While not all the worst offenders come as a shock, the list of 20 such phrases might tell us something more about the business world and how marketers try to target consumers.
Like anthropologists unearth a culture's trash heap to piece together a vanished society, perhaps we can gain a glimpse into advertisers' brains by studying the elements of jargon they wishfully discarded in 2006.
Our favorites included:
Outside the box
Make it pop
Break through the clutter
Take it to the next level
It is what it is
At their heart, each of the oft-repeated concepts surely has some merit. In an ever-changing marketplace, what business wouldn't want to "think outside the box?" Who wouldn't want their 7-figure ad campaign to "pop." And what's so bad about offering customers free value, or launching a product that reaches "critical mass?"
But these word groupings do wear out their welcome over time and overuse.
Stanford professor and author Chip Heath, who with his brother Dan penned the recently published "Made to Stick: Why some Ideas Survive and Some Die," blames something called semantic stretch.
"The first person to say, 'we have to think outside the box,' had a cool concept in mind, and it produced an emotional reaction. The people who repeat it want to recreate that reaction, and as it gets repeated more and more, it gets stretched out. It becomes flabby," Heath said.
He suggests most such jargon is born out of a crisis of perspective.
"It's difficult to take on the perspective of others. Leaders like managers or coaches are trying to communicate ideas to people who don't have expertise. So the 'Big Idea' is in the head of the expert, and they're trying to summarize concrete things with abstract labels. It's the curse of knowledge."
Creative Group spokesperson Julie Sims concurs. It's not that the concepts themselves are bad.
"Many of these are just different words for creativity." In a world of companies trying to make their products stand out, this is the kind of language that rises to the surface, she said.
Not all the buzzwords are jargon. Some are euphemisms used in conversations with clients to soften the reality of a negative situation, according to Sims.
"'It is what it is,' is basically a nice way of saying, 'I'm powerless in this situation,' or 'I just can't do anything about it,'" she said.
Some began life in the academic world before the business world appropriated them.
For instance, "Critical mass" refers to the conditions needed to create sustained nuclear chain reactions.
"Paradigm shift," a term first used by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," means something very specific to scientific theorists. But Heath noted, "even philosophers of science steer clear of using it now."
OK, but what about a word like synergy: a mutually advantageous conjunction where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Forget the fact that in 2004's "In Good Company" Topher Grace abused the word throughout the movie in his portrayal of a confused-but-zealous young executive. Does that strip the word of its currency?
Probably not, says Sims. But the fact that so many industry leaders think it's been overused shouldn't be overlooked. "When people start using these phrases, it can indicate a lack of mindfulness."
There's a danger of being trapped in the "outside the box" box.
"It could be a sign that you're not giving a lot of thought to what you're saying. It could mean that you're no longer differentiating yourself or your ideas from your competition."
So what's the jargon-laden executive supposed to do?
According to Creative Group executive director, Dave Willmer, the strongest communicators keep their message simple. "Direct, concrete statements typically are the most powerful and persuasive."
Heath agrees, saying cliche use becomes a drawback "the moment at which you use one. You want people to understand, remember and act. As soon as you resort to catch phrases, you've failed on all accounts."
Maybe 2007 is the year to jettison the marketing-speak and aspire to something more like clarity. Maybe, just maybe our culture's wariness of jargon has finally reached the tipping point.
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