We Are What We Speak
The inherently complex nature of many new technologies often defies labels. But the resulting linguistic prefabrications sometimes only mystify the audience they're trying to assist.
he King's English, which has admirably served civilization for centuries, is under assault from the information revolution.
The more technologically advanced we become, the more we depend on words to explain exactly what it is we are doing, or increasingly, selling. However, in the minds of many, old-fashioned English just doesn't cut it anymore.
Indeed, the inherently complex nature of many new technologies, particularly in the fast-evolving world of information technology, often defy attempts of companies to describe them in good-old Anglo-Saxon. So they turn to buzzwords, technocratic prefabrications that often succeed only in mystifying the very audience at which they are directed.
Why, for example, should anyone know or care that asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) is a switching technology that allows the transfer of voice, data, image and video bundled into 53-byte cells for high-speed transmission over a single circuit? The fault lies not in the technology, but in the empty buzzword to convey any tangible meaning.
"These concepts are fairly complex. Relating what you are doing to a high-profile buzzphrase allows people to understand more of what you are and separates you from the competition," said Stephen O'Keefe, vice president, Stackig Public Relations. "The problem is, when everybody uses a buzzphrase, they quickly wear out and become the new Hula Hoop."
What Constitutes a Buzzword?
According to Webster's New World Dictionary, a
buzzword is "a word or phrase used by members of some in-group, having little or imprecise meaning but sounding impressive to outsiders."
Everyone in the infotech world is guilty of using
buzzwords, and no one is immune. For example, Visix Software Inc. of Reston, Va., described the C version of its Galaxy application development software or "application environment" in a press release as "a comprehensive cross-platform development environment for creating large-scale, mission-critical applications that are graphical and distributed." C, incidentally, is a software programming language most associated with object-oriented software -- software that gets built in chunks of pretested code, rather than instruction by instruction.
Laurie Riedman, principal of Riedman Communications, the high-tech marketing firm that produced the preceding release, said it's difficult to employ simple definitions when promoting a technical product in a competitive market. Galaxy, she pointed out, is aimed at software developers, highly technical people who actually understand and use such language.
"I don't necessarily like having all of this technobabble in there, but it is necessary to pinpoint who is appropriate for this product," said Riedman.
InVision Systems Corp. of Tulsa, Okla., boasted in a press release that its product is "the video conferencing industry's first packet-based, real-time, full-motion, audio and video conferencing solution that was designed exclusively to operate over today's LAN and WAN networking infrastructures, including Ethernet, Token Ring, FDDI, Frame Relay, ATM and ISDN."
For engineers, industry specialists and other assorted propeller heads, such a sentence may be as challenging as "See Spot run." -- although this is even questionable. But for the people who may actually buy and use this product, it's about as decipherable as the Rosetta stone.
"That's insane! That should be a direct-mail shoot to LAN managers who deal with networking in a large company," said Mark Frieser, senior analyst with Jupiter Communications, of the InVision release. "They will totally pick up on what's being said, but your average upper-middle-management guy, forget it. How many people know what a token ring is?"
Dan Spiner, managing director of Progressive Strategies Inc., the New York technology consulting firm responsible for the InVision release, said it was aimed at resellers attending a trade show, people who actually speak such jargon. Spiner said such techno-verbiage would never be unleashed on the general press, let alone anyone who might actually buy such a product. In fact, he added, many infotech types would need a translator as well.
"The reality of it is that even 50 percent of the people in the industry do not know what they
(buzzwords) mean," said Spiner. "And 100 percent of the people outside of the industry do not know."
To paraphrase the Talking Heads, how did we get here?
Geoffrey Moore, formerly a principal with Regis McKenna Inc., one of the industry's leading high-tech marketing firms, and author of Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Technology Products to Mainstream Customers, offers a few thoughts.
For Moore, "the chasm" represents the great divide between a new technology's early adopters and the mass market that appreciates its benefits but doesn't care how or why it was created. Turning technology into a product is a lofty challenge, Moore said, with success hinging largely on a company's marketing strategy.
Companies with a technology to sell often attempt to cross the chasm through product-based marketing, using sweeping generalizations to create a theme they believe the masses can relate to and are willing to buy -- a buzzword.
Apple, for instance, no slouch when it comes to marketing, made its name with desktop publishing. However, after a taste of success, Moore said, it subsequently affixed the prefix "desktop" onto many of its products, a move that failed to bear fruit.
"For a while, everything was desktop," said Moore. "They used that buzzword like pixie dust, but it didn't work because it was inauthentic. The mainstream market is unmoved by this strategy. It's like watching an adolescent boy try to write a love poem," said Moore, who is working on a follow-up to his book for fall publication.
These engineers are often deeply in love with the technology itself and possess an unfortunate inclination to explain how elegant it is rather than point out what it can do. Moore refers to this as a "product-centric" approach, and says these companies need to become more "application-centric" and explain to potential customers what their technology can do for them.
"I absolutely agree with that," said Frieser. "They need to appeal to what people understand."
Spiner said the problem represents a kind of techno-snobbery on the part of propeller heads who know the argot and couldn't care less about those who do not. "The techies understand it, and they have utter disregard for the general population. In my opinion, it's elitism," he said.
Because of this prevailing attitude, many companies scorn any discussion of actual applications as too niche-oriented and try to be all things to all people with a great, big, all-encompassing buzzword, often with disastrous results.
"Buzzwords are a way for people who don't understand applications to try to imply why someone should care about something," Moore said. "The customer who adopts technology on an applications basis says the solution isn't there, so it dies."
But John Barry, in his book Technobabble, suggests buzzword-laden press releases, for all their opaqueness, may actually achieve the intended effect.
He cites Caine O'Brien, a marketing manager with MicroCASE, who said: "If we aroused your curiosity to the point where you were interested in talking to us, then we succeeded in the primary goal of getting some press attention."
Riedman disagrees with this approach, and said she often produces multiple press releases tailored for specific audiences, depending on their level of technical expertise. But it's not always easy to convince the young companies to tone down the techno-rhetoric. Riedman said she spends a good 60 percent of her time with her entrepreneurial clients educating them about the appropriate use of buzzwords.
And press coverage, Moore argues, is no substitute for sales. Companies need to generate revenues, he argues, not just articles. "Buzzword marketing [results] is a lot of
media coverage but no sales," he said.
The Other Side of the Coin
Buzzwords can be extremely useful and powerful, but are more appropriate for cementing a company' position in the market rather than building a foundation for the business.
Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp. are examples of companies that used buzzwords to devastating effect. Sun's use of "open" and Oracle's use of "portable" allowed them to rally an entire marketplace around a theme and consolidate their leadership status.
"There is no question the buzzword 'open' was absolutely critical for Sun to defeat Apollo, and 'portable' [was critical] for Oracle to defeat Ingres and other database companies," Moore said.
However, bear in mind that both these companies concentrated their initial marketing efforts on applications, building the business before using buzzwords to deliver the coup de gr?s to the competition.
Sometimes buzzwords fail entirely, and are instead supplanted by a brand name, much the way people substitute the word "Xerox" for "photocopy." The buzzword "groupware," for instance, Moore said, was going nowhere and essentially dead in the water. Lotus, however, introduced its successful Lotus Notes on the market and ended up defining it. Lotus Notes has become a buzzword unto itself, replacing groupware, which Moore said was "too fuzzy."
Client/server is a legitimate buzzword in that it describes an actual architecture that spawned new players and a good deal of paying customers. Object-oriented and artificial intelligence, on the other hand, are wanna-be buzzwords because they've failed to generate enough critical mass, ie. revenues, to stick.
"Buzzwords don't become real until a bunch of people make money," Moore said.
But even so-called legitimate buzzwords can be a source of controversy and confusion, because they often defy definition.
"Buzzphrases are defined so imprecisely and so ambiguously, they lose their meaning," said O'Keefe. "What does it mean if you are an open system? Who knows?"
Riedman said this problem is compounded by the tremendous amount of "me-tooism" in the industry that compels vendors to use the same buzzwords as their competitors. The result can be highly amusing.
Barry Cohen, senior equity analyst with Ehrenkrantz King Nussbaum Inc., pointed out the risks in using buzzwords to define an entire organization.
"To a certain extent, the catch phrases are an easy way to categorize what a company is doing," he said, "but it can come back to bite you."
Thanks to a tidal wave of hype, he said, many telecommunications, computer and entertainment firms have jumped on the multimedia or information highway bandwagon. But, he asked, "What if multimedia is discredited or the superhighway is a dud? What happens to those firms?"
A Whole New
Other kinds of buzzwords, however, have crept into the vernacular with a vengeance, and are increasingly applied to a wide range of topics, including human interaction. In case you hadn't heard, new technology is no longer used, it is "implemented." Information is no longer looked for, it is "retrieved" or "accessed." You no longer find your way around a computer system or online service, you "navigate." Companies no longer manufacture goods and services, they produce "tools" and "solutions." And instead of meeting with someone, you now "interface" with them.
Another interesting buzzword phenomeneon is the attempt by companies to replace perfectly good, universally accepted words with important-sounding phrases. Why, for instance, would anyone refer to a cellular telephone as a "personal communicator," the positively Star Trekian buzzword telecommunications companies are attempting to foist upon the masses.
As Moore, a former college English teacher, points out, people are fundamentally conservative about nomenclature and loathe to replace existing words. However, for genuinely new products or services, new words are necessary, such as E-mail or voice mail, which entered the lexicon almost overnight. And more recently, Mosaic, the term for popular software to gain access to the Internet, has become an almost instant buzzword -- barely a year after its introduction.
There also exists a whole subclass of buzzword modifiers that infotech vendors flaunt at every opportunity. These buzzword modifiers, which are becoming de rigueur, include phrases such as robust, real time, seamless, interactive, integrated, mission-critical and anything you care to name.
Moore dismisses such expressions as empty adjectives that soon wear out. If you repeatedly attempt to stimulate neurons with empty buzzwords and fail to deliver a new or worthwhile experience, he said, "even the most dense among us figure it out."
The bottom line with buzzwords, Moore said, is timing. "They are great for raising money in the early market with venture capitalists and other sources, dangerous in trying to get into the market, very useful for consolidating a position, and tired, old and boring when a company enters the mainstream."
One final note. According to Reidman, there is now available a software program that actually generates buzzwords on demand. The user describes the product and the program spits out a string of appropriate technobabble. In the interests of protecting the English language form further harm, the name of the program is being withheld.