Corporate jargon busting: is business terminology actually helpful?

Dan Marshall • 27 Mar 2024 • 6 min read

Let’s face it, if you’ve ever had to work in an office or business environment, then you’ve almost certainly heard your fair share of unique and ‘interesting’ corporate jargon being thrown your way.

And if that’s the case, then you’re not alone – because it turns out that distinct and never-before-heard corporate chatter is part and parcel of the US office space. Alongside a good portion of office workers being left baffled at what all this terminology actually means.

Sound familiar? Thought so, and that’s exactly why we decided to survey 1,000 US workers to find out specifically which pieces of corporate jargon are causing the most confusion, and how they feel about its use in general. i.e., is it actually helpful?

So, without further ado, here is the VoiceNation corporate jargon buster to help you understand just what your manager means when they tell you not to boil the ocean or to get your work done by COP.

Top 10 most misunderstood workplace phrases

While there are many business terms out there that are just ripe for misunderstanding, we’ve decided to stick with the top 10 most common ones here. That way, you’re prepared with the knowledge you need to avoid confusion when they crop up.

1. Boil the ocean

First up on the docket is a real doozy. If you’ve ever stared blankly at your boss after being told not to ‘boil the ocean’, then we don’t blame you. It’s not exactly a well-known turn of phrase and certainly confused 61% of those we spoke with.

What ‘boil the ocean’ actually means is to carry out an impossible task or to make something needlessly complicated. So, the next time someone tells you not to boil the ocean, just know that they’re telling you to keep things simple.

2. COP

Any experienced desk jockey knows that it’s not just odd phrases that fall into corporate jargon, but acronyms as well, such as the vague and undefined, yet incredibly common term, COP. An acronym that was lost on at least 56% of survey respondents.

A favorite of busy managers with too many emails to send, it’s all too easy to simply slap COP at the end of an email to get it sent out quickly. But what does COP actually mean?

Well, what COP stands for is ‘Close of Play’, which in and of itself also isn’t a very helpful or informative definition either.

Basically, if someone tells you they need something done by COP, they just mean they need it done by the end of whatever day they specify.

3. The strategic staircase

Another bizarre term that bigwigs and execs just love to throw around, the strategic staircase simply refers to breaking down a strategic agenda into manageable chunks for analysis or competition. But that hasn’t stopped its meaning from being lost on 42% of employees.

Essentially, it’s a fancy way of saying we’re going to do something step-by-step, which begs the question as to why they don’t just say this in the first place.

4. The bleeding edge

Even those of us who aren’t tech wizards are probably familiar with the term cutting-edge technology. It’s a well-known phrase that is clear-cut and straight to the point – which is why it’s utterly baffling that someone thought it needed changing to be more ‘business’ appropriate. It’s certainly a term that was unfamiliar to 40% of survey respondents.

You see, the difference between something being cutting edge and bleeding edge is absolutely nothing, to which we mean they stand for the exact same thing – except that one of them sounds worse than the other and implies something just a tad negative.

5. Idea shower

If someone in a workplace asked you to join them for a brainstorm or ideation session, we’re pretty sure you’d know what they were asking of you. But what about if they asked you to participate in an idea shower?

Well, if you’re unsure what it means, then rest assured it’s not just you. At least 35% of those we surveyed had never heard this term either, but as you may have already guessed, it’s just another fancy way of saying ‘Let’s sit down and come up with a few ideas’.

6. Make hay

Given that anyone exposed to business jargon likely works inside and not in a field, being told to ‘make hay’ isn’t exactly going to stir you into action. Instead, you and 27% of those you work with are probably going to sit there wondering if your boss might have accidentally mangled a common turn of phrase.

But rest assured that ‘make hay’ is certainly a business term, one that means you should take advantage of a favorable situation while you still can. In other words, if the weather is good, go water your crops.

7. Deck

Ok, it’s not uncommon for naval terminology to sneak its way into business talk – managers, after all, are no strangers to using military terms. But if they suddenly start referencing different parts of a boat as casually as waving a flag, we’re not surprised you and 26% of your office are feeling a bit lost.

Fortunately, your ‘Captain’ hasn’t spent too long at sea. Instead, they’re just asking you to prepare a presentation or PowerPoint for the next meeting or a specific client rather than mopping down your work area.

8. 360-thinking

Leaping back to vague acronyms and odd words, 360-thinking falls into the category we like to call ‘marketing fluff’, because while it sure sounds cool, it’s utterly meaningless without a follow-up explanation – at least to 18% of those we spoke with.

Basically, 360-think is a snazzy way of saying ‘learn from your mistakes and past work so you can make better decisions down the line’. In other words, when making a decision, think full circle.

9. Action item

A quick and simple one coming in at number nine, but a term that still managed to catch 14% of survey respondents off-guard, an action item is another name given to a task, event, or activity that needs to be carried out.

For those not as thesaurus happy as their boss, to action something means to complete a given task, hence the term action item being created to add a needlessly confusing extra step when trying to work out what needs doing on any given day.

10. Content is king

Last, but not least, we have the definitive statement of ‘content is king’. One of the newest pieces of marketing jargon to grace our stage, the term ’content is king’ certainly left 13% of survey respondents scratching their heads.

The good news is that it’s once again another term that has no real meaning. It just refers to the fact that high-quality and relevant content is essential for the success of a business’s online presence.

How does corporate jargon impact workplace culture?

So, now we’ve looked at what areas of corporate terminology are the most confusing, let’s next turn our attention to whether or not people actually think it’s worth using in the workplace.

Does it really add any value?

Is business talk appreciated by workers?

Well, for most of us, the answer appears to be no, not really. In fact, at least 43% of those who got back to us said that using corporate jargon is more likely to alienate workers, especially those who don’t understand it to begin with.

On top of this, a further 38% said that corporate jargon tends to just overcomplicate simple tasks and communications, while a further 37% said it was kind of annoying in general.

To top this off, a full 29% felt that jargon simply wasn’t necessary in the workplace, with 23% even going so far as to state that they felt it made people sound less professional. And given the terms we’ve just had to explain, we’re halfway inclined to agree.

Interestingly, however, at least 20% of those we spoke with actually felt that jargon fostered a sense of community within their company, with another 20% saying they actually felt it made things seem more straightforward, so it’s clearly doing it for some people.

Which staff prefer to use business jargon?

And here is where the stats get truly fascinating. Given that most people spouting corporate jargon tend to hold senior positions, you might think that it tends to be older workers who prefer using it – but in fact, the opposite appears true.

Out of everyone we surveyed, it was those with 10+ years of workplace experience who found jargon to be a waste of time, with 38% believing it to be unnecessary and 42% finding it annoying.

On the other hand, workers with only 1-5 years’ experience seemed to be far more inclined towards using it, with 24% agreeing it saved time and brought about a community feel, as well as 25% stating it made communication more straightforward for them.

Overall, it was Gen Z who seemed the most inclined to use jargon, with 36% relating it to good communication and 31% to community, while those aged 55-64 were against its use, with 51% saying it was alienating and 44% finding it annoying to use or listen to.

Bypass needless jargon with VoiceNation

And there you have it; common corporate jargon well and truly busted. Now you should have no trouble effortlessly navigating the often counter-intuitive world of business talk – at least until you have another new term thrown your way out of the blue.

But if you think you struggle with business jargon, then imagine how your customers must feel when calling in with a query. They’re likely already confused enough as it is, which is exactly where VoiceNation can help.

Home to a professionally trained and experienced live answering service team, we’re ready and waiting to break down any complex jargon associated with your business for your customers, ensuring they have a seamless telephone or live chat experience.

Get in touch today to learn more about how we can help.