The Cacophony of Corporate Squawk
Starshine Takes On Nonsense Business Jargon
It’s been exactly two years since Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, her snappily titled womanifesto aimed at leveling the corporate playing field.
Now it’s my turn.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you two other snappy words guaranteed to change the business world for the better:
Please. Shut it.
Zip those runaway gabtraps, you prattling project technicians, twaddling strategery administrators, and Chief Blarney Officers.
The jargon of everyday business speak has become a dialect of dimwits, a patois of pretention:
Pain points, key wins, action items. Incentivize, monetize, synergize. Bandwidth, deliverables, mindshare.
We’re living in a Dilberty jungle where everyone grasps lazily at and swings monkey-like from overgrown verbal vines, plucking low-hanging, overripe idioms and juicing them for all they’ve got as the excessive syllables drip down their flapping chins.
Stakeholders, thought leaders, white papers. Visibility, granularity, scalability.
Raise up, drill down, circle back.
The problem with empty catchphrases is they not only obfuscate your message; they expose you as a linguistic lemming with nothing valuable — nothing real — to say.
Ideate, iterate, integrate. Metrics-driven, solution-oriented, results-centric.
Best practices, value propositions, core competencies.
Bravo to whoever first used “over-rotate” in a sentence — but a pox on those who keep spitting it back at the Skype screen because they can’t recall how to say, “Crap, we’ve gone too far.”
When did merchandise, whiteboard, and leverage become verbs? When did we start verbing nouns? When did leverage replace utilize — and utilize replace use, for jabbering out loud?
My brainy friend Nick, who lives to argue with me, calls this stuff “business poetry” and insists that each term is packed with valuable lexical information. I have colleagues — smart ones, even — who maintain that if it weren’t for “action items” and “deliverables,” they’d have no idea what to do when they leave meetings.
But I call hooey. I hate any sort of squawk that’s fussy when it ought to be clear — and that’s perpetuated for the sole purpose of affirming group identity. It’s phony inclusiveness, which makes users feel super special at first but ultimately divides us all in silly and arbitrary ways.
My friend Mott, the cunning linguist, reminds me that the academic world is guilty of “insider” slanguage, too. “And in the real-estate world, you hear, ‘This building has a lot of optionality’ instead of ‘it’s versatile’ or ‘has a lot of possibilities.’ The other one that gets me is ‘orientate.’” (I’ve been in meetings where highly paid people belched the non-words “expediate” and “bucketize” and were NOT EVEN KIDDING.)
Mott recently had a business meeting with a guy who claimed to have “verticals.” Personally. Himself. As in “I have several verticals.” What?!
“This is the opposite of communication,” Mott says. “It has a way of shutting down a meaningful dialogue.”
But can we really blame people, Mott says, for leaning on abstract shorthand when trying to convey the complexities of commerce?
“It’s a discipline to think and speak clearly — and when people do, it’s a relief,” he concedes. “But on the other hand, it’s scary because it makes you accountable.”
I think that’s what peeves me most about bombastic business balderdash. I’ve dedicated my career to using language carefully, even painstakingly, to try and make the opaque transparent, to boil the bewildering and byzantine down to the simple and straightforward. It’s hard, and I don’t always succeed. But I always try. Because I deeply believe that clear, courageous communication is the cure for most of what ails us — from personal relationships to business ventures.
And because optimizing matrices, facilitating methodologies, and deploying high-level efficiencies may stun a crowd into momentary stupefaction — but they don’t amount to much if the emperor has no point.