In defense of buzzwords (sort of)


Most of the time I write about things that I’ve planned well in advance. But sometimes a subject presents itself, such as this one. So here we go.

Don’t you hate it when you want to read or listen to something and the author, speaker, or presenter uses language you don’t understand or need to use Wikipedia or in order to comprehend? I wish it never happened to me, but it does, though I rarely like to admit it, even if it’s in a subject I have no real reason to understand or have extensive background knowledge of.

A lot of people complain about the use of “buzzwords” and their meaninglessness, overuse, and misappropriation. By no means will I say that any of those things are never true, but I will go on record in saying that sometimes buzzwords help.

My defense

I spend a lot of time explaining fairly technical people to people with a wide variety of technical knowledge. That’s just part of my job, and it’s quite interesting. It teaches me a lot about the subject matter to be able to explain it to people with varying levels of understanding. Inevitably, however, some of my descriptions are going to devolve into the usage of what many refer to as “buzzwords,” so here is my defense of them.

The first part of my defense is about brevity. Buzzwords are a shortcut. There’s actually nothing wrong with shortcuts. If I had to explain the difference between “rule-based artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” in depth to a bunch of people who already know more about the subject than I do, it would take several valuable minutes of all of our lives which could be better used. Waste of time.

In that case it’s better to use what might sound like buzzwords to some people, but which are extremely meaningful to that particular audience. Doing so accelerates the conversation so we can get to the point. The buzzword, which may sound like nothing to the uneducated listener, is extremely useful in that case because there’s a shared understanding of the background.

The second part of my defense of buzzwords relates to the listener. Sometimes the audience has a responsibility to acknowledge they simply aren’t familiar enough with the subject matter to truly understand what’s being communicated.

In other words, don’t go to the “advanced level” lecture on a subject and complain that the lecturer spoke over your head. It’s not your fault, but you’re simply ignorant on that subject matter, or at least more so than a well-educated audience. It doesn’t make you less of a person, it just means that the intended audience for that lecture has spent more time studying the subject.  Which brings us back to the first point, if there’s an advanced lecture on a subject, it saves a great amount of time to “shortcut” past the fundamentals and go deeper.

Having said that…

Don’t be a jerk

There’s a very valid rule you can follow in communications (or in life in general, I suppose): don’t be a jerk. Nobody likes someone who condescends and intentionally tries to confuse or talk above people’s heads. If you know your audience, try your best to choose a vocabulary that will help them understand. After all, the entire point of speaking, writing, etc. is that it is communication. And the point of communication is to ensure that your message is heard.

Buzzwords get a bad wrap when they’re misused, or used to broadly explain something that the listener or audience simply doesn’t understand.  Communicators get a bad wrap when they don’t communicate well. Understanding and empathizing with your audience is a key part of being a good communicator. It’s really as simple as that.

Greg Kihlstrom