Author James Sudakow explains why corporate America uses silly buzzwords.
You hear it in offices everywhere: “the elephant in the room,” “when the rubber hits the road” and talking “at the 20,000-foot level.” These corporate buzzwords are so common that most people don’t register discordance when they hear it. But not James Sudakow, a consultant who noticed the laborious way people talk and realized it can be a problem if not everyone understands the metaphor. Sudakow lists the most peculiar business buzzwords in his book, Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit … And Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World. He is the founder and principal of CH Consulting, a boutique management and organizational effectiveness firm. He recently spoke on the [email protected] show on SiriusXM’s Channel 111.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: Where did you get the idea to put this book together?
James Sudakow: I started my career years ago, working for one of the big four consulting firms, Deloitte Consulting, and had a great experience there. But I have to say that one of the things I could not get out of the way there was the hurling around of what I thought were really strange expressions. I remember at one point, I sat in a meeting and instead of paying attention to what I was supposed to be doing, which was probably client work, I started writing down the terms that I kept hearing thrown around. That evolved into me putting it up on my whiteboard in my office, and you could say it evolved or devolved from there.
[email protected]: But that’s part of how we live our lives and talk. It’s a hard habit to break.
Sudakow: In my office at Deloitte, the entire whiteboard was filled with consulting expressions. That’s what I called them at the time. When I joined other businesses outside of consulting, I learned that they were using them, too. But it was expressions you weren’t allowed to use in my office. We had to find a way not to say “drill down” or “boil the ocean” or “open the kimono.” We had to say normal words.
But you’re right, it’s a habit. And there’s a rub-off effect. It’s so common and prevalent that it’s hard for you not to do it — myself included. I don’t like corporate jargon, but I found myself using a few expressions, especially after sitting in a meeting where they were being lobbed around a lot. Then I said it. I said, “What the heck just happened?” I don’t like using these expressions, and I did it.
[email protected]: In your mind, who is the perpetrator of keeping these phrases alive?
Sudakow: I think we all are. It’s one of those really interesting things. I could easily point back at my consulting friends. I have a lot of friends that are still in the consulting business, and I run a consulting firm. So you could easily do that, because there is this concept of trying to be on the leading edge or talk about new ways of saying things.
“People are trying to speak in a way that gets people’s attention because it’s so hard to do in the business world.”
One of the challenges that we have in the business world is there’s so much going on. There are so many initiatives, and they all start to blend together. I can see where someone might say, “Hey, you know what? If we say this a little bit differently, it might stand out and people will pay attention to it. I get that. There’s actually a kernel of value in there, where people are trying to speak in a way that gets people’s attention because it’s so hard to do in the business world.
But I do think we’re all to blame for it. If we all sat down and said, “Let me just try to talk about this in a normal way, the way I would talk to anybody else,” we might actually be able to communicate better. That’s the irony.
[email protected]: What are a couple of your favorite phrases in this book?
Sudakow: When I say favorites, these are the ones that make me have a funny expression on my face when people say them. They’re the ones that just irk me the most, but they’re kind of funny. One of the things that I don’t like is “baking into the process.” I don’t know where that came from, I don’t know who came up with it, but instead of just saying “we’ll include this person” or “we’ll include that process,” somehow we decided we were going to bake it in. That one drives me nuts.
The other one that I find particularly strange is “tissue rejection.” I don’t know if you’ve heard that expression before, but it was frequently used when we were consulting, where we would be working with a client and maybe presenting a concept or an idea that might be a little bit beyond where they’re able to take it at the time. And people would say, “Are we going to get tissue rejection on this?” Basically, making an allusion to some sort of transplant and the body rejects it — kind of this crazy visual image. Both of those phrases are particularly annoying to me.
[email protected]: “Bake it into the process” was one that I had marked down. It makes me think, what are we baking at the CEO level these days? Apple pies?
Sudakow: I know. What’s funny is when I mentioned earlier the rub-off effect, that was the one I used. I can’t stand it, and I actually said it in front of a large group. I almost had this out-of-body experience where I said, “What did you just do? You hate that expression. You just used it.”
[email protected]: There’s another phrase in your book that I’ll bring up: data dump.
Sudakow: Yes, I remember the first time I heard this. It’s very typical on large projects, right? “Hey, we’ve got to do a data dump.” I was like, “What does that even mean?” And it’s kind of this overwhelming amount of information being thrown at people in a way that they could never possibly internalize it. So then they came up with this idea of calling it knowledge transfer, which I think was supposed to be the softer, gentler data dump. But it’s the same thing.
[email protected]: The one expression I really can’t stand anymore is, why do people have to “reach out” to each other? Why can’t we just talk to each other or email each other? Where does that come from?
Sudakow: That’s a great one, and it brings to mind several others that are equally as strange. Now we have to “talk live.” That’s in the book, which cracks me up. Why do we have to “reach out” and “talk live?” I thought we were talking. And then there’s “getting your arms around” things. There’s all these graphic images of things … Why can’t we just have a conversation? I don’t know where “reach out” came from, to be