Cut the Jargon: 16 Business Idioms You Don’t Need to Use Anymore

Your manager just sent you a message to contact base. They have asked you to make a phone call to get the ball rolling with the new client. They say there’s a lot of pressure to move the needle this month, but there’s a lot of moving parts, so you’re going to have to take it a step further. Luckily, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit, so if you’re in the game and getting buy-in from the new client for the strategy, you should come out on top!

Sounds great, right? But… what does it mean?

In the post-pandemic world, companies are going remote and “Actively recruiting international talent.” That means:

  • Your team members come from different backgrounds and they don’t all have the same credentials.
  • You will work with non-native speakers of English who can translate idioms literally.
  • More of your communication is written — through messages like Slack — that remove cues that aid in understanding, such as the tone of the voice and facial expression.

Business jargon and idioms can be interesting, but they don’t belong in a business context. They reduce clarity. They make things hard to understand. They make you sound pretentious. Save the metaphors for your novel. Remember: plain language is “an opportunity for your organization to [become] people- and user-oriented.”

By cutting out business jargon, you need to think carefully about what you’re trying to communicate. You need to be more precise in your writing. To make things easier for you, let’s run through some common business phrases and show you what to say instead.

Let the ball roll → start

This idiom comes from Croquet, a popular sport in the 1900s, where the moving ball signals the start of the game. Today it is unrelated. Starting a project is an important moment, so you want to be clear when it happens.

[confusing] Let’s get the ball rolling in our website redesign.

[clear] Let’s start with the redesign of our website.

Put a pin in here → let’s deal with this later

This expression comes from pinning something on a drawing board or from ‘putting a pin in a grenade’, meaning to save it for later use. It is also sometimes used as a euphemism to mean “that’s not a good idea.” Anyway, this expression can confuse people.

[confusing] Let’s stick a pin in it for now and circle back later.

[clear] Thanks for the suggestion, let’s talk more about it in next week’s meeting.

Move the needle → make noticeable progress

Imagine that you weigh some flour. You add a little bit to the scale. Nothing happens. You add a large amount. The needle on the gauge moves to register the new weight.

For a non-native speaker of English, ‘needle’ in this expression could be misinterpreted as a sewing needle or a medical needle for injection.

[confusing] We really need to move the needle this month – we need to take things to the next level.

[clear] We need to increase sales by 2% before the end of the month.

Lots of moving parts → it’s a complicated situation with variables that can change

This expression comes from mechanical engineering for when parts of a system are in motion. A car engine has many moving parts. Unless you’re talking about a machine, it’s confusing. In business, variables and factors change, they don’t move.

[confusing] Everything is in the air and there are many moving parts.

[clear] This is a difficult situation, so let’s make an appointment to discuss it further.

Go back to the drawing board → start over

A drawing board is a large flat board used for creating large technical illustrations, such as an architect’s designs for a building. Unless you work in construction, there probably isn’t a literal drawing board to go back to. You would use this expression when something went wrong and needs to be rescheduled. It is important to communicate that the plan needs to be re-run.

[confusing] The startup wasn’t happy with our proposal, so it’s back to the drawing board.

[clear] The startup was not happy with our proposal, so we have to look at their feedback and come up with a new proposal.

Call it a day → stop

This idiom is derived from a phrase used in the 1800s for when an employee left before his shift was over: “Call it half a day.” “Call it a day” was eventually used to mean finishing work.

You want clarity about the termination of a project. “Calling” can be interpreted as calling something (“Call me Piet”) or calling someone on the phone.

[confusing] We’re getting nowhere – let’s call it a day.

[clear] We’re not making any progress – let’s stop for now and work on this tomorrow.

Buy a buy-in → get support

“Buy-in” suggests that a financial transaction is taking place. In investing, it is used when someone buys stock in a company to gain control over it. In business, it means getting support for an idea or strategy. This is confusing when you’re actually talking about getting team members’ consent.

[confusing] That’s a good idea, but we need to get support from the leadership team before we can move forward.

[clear] That’s a good idea, but we need to get approval from the leadership team before we can move forward.

See eye to eye → agree

This phrase occurs in the Bible – Isaiah 52:8. “Your watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together they shall sing; for they shall see face to face, when the LORD shall bring again Zion.” The watchmen can sing in unison and work together because they see “eye to eye”. A similar expression, “to be on the same page,” comes from choirs – you want your singers to refer to the same sheet of music. These expressions suggest that something is happening physically; “agree” is much simpler and clearer.

[confusing] The meeting ran late because we didn’t agree on the deliverables.

[clear] The meeting ended because we had different opinions about the outcome.

By the book → follow the rules or procedures carefully

Historically, “by the book” meant following the Bible. Over time, this expression came to mean that we had to follow rules more generally. This could cause a lot of confusion as ‘the book’ is no longer widely used to refer to the Bible. It is not clear which book you are talking about.

[confusing] This is a mission critical project, so we have to do everything by the book.

[clear] This is a very important project, so we have to follow the procedure carefully.

Don’t cut corners → be thorough and pay attention to details

‘Cutting the bends’ is when you take the most direct route rather than carefully going around the bends. A version of this phrase can be found in Mark Twain’s travel book Innocents Abroad (1869). “Every now and then he cuts a corner so close, or misses another gondola at such an imperceptible hair’s breadth.” This expression is not clear unless you are a native speaker. It is also better to use positive instructions rather than telling someone what not to do.

[confusing] We pride ourselves on never cutting back.

[clear] We pride ourselves on our attention to detail.

Go the extra mile → make an extra special effort

This is another expression that has links to the Bible – Jesus’ sermon on the mountain in Matthew 5:41. “Whoever compels you to go one mile, go two miles with him.” Unless you are physically traveling a distance, this expression is confusing. Most countries now use mileage so an international audience may not understand.

This expression is often used to praise someone for a job well done. However, it’s much better to be specific and mention the things they’ve done well. The purpose of appreciation is to make someone feel really seen.

[confusing] Well done! You really think out-of-the-box and go to extremes.

[clear] Well done! You used your creativity to find a solution, even though the deadline was tight.

Low hanging fruit → easy to achieve

This is a metaphor referring to how fruit on lower branches is easier to pick than fruit higher up. Choose a better expression unless you are harvesting fruit.

[confusing] We can reuse the same content strategy as last December, so that’s low hanging fruit.

[clear] To make things easier for you, we can reuse the same content strategy as we did last December.

Sports metaphors to avoid

In workplaces, sports idioms are common, and many come from baseball. That means they can be confusing to anyone outside of the US as they don’t have the same credentials.

Here are some common sports-related expressions and what to say instead:

  • Be on the ball → be focused
    [confusing] This client is a game-changer, so we all need to be on our toes this week.
    [clear] This is an important client, so we all need to be focused this week.
  • Be on top of your game → be on your best
    [confusing] You’re really on top of your game now!
    [clear] You are doing really well!
  • It’s a long way → it’s not easy to get to
    [confusing] I’ll ask if he can deliver it on Tuesday, but it’s a chance.
    [clear] I will ask if he can deliver it on Tuesday, but that may not be possible.
  • Touch base → quickly connect with someone
    [confusing] Are you free this afternoon? I would like to contact you about the upcoming review.
    [clear] Are you free this afternoon? I want to call you to talk about the upcoming review.
  • Step on the board → take action when something needs to be done
    [confusing] When the project fell behind, he really came on the record
    [clear] When the project fell behind, he identified the issues and made a plan to address the issues.

say what you mean

Many of us are guilty of using corporate jargon as a crutch. After all, it makes it easier to keep talking or writing when we’re not sure what to say. Removing these phrases and buzzwords from your vocabulary will make your communication clearer and more meaningful. It gives you the power to think before you type.The next time you’re about to ‘reach out’ (message) someone to congratulate someone for being ‘at the top of their game’ (do a great job), why take don’t you have the time to think? Then you can send a thoughtful message, explaining exactly what they did and why it was so good. Use your vote to increase the contributions of your colleagues.


Written by May Habib.

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