Cut out the buzzwords: Why you should choose your words wisely

By Robert Half on 4 April 2014

LinkedIn recently released its fourth annual list of buzzwords, drawn from the social network’s 259 million member profiles. These are the words that crop up so many times they have become empty clichés on jobseeker profiles.

Turns out, using the word effective may ironically show that you’re not. If everyone describes him or herself as “effective”, how are you any more remarkable or employable for making the same claim? The word effective is simply no longer effective.

The same goes for words like responsible, creative, innovative and even strategic. Any persuasive power these words may once have held to describe a model employee has been diluted into nothingness by overuse. And often misuse.

Do you know what I mean?

Innovative is a classic example of a buzzword that has become divorced from its true meaning. To innovate, you have to come up with a new and unique way of doing something. True innovation is rare. Successful innovation is rarer still. Innovative is not synonymous with being a problem solver or merely having ideas.

Many buzzwords start out as a potent and desirable attribute. But as more and more people hijack the word in increasingly less-deserving ways, it becomes harder to tell those who genuinely mean the word and use it correctly from everyone else.

Shades of grey

If 10 job applicants all claim to be responsible, efficient, creative, organised, driven and expert (or combinations thereof), how is an employer to differentiate between them? How can a recruiter tell if Jobseeker A is more or less responsible than Jobseeker B? What evidence is there to demonstrate exactly how efficient Jobseeker C is?

And what is creativity, after all? If Jobseeker D is creative, does that mean he’s a fantastic problem solver or merely great with water colours? Plus, creativity is subjective. What if the employer doesn’t like Jobseeker E’s creative approach to accounting?

Don’t say it, display it

Only in Australia and New Zealand does the word passionate qualify as a top 10 buzzword. For some reason, we antipodean jobseekers have developed the idea that the amount we care really matters. Well, it does. An employer would prefer an eager and motivated employee to one that just goes through the motions. But the word passionate demonstrates that the writer couldn’t even care enough to think up a more persuasive way of demonstrating that eagerness.

Resorting to the words that float on the top of your mental vocabulary requires little effort, which is why everyone uses them without a second thought. So don’t write the first thing that comes into your head, or even the second. Strive to find a different way of making your point – your way.

Always qualify every point you make and give specifics, including numbers where possible, to demonstrate why your claims are worth noting. By how much do you exceed your targets each month? How many new customers did you acquire for the business? How large was your impact on your employer’s business goals?

Readers can decide for themselves whether you are responsible or show initiative from the evidence you give without you needing to use the same words as everyone else. And evidence is always far more persuasive than unsubstantiated claims.

Bad writing can buzz off!

Don’t think you’re in the clear if you simply avoid the 10 words on LinkedIn’s latest list. This isn’t a game where a word is either “in” or “out”.

These buzzwords illustrate how lazy we can become in our writing at the expense of clear meaning. If you find yourself using a word because it “sounds right”, regardless of meaning, you’re in buzzword territory. If a particular word makes your sentence less clear or specific, it’s probably a buzzword.

And if you ever choose a word because you think it’s what the employer wants to read, watch out – those buzzwords could cost you a chance at that job. 

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