Some external content from our collaborator Shane Mahoney, of Mahoney + Company. First in a four* part series.

Hack [hak]
verb (used with object)
D: to damage or injure by crude, harsh, or insensitive treatment; mutilate; mangle: The editor hacked the story to bits.

Are you Kevin Mitnick? Were you, personally, involved in the Stuxnet virus affair? Are you currently creating a short-wave radio out of a cactus, a la MacGyver? If not, then stop using the word “hack” to describe anything you’re building, have designed, are doodling at this very moment, or are considering interacting with. Why? Because all you’re doing is improving something that already exists, designing something new, or finding a new way to interpret. It would be unbecoming to state that Sir Isaac Newton hacked gravity, that Warhol hacked the Campbell’s Soup can, or that Jimi Hendrix hacked The Star Spangled Banner.

Hacking has an air of imprecision, of desperation. Hardly the image most of us want to put in the minds of the people with whom we want to work. There are a few good synonyms you can use, though even a few of those rank high on the annoying-o-meter. Try “thinking about” or “re-inventing” or “experimenting.”

The bigger picture, however, is this: if you use words like “hack” to describe the same process of incremental improvement and innovation that’s literally been happening since humans became bipedal, there’s an above-average chance you sound like you’re trying real darn hard to come off intelligent, edgy and of the moment. And rather often – while you might have some really good ideas bouncing around in that coconut of yours – you’ll come off as the business-speak equivalent of precious. You know: cute, but not taken too seriously, like Justin Bieber or Sarah Palin.

If you read a word in Fast Company, Wired or Forbes and can’t remember ever having heard that word before three years ago, chances are it’s a fad term, and it’ll go out of style like 1980s Valley Girl-speak. Lingo, jargon and in-speak are fine in casual settings, amongst friends, but communicating with even a modicum of professionalism seems to be a dying phenomenon today. Even if you work in the bro’d out action sports industry – which I have – communicating in proper, college-educated English and remaining free of hip-sounding jargon is a virtue.

Communicate with just a trace of seriousness, of gravitas, rather than using buzz-y words to sound like you’re strenuously trying to demonstrate your on top-ness of today’s trends. Try it. I promise, it feels good.

*This list might grow over time. But these first four terms are definitely ones you should exercise extreme caution when using.

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