The Buzz Behind Buzzwords

OK let’s be honest, how often have we secretly rolled our eyes a little lately when we’ve heard words like purpose, social impact or vulnerability? Or perhaps more honestly, how often do we sense our audience rolling their eyes when we drop one of these buzzwords in our work?

Buzzword fatigue.


I am the first to admit that since leaving my traditional career as an architect in 2010, buzzwords have been my bread and butter in one form or another. From sustainability to design thinking and now to co-design, I have built a livelihood on providing education around these buzzwords. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one! There’s never been a better time to be working in service design or agile or lean methodology. In fact most of our current buzzwords either didn’t exist or weren’t in the public lexicon a decade ago.

So, are we all just “buzz-washing” (a new buzzword I just coined)?

Should we immediately put down our tools and get a real job? Or is there some real value to these buzzwords?

One way to consider this question is to look at our currency.


Is the piece of plastic that comprises a $50 note inherently valuable?

No. It’s just a piece of plastic.

It is valuable because a whole bunch of people for a period of time have agreed that it is valuable. And we have agreed it is valuable because when it has been put to use as a form of currency it has served a purpose and it has been useful. So this big bunch of people (i.e. the government, the Reserve Bank, global investors and the rest of us) have maintained our confidence in the currency and it continues to be valuable.

But this value is not guaranteed, as we can see from the experiences of various countries around the world. If one day we all lose our confidence in the currency and start to roll our eyes, it will lose it’s value.

Source: Author

Like our currency, the power of our buzzwords comes from the collective confidence we invest in them. But I believe there is also a more mysterious power behind our buzzwords, hidden in their names.

What’s in a name? Would a buzzword by any other name sound as sweet?

In the movie Inception, Leonardo de Caprio’s character Cobb makes the provocation that the most resilient parasite is an idea planted in the unconscious mind.

In my workshops, at the end of a brainstorming session where dozens of ideas have been shared across a large group, I like to run a simple experiment. I invite participants to share the ideas that they remember from the many that were shared.

DHHS Co-Design Program with Peer Academy. Source: Becky Strong

Interestingly, it is the ideas that emotionally connect with us that are the most “sticky”. Often, these ideas aren’t necessarily practical or the most obvious.

Simon Sinek, (famous for his “start with why” TED talk) would argue that buzzwords appeal to our limbic brain; the part of our brain that controls emotion and intuition. As he argues, emotion trumps rationality and so this can explain why we are often so quick to jump on the buzzword bandwagon, without having any rational reason to do so. Buzzwords feel right.

Let’s take one of my current buzzwords for example; co-design. At a superficial level it feels good. It evokes pleasant feelings of people coming together to collaborate and design. The “co” part feels nice and the “design” part feels trendy.

If we take the time to explore this further I believe the attraction to this buzzword represents a deeper collective and emotional sentiment. There is collective frustration with old systems of hierarchy and a growing belief that those impacted by a problem have a right to determine their own way forward.

Although emotion may trump rationality at first, rationality eventually catches up, which highlights an important window of risk and opportunity for every new buzzword. If there is no substance to the buzz, if, like our currency our buzzwords don’t demonstrate their usefulness, we will quickly lose our collective confidence and become cynical.

Buzzword fatigue.

We must respect the buzzword! We have the power to exploit a buzzword (and destroy a great window of opportunity). We also have the power to harness the collective emotion behind a new buzzword and to build integrity around it by demonstrating its usefulness.

So here are two challenges for those of us in the business of buzzwords.

We can aim to explain the meaning behind buzzwords to our clients and community in simple, relatable terms that convey their integrity.

For example, I love one of Tim Brown’s definitions for design thinking; design applied to anything.

Or the mantra that Indigenous Elders in Queensland shared with me around co-design; nothing about us without us.

And we can add substance to our buzzwords through action. We can begin by practicing what we preach in our small, day to day interactions, by modeling the integrity that we are talking about.

If buzzwords are to deliver the value they promise, they must be built on integrity. And the integrity behind buzzwords starts right here, with us.


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