Communication: I can hear right through you

Three communication myths that undermine your message

Remember Buzzword Bingo? It started circulating in offices about ten years ago, and its main aim was to show up the hollowness of ‘management speak’ and make a joke of corporate expressions like ‘impactful’ and ‘roll out’, and my personal favourite: ‘utilise’.

To play Buzzword Bingo you brought a card of about 12 words like those listed above, to a management meeting or presentation, and you crossed them off as you heard them being used. Sometimes you could even cross off several in one sentence:

Project XYZ aims to utilise the full bandwidth of our talent pool, and create synergised, integrated team engagement frameworks that will drive momentum forward.

Do you mean that the project aims to get teams working together more effectively and productively? Well, why didn’t you just say so in the first place?

It seems obvious to say that plain language is understood more easily, so why do we still sometimes disguise what we want to say in fancy phrases and frilly lingo? To explore the answer, I want to look at three commonly held falsehoods about communication.

Big messages need big words
Untrue. Using big words and big phrases doesn’t make your message sound more important. In fact, it may even diminish the potency of your message. A message must reach the audience. That is its purpose. And when it comes to important news, delivering a clear, intact message is critical.

Compare this:

The multi-divisional negative profit trajectory of several fiscal quarters means that we need to recalculate resource uptake and introduce leaner strategies to force a turnaround.

To this:

Profits are down and we can’t afford to continue operating with the same level of staff. We are going to have to terminate some positions to save money.

Does delivering this unhappy message in ‘bigger’ words somehow cushion it for the listener? People are still going to lose their jobs, and there is no way of saying it that will change the fact. The padding just slows the message down and makes it harder for the listener to hear the actual point.

Removing a Band-Aid is always painful, but we can choose to be merciful and quick, or thoughtless and slow.

The better it sounds, the more palatable it is

There are other subtle ways that we weaken the potency of our messages, and one way is by ‘sugar-coating’. This is where we think that if we are delicate or careful in how we say something, then the message will be easier to digest (like giving bitter medicine to a child).

The problem with this is that a child can be fooled (usually at least once), but grown-ups already know this trick. A classic example is ‘downsizing’ or ‘rightsizing’, or more recently ‘lean resourcing’ (which sounds quite athletic); as though the use of those terms will somehow make the process of firing people more appealing.

It’s easy to see why we want to sweeten negative messages, but we risk being patronising and insincere by wrapping our message in softer-sounding terms. Just as using bigger language does nothing to increase importance, using sweeter language will not make things easier to swallow.

‘Talking the talk’ proves you can ‘walk the walk’

Sometimes we talk a certain way or select certain words to communicate better with a particular audience. There is nothing wrong with this, but if we then begin stray outside what we know, and still retain the language to ‘fake’ our way through, we risk undermining ourselves entirely.

For example, if I’m talking to someone about football at the pub, I might use some typical language to hide or deflect from what I don’t know. For example, I might say ‘how about those [insert a ferocious animal]? They were a surprise’ And the person might go on to talk about what a great/bad [insert a ferocious animal here] is. And I agree and nod and this could go on for a while, until I get caught out nodding at the wrong thing or I yawn in their face.

I’ve seen it work the same in a meeting or even a department-wide address. The speaker is connecting via the lingo, but is not connecting with their message. They are trying to communicate ‘on the level’ with the audience, but they just end up looking like an [insert donkey-like mammal here] because they cannot keep it up.

Lesson: when it comes to communicating at the office (and at the pub) stick to what you know, because really, you don’t need to use lingo to prove anything if you are sincere. Your body language and tone and pace of voice communicate the sincerity for you.


Buzzword Bingo is intended to be an amusing commentary about meaningless jargon, but it also harbours some really important truths about how we communicate.

If the language we use:

  • is too big, then our message gets overshadowed
  • obscures meaning, then all we communicate is obscurity
  • is a poorly chosen vehicle for our message, it is sure to break down on the way.

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