September 4, 2005
Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Novel*
Here's an example of modern business writing. See if you can guess which company it comes from:
"[Our] heritage of leadership spans the terms of nine chairmen, generations of employees and decades of business transformation. We have a history of firsts in technological innovations and in management practices that have influenced the way businesses grow and lead. And we are known for a performance culture that consistently delivers results. But these accomplishments alone will not ensure our leadership in the future. Leaders and companies that seek to continue to lead must perform with an unyielding integrity that earns the trust of our stakeholders — integrity in our relations with customers and suppliers; integrity in our disclosure to shareholders and creditors; integrity in our products; integrity in our relationships with our employees; integrity in our compliance with legal and financial rules; and integrity in our interactions with regulators, media and communities."
More after the jump.
That little gem of opaque prose comes to us courtesy of General Electric chairman Jeff Immelt.
The problem is, it could have come from any company. There's no voice, no personality. Worse, there's a lot of words there, but very little is actually being said.
It's doubly ironic in this case, because Immelt's own story is inspirational. He's the CEO who, after a terrible year that nearly resulted in his dismissal, turned GE around by emphasizing the need for imagination and simplification.
The message didn't get to the GE copywriters, apparently. This is why bad business writing does no one any service.
I quickly dashed off the beginnings of how it might sound if Immelt was speaking to a group of GE managers and employees at an event of intimate, even small scale:
"GE's been around a long time and we've seen a lot. We've invented not only new things, but new ways of doing business that other companies admire and emulate. And we're known for delivering what we promise. That doesn't mean we'll always be #1, though. If we want to stay at the top, we have to keep on delivering, because our reputation depends on it..."
If you heard someone deliver something like that, with intensity, passion and conviction - well, you'd become a True Believer, wouldn't you?
In my former life, putting together specialty magazines, I had to read a few thousand press releases a year. I'm sure that no human being (or even an Oompa-Loompa) had worked on them - they were written by pod people - maybe even by those zombie clone models they use in corporate stock photography.
At another employer, I remember endless rounds of rewrites where I'd take all the corporate-speak out of the sell sheets and press releases, and the management would put it all back in because they were afraid of sounding "unprofessional." Well, call me an enthusiastic amateur any day, but isn't the point of a press release to stand out, not to blend in?
In the bowels of another Major Corporation, I remember being lectured by a mid-level marketroid from Intel - one of the "Lisas from Marketing" that Douglas Coupland sends up so well in Microserfs - on the proper use of the Intel Inside logo.
It was flabbergasting: it was as if she had memorized the entire Intel Book of Legal Disclaimers Volumes I-IX and could recite them at will. Her tone was pitched somewhere between cult recruiter and someone about to have a nervous breakdown. It was this hapless woman's job to indoctrinate people in corporatespeak, and it was clearly having some sort of effect on her sanity.
She gave us an embarrassingly easy quiz at the end and our prize was a stuffed Intel Bunny Man doll — which my cubiclemates promptly studded with straight pins and turned into a voodoo effigy.
An entirely human, visceral response to corporate bull, if you ask me.
Deloitte and Touche - who, during the gung-ho 90s, spawned many of the more laughable examples of corporatespeak - at least took responsibility for their monster. They put together an in-house team that created Bullfighter, a plugin for Word that sends up a flare if you use "leverage," "synergy," and "competency" in the same sentence.
The Bullfighter team spun off into their own organization, and this year (2005) they published Why Business People Speak Like Idiots. Going beyond a mere catalogue of amusing foibles, or prescribing stern grammatical rules, this book actually explores the psychological roots of the problem: fear.
According to writers Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky, bad business writing aims to be obscure and anonymous, uses ineffective sales tactics, and bores the reader - because it's an expression of fear, much like a squid releasing a cloud of ink. Businesspeople are afraid to be direct, committed, to expose themselves to risk or to fall flat on their face, to acknowledge that they are human.
Avoiding the anonymity trap is all about making a personal connection with your audience. Templates are your enemy. Humor is your ally. At some basic level, though, the audience is going to decide whether you actually care about the topic or are simply standing there to read from a script.
The polish we apply to all our performances is one of the downfalls of business presentations. Whatever efficiencies come from cue cards, notes or scripts, they make it obvious that what we're saying is coming from the page rather than from our brains. The listener knows that this presentation is a one-sided experience - it's a repackaging of pre-digested ideas and facts that have been filtered of emotion for public consumption. What people really cherish are those unplanned moments - the authentic stuff that happens in live events.
If your company's drowning in bull, which no doubt it is, you owe it to yourself and your co-workers to check out the Bullfighters' book, pronto.
I'll be returning to this topic more specifically and in more depth over the weeks to come. In the meantime...tell me your corporatespeak horror stories...Ever had to write it? Even scarier - have you ever had to present a PowerPoint full of it?
As Stan Lee would say: EXCELSIOR!
*Minor rant: Why do the marketers of books placed in the Fiction section at Chapters feel the need to add "A Novel" on their covers? How dumb do they think we are?
Posted by aj_kandy at 1:52 AM
February 5, 2005
Instal A Spell Checker? What a Dilemna! Or is that just Pure Mulct?
Here I am, well into my 30s, brain the size of a planet and all, and I'm still coming across new words every day.
Well, some are really new words, and others are just popularized misspellings. But they get my language dander up all the same...
(Comments and Trackback are now disabled for this entry. Thanks to all for their interest!)
Recently I came across the word mulct. Now, the first time I saw it, I assumed it was a typo, but after three or four uses of this within the bounds of Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas? I scrambled for the dictionary, something that doesn't happen too often these days. It's a good word, Mr. Frank, but hey -- while you're busy pointing out how easily swindled modern Kansans are, you don't have to make the rest of us feel dumb at the same time!
Then, in the midst of U of T prof Joseph Heath's otherwise excellent The Efficient Society -- review forthcoming -- I came across multiple uses of instal - with one L - as the infinitive form of what I always thought was install.
Now, I could have been wrong all these years: maybe "install" was a mistaken back-formation from installation, and the old double-consonant-upon-a-suffix rule would apply. But from what I can see, it's just a rather old British spelling, one that seems to be falling out of use. Nowadays the single-L version is to be found more often in Polish than English; so why did a Canadian publisher decide to use this archaic form rather than the one we all know and love?
Today's final spelling dilemma is, of course, the word dilemma. A simple compound of Greek origin, meaning literally two (di) and arguments (lemma).. Quite literally, it means to be caught between the two horns of an argument, unable to decide on one or the other.
Needless to say, my spelley-sense started tingling like crazy while reading the latest fine and thought-provoking post by Michael Bierut at Designobserver.com -- in which it was spelled dilemna multiple times, albeit in a quote from someone else.
A quick tour of the Googlescape reveals that for some reason, nearly an entire generation of American adults in some parts of the country was taught to spell "dilemma" as "dilemna," but no dictionary on the planet, going back however many years, has this on record. Was it a misprinted teachers' manual? Badly transcribed handwriting? A back-formation from a similar ending with silent Ns, like "solemn?"
The mind boggles. Or should I say, "myzplexq."
UPDATED: To correct my misspelling of Michael's name. Let it be said that I merely chose that as an example, and I in no way meant to impugn the character of his writing -- only the writing of his characters :)
UPDATED DEC 11 2006: Hey folks, I'm closing comments on this one due to a tide of comment spam that I'm simply tired of pruning. Please do keep reading and feel free to link to this post on your own blogs, forums etc! Cheers and thanks for an elucidating discussion. - aj
December 5, 2003
I'm a grammar and spelling snob - so sue me. To me, language errors are like permanent marker graffiti to an obsessive-compulsive cleaning lady ("...on speed!" - Jay Stone, CanWest News Service!)
I often hear people say configurate and orientate - as the redoubtable Brian's Errors page at WSU notes in the entry for interpretate, both are incorrect back-formations from the nouns orientation and configuration. The proper verbs being, of course, to orient and to configure.
After all, you don't figurate something out, you figure it out, right? (And just because millions of people say it, that doesn't make it right - it makes them extra weak and lame!) ha- HA!
While I was Googling up that grammar gem, I found a Transports Canada page that used configurate. Heavens!I sent the webmaster a brief note to explain the error, and got this in automatic reply:
Transports Canada accuse riception de votre courriel. La
norme de service est de ripondre le plus ttt possible aux
demandes en frangais ou en anglais seulement.
Thank you for contacting us.
Merci d'avoir communiqui avec nous.
General Inquiries / Enqujtes ginirales
Tel / til: (613) 990-2309 TTY/TDD: 1-888-675-6863
facsimile / tilicopieur: (613) 954-4731 / 998-8620
At first I thought their mail server must be located in St. Leonard, but then I realized it was just transposing accented characters: i instead of é, t instead of ?, etc. Nice to know our taxpayer dollars go to a system that can't even speak ASCII.
Posted by aj_kandy at 4:23 PM
March 20, 2003
English Sans French
Via the Christian Science Monitor. Freedom fries optional.
Posted by aj_kandy at 1:31 PM
March 12, 2003
Eats, Shoots, And Leaves...
Excerpted from the always-right-on 50cups.com
The "plural apostrophe" (e.g. no dog's allowed, sofa's for sale, UGH) is running rampant these days, and it's not just my imagination. It's so wrong that I can't even begin to fathom how anyone could make such a mistake. I hate it when people dismiss it with, "Oh, not everyone's a grammar freak." Grammar? You think it's an issue of grammar? I hate to break it to you, but if you can't spell "dogs," you're illiterate.
In the same vein, what's up with people that pronounce words with perfectly good short vowels as long: "ee-ssential, ee-lectronic," and the one that always kills me, "proe-ject?" As opposed to an amateur ject, I suppose.
It's a stiff, schoolmarmish way of speaking, as if one learned the word from a book and not by hearing it, but it's widespread (the CBC's Shelagh Rogers talks like this); is it an example of linguistic hypercorrection? In any case, it's peculiarly unique to Canada, from my experience.
And of course, let us not forget the mother of all horrible back-formations, "orientated?"
Posted by aj_kandy at 12:17 PM