sprinting athlete goes into oxygen deprivation.
Drop-set : Adding a few easy tasks to a hard one. From weightlifting, when you add a set with lower weights.
Drop the towel : Less sexist than “Open the kimono”; to operate transparently.
Eat the worm : Overdo it. You know, like getting drunk and eating the larva at the bottom of a bottle.
Ground-truth : Use instead of “due diligence” or “fact-check.” In satellite imaging it means checking the accuracy and interpretation of pictures from space.
Terminal velocity : Going as fast as we can before we hit the ground.
Yoga pants deadline : Tight and transparent.