Thursday, 24 July 2014

Talk Normal

All posts tagged: jargon

How the game-changing game has changed for game-changers

Wed, 6 Jan 2010

 

It comes to my notice that Google has launched a phone. But not just any old phone: Google has launched a game-changing phone. I’m not sure that anyone has explained to me the specific game that mobile phone companies are playing (though if my recent experience with Orange Mobile Broadband is any guide, one version of the rules is called Shaft The Customer), but 147 articles in the telecommunications press recently have decribed Google as changing some game or other.

This is, lest we forget, after Apple has already changed the same game. The 249 articles which describe Apple in the same way peaked in 2007, so we must assume in this case that Google is re-re-changing the game that Apple re-changed after Nokia changed it after someone else invented it. Or something like that.

When we look at telecommunications in general, few games have been left unchanged in the last two or three years. Around 2002 or 2003 it was very unusual to find anything in the telecommunications press that claimed to change any game at all. We had 30 times as many game-changers in 2009, compared to what we would have expected had game-changingness remained at 2002 levels:

It isn’t just telecommunications in which companies are claiming to have altered the game as soon as the previous permutation of the earlier mutation of the last modification has taken effect. Here’s the trend in the business press, where we find companies that change games about half as frequently, but with a similar upward trend. In 2009 we got only about 20 times as much game-changingness as we would have expected, taking 2002 as our base:

Part of this is journalistic over-stimulation: the increasing resemblance of business reporting to a Mexican soap opera. So given that some reporters are willing to write up the opening of a jar of pickle as potentially game-changing, marketers are helping by using the term game-changing to play the most important media game of all: the game of Pump Up What Your Employer Does To Make It Sound More Important Than Selling A Product. You might say that their use of game-changing has, in itself, been game-changing. If you wanted me to slap you, that is.

 

All together now

Tue, 8 Dec 2009

 

I’m in the middle of writing a book about the epic fails of capitalism (a project that’s got much bigger in the last 12 months), and in the part of the book that deals with mergers – a rich source of epic failure – there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest: AOL and Time Warner.

When we were doing the research into the press coverage of the merger, one thing stands out: the number of reporters who faithfully wrote down that the two businesses would capitalise on their synergies, without really asking what those synergies might actually, you know, be.

Synergy is a weasel word for making people redundant and selling the buildings that they worked in, and also a vague placeholder for we want some of their stuff to make our stuff work better. In the first case, using it avoids awkward words like redundancy that make people glum, and in the second, it avoids actually telling us what they are going to do.

It’s now pretty clear that AOL-Time Warner needed a lot of the first type of synergy, because there was bugger all of the second type.

I went back to the Factiva database to see whether there are more businesses claiming synergy these days, and there are, big time. I searched in the European and North American business press, and compared the number of articles mentioning mergers with the number mentioning mergers and synergies too. M&A volumes may be at their lowest for five years but the synergy bubble never bursts. Mentions of synergy are 402 per cent up in the last 30 years, and the rise has been wonderfully consistent:

In just over 30 years it has become five times as likely that a business will describe a merger as providing synergies (or, at least, that this lazy rebranding will be reported in the press).

It might just be that synergy has just become a vogue word. But I think it’s also due to positive word bias, which is far more of a problem.

To explain: every M&A deal has some rationale beyond a pooling of capital and saving on letterheads. The benefits can be difficult to explain, easy to question, or impossible to measure accurately. Three reasons not to go into too much detail if you want to push it through quickly – especially if you’re directly or indirectly incentivised to make the merger work. If you want to create momentum in the media or among shareholders and employees (and in your own mind) it helps to give the benefits a positive-sounding, catchy, go-for-it name.

That name is synergy: code for the things we don’t really want to talk about right now. It won’t make your merger work any better, but it might make more people believe that it will. And if your reward comes more from the deal than the messy aftermath, it pays to talk about synergy.

 

Thought Followership

Fri, 23 Oct 2009

 

As one of the blogosphere’s true thought leaders, I was wondering who else claims this attribute. In my mind I imagine the world of thought leaderhip is something like this graph, where the people who think the most talk the most about thinking, and the circus chisellers who haven’t had an original idea in years mostly shut the **** up about it:
Bullshit1

First stop: the top 10 of the BusinessWeek Most Innovative Companies 2009. Searching for mentions of thought leadership on their corporate web sites I was sadly disappointed. Toyota, Nintendo and Nokia had no mention of thought leadership at all. Google, a company that often seems so enthusiastic about its cleverness that it could eat itself, had but a single mention, as did HPResearch in Motion managed four thought leadershipsApple clocked up 32 mentions – but then I found out that they were all the titles of iTunes Podcasts, and so they don’t really count. Microsoft upped the average with 96 mentions.

Only IBM goes big on claiming thought leadership, with 887 mentions of the phrase – but that’s because it’s a job title in IBM. But cut IBM some slack! That’s only one mention for every five patents the company was awarded in 2008 (the most patents in the US for the gazillionth year in a row), or 177 for every Nobel prizean IBM employee has won. That’s quite a lot of thought with which to lead, I think we can agree.

I note also that, while innovation leader number 10 Wal-Mart couldn’t find any actual mentions of thought leadership on its web site, it helpfully suggested partial matches – the top one of which was an excellent Transformers Revenge of the Fallen Autobot ($35 plus postage, in stock). We can only marvel at its desperation to make a sale, no matter how irelevant, to absolutely anyone who visits its site.

So, to reliably find people who will claim thought leadership, I needed to lookfurther down the innovationary league table. I went to the natural home of the barely innovative: that’s right, I searched for thought leaders in the last couple of days of posts on PR Newswire. Bingo! You can keep your Nobel prizes IBM, here’s the motherlode. A few highlights:

You’ll be delighted to hear that thought leader Bentley Introduces Timely Value-Creative Subscription Innovations to Help Sustain the Infrastructure Professions.

When we think about thought leaders in pharmacy benefit management, of course we think of Prime Therapeutics LLC, which Receives 2010 TIPPS Certification for Adherence to High Transparency Standards.

If you are a thought leader in the hotly-contested wound care field, the newly-announced Systagenix Medical Advisory Board is for you.

The comprehensively-named Everything Channel has announced that it will launch a new sub-group group within Channelweb Connect. “We hope that this new group will help drive conversation with thought leaders in the solution provider community,” it says. A must for fans of sub-group groups.

So you might find this graph of innovation against claim to thought leadership is a more accurate reflection of the world in which we live:
Bullshit2

Note that I’ve marked an area which combines minimum thought and maximum bragging as the STFU zone. If you’re in this zone and are thinking about farting out another press release about thought leadership, take the hint.

 

If I become unhinged it's the Boston Globe's fault

Mon, 28 Sep 2009

As a follow up to my post on how we’ve replaced problems with issues, someone pointed out this article from the Boston Globe’s The Word column – a sort of Talk Normal with education that people pay to read on Sundays – in which Jan Freeman dismisses a complaint from Mr G. B., similar to mine, that people are using the word issue more often than before.

She says:

“Mr. B. is a victim of the Frequency Illusion, to use the term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky. He’s listening for issues, so he hears the word often, and imagines that it’s everywhere. In fact, in the specific usage he objects to – having issues instead of having problems – the problems version is still way, way ahead of issues.” Her evidence: she did a Google search for each term. On this basis she dismisses the idea that we might be uncomfortable describing problems honestly.

You’re wrong, Jan Freeman! I know they don’t pay much for columns these days, but an analysis that took more than 30 seconds on a search engine would have showed this is probably not a Zwickian illusion at all. Which makes her snobby putdown that “Mr. B.’s analysis is more puzzling than his failure to check the facts,” doubly unfortunate.

Her conclusion: “…issues aren’t always problems; they are also anxieties, conflicts, and disagreements. And if the word is meant to make those conflicts sound less dire, isn’t that a good thing? After all, anyone who’d rather have problems than issues is welcome to them.”

On the first point, I agree. There are lots of things that really are issues. On the second, absolutely not. I’d rather have been an astronaut than a journalist but, if I started turning up for interviews in a space suit, people might point out that I wasn’t facing up to the reality of my situation. It’s the same thing: when we can’t utter the word “problem” at work, we’re living a fantasy.

 

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The power of free

Fri, 25 Sep 2009

 

mug

Mark my words, you will cherish this

Over at Talk Normal headquarters I note almost every visitor goes to the page that promises them free mugs, so at the end of the week I need to explain how the process works in a bit more detail. If you’re thinking: can I have one of Tim’s Talk Normal mugs? the answer is of course you can.…

But you can’t have one yet. Not until you have earned it! Here is the scenario: one day in the future I’m going to wake up and realise that I can’t think of a thing to write. Maybe I’ll post a bogus lament for the passing of the golden era of research or start criticising erroneous use of the hyphen, stuff that I know little about and care about even less. When that happens you have my permission to take me out to a patch of wasteland and beat me with spiked club.
To avoid this type of physical harm I’m going to need your help. If you tip me off for a story or give me ideas or request things you want to see, I will occasionally pop a mug in the post in return. It’s community thing.

Or maybe you might decide to write something on your blog about Talk Normal like There’s a new blog in town and it’s one I think we should all be reading and make the time I put into this experiment worthwhile.

Or you’re going to help me prepare podcasts and videos for the site.

But you might have plenty of mugs already and don’t like helping other people; if so, these mugs might be more your speed.

 

The issue issue

Fri, 25 Sep 2009

 

I don’t think I have issues, and I don’t think you should either.

Just as the US government rebranded the War on Terror as The Fight for a Better World in 2005, so many of us have abandoned the real, truthful yet uncomfortable word problem, and substituted the blandly depressing issue instead. It’s the worst type of weasel word.

What’s my evidence? I did a bit of fishing around on Factiva, the database almost all published articles in the English language. Around 1988 the word issue popped up about as often as the word problem, which is not surprising – there are many legitimate uses of the word. But like a linguistic grey squirrel, issue has been quietly taking over. Here’s a graph of the number of times, in UK-based corporate, industry and economics news sources, that the words problem and issue occur every 1000 articles:

Problems issues per 1000

The sample size is getting on for a million articles a year, so it’s pretty reliable.

In case you’re looking at the graph and thinking “the curves aren’t that steep”, look at what experts will one day call the Phillips Weasel Index (PWI) – the ratio of times that the weasel word “issue” is used compared to “problem”:

Issues over problems

As you can see, in 10 years the ratio has more than doubled. There are now almost three and a half issues per problem. Twenty years ago, the issue/problem PWI was 1.18 – slightly more than one issue per problem. And this is in magazines and newspapers, where people are employed specifically to delete this type of language abuse. In everyday language, I’m guessing the PWI is much higher.

There are several possible explanations. Perhaps there are more issues now, and fewer problems. No, I’m not buying that either. Perhaps we are more interested in writing about our issues now, and less interested in our problems? There’s no evidence for that in the subject matter: we’ve never been more obesessed with the problems of doing business. Maybe it’s the declining standard of copy editing that’s to blame?

I think what’s occurring is a stealthy rebranding: the word problem has become too emotionally loaded to be uttered in polite company in case we think bad things about the companies responsible. So software bugs are now issues rather than problems, even if they stop our computers working and ruin our day.

We now have performance issues with staff who fall asleep on their keyboard, or brand issues with companies that nobody likes, or, worst of all, balance sheet issues.

Rebrand the language all you like to make yourselves feel secure, but on the first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, let’s remember: whether your company admits to balance sheet issues or problems, it still might be time to send your CV out.

 

A recent engagement

Fri, 25 Sep 2009

I have lovingly saved this in the Talk Normal vaults. I promise I don’t live in a flat piled high with old newspapers, pointing at stories about words and shouting SEE WHAT I MEAN!! to the guy from Tesco who delivers my shopping. I’m saving that pleasure for my retirement.

This one from The Telegraph, October 7 2008 (I think):

plain speaking

So it’s a year old, but I wasn’t writing a blog then. Oh how I’ve waited for this moment.

This set me thinking: when did we start talking about stakeholder engagement? I resolved to find out. Don’t worry about me mum. I know how to enjoy my leisure time.

So I looked it up. Guess: when was the first time you heard about it?

The first mention I could find was in a magazine article from 1996 in which, in the first sentence, negotiators in the medical industry were described as lightning rodsthat take heat and keep things on track. Like a grammatical godzilla sowing the seeds of a paradigm shift, this triple mixed metaphor seems to have created a wormhole that sucked stakeholder engagement into the published language.

Being both ugly and hard to understand, the phrase took time to catch on: there are only 10 published mentions anywhere in the world before the millennium – and two of them were in a story about a magazine for Balkan immigrants.

After the year 2000 it really caught on:

Stakeholder engagement

The initial impetus, and most of the coverage through the middle years of the decade, came from the new discipline of sustainability reporting: oil, gas and energy magazines were the big users. The energy companies might still have been despoiling the environment, but at least they had found a fancy phrase for the process of asking us what we thought about it. Later the phrase began to spread out to other industries such as gambling and public relations, eventually reaching Harrow Council – until it was stopped.

I’ve only looked at magazine and newspaper articles. In meeting rooms and conference calls there are no copy editors to act as lightning rods and take the heat to keep us on track.

For the record: I like new words. I enjoy change and am down with where the kids are at. I don’t smoke a pipe. I also feel that sustainability reporting has done a lot of good. But by giving bureaucrats this new phrase with which to confuse us, sustainability reporting has also caused its own special type of pollution.