Helping Business Leaders Speak Like Genuine People

I’m hardly the first person to have noticed that corporate types are very bad at speaking. That’s a weird lacuna in the talents of successful businesspeople. But it gets weirder. The things that these leaders say in public are seldom off the top of their heads, or written by them. Rather, the words have been penned by their corporate communications departments – which means that people who were communications majors and whose careers are as communications experts are very, very bad at communicating.

Scott Shepard

Scott Shepard

Of course, lots of groups (note, I avoid saying “communities”) have jargon: insider words and phrases that they overuse, intentionally or not. As this is a business site, I’ll limit my critique to business jargon (though, as Jen Psaki’s fondness for “circling back” illustrates, business clichés have a terrible habit of escaping into the wild).

Speaking of the wild, let’s start with “ecosystem.” Unless one is actually discussing the great outdoors, there’s just about no time that ecosystem is the right word to use. I can’t decide if people add the “eco” because they somehow imagine that it makes them sound more green and friendly, or because they think lengthening words makes them sound smarter (it doesn’t) or simply because that’s the clichéd choice, and therefore the necessary choice.

But that last thinking is exactly backward. Good communication requires avoiding the cliché. First, it makes for tedium. But second, the clichéd word is usually a less exact one than would be best, selected out of laziness. “Multiple” has only recently come to mean “more than one.” It used to mean, and is better used to mean, a number that can be divided by another number without a remainder. It has been pressed into service with its new meaning because “numerous” has come to mean more than a few, and so multiple allows the author not to have to figure out whether there are a couple, a few or many. But that laziness leads to both imprecision and to cliché, because laziness always has too much company.

A similar example is “reach out to,” because its use doesn’t require specifying the means by which contact was attempted. But “reach out to” also stumbles into another communicative pit: being twee – a largely British word meaning, approximately, precious and effete. To call or email someone is to do a common thing in a normal way. Reaching out to them, though, is, I think, meant to convey that special virtue of gently offering the open arms of kindness to your correspondents.

It seems likely that a lot of these twee expressions come from either actual or rumored customer surveys. Consider the word “home.” Not too long ago, house meant a structure, and home meant the comfortable place that you thought of as your, well, home base. But then all at once about 25 years ago the whole realty industry appeared to notice this distinction, and tried to co-opt it. My guess is that the industry got the idea that people have friendlier feelings about the word home than house, and suddenly townhouse and tract house became townhome and tract home for all realtors everywhere. (If you want to have a little fun next time you’re house-hunting, just gently insist on calling everything a house rather than a home. Much confusion and mild drollery will follow.)

But the thing about twee words or phrases is that they only work for a little while to convey any faux compassion or virtue or comfort, and then they are either drained of meaning or create terrific verbal clutter. With “home,” for instance, the use irritates people like me, who remember what happened and don’t like being manipulated (especially poorly), but conveys nothing at all to the people for whom the old meaning of home has been destroyed by the realtors’ conflations.

Even worse, though, are the complete junk words that fill (not, for heavens sake, “populate”) business expression. At the top of this list are “solution” and “experience.” Here again, I suspect that someone somewhere concluded that, gosh golly, people like solutions and experiences, and we have to use words people like. But most times they’re deployed, they’re either completely unnecessary or result in absurdly stilted phrasing.

Consider a standard question before many Hulu ads: “Which ad experience would you prefer?” Ad experience? C’mon. Almost any other way to ask which ad I want to watch would sound more like it had come from a human being rather than a communications department. I once watched some guys at Home Depot take down a sign that said “Flooring” to make room for one that said “Flooring Solutions.” And this was fairly recently. Who on earth still thinks that the word still has any incantatory power, if it ever had any at all?

There are so many of these words and phrases that have been so misused and overused that they now convey no meaning, revealing that the authors were either bored or not-very-good communications-department employees. Seamless, robust, journey, functionality, best-in-class, top-of-mind, profile, value-add, going-forward (and especially “going-forward basis” – oy!), next-level … you could add your own pretty much forever.

When all of these linguistic monstrosities come together, the result is titans of business reading near gibberish, as with the CEO of a soft-drink company who touted for the company’s shareholders “the robust new flavor profile of the beverage experience.”

If I’d been given that to read, I’d have read it over before going to the meeting, and then I would have fired absolutely everyone in the communications department – everyone – and told the shareholders, “We changed this drink. It tastes better.” Then I would have hired many young people who read a lot but hadn’t been formally trained in business communications, bought each of them a thesaurus, and set their pay according to their ability to avoid clichés, twee nonsense, jargon and sesquipedalianism.

Of course, I’m not the CEO of anything, and no one asked my opinion. But I just can’t believe that it helps corporate profits – or anything at all – to mangle the language the way business people so often do.


Scott Shepard is a fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and Director of its Free Enterprise Project. This was first published at Townhall Finance.

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