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Busted: People who use jargon have ‘no idea’ what it means

24 December 2013

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Less than a tenth of senior managers understand what the jargon they use daily actually means, new research has found. 

A survey of almost 1,000 executives carried out by Financial Times Publsihing found that the overwhelming majority were “quite unable” to correctly explain the jargon they use on a daily basis.

Terms such as “future-proofing”, “core competency” and “leverage” stumped all but a quarter of respondents.

And less than half knew the definition of “paradigm shift” or the difference between “strategy” and “tactics” in a commercial or managerial context.

Just 9% were able to accurately match a list of 10 words and phrases commonly used in modern business lexicon with a description of their proper meaning.

But despite their “admittedly ignorant” understanding of “very confusing” management speak, respondents relied on an average of five buzzwords each day.

These are incorporated into presentations, meetings, reports, emails, and face-to-face conversations.

Most believed doing so made them “look more professional or intelligent”, or that it “cemented my position of authority”.

A small number genuinely believed that what they were – inaccurately – communicating did, in fact, make sense.

Others, still, admitted they often “blagged it” and “hoped that no-one would ask them to elaborate”.

Co-authors Professor Davide Sola, a Professor of Strategy and Management at ESCP Europe, the world’s first business school, said: “This research reinforces what we currently know about business buzzwords – namely, that they are oft overused and, in the majority of cases, seemingly misunderstood.

“Using corporate spiel in order to appear more intelligent, or simply because it sounds ‘good’, is clearly not the best method of communicating a direction or message.

“At best, staff and colleagues are left confused or ambivalent. At worst, it costs businesses money as stakeholders are unable to understand the objective and take longer to bring projects or tasks to practical fruition.”

10 most used but misunderstood business buzzwords:

 10. “core competency”

 9. “blue sky thinking”

 8. “strategy”

 7. “Tactics”

 6. “engagement”

 5. “elevator pitch”

 4. “leverage”

 3. “Future-proof”

 2. Return on involvement

 1. Thought leaders