At n/n we have a love-hate relationship – okay, mostly hate – with buzzwords (and buzz-phrases for that matter). Judging from some of the client workshops I’ve been involved in recently, we’re certainly not alone.
This struggle is rooted in a contradiction of sorts. On the one hand, it’s important to publish content that’s relevant to the key themes of the day, whether the rise of Southeast Asia’s consumer class or the adoption of artificial intelligence in financial services. Using the right vocabulary shows you’re abreast of, perhaps even advancing, the dialogue on a pertinent topic. When a word is sweeping an industry, people are eager to learn more about it, which means whatever you’re publishing is more likely to find an audience, get picked up and passed (or commented) on.
On the other hand, after the conversation reaches a certain pitch and density, fatigue begins to set in. Words that formerly drew interest cause eyes to glaze over. Concepts begin the long, cold journey to the buzzword graveyard, depicted so aptly in this cheeky cartoon from the New Yorker.
Exactly what constitutes a buzzword at any given point in time is an always-rich source of debate. Personally, we share the Guardian’s doubts about disruption and blockchain – and the wanton use of ‘digital’ as a prefix causes the hair on the back of our necks to stand up. We’d also agree with most of the New Yorker’s choices, with the glaring exception of ‘bacon.’ Like it or not, bacon will endure and inspire content for generations to come.
Thus any content creator is left struggling to strike a balance. In the workshops I was conducting, there were a lot of questions around how to demonstrate you’re up to date without publishing platitudes. When does a word galvanize and when does it start to sound, well, a bit lame?
Unfortunately there are no definitive answers. It’s not always realistic for organisations or marketing campaigns to avoid buzzwords completely. But they should, at least, be handled with caution. Here are a few questions to consider when publishing on a topic that’s in the buzzword ‘danger zone’.
*How late am I to the party? In other words, how much have I seen peers/competitors publish on the same word, phrase or topic, and for how long? If it’s dominated the media you read and your e-mail inbox for what seems like an eternity, and you’re sort of sick of hearing about it yourself, there’s a good chance a lot of other people feel the same way.
*Am I an actual authority, or just jumping on a bandwagon? Much like overprinting a currency, overuse of a word eventually distorts its meaning and diminishes its value (‘disruption’ is arguably a good case in point). Consider whether you understand the original meaning of a term and are applying it in that way – and whether you have a legitimate claim to knowledge on the subject. Some borderline buzzwords – sustainability, say - cut across a wide range of industries and functions, so can plausibly be used by a lot of people in a variety of contexts. Others are probably best left to the industries they sprung from. ‘UX,’ for example, makes a lot more sense in software than in sales.
*Am I saying something new? Using a buzzword risks your content drowning in the tidal wave of material on the same topic – making it especially important to assess whether you’re bringing something new to the table. Before writing that screed on sustainability or blog on Belt and Road, it’s a good idea to conduct some judicious Googling – or better yet, embark on a full-scale content audit – to ensure you’re not simply repeating what’s widely understood and has been said before. On the other hand, publications that contravene conventional wisdom or zero in on a relatively underexplored aspect of a much-discussed phenomenon will turn a lot of heads – even if those discussions have been going on for a while.
Perhaps the best way to think of buzzwords is the verbal equivalent of junk food – quick, easy, good to turn to once in a while. But under no circumstances should they make up the bulk of your diet. Which means the New Yorker may be on to something with the bacon reference after all.
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