From Decks to Moats: The Complete Guide to Modern Office Jargon
If you want to add value to your tell-mode paradigm in the competitive modern workplace, you need to keep up to date with the latest business jargon. Such language is widely acknowledged to make workers feel unhappy and stressed, and cause everyone to feel as though they spend their days in a nightmare of corporate newspeak, where anything that isn't completely meaningless must mean exactly the opposite of what it appears to say.
The problem is that while everyone knows this, everyone is also well aware that they don't want to be the one person who is ridiculed for speaking normal English. Game theory as well as common sense dictates that being the lone voice of reason is no good to anyone. So if you can't beat them, join them, with this selection of the hippest, most bleeding-edge horror words out there.
People are increasingly annoying one another by asking for the "deck" when it comes to a particular Powerpoint presentation, as though they are card sharks in a New Orleans saloon. Can't you just say "file" or "slides"? But of course it makes no sense to use the word "slides" for the individual images in a slideshow: that's an obsolete tech metaphor from the days of overhead projectors. These things -- like the floppy disk icon that means "save" -- will presumably live on until no one can remember what they originally meant.
We have Game of Thrones to thank for the fact that business jargon is adopting language reminiscent of fantasy medieval warfare. According to Bloomberg, "moat" is the mot du jour in Silicon Valley presentations and earnings calls. But rather than a literal body of water around a castle it is "used to describe products or services that protect a company from incursions by competitors." The term was popularized a decade ago by the Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett, but over the past year it seems that if you're not busy building a moat, you're digging your own grave.
On all fours
Are you on all fours with that? Should we get down on all fours and look at it from the client's point of view? Either this is supposed to be smirkingly pornographic, or implies that the client is extremely small. In any case, getting down on all fours was already advertising jargon in 1950s New York. How long it will take for us to re-evolve back to a bipedal attitude is anyone's guess.
Overheard by a correspondent on a bus: "We've got to segment that down." How disgusting. And yet, like many apparently modern abuses of language, the transitive use of segment as a verb -- "to divide into segments" -- dates back to 19th-century biological science, becoming popular in computer programming in the 1970s, which is probably where the business use came from. There are also inspirational examples from other disciplines. One anthropologist asked in 1962: "How do we segment the stream of speech into category-designating units?" An excellent question to start any meeting.
Business jargon likes to make itself sound fun by borrowing terms from more exciting pursuits. Sport is a fertile category, what with the awful ubiquity of "close of play", "deep dive" and so forth. There are also "swim lanes," as though everyone in the office is doing the Australian crawl in an Olympic pool. The mundane truth is that a swim lane is a column or row in a flowchart, with each lane devoted to one unit or process within the business. You can also make reference to Rummler-Brache diagrams or, simply, multi-column charts (which is what, in fact, they are), but that doesn't quite evoke the cheering crowd and overpowering stench of chlorine.
According to my informant, at least one person on the planet has actually said: "Let's action that solve," which is a shattering two-for-one. The verb "action" -- to mean "do" or "fulfill" -- is now unavoidable, since it sounds so enjoyably active (and probably proactive), that people throughout the land are finding themselves screaming: "Action!" at their co-workers as though they are despotic film directors. Meanwhile, to use "solve" as a noun meaning "solution" seems like a weird novelty for the sake of sounding monosyllabically technical -- until you realize that Shakespeare uses it in sonnet 69, so it's probably fine after all.
Sweep the Sheds
Oddly, "sweeping the sheds" has become a popular buzzphrase for a kind of humble attention to detail. It derives from sport rather than gardening, being popularized by a 2013 business book offering success lessons from the New Zealand rugby team -- apparently the All Blacks use brooms to sweep out their own locker room. Where sheds come into it is anyone's guess. Do you know anyone who actually sweeps their shed? Isn't the whole point of a shed that you don't have to sweep it?
I regret to observe that "snackable content" is a thing in marketing, meaning an attempt to draw people in with bite-sized nuggets of text or video or whatever so as to bolster brand visibility. This has inevitably led to a whole constellation of eating metaphors: how to make your readers "hungry" for snackable content; how to give them a "satisfying and speedy feed,", and so on ad nauseam.
The received wisdom in both business and self-help is that change is always good, which of course is rubbish. Change is often extremely bad. Yet you cannot be a modern, thrusting executive unless you are a "change agent," daringly leading whatever change it happens to be. Otherwise you are an enemy of change.
These days, of course, a change is all the better if it is transformative. A change that was not transformative, however, would just be fiddling about, because a transformation is a change in form or a thorough metamorphosis. (Confusingly, however, a "reform" is usually just a minor improvement.)
In general speech, something transformative is a particularly dramatic or delightful change: "She went on a fungus-and-kale diet and within weeks she was transformed." So "transformative" is just a fancier way of saying "big" and "nice." Nice, big change. Just remember that it is also a transformative change when a company goes bust or its directors are imprisoned.
Alternatively, you can accomplish transformative change through gradual improvements, or so says mystical wisdom from the east. If saying: "Let's try consistently to make things better," doesn't sound sufficiently impressive, just drop the word "kaizen" instead. Introduced to an awestruck western readership by Masaaki Imai in his 1986 book Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success, the word is now incontinently applied to methods of personal self-help as well as business processes, even though the Japanese word itself just means any change for the better with no necessary implication of continuous improvement over time. But it does have the inestimable advantage of making the anglophone user feel like a cross between a Zen master and a samurai, although bringing swords into the office is still largely discouraged.
How long is your runway? No, this is not some weird sex code but a normal business question, particularly in the tech industry, where as Bloomberg reports, execs used it "2,348 times in analyst calls, presentations and filings over the last decade." In this sense, your "runway" is simply how long your company can last before running out of money. It's therefore rather an odd metaphor, because it seems as though at the end of this particular runway every aircraft will just crash into a fence and explode into flames, rather than taking off into the wide blue yonder. This is obviously not a desirable feature of real-life civilian or military aviation, although it is an accurate description of the life-cycle of most Silicon Valley startups.
An inflection point is a moment after which things will change, no doubt in a transformative way. So says Investopedia: "An event that results in a significant change in the progress of a company, industry, sector, economy or geopolitical situation." Excitingly, this phrase derives from differential calculus, where the inflection point is a point at which a curve changes from concave to convex or vice versa. Its corporate use jettisons such technical detail and, in the usual way of terminological inflation, can now be applied to pretty much anything. I feel that last cup of coffee was really an inflection point for my ability to add value today.
Pivoting is an excellent euphemism for failing. It's what you do when your business model proves to be a crock: just pivot to another one, and maybe another one after that, until something sticks. It's borrowed from the military term of pivoting to swing around and come at the enemy from a different angle, although many celebrated business pivots look more like jumping ship entirely. "Groupon," explains the FT, "famously pivoted from their original aim to organize social advocacy campaigns" and turned into the shopping giant we all know and can't unsubscribe from. This provides an exciting new jargon opportunity for creative politicians. If accused of a U-turn by an excited media, a minister should just say that, after due consideration, they have simply pivoted to an even better idea.
Much of the senior executive's work is spent dreaming up new euphemisms for the sadly necessary business of firing people. After "downsizing" was considered too much of a downer, we got "rightsizing," then "demising," as though sacking people was actually killing them. But the best new circumlocution for getting rid of people is the innocuous-seeming initialism ITL, which stands for: "Invited to leave." There is, of course, no possibility of declining such an invitation, although if there is severance involved at least there'll be an "ITL package," and so forth. You have to love the chutzpah of "invited," as though one were being offered the chance to go to a really good party, which, let's face it, definitely isn't happening in the office.
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