Headwinds/Tailwinds and Other Business Cliches That Make Me Wish I Were Never Born

June 8, 2011
I think the first time I realized that I had sold my soul for a job in the corporate world was when I first used the phrase "win-win" in a professional context. A part of me died a little bit that day. Ever since then, I've been looking for as many ...

I think the first time I realized that I had sold my soul for a job in the corporate world was when I first used the phrase "win-win" in a professional context.

A part of me died a little bit that day.

Ever since then, I've been looking for as many opportunities as possible to use "win-win" in my personal life -- sarcastically. For example, if my favorite brand of beer is on sale, that's a win-win situation. (I get to drink the beer, and I'm paying less than I usually do for the beer -- that's win-win.)

It's a defense mechanism, of course. It's a way for me to delude myself into believing that I'm above it all, that I'm not some corporate robot mindlessly wandering the halls and peppering my colleagues with trite business phrases such as "low-hanging fruit," "paradigm shift" and "synergy" (is that even a word?).

The truth is, I'm not above it all. As a business journalist, I'm guilty of using these loathsome expressions, and I've probably unwittingly perpetuated a few cliches in my time. Sometimes, when you're up against a deadline, a trite turn of phrase is the most expedient option to get the story done.

But that doesn't make it OK.

Honestly, when did we start talking this way?

'We're Gonna Have an Awesome Quarter!'

A lot of these words and phrases -- like "robust" (remember when that adjective exclusively described spaghetti sauce?) -- didn't originate in the business world. They became cliches, though, when those in the business world co-opted them to serve their purposes.

I've never been the captain of a tuna schooner, but I'm guessing the terms "headwinds" and "tailwinds" once exclusively were the domain of sailors and professional shrimp-boat operators. I don't know when these two phrases became an absolute staple of the quarterly earnings call, and I don't care. I just know that every time I hear them, I want to crawl back into my mother's womb.

Business cliches are a symptom of a bureaucratic, litigious and passive-aggressive society. Companies give us "forward-looking statements" so they can comply with financial laws and avoid potential investor lawsuits. We "reach out" to and "circle back" with colleagues and clients usually because we want something from them, but we don't want to come right out and say it.

And company leaders are always "cautiously optimistic" about the future.

Just once I want to hear a CEO declare, "I think we're gonna have an awesome quarter!"

Straight-Talk Alternatives

I'm not pointing fingers. We all have our reasons for talking this way. But if you're having a hard time looking at yourself in the mirror after a long day of "thinking outside the box" to eliminate the "low-hanging fruit" from your company's "bottom line," here are a few plain-English alternatives for some common business cliches.

Organic growth
Straight-talk alternative: New stuff.

At the end of the day
Straight-talk alternative: Listen closely. I'm about to say something that I think is really profound (but it probably won't be).

Pain point
Straight-talk alternative: This sucks for us.

Sweet spot
Straight-talk alternative: This is awesome for us.

Granularity (For example: "Could you provide some more granularity into your gross margins this quarter?")
Straight-talk alternative: Could you be any more vague?

Forward-looking statements
Straight-talk alternative: We can't predict the future. If we say something that makes you want to buy a lot of our stock, and our stock tanks, don't come crying to us, buster!

Straight-talk alternative: There's some stuff happening that could hurt our business. There's some stuff happening that could help our business.

Low-hanging fruit
Straight-talk alternative: Stuff that we should've taken care of a long time ago.

Touch base/circle back/reach out
Straight-talk alternative: Dude, I'm calling you whether you like it or not.

Disruptive technology
Straight-talk alternatives: Our nerds are smarter than your nerds.

Best of Breed
Straight-talk alternative: If our product was an animal, it would be gnawing on your product's carotid artery.

Vertically integrated
Straight-talk alternative: We make our own sh#t.

Which business cliches grind your gears?

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