Ditch the buzzwords: Why searching for the ‘new normal’ is harming your business

Phoebe Netto

Pure Public Relations founder Phoebe Netto. Source: supplied.

Buzzwords have long been the language of the workplace. For years, we’ve been busy leaning in, moving the needle, pivoting, aligning, moving forward, putting a pin in it, drilling down, holding fireside chats, thinking outside the box, touching base, huddling in, deep diving, running things up the flagpole, shifting paradigms, hitting the ground running, game changing, and pushing back.

Since COVID-19 hit, a brand new list of buzzwords has bulldozered its way into our vocabulary, rattling around in inboxes, business press releases and the media on a daily basis. These words are used so regularly that we barely give them a second thought, from ‘unprecedented’ to ‘in times like these’ to ‘the new normal’. Of course, for those who might think ‘unprecedented’ is a tad overused, there’s always ‘unchartered waters’ or ‘uncertain times’.

By thoughtlessly using these overused phrases at any opportunity, businesses run the risk of becoming a mere echo.

This hilarious supercut of COVID-19 ads shows just how repetitive business communications and advertising has become since the pandemic hit.

I’m not saying that I’m perfect: I’ve been guilty of using the word ‘unprecedented’ here and there. Words like these can often creep into our vocabulary without even noticing, but it’s our job to pay attention and write and speak wisely.

The words that we use in our business communications have a big effect on our customers, whether we’re aware of it or not. Let’s take ‘the new normal’ as an example.

What effect do we have when we continuously strive for ‘normal’?

If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it should be that having a concept of normality isn’t helpful, realistic, or relevant — but I can understand the appeal. It’s comforting to think that at one point our lives were simple and predictable, that there was a status quo, and we sat firmly in the middle.

But the idea that there will be a ‘new normal’ is poor business practice. In business as much as in life, change will always be forced upon us. Some people have had their lives completely upended by the pandemic, and the idea of a new normal actually glosses over their current devastation.

Countless people around the world are still picking up the pieces and trying to rebuild their lives and start again, so the idea of normal is completely disconnected from their reality.

If a business continues to tell them that life is getting back to ‘normal’, they will either ignore the messaging entirely or worse, have a strong negative reaction to it.

We are living in a time of unsettling unpredictability. Vaccines are failing to provide the certainty we hoped for, borders remain shut, and the looming threat of yet another outbreak stops us from fully embracing the relative freedom that Australia is currently enjoying.

Globally, political tensions remain, conflict is rising and people remain dissatisfied with the people in power. Again, within this context, the word ‘normal’ isn’t realistic, helpful, or relevant. Nor is it the language of leadership.

Instead, let’s focus on business communications that stand out rather than try and move to an arbitrary ‘norm’.

Of course, businesses should always acknowledge the feelings that lead people to want a sense of normal, but they don’t do that by pulling the wool over their customer’s eyes and sticking to the easy comfort of cliches and buzzwords.

They do that by acknowledging people’s feelings, rather than generalising them. Businesses need to acknowledge the fear, restlessness, uncertainty, and weariness that their customers are feeling, and act with empathy.

As the vaccine headlines continue to batter our newsfeeds and TV screens, businesses cannot merely pretend that things are going to be okay. They can no longer echo cliched sentiments. They need to be a voice, not an echo.

The same is true within a business’s internal communications, too. People respond really well to leaders who can show that they appreciate them and care about how they’re feeling. Staff need to feel like their employer understands what they’re going through on a human level, and robotically repeating stock buzzwords certainly isn’t going to cut it.

Language is an incredibly powerful way to stand out from your competitors, and by avoiding cliches, you’ll already be putting yourself ahead of the pack.

A great way to pull yourself out of the trap of lazy language is simply to ingest some great writing. Reading and listening to the greats — anyone from Aaron Sorkin to Dickens — will help flex your own writing muscle and produce more interesting, colourful, unique dialogue, press releases and communication.

Rather than use the same cliched language that pines for the ‘new normal’, learn to become a voice of confidence, leadership, certainty, enthusiasm, trustworthiness, stability, compassion and warmth. Buzzwords and cliched phrases are never going to help you get there — especially not in the middle of a global pandemic.

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