What’s the Buzz?


One recent early morning I unexpectedly saw an old mentor of mine as I walked to work. Notice I restrained myself from saying, “ran into an old mentor” or “bumped into an old friend”. Some words/phrases need to be replaced while some need to be retired entirely. When have you ever truly “run into someone”?

This particular person has been a helpful source of advice and perspective early in my career. I still refer back to notes I would take when meeting with him for advice. As true with many of my mentors, I admired how effective he was in building relationships with people, particularly institutional investors.

Early in my career I was concerned about my credibility given my age and lack of experience. I would reach out to several more tenured peers hoping to find ways to prove myself and be more like them when interacting with senior people in the industry. I was young and sometimes intimidated by the knowledge and experience of Chief Investment Officers and Pension Trustees that were more seasoned.

This specific mentor was articulate, confident, and had some of the longest and most trusted relationships. One specification recollection at a client event many years ago stands out. As I was introducing myself to a client and shaking his hand, this mentor came into the room walked over to my new friend and they practically hugged. This client later explained to me, “He’s not our advisor, he’s much more than that, he’s like family to me.” How powerful.

When I met with mentors like him, I typically prepared 3 or 4 questions, hoping they’d be impressed with my thoughtfulness. On one particular meeting with this colleague, I noticed he was taking quite a few notes. At first I was proud of my preparation, “he must really like what I am saying!”

After ten minutes, he shared with me some of the best advice. Like a doctor diagnosing a disease, he identified my particular flaw as being a “buzzword” guy. He went on to provide the cause of the “disease”, my lack of confidence in my position and my knowledge. He was right. I was so eager to let the world know that I knew something, I wanted to sound smart. Without even thinking about it, I threw out every key word of the moment, hoping to impress more tenured investors of my knowledge, skill, and trying to earn their respect.

This mentor never used buzzwords; I couldn’t think of one during our conversation, he had written down over 15 in our conversation (that explained his note taking). If you listen closely to true experts, those that stand out from the “self-proclaimed experts”, you will be amazed at the lack of buzzwords. This is true in any industry.

How often did Steve Jobs confuse his audience with technical words or phrases? He didn’t have to complicate his message; he connected because the product connected with true customer needs.

True relationship builders know the information regarding a product or service so clearly, that their explanations of the information are much more familiar, comforting, and confident. This was a key lesson in my development, one I think about particularly in new situations.
The cure for this ailment was simple, be yourself. Don’t hide behind complexity. Don’t ever try to be someone else, it never works.

Although I realize many of these words and phrases have an important use in our ability to communicate key concepts, I thought (for fun) that I would list some buzzwords/phrases that I think should be replaced from the industry today. Mainly from overuse:

– “Housekeeping items” (so overused at conferences and in meetings)

– “Let’s review the agenda” (ditto above)

– “Decoupling”

– “Participating in the upside and limiting the downside volatility.”

– “Uncorrelated sources of alpha”(over used)

– “Our edge is…”

– “Macro”(sounds so sophisticated and sleek)

– “Stock pickers”

– “Smart beta” (opposed to dumb beta)