Annoying Business Buzzwords Are Bad for Business

by on Aug 19, 2018
Business buzzwords might be making you lose sales

Annoying business buzzwords seem cool!

Apart from the latest technology fads (e.g., big data, artificial intelligence), corporate speak and annoying business buzzwords  and management jargon are generally perceived as cool and fashionable in the business world, just  as ripped jeans, text speak and Instagram filters are among teens.

As Jan Wallander, the former chairman of Sweden’s Handelsbanken, humorously puts it: “Business leaders are just as fashion-conscious as teenage girls choosing jeans.”

“Thought leadership”, “gamechanger”, “best in class”, “low hanging fruit”, “leverage”, “best practice”, “buy-in”, “touch base”, “take it to the next level”.

We keep coming across these annoying business buzzwords in day-to-day business discourse.

Do annoying business buzzwords result in more sales?

So how do they help? Do annoying business buzzwords result in more sales, more business, more success?

Well, if the results of the new research on bullshit sensitivity and its link to prosocial behavior are extended to the business situation, then it indicates that annoying business buzzwords might actually be bad for your business.

I am sharing in this post a few very interesting sales and marketing lessons I learned today from the said bullshit sensitivity research.

Okay, what is bullshit sensitivity?

Authors Arvid Erlandsson, Artur Nilsson, Gustav Tinghög and Daniel Västfjäll define “bullshit sensitivity” as the ability to distinguish pseudo-profound bullshit sentences from genuinely profound sentences.

Bullshit sentences are usually a string of buzzwords, seemingly profound, but with no meaning. (e.g. “Your movement transforms universal observations”). They are seemingly impressive, but vacuous. In fact, they can be automatically generated using tools like The Enigmatic Wisdom of Deepak Chopra.

Genuinely profound sentences, on the other hand, are simple in language and have a deep meaning. (e.g. “The person who never made a mistake never tried something new”).

In an earlier study, Pennycook et al, defined “bullshit-receptivity” as a tendency to perceive bullshit sentences as meaningful, and “profoundness-receptivity” as a tendency to perceive genuinely profound sentences as meaningful.

The bullshit sensitivity study of Erlandsson et al, used a set of seven bullshit sentences and seven genuinely profound sentences in a survey to assess participant’s bullshit-receptivity and profoundness-receptivity respectively, and their correlation to whether they engaged in any charitable or voluntary work in the past.

Bullshit sentences used in the survey:

  1. The hidden meaning transforms the abstract beauty.
  2. The future elucidates irrational facts for the seeking person.
  3. Health and tolerance provides creativity for the future.
  4. Your movement transforms universal observations.
  5. The whole silence infinite phenomena.
  6. The invisible is beyond all new immutability.
  7. The explainable touches on the inherent experiences of the universe.

Genuinely profound sentences used in the survey:

  1. A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power, but its persistence.
  2. You are not only responsible for the things you say, but also for the things you do not say.
  3. We have others’ flaws before our eyes, but our own flaws behind our back.
  4. Your teacher can open the door, but you have to step in.
  5. The person who never made a mistake, never tried something new.
  6. Imagined pain does not hurt less, because it is imagined.
  7. It is one thing to be tempted, but quite another to fall for the temptation.

The results showed that:

(i) People who showed profoundness-receptivity (i.e., those who rated genuinely profound sentences as meaningful) are more likely to do voluntary work or donate to charity.

(ii) People who showed bullshit-receptivity (i.e., those who rated bullshit sentences as meaningful) are less likely to do voluntary work or donate to charity.

The study further notes that higher bullshit-sensitivity (and lower bullshit-receptivity) is proven to be associated with a “willingness to engage in analytical and reflective thinking”.

Bullshit sensitivity and reflective thinking would indicate not only the ability to detect bullshit, but also choose actions that have favorable results for oneself.  So, intuitively, reflective thinking should lead to selfishness and that would mean that bullshit sensitive people would be less likely to help others, contrary to the result of the study.  To answer this discrepancy, the study further explains that “people high on reflective thinking can evaluate more complex trade-offs between selfish and unselfish concerns.”  I would paraphrase that as an ability to analyze some indirect benefit in helping others at the cost of one’s own time and financial resources. For e.g., viewing it as an investment in the society, complying with conscience, satisfying one’s own urge to help others, helping others with the hope of receiving help back when in need, etc.

Bullshit sensitivity and annoying business buzzwords

Coming to the relevance of the results of the bullshit sensitivity study to sales and  marketing, here are some indications:

#1.  Users who engage with your sales and marketing discourse may be either “bullshit receptive” or “profoundness receptive”.

#2.  If they are high on “bullshit sensitivity” (i.e, if they are “profoundness-receptive”), they will be able to detect vacuous business buzzwords in the sales and marketing content and  rate you off as “pseudo-profound”. In other words, that’s a lost sale.  On the other hand, since such people appreciate genuinely profound language,  you can appeal to them with genuine and profound sales and marketing messages. And since they are willing to engage with analytical and reflective thinking, they will likely give a serious thought to the idea of availing your product/service, even while assessing the trade-offs between costs and benefits.

#3.  If they are low on bullshit sensitivity (i.e, if they are “bullshit receptive”), they may feel impressed with all the business buzzwords in your business discourse. But bullshit receptivity  has a negative association with prosocial behaviour such as engaging in an unselfish action like charity. Also, a higher bullshit receptivity means a lower ability for analytical and reflective thinking.  Erlandsson et al further add  that people who rate bullshit sentences as meaningful are prone to confusion.  So it is hard to predict whether after being impressed with your business buzzwords, the buzzword-loving prospect would engage further and go on to buy from you.

Some evidence for #1 and #2 above, is visible in the recent uprising against annoying business buzzwords and jargon.  People are talking about them, mocking them, and calling them out.

Here are a few interesting write-ups against the use of annoying business buzzwords:

How to reconcile?

Going back to the bullshit sensitivity study, so how does one reconcile the sales and marketing communication with bullshit-receptivity and profoundness-receptivity?

Top execs may disagree, but the best way is to cut out annoying business buzzwords, corporate jargon and keep the messaging simple and profound to appeal to the profoundness-receptive people, who are more likely to engage with you further, if only you come across as genuine and meaningful.  The bullshit-receptive people are a confused lot, anyway, as explained in #3 above, and are less likely to engage further, even if they are gasping in admiration at your management and business buzzwords.

And if you HAVE TO use a few annoying business buzzwords, because they are critical to the product/service, then use them very carefully. Exercise utmost caution to not sound pseudo-profound, or worse still sound like randomly auto-generated Deepak Chopra wisdom.  Unless you want to put off the profoundness-receptive people and pass off sales.  If that’s the case, you might as well say, “Hey prospect, get lost, we don’t want sales.”

Lessons learned:

  1. I’ve said this before, language is important in sales and marketing, and there are psychological and various other considerations to keep in mind.
  2. Annoying business buzzwords may put off people and result in loss of sales.
  3. A genuine and profound message will encourage people to engage further, and probably result in more sales.

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