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A Veteran’s Guide to Corporate Jargon

All across America, people are celebrating a renaissance in speech economy and plain language. Even law schools, once a bastion of pretentious, unintelligible gobbledygook, are advocating for lawyers that speak in plain language.

Unfortunately, some corporate employees have been separated from traditional English-speaking society since the second industrial revolution. As a result, they speak in odd and confusing jibber-jabber that confounds even the most learned scholars.

While future historians may look back on American corporate jargon as “the dark times,” you will need to be prepared for the paradoxical and mind-numbing words that, eventually, will make you want to stab your eardrums with a pencil.

Don’t get me wrong; the military isn’t much better with our acronym-heavy military jargon. The difference, however, is that military jargon is an attempt to get to the point faster and more efficiently. On the flip side, corporate jargon seems to just want to make things more complicated.

The strange part is that no one really knows where corporate jargon came from. In theory, you could have a blast with your company and start introducing random phrases, and then insist on their validity: “Brad, we’re going to need to ‘Ariana Grande’ that marketing presentation, ASAP.”

As a courtesy, I’ve listed 10 of the most common words and phrases below as well as a brief translation:

Buy-in (n.)

An exceedingly strange way to say “agreement”. Originally, buy-in was a purchase of shares by a broker after a seller failed to deliver similar shares. For your purposes, nothing is actually bought or paid for…unless you work on Wall Street. Actually, I wonder how Wall Street corporations continue to function without getting confused?

“If you hope to get anything done in today’s meeting, you’ll need management buy-in.”

Move the needle (v.)

If your first thought is giving someone an IV, playing an old-fashioned record, or accelerating a vehicle, you would be wrong. In business, if something doesn’t “move the needle,” it’s not getting much action or reaction.

“We really hope that this injection of cash will move the needle.”

Vertical (n.)

Easy one, right? It seems like a movement; like that time that Maverick went ballistic in his F-14. In the business world, a vertical is an area of expertise or operations. I know, right…why not just say AO (Area of Operation)? Unfortunately, we may never know how these strange creatures established their language.

“That’s Jim’s vertical. He’s the expert in all things related to Google search advertising.”

Punt (v.)

In the corporate world, punt means to take an idea and make it less of a priority. Clearly, this is a sports reference, as you typically punt a ball out of your control and into someone else’s. At least there’s one word on this list that sort of makes sense.

“Yeah, let’s punt that right now and come back to it later.”

Actionable (adj.)

Interestingly, this one has some crossover to the intelligence community in “actionable intelligence”. In business, as in intel, it is something that is capable of being acted on or completed in the near future.

“Which of these topics were actionable last quarter?”

Bandwidth (n.)

No, we’re not talking about a range of frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum; that would actually make sense. Instead, corporations like to take technical or scientific terms and apply them to humans. For our purposes, think physical, mental, or emotional capacity for additional work.

“Judy just doesn’t have the bandwidth to do that this week.”

Circle back around (v.)

Actually, this one is fairly straightforward. It means putting off an idea for another time or regrouping at a later date to discuss.

“You’re proposing that we offer a discount to our loyal customers? Eh, let’s circle back around to that later.”

Deliverables (n.)

Logically, this term would only apply to a postal carrier. In the military, we would be talking about mission objectives. Unfortunately, we left logic behind long ago. In business, it is the output of an idea or project. Just remember, every time you hear the word “deliverables,” a puppy dies. 

“What are the specific deliverables for this project?”

Takeaway (n.)

This is a convoluted and enigmatic summary of a presentation or set of ideas.

In other words, it’s the things that the author or presenter wants you to remember from the presentation. Maybe someday, corporations will skip the presentation and just give us the “takeaway,” saving hours out of peoples’ day. Imagine a world where no one misses their kid’s soccer game again. 

“So, in closing, the takeaway is selling more widgets will result in higher revenue.”

Next steps (n.)

Next steps are a way for supervisors to feel like they are moving the needle and usually result in deliverables to which we can circle back around. That’s after we get buy-in from management so we don’t have to punt, which should result in actionable items for key peoples’ verticals… as long as they have the bandwidth to perform. That’s my takeaway.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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