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One man’s crusade to banish business buzzwords

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If the last email a colleague sent to you talked about mission-critical, blue sky thinking on actionable ways to build bandwidth (the human kind), and, net net, the author thinks he or she nailed it by giving it 110%, you may have found yourself cringing, bewildered, or some combination of the two.

Just for fun, type the offending sentences into the blank field at Buzzsaw — right under “Buzzword of the day” — and hit the button that says “Buzz it.” The paragraph you get back will be run through with red lines that strike out all seven of those annoying clichés.

“Anyone can use it,” says Hamish Thompson, managing director of London public-relations firm Houston PR, which works with some huge global brands including Disney Stores, Del Monte, and Wal-Mart — although Buzzsaw’s original intent was “to make life more bearable for Britain’s hardworking journalists.”

Thompson built the online tool early last year. First, he contacted about 5,000 reporters in the U.K. to ask for the most jargon-ridden press releases they had seen. Hundreds poured in, from which Thompson and his team extracted the offending words and phrases. They then added some from their own research — partly from scouring social media for “cutesy Hipster-style words and phrases like ‘totes amazeballs’ and ‘super-excited,’” the website says — to develop a database of expressions that Buzzsaw can identify and purge. “We’ve cleansed more than 30,000 press releases of dubious English in the past two years,” says Thompson.

It’s no coincidence that a PR firm came up with this. “The job of PR is communicating messages clearly,” says Thompson. “Jargon and buzzwords just get in the way.” Often, he notes, PR workers add puffy language to “make things seem more interesting or grander than they really are. Yet no one is fooled. You can call yourself ‘the global leader in adhesive labeling solutions,’ but everyone knows that just means you sell stickers.”

The irony, in Thompson’s view, is that “plain speech, without all the excess flannel, is much more likely to get people’s attention” — if only because it’s become so rare.

Thompson says his firm has sent the link to about 3,500 corporate PR people, who use it “to resolve some tricky political situations.” When CEOs and other honchos insist on overinflated language in announcements or speeches, a piece of prose that comes back from Buzzsaw riddled with red lines “gives the PR people an objective, third-party opinion” that can persuade higher-ups to let out some of the hot air.

Some of the jargon currently on Buzzsaw’s blacklist is all too familiar on both sides of the Atlantic — like “back-of-the-envelope,” “core competency,” and the dreaded “solutions” (when used to make a potentially clear idea as vague as possible). Other buzzwords, like the Britishisms “Happy Bunny” and “snackable content,” are less common in the U.S. Thompson’s team is now working on building an American database before launching in the U.S. later this year.

Got a worn-out phrase or two you’d like to see included? Thompson is gathering contributions now, by email: buzzwords@houstonpr.co.uk. At the end of the day, it just might be a win-win.