FEATURE1 September 2011
FEATURE1 September 2011
Tim Phillips on why you should stop using meaningless management jargon and business speak and start saying what you really mean.
Memo to office bores, puffed-up marketers and blokes who rock on the balls of their feet while jingling the change in their pocket: say what you mean. Your jargon phrases, weasel words and waffle are doing our heads in.
And yet something about jargon is attractive. It makes us feel powerful, it makes us feel safe and it makes us feel important. When we realise this, we can resist the temptation.
Accepting that we all have a problem is the first step to Talknormalisation.
A fashion for jargon
Jargon is often useful when used between consenting adults. If I know what I mean by supply chain management and you know what I mean by supply chain management, and we want to discuss the topics that we both correctly assume are covered by this shared assumption, let’s call it supply chain management and to hell with everyone else. I’m not advocating a year zero approach to jargon, where we forget all our specialist knowledge and have to describe the wonderful things we do in some kind of pidgin English.
Until the mid-1990s no one wrote about low-hanging fruit unless they were writing an article about the location of, well, fruit
On the other hand, was there a time when we didn’t have to listen to people in meetings telling us what to do with low-hanging fruit? Indeed there was, and it was more recent than you think.
For a lot of the buzzword bingo-type words we hate the real growth occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, rather than recently.
The instruction to think ‘outside the box’, used as jargon for thinking creatively, was five times as common in 2003 as it had been in 1998. It’s not like we were unfamiliar with the concept of creative thought until 1998 – or, for that matter, the concept of a box – so it looks like it’s down to people trying to sound hip.
Some of today’s most painful jargon was effectively non-existent in our lifetime. Until the mid-1990s no one wrote about low-hanging fruit ( 1990-92, seven newspaper articles mention it in the whole world ), unless they were writing an article about the location of, well, fruit.
It’s not shocking that this explosion in rubbish came at the same time as an explosion in the sort of businesspeople who spoke it. Some of you, lucky people, will be too young to recall the dot-com boom, where newspapers compared the twentysomething owners of websites that sell ski passes to the great entrepreneurs of history. With hindsight most of that generation of entrepreneurs were a bit rubbish at changing the world, but they talked a lot about how they were going to do it.
For a short time many of us wanted to be like the dot-com kids, so we parroted the same crappy MBA jargon that they used. After 2003 the dot-commers mostly disappeared, but now apparently we can’t stop ourselves from talking like them.
Reverse the loss situation
As MG Rover gradually coasted to a stop in 2003, Kevin Howe, the group chief executive of Phoenix Venture Holdings, told the press that: “Going forward we will remain focused on continuing to reverse the loss situation.” Howe had a grasp of gobbledygook that one doesn’t often see, even in a group chief executive.
I searched Factiva ( which archives newspaper, journal and magazine articles and TV and radio transcripts ) for the phrase ‘going forward we…’ I added the ‘we’ so that the results would omit the literal use of going forward – for example the results would leave out descriptions of footballers going forward on the pitch, but capture the waffle of the club’s directors going forward at the AGM.
It’s a regular and sustained increase. Between 1980 and 1985 I could find only six uses of the phrase. Happy days. Between 2002 and 2009 we became about 50 per cent more likely to do something going forward than to do it either ‘in the future’ or ‘from now on’.
If we really want to be nitpickers – indulge me – then I can try to use my physics A level. Here goes: when we treat time as a fourth dimension it has a property that breadth, depth and height don’t have. To use a motoring metaphor, time is a one-way street. In three dimensions you can go back and forth, up and down, left and right. In time you’re always heading from the past to the future.
So it’s a waste of breath when someone tells you that he or she is going to do something ‘going forward’. It is redundant, unnecessary, without a function, superfluous, not needed, no longer useful.
You could argue using this logic that ‘in the future’ or ‘from now on’ is equally redundant. A good point. On the other hand, only ‘going forward’ is really, really irritating.
Say what you mean, mean what you say
Between the ages of 11 and 18 I grew up in Yorkshire which, for non-Yorkies, was a strange and frightening place. People kept telling you what they thought. Years later, I’m starting to appreciate what they were getting at.
It’s a waste of breath when someone tells you that he or she is going to do something ‘going forward’. It is redundant, unnecessary, without a function, superfluous, not needed
Politeness has its uses. It civilises both the person speaking and the person being spoken to. It can coat the message in a non-threatening sauce, which means we listen to what’s being said, rather than simply reacting to it. It can convey empathy with our disappointment or fear.
But not always. The word that did most to drive me to create Talk Normal is a simple one: ‘issue’.
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.
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. There are now almost three and a half issues per problem.
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’, as described by Lehman Brothers, shortly before it ceased to be Lehman Brothers.
Rule of thumb on issues: it doesn’t matter whether your company admits to balance sheet issues or problems, it still might be time to send your CV out.
We all have times when we talk crap to avoid saying what we know to be true. Next time you are faced with this in your work, don’t mumble about challenges and facilitation and win-win scenarios while thinking ‘that is a truly terrible idea’. I ask that we honour Talknormalism by saying what we think when people flout our principles.
We asked our Twitter followers ( @researchlive ) to nominate the phrases they are sick of hearing in their day jobs.
Rosie Campbell ( @rocampbell )
“Respondents” – because it’s such a cold detached way of describing human beings in all their variety
Mollie Collett ( @theangrymoll )
Glenn McAnanama ( @glenn_mcan )
“MROC” – how on earth is a forced, paid-for research project ever a community?
Simon Thompson ( @thompson_sj )
“Market researchers need to act as consultants” – I’m guilty of that one, your honour
Reineke Reitsma ( @rreitsma )
Tim Phillips is a freelance journalist and author of Fit to Bust and Knockoff, and co-author of Scoring Points. He blogs at talknormal.co.uk
Talk Normal – Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle by Tim Phillips is published by Kogan Page at £12.99. Research readers can get a 20% discount with free P&P until 30 October 2011. Call 01206 255 678 quoting discount code TALK20