Corporate Babble-Speak


I’m disclosing up front that it’s been a while since this American Taitai has worked in a formal corporate office setting. And I’ve discovered that since I’ve stepped outside of the corporate and i-banking world, my communication style—and specifically my language (and especially my emails)—has reverted to a voice that sounds… well, that sounds more like myself. But once in awhile, I come across a certain phrase or word that immediately transports me back to the corporate babble-speak that I was so fluent in just a few years ago.

I think it was the phrase “going forward” or “circling back” that I read earlier this week that triggered memories of my not-too-distant corporate past. This got me to thinking about other popular examples of overused phrases in the corporate world that for whatever reason probably annoy both you and me. Everyone has their own personal list and many of these words and phrases are so overused (abused?) that they’ve become cliché and actually have no meaning whatsoever. I’m thinking specifically of words like: Innovate, Disruptive, and Game-Changer, or a phrase like “thinking outside the box,” all of which have become empty buzzwords that actually convey absolutely nothing. But even more disturbing is that I often catch myself inadvertently shutting down when I hear too many overused business-y clichés in a row. Now I don’t fault all users of clichés (I’m guilty of it myself,) so long as it’s not overdone. But I find that often times, overuse of vague jargon and catchphrases indicate that the users often don’t exactly know what they’re talking about. And in the corporate world, speakers who routinely over-cliché (and who are in leadership positions) severely undermine their legitimacy. Maybe I’m jaded, but I’ve learned to be extremely suspicious of anyone who overuses one too many a cliché because to me, it signals a paucity of knowledge and somehow reeks of being a fake.

But I can only speak from the perspective of a mere employee/minion. From the audience vantage point, I’ve lost count of the dozens of “Town Hall Meetings” I’ve been forced to attend where the phrase “10,000 foot (or 30,000 foot, I can never get it straight) view” has been tossed around. To me, whenever I hear that phrase, I automatically assume the speaker is referring to some bullsh*t perspective about “increasing shareholder value” that is simply short on details and execution. And so as a minion in the audience, I assume that the bigwig boss is talking about some “mumbo-jumbo strategery” but can’t be bothered to explain or share specific details with those of us (employees and minions) who have to do the actual dirty work.

And I lose a little respect for said speaker and automatically assume that s/he is a blind moron because really, WHAT THE HELL CAN YOU SEE OUT THE WINDOW AT 30,000 FEET? In my experience, most of the time, you see NOTHING OTHER THAN DARKNESS OR FLUFFY CLOUD COVER at the normal cruising altitudes for commercial planes! Why else do pilots use navigational guidance equipment and don’t exclusively fly by sight? I loathe the 30K phrase because it makes no sense, especially if you’re from the Pacific NW where it’s perpetually cloudy 80% of the time!

Ok, I’ll step off my soapbox for now. And I’ll take “big picture” over “30,000 foot view” any day.

So here’s my list of 20-ish corporate babble-speak terms and phrases that I could think of, along with some personal annotations (in parenthesis.)

I know that I’m only just approaching “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to business clichés, so you might want to head over to Seth Godin’s awesome site where he ranks the most overused business clichés. And please do feel free to add some of your personal favorites that I might have missed in the comments section.

Touch base (This is probably another one of my most-hated phrases. I hadn’t ever heard of it until I starting working, and then I heard it all the time. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found this term to be kind of pervy. I’m mean, eeww, why so personal? I don’t want to be touching anyone’s “bases” at work. And I certainly don’t want anyone touching my “bases” either—thank you very much. Work isn’t freaking baseball or a game of Spin-the-Bottle, ok?)

Circle back (I keep imagining people dressed in work clothes walking backwards in circles… What about circling sideways or circling forwards? Why haven’t those caught on? Probably because it renders ridiculous mental images.)

Going forward (Yeah, like we all want to go backwards… but I’ve been guilty of using this phrase quite often.)

Take this offline (Translation: Uh-oh, you or someone is probably going to get reamed after the conference call is over…)

Shoot an email, aka: Reach out to (Again, why so violent or touchy-feely? I’d prefer it if you’d just send an email!)

On the same page

Manage expectations (aka: Under-promise and over-deliver)






Perception is reality (aka: Optics)

Due diligence, or simply Doing your dd

– It is what it is (Neither here nor there… so, what the hell is it then?)

COB or Close of business (Translation: whenever the hell you get the damn thing done, most likely resulting in an email sent to your boss at 2am with a draft of the Deliverable/Pitchbook.)

Low hanging fruit (Ok, I first heard this phrase from a moronic boss early in my career. So it’s tainted me to the extent that I automatically and subconsciously categorize anyone who uses this phrase into the moron category, sorry.)

– “Let’s run a sensitivity analysis” aka: Base/Management case, Upside case, Downside case

– “I can appreciate where you’re coming from BUT…” (Translation: business-y code word for ensuing verbal bitch-slap.)

“You wanna take a first crack at this?” (Probably my second-most hated corporate babble phrase, always delivered by a more senior ranking person higher on the totem pole to a more junior-ranking minion. Translation: “Time to get cranking, biaa-tch! Oh, and if you do a good job on the deliverable/pitchbook, I’m taking all the credit. But if you do a crappy job, I’m blaming you.” -Cracks whip- “Now get to work!”)

Boss-vs-leaderTo wrap up, I’ve always wondered why junior level employees at investment banks called Analysts (hired out of undergrad) and Associates (hired out of MBA school) all have some derivation of “ass” or “bung-hole” in their title. Think: ANALysts and ASSociates… hm… Why doesn’t anyone else notice or emphasize that? My guess is that it’s a concerted and subconscious effort on the part of banks to ingrain the idea of pecking-order, and to ensure that the junior asses remember that they’re paying their dues by doing a sh*tload of thankless grunt work (oh, I mean deal execution or origination which I forgot to include in the list above.)  Read this article if you want to know what life as a junior investment banker looks like. And if you manage to survive and stick around long enough, you will be rewarded.

Oh, and lest I forget one last crucial phrase, let me leave you with one of the all-time most popular corporate babble-speak phrases: “At the end of the day.” Here’s an alternative image that comes to mind whenever I hear the phrase used now. Don’t get freaked out if I suddenly break out into song and dance the next time I hear “at the end of the day.”

This American Taitai is grateful to be able to opt out of participation in any future Town Hall Meetings and Earnings Calls.

Happy Friday to you, and may you enjoy your weekend away from the din of corporate babble-speak.