6 overused phrases — and smart ways to replace them

By Andrew Kenney

The office is a natural environment for jargon to thrive. When there's so much to talk about — from business to culture and innovation — it's tempting to fall back on buzzwords and trite phrases. But overused language can annoy your audience, or it can become so broad that it's meaningless.

Clichés and buzzwords are "kind of like pop culture references: They have a really effective life, but it's a short life. They resonate with people quickly, but then they go away," said Andy Bechtel, director of the Master of Arts in Digital Communication program at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina.

In a series of interviews, Bechtel and five CPAs identified phrases they've heard too often, and they offered advice how to think and talk about big ideas in a new way.

'Best practice'

Gene Marks, CPA, remembers when consulting firms helped to popularize the idea of "best practices" a few decades ago.

"That used to be a big phrase we used when I was younger, and it had a very [consultant] feel to it," he said.

"It's not a bad phrase," Marks said, but it has started to sound dated — like using the word "dialogue" instead of "talk" or "conversation."

The real meaning of a "best practice" is to "demonstrate what we feel makes sense," said Marks, president of The Marks Group, a financial and technology consulting firm near Philadelphia.

No matter what you call it — whether it's a policy, a good idea, or a best practice — your focus should be on explaining a concept and proving its value, Marks added.

'Work/life balance'

Pamela Baker, CPA, appreciates the sentiment that work should not dominate a person's life. But she thinks that creating a "balance" is only the first step.

"When the conversation first started, 'work/life balance' was a step in that direction. It was saying, 'Let's compromise. The employee wants this, the firm wants this,'" she said.

But rather than saying work and life should each occupy certain amounts of a person's time, Baker, who is managing partner at Barbacane, Thornton & Company in Wilmington, Del., now wants the firm to ensure people don't have to compromise on personal priorities for the sake of work. The right balance is the one that ensures people don't miss any of the most important parts of life, she said.

"We're more flexible. We're more inclusive in where we work and how we work. When it fits into employees' lives, that's when they work. It's not as much about balance as it is about integrating work into life," Baker said.

Instead of talking about "balancing" work and life, she suggested leaders talk about how people's work can support their lives.

'Thought leadership'

It seems like everyone wants to be a "thought leader" — but sometimes that phrase just doesn't fit, said Gary Thomson, CPA, a practice management consultant in Richmond, Va. Actual "thought leadership" means introducing new ideas that have the potential to change how a business operates in the long term. More often, he said, you're making a smaller contribution.

"I challenge finance professionals: Are we just sharing knowledge or are we truly willing to be thought leaders? Are we willing to promote new ways of thinking?" Thomson said.

It's OK to simply say that you're promoting an idea or doing research, he said. And if you really want to say "thought leader," just make sure you're not exaggerating.

'Thinking outside the box'

Thinking "outside the box" is shorthand for coming up with unexpected approaches to problems, but "it's so commonly used that we ignore what it's actually supposed to mean," said Donny Shimamoto, CPA/CITP, CGMA, founder of IntrapriseTechKnowlogies, a Honolulu-based CPA firm dedicated to helping small and middle-market businesses.

He suggests that leaders can instead encourage "cross-disciplinary thinking." When people with different expertise work together, they often reexamine assumptions and discover new solutions. Similar ends can be achieved by reading and researching outside of one's specialty.

"We really want to take a holistic look," he said. "What is the problem we are trying to address? And what are these different angles we have to come at it from?"

'New normal'

"I probably don't need to see the term 'new normal' again anytime soon," joked Tony Nitti, CPA, partner in the national tax department for EY. "If there's one thing the last two years are telling us, it's that there is no normal."

He often hears the phrase when people are talking about the future of the workplace — like whether people will return to the office or whether they'll start wearing suits again. There certainly has been plenty of change on that front, but Nitti thinks it's a mistake to assume that any part of business life will settle into a stable new pattern.

"We had this traumatic event thrown at us. We responded. It's just human nature. We respond so quickly, and it's just hard to think that wherever you rest for a moment in time is the new normal," he said.

Instead, Nitti is focusing on what changes still might come — including the possibility that "when we swing dramatically in one direction, we tend to swing back in the other direction." He added: "When has reality ever been normal?"

'In these unprecedented times'

Early in the pandemic, this phrase added some weight to emails from university administrators, Bechtel said. "This must be serious," he recalled thinking. But as the months passed, the phrase — which has by now appeared in countless corporate bulletins — faded into the background.

"I started skipping down: What's the news here? What's the 'change' part of this message?" Bechtel said.

To find and replace these tired phrases, Bechtel begins by thinking of his audience. "Who is the audience and what definitions, what slang, what terminology is this audience going to be familiar with? Which terms are going to confuse them or deter them from reading?" he said.

Next, he rereads his work, attempting to take a reader's perspective as he searches for overused phrases. Finally, he tries to replace them.

There's no single rule for good writing, Bechtel said. Instead, he reads other people's work and takes note of how they turn complicated concepts into concise explanations and examples.

"The more you read, the more you pick up on techniques like transition, phrasing, and organizational methods," he said. And when it's all done, Bechtel suggested, ask for others to comment on your work.

— Andrew Kenney is a freelance writer based in Colorado. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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