Deciphering Business Jargon
Anyone who has ever played ‘buzzword bingo’ will know the joy of spotting jargon that has crept into everyday use in a particular organisation. Many phrases have become so common, and so clichéd, that they are almost a joke. But what do we mean by these phrases? Do we actually mean anything, or are they just ways to avoid saying anything ‘real’?
This page unpicks some of the terms in common use in management, news, media, personal development, and everyday communication. It provides a definition of each, and where possible gives a link to other pages that may help you to understand the subject further. Some of course, are more common and popular than others.
For more about how to avoid using clichés in your speech or writing, you may want to read our page on What is a Cliché?.
Glossary of Terms
Ballpark [figure]. An approximate figure, which can in reality be anything from tens to hundreds of times ‘out’. Usually used when nobody has done any analysis, but everyone has views on what the outcome of analysis is likely to be. From ‘a point somewhere within the ballpark’, that is, a small point in a big space.
You may like to read our pages on estimation and approximation and simple statistical analysis.
Below the parapet. You may also hear ‘under the radar’ or ‘below the firing line’. Literally, keeping yourself hidden so that nobody will be able to shoot you. Almost always applied to individuals at times of organisational crisis, to express the idea that you (or they) are just staying out of the way, and hoping that nothing bad will happen to you.
Big picture. The overall situation, as opposed to the detail (you may also hear seeing the wood for the trees). Cynically, some might say that this phrase is only ever used by people who do not wish to bother with the detail. However, it is important to remember that some people prefer to build their ‘big picture’ up from the detail.
For more about how to think strategically without losing the ability to concentrate on the detail, see our page on Strategic Thinking.
Blue skies thinking. See also thinking outside the box. Thinking in new or different ways and coming up with ideas that are not constrained by current views, ideas or general practice on the topic.
See our page on Creative Thinking for ways to work more creatively and imaginatively.
Bottom line. In accounting, a term used to describe the final total on a set of accounts, usually shown underneath the ‘bottom line’. Elsewhere, a phrase used for a final summing-up or conclusion.
“The bottom line is that you need to work smarter, not harder.”
Ducks in a row. A phrase of unknown origin used to suggest getting everything organised, often in preparation for a known event.
For more about the skills required to organise your life and plan ahead, see our pages on Planning and Organising Skills.
Elephant in the room. A phrase describing a major obstacle that everyone can see, but nobody is prepared to mention. Sometimes used as a way of showing that you are a brave, perceptive individual who is prepared to talk about things that others do not wish to discuss.
“I hesitate to bring this up, but I think we can all see that the elephant in the room is …”
Read our page on Communicating in Difficult Circumstances for more about how to address these topics.
Elevator pitch. A brief summary of your current project or task that could be completed in a single lift (elevator) journey. Emerged from the idea that you need to be able to say what you do quickly, should you meet the managing director and should he or she ask you what you are currently doing. Projects should always have a formal ‘elevator pitch’ as part of the project documentation.
For more about what to include in project documentation, see our page on Project Management.
Fake news. Information or news stories that are incorrect, but often contain what you want to read or hear, increasing the likelihood that they will be shared online, usually via social media. They often contain just enough truth to make them believable, and then add further false information that may damage someone or something.
“Fake news stories have been circulating in Italy about how to cure coronavirus. The claims of miracle cures are encouraging people not to wash their hands and take basic precautions.”
For more about how to check your facts and avoid spreading fake news, see our page on Critical Thinking and Fake News.
Future-proof. Unlikely to become obsolete, certainly in the near future. Also used as a verb (“Take action to future-proof your technology”).
Game changer. Something (an event, person or idea) that significantly changes thinking or ways of operating in a particular industry, sector or organisation.
“Budget airlines were a game-changer in aviation.”
For more about disruptive thinking, you may want to read our pages on Creative Thinking and Creative Thinking Techniques.
Helicopter view. To be able to take a strategic view of something (see also big picture). Not to be confused with ‘helicopter parents’, who hang over their offspring and closely supervise all their activities.
See our page on Strategic Thinking for more.
Holistic. Literally meaning ‘whole’, describes the idea that the parts of anything are closely related, and cannot be considered separately. A term originating in medicine and philosophy, but now creeping into management and more general use.
“Taking a holistic view of the organisation, I have decided that it is best to…”
Keeping your powder dry. Another military phrase, from the days when gunpowder needed to be kept dry to work, and you therefore could not afford to load your gun too soon. It now means that you are not picking a fight because you know that there is likely to be a bigger one along later, and you will need all your social capital, credibility and other ‘weapons’ to win.
Low-hanging fruit. Easy targets for early action, particularly used in change management projects.
“Let’s pick some of the low-hanging fruit!”
See our pages on Change Management for more about how to manage successful change projects.
Mission, mission statement. An organisation’s basic purpose. A mission statement should be fairly straightforward and innocuous, but many are couched in grandiose terms that nobody could possibly disagree with, but which mean very little to anyone. Often designed to be inspiring, and usually anything but. See also Vision.
“XXX Hospital. Saving Lives, Every Day”. [Well yes, that’s what hospitals do]
“XXX School. Bringing Our Best Selves to School.” [You’d hope so]
The best mission statements are very clear about what the organisation aims to do, and also tell you something about its ethos, in clear and plain terms. For example, from a school:
“We aim to develop well-rounded and thoughtful students prepared to cope with a changing post-modern and globalized world.”
On the radar. A potential problem of which you are aware.
“Yes, I’ve had it on the radar for a couple of months now. I’m just watching what happens to see how things develop.”
Oversight. There are two possible meanings to this: something you missed (“It was an oversight”) and increasingly used as a substitute for ‘overview’ (“I’ve got oversight of this project”). See also helicopter view.
Person-centred (you may also see customer-centric and learner-centred). Putting the person at the heart of what you do. Often used in organisations that most people would assume already did this (e.g. “person-centred healthcare”, “learner-centred schools”). The phrase is often used in conjunction with a ‘return to basics’ approach that focuses on the needs of the person receiving goods or services, rather than those of the organisation. Shouldn’t be radical, but often is.
Personal journey. A phrase used to describe an individual change over time, usually quite substantial (see also transformational).
“His personal journey through going on Strictly Come Dancing has been amazing to watch!”
Personal philosophy. An individual’s view of the world, including beliefs and ethos, usually shown in their behaviours.
“Her personal philosophy focuses on kindness and the importance of gratitude.”
Proactive. Prepared to take action to manage predicted changes, rather than simply in response to them after the event (reactive).
Reactive. Responding to changes and events after they have happened. The opposite of proactive.
Run with the ball. A sporting analogy, probably from either rugby or American football. Used to describe someone taking hold of a project or problem, and doing something about it. It usually denotes taking ownership of an issue, and not trying to pass it on to someone else. It is overwhelmingly used in a positive sense, even though analysis of both sports suggests that you can get a lot further by kicking or passing, and working cooperatively with your teammates.
Synergy. Combined or coordinated action, or the benefits that can accrue from this. Can be summarised as the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Take this offline. Discuss outside this forum, usually between just two people. May be used, for example, in a group meeting to suggest that others do not need to hear the conversation. More literally, used on social media or other online forums as a way to suggest moving this to the ‘real world’, perhaps by telephone or direct message.
“Ok, John, can you and Mary take this offline now? We need to move on to the next item on the agenda.”
Think outside the box. See also Blue skies thinking. To think creatively and in a way that is unconstrained by conventional thinking or current ways of operating.
See our pages on Creative Thinking for some ideas about how to do this.
Tip of the iceberg. Only a very small part of the problem. Over 90% of an iceberg is underwater, so what you see is a very small part of the whole.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The problem is going to get much bigger.”
Touch base. Make contact with someone, usually briefly. A phrase from baseball, where a player has to touch the base to make the run legal.
“I just wanted to touch base with you about this project.”
Transformational. Literally, something that can cause change. However, in business ‘transformation’ is usually a major change in the business structure or model, often one that will change how the business operates in a very fundamental way. A transformational technology or issue, therefore, is going to cause major disruption and change in the sector. For example, digital transformation is the changes in business model driven by the adoption of digital technologies. See also game changer.
Under the radar. Like ‘below the parapet’, a phrase with a military background that means that you are trying to stay out of sight to avoid being shot at. A plane flown very close to the ground will literally be ‘under the radar’ and will not show up on radar screens. It may therefore reach its target or escape before being detected. Someone ‘flying under the radar’ in an organisation will therefore be doing enough work to avoid any unwanted disciplinary attention—but not so much to attract any praise or endorsements.
Value-added. The difference between inputs and outputs, that is, the value that has been added by the organisation. A major issue in education, where schools in more affluent areas tend to get better results.
Vision. Often linked to an organisational mission, a vision describes where the organisation wants to be, and how it wishes to be seen. Like mission statements, vision statements are often hyperbolic ‘nothings’. However, the best can genuinely give a clear and succinct view of the organisation and its aims.
If you think we’ve missed any classic (or even new) buzzwords or jargon that are applicable in a wide range of places, please email us. Please don’t tell us about words and phrases that are really only applicable to one industry as there just isn’t room!