Rebel against complacency. Make big ideas real.
The SOS call came on Thursday night from a friend who was working with the CEO to close a major acquisition and get a press release out.
“You know why we’re spending $100 million to buy this company?” she said. “I’m being told to say that it ‘leverages our assets and talents in our core business.’” I pushed back and told him that that this doesn’t explain why we’re buying the company. But he insists “leverage” is a good word. The street will like it.”
The next day I was reviewing an executive’s business objectives. “What do you think,” he asked.
“I can’t understand what they mean,” I said. “All this deepening and strengthening and aligning and empowering and seamlessly enabling. Could you just tell me in simple words about what you want to do and why it matters?”
Icy silence, but point taken. This exec is smart enough to know that the corporate jargon was preventing anyone from understanding some big ideas. If if people can’t understand, nothing happens. Which may be the point of many a jargon-riddled document.
Insecurity: Part of the overuse of business jargon is insecurity — people think certain phrases and words make them sound knowledgeable.
Lazy thinking: An even bigger reason is that people have not thought through the ideas, so they dress up incomplete thinking with all kinds of blah blah. It’s like putting a Mercedes medallion on a beat-up Honda Civic and expecting people to believe it’s an expensive car.
Over their heads: And then there are the people who are in way over their heads, and can’t communicate clearly because they don’t know the subject matter well enough. Jargon is tap dancing, hoping no one finds out that you don’t know what you’re doing.
Fear: People are afraid to explain the facts, especially in touchy situations like layoffs. They think that if they couch things in obscure explanations, people won’t get upset or ask difficult questions. People see right through these wimpy attempts to avoid tough issues. Worse yet, obscuration erodes people’s trust in that wimpy leader who can’t just give it to them straight.
Cover up: Hello Enron, Tyco, BP and all the other slime balls who used corporate speak to try to cover up bad situations. (And many still do.)
If you’re trying to help a colleague get on the straight-talk wagon — or you have the urge to send that insecure product manager a secret email about what what his stupid jargon really means — are are some good resources:
One piece of advice, that’s helped me reform corporate speak addicts: ask them to cross out all the adjectives and adverbs in the document. What’s left? Usually nothing, resulting in something like: “The (deleted adjective) (deleted adjective) product, is the (deleted adjective) in our industry.”
Good ideas need no fancy words. Think of all the plain but effective messages in history: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” “It’s the economy, stupid.”
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