Opinion: In praise of the cliche, from 'strategic' to low-hanging fruit

Professor Merlin Crossley, UNSW Dean of Science
Tuesday, 1 December, 2015
Merlin Crossley

Many academics complain about buzzwords - but that achieves nothing.

So I’ve decided to embrace buzzwords and share them with others, particularly with my colleagues in science who may be missing out on the fun - or rather opportunities - in this exciting new discipline.

Too few Australians learn a second language, so I’ve set out to teach my students the language of buzzwords - a language that many refer to as Weasel. None of them are fluent yet and I’m told it is difficult, if not impossible, to speak it well, but after only a few months I’ve found that most can manage to converse about everyday situations.

The first thing I teach is that buzzwords fall into three categories.

The first class of buzzwords includes clichés which operate as a sort of shorthand for common but quite complex ideas.

These words do actually have meaning but through overuse they have lost most of their impact.

This makes them extremely helpful. They can be used for hypnotising an audience and disarming it. Most listeners disengage and set aside scepticism as they feel liquid words, which no long have any edges or weight, flowing gently over them.

Useful shorthand words that are familiar and easily swallowed cover many important concepts in an easily digestible way. Here’s a useful list of some non-confronting buzzwords: ‘win-win’; ‘best practice’; ‘low-hanging fruit’; ‘mission critical’; ‘closing the loop’; ‘roll out’; ‘moving forwards’; and ‘value add’.

The second class of buzzwords is different. Words in class two have lost all meaning and, accordingly, they now serve as very useful intensifiers. I really like the word ‘strategic’. It once had the meaning of a long term plan but these days the word ‘strategic’ is most often used in place of mundane and boring words like ‘big’.

If you try omitting the word strategic you often find nothing really changes. So strategic planning is really the same as planning, and strategic choices are the same as choices.

In French, if people want to say someone is a very good thinker, they may use the word très for very, and if they need more emphasis they may say, très, très, très. But Weasel speakers can just say someone is a strategic thinker and they have given the ultimate compliment at once.

There are many handy buzzwords in class two that have almost no meaning (certainly no specific, quantifiable meaning), but which still provide great emphasis. These include words like ‘seamless’; ‘integrated’; ‘aligned’; ‘distinctive’; ‘synergy’; ‘quantum’; ‘paradigm’; ‘incremental’; ‘step change’; and ‘the next level’.

These are great words for younger students to practice with as they are largely harmless and there is very little danger the audience will get the wrong meaning, or indeed any meaning at all.

The third class of buzzwords are the euphemisms. These are often maligned but in fairness they are essential for anyone engaged in human interactions. After all, there are so many cases when one doesn’t want to ‘startle the horses’. Words like ‘advancement’ are used to describe fund-raising and old favourites like ‘restructuring’ are a response to shrinking budgets. ‘Environmental services’ has replaced the more distasteful ‘garbage collection’.

There are many ways to provide students with the opportunity to hear and use buzzwords. There is a now-famous game called buzzword bingo, where the players all have a secret card with numerous buzzwords in the squares. Whenever a buzzword is spoken, one is crossed off and the winner is the first to get a full line, or indeed their whole card, used up. A simpler game is just to collect lists and see who can gather the most.

It’s also a great idea to issue the students in the class or, indeed, colleagues in a meeting, with one buzzword each, and then see how many times they can use it during the session. Some students master this very quickly and advanced students can be given a mixture of class one, class two and class three buzzwords to use in the same sentence and be asked to either ensure there is no effect on the meaning, or ideally no meaning at all.

Another rewarding task is to see who can collect the most self-contradictory buzzwords.

On this note, many ancient buzzwords have become solidified as proverbs and many of these are contradictory, such as ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ and ‘many hands make light work’. Or ‘look before you leap’ and ‘he who hesitates is lost’.

Similarly buzzwords also have their opposites. So ‘breaking down the siloes’ contrasts nicely with ‘building beacons of excellence’ and ‘critical mass’. Sometimes contradictory ideas like competition and cooperation can be melded together to make new words like ‘co-opetition’. Another good example is ‘globally focussed’, which beautifully captures the idea of looking outward in all directions and inwards in only one at the same time.

But the ultimate challenge for scholars is to invent or identify buzzwords of the future and welcome them into our vocabulary. One I’ve heard recently describes an element of bureaucracy that satisfies itself without contributing to the organization. This complex concept is captured in the happy phrase – ‘like a self-licking lollipop’ – and I’m hoping I’ll have an opportunity to use this elegant new buzzword in the future.