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Banish buzzwords

There’s been no shortage of writing lately about buzzwords and their (over)use in business communications. But *I* haven’t written about it yet, and I have thoughts to share.

First, a definition, thanks to Merriam-Webster:

An important-sounding word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress.

You might think that using buzzwords makes you look savvy, but I urge caution here. Buzzwords are the cubic zirconia of language: Upon first glance, they appear fancy and sparkly, but when examined closely, you realize they aren’t the real thing, and in fact are kind of… tacky. 

Let’s look at two examples.

Food packaging often features marketing buzzwords meant to inspire the consumer to purchase, but when you stop and think, you realize these terms mean little and add nothing. For example, Lean Cuisine had labeled some of their frozen entrées as “Marketplace,” likely chosen to evoke the vibrant excitement of an open-air market with produce stands and food vendors. Bit of a stretch, though, as I’m certain the ingredients in their mass-produced, quick-frozen, plastic-trayed, microwaveable meals are not carefully selected from local vendor stalls and brought to the factory by marketgoers carrying brown paper sacks. And I speak from experience when I say that I’ve wolfed down many a microwaved entrée during a ten-minute break in work and never once felt as if I’d been transported to a greengrocer.

Now, let’s look at beauty product marketing. In my own cabinet, there are three face creams, each labeled with various promises:

  • A night cream that is replenishing and age-defying and anti-wrinkle
  • A serum that promises wrinkle correction
  • A day cream, labeled as micro-sculpting
Here’s how I keep my face looking young(ish).

What do these buzzwords actually mean? Think about it: Aren’t all moisturizers, by definition, “anti-wrinkle?” How, exactly, does one “defy” one’s age? What does it mean to “correct” a wrinkle? (Put it into time-out??) What is “micro-sculpting” and how would I know if this cream was doing that to my face? And really, aren’t all of those claims actually a subset of any face cream’s primary function, which is to moisturize? These terms might sound impressive (and let’s be fair, I fell for it), but they don’t really mean much of anything.

You get the point: We use buzzwords to persuade, convince, or sell. But when I see business buzzwords on a resume, I’m not buying it. I might overlook one or maybe even two, but any more than that and I automatically infer that the writer is trying too hard to make their jobs seem more significant than they probably were.

Using buzzwords on your resume actually suggests a lack of competence or confidence. 

If your resume doesn’t clearly convey the information it’s meant to share, it’s not going to get you the interview. A skilled recruiter or hiring manager can see right through your efforts to puff yourself up in an effort to seem impressive. You’re not fooling anyone.

Let’s analyze a made-up example, where an eager job-seeker describes herself as a

Results-driven, out-of-the-box thought leader and proven change-agent who seeks synergies to optimize deliverables. 

This is word salad. It’s verbal smoke and mirrors.

Hiring managers would prefer to see real examples from your work experience that illustrate the qualities you’re trying to feature. Some suggestions:

Results-driven Describe a time when you were given a project and you worked to achieve the desired result, and how the company benefited.

Out-of-the-box Suggests that you have the ability to conjure and provide truly unique solutions to common problems. So, describe a time when you offered a new approach to solving a problem, and quantify the outcome to demonstrate your impact.

Thought leader I admit to having strong feelings about this one. If I may humbly suggest, please don’t use it unless you have received some public acknowledgement of your status as one. Thought leader is a unique designation reserved for experienced individuals who have done some writing and speaking and developed a significant following. Read here for more about what a thought-leader is.

Proven Use this one only if you can offer an example that illustrates your record of specific success. If you can’t prove it, don’t claim it.

Change agent Also known as a catalyst. Think back to high school chemistry: A catalyst is a substance that speeds up the rate of a chemical reaction but is not consumed in the process. So, if you can articulate a situation where you were the person who energized others to rally around a project and urged the team on to success, then you can say you’re a change agent. If not, don’t.

Synergies Workplace synergy takes place when employees come together to make a greater impact than they would separately. In other words, you worked on a team to complete a project that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, or within a department whose success was notable. You can describe that without using the “S” word.

Optimize Means to make as perfect, effective, or functional as possible. These are qualities we expect in our work, aren’t they? I googled “How can I optimize…” and selected “my computer” from the list, and was presented with multiple search results that suggested improving performance. Use that instead

Deliverables Until the 1970s, generations of workers managed to not use this word. Google search results most often link it to a project management principle. A deliverable is an element of output within the scope of a project. It’s an outcome that is…delivered. This is one of those verbs that’s been turned into a noun. Grammarly calls that “verbing” and suggests that “to some, verbing makes what you say sound fresher and less traditional. To others, it’s akin to workplace-appropriate slang.”  This HR pro believes you should tread carefully into this territory and use it at your own risk.

Bottom line: If your resume (or your cover letter) contains more than a couple of buzzwords, review it to see whether you could say the same thing using language that is more precise or descriptive, but decidedly less trendy. There is almost always a better way to say it. Removing buzzwords will increase your authenticity and sincerity, and if your resume exudes those qualities, you’re far more likely to be selected for an interview.

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent advice!

    (I am reminded of the quote by that great philosopher Calvin: “Verbing weirds language.”)

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