Change Agent Tip #12: Don’t Let Buzzwords Get Lost in Translation

Oct 05, 2011 1 Comment by

Every domain of expertise has it’s buzzwords. I have heard buzzword horror stories from Change Agents working in fields as wide-ranging as medicine, agriculture and technology.  They each described communication problems that arose from people assuming others understood what what was being said when they used what seemed like common terms.

Here are a few tips on how to avoid having the buzzwords related to your change get “lost in translation”.

1. Know What Makes Something a “Buzzword” One useful definition I’ve heard is “any term that is not universally understood”. A client once told me that a buzzword is “any new word or catchphrase that’s introduced from outside the status quo”.  

Buzzwords may include acronyms, new compound words or handy verbal shortcuts that typically originate from external innovation or within the local vernacular of a part of the organization. The bottom line is that buzzwords are new, potentially confusing labels that need to be clearly understood by your stakeholders as a part of adopting your change.

2. Aggressively Track Down Buzzwords: Engage real stakeholders in gathering buzzwords. Visit work sites. Talk with managers and executives. Have team members make note of items that sound new to them and collect candidate buzzwords on a whiteboard in a shared area.

In an earlier post I wrote about how the late, great producer and actor Jack Webb would spend hours riding in cop cars to learn the real vernacular of “cops on the beat” before writing a script for the TV drama “Dragnet”.

Taking this “gumshoe” approach to rooting out buzzwords will yield a more honest understanding of the domain from the stakeholder’s frame of reference.

3. Verify Buzzwords: As you collect buzzwords, don’t forget to circle back for a sanity check. Reconcile duplicates. Also focus on different terms (perhaps used in different parts of the org chart) that appear to mean nearly the same thing.

Just to be clear… I know you think you know what you thought I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what I said is not what you think I meant and I wouldn’t have said it like that if I knew you would take it in that way…

Go back to the source. Listen for differences between “local dialects” and the local names for processes, roles and outcomes. Compare these terms to the ones you’ve collected and make adjustments as needed.

The only way to truly understand potential buzzwords buried within the corners of your organization is to engage in some face-to-face dialogue.

Reviewing terminology can be an eye-opening experience for the Change Agent as well as the stakeholders.

4. Get the Words Out. Keep a running list of buzzwords, new terms and labels that are going away with the advent of your change. Post the list in a place that’s easy for all stakeholders to access and use – for example a project website or an FAQ area on the regular support site.  Offer a clear translation matrix to show which new words will replace which old terms.

Include the new terms in regular communication to build awareness.  Be clear about what exactly stakeholders need to know, when the new buzzwords take effect and where to go for more information. Update the translation table from time to time as new buzzwords pop up.5. Don’t Assume: Be careful not to assume that everyone knows the meaning of a buzzword just because you know.  Even more critical for Change Agents:

Don’t allow others to get away with this assumption!

By far the most effective way to cut through buzzword baloney is to get out there and verify what people know. Collect terms that sound strange or new and run them by a sample of real-life stakeholders to verify that the terms are understood.

You’re mocking me now, aren’t you?

The Bottom Line: Regardless of their origin, buzzwords threaten effective communication. Change Agents can improve the rate of change adoption by working aggressively to learn the jargon of their change and recognize when people are using it.  Don’t be afraid to ask about new terms – and don’t let others assume everyone is “in the loop” on the latest buzzwords.

Engaging real stakeholders to verify what different buzzwords mean to different people is the best way to identify areas of buzzword risk and providing plentiful translation opportunities is a practical way to head off that risk.

– Steve

Question for Chatter:

  • What are the most outrageous buzzword stories you’ve heard?
  • What happens if a buzzword is utterly misunderstood and the inaccurate definition lingers within the organization?


Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

One Response to “Change Agent Tip #12: Don’t Let Buzzwords Get Lost in Translation”

  1. chihos (@chihos) says:

    Avoid buzzword disasters: #communication #leadchange #leaders

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.