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Clarity rules in the devious world of business language

Thu, Oct 25, 2012

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Business communications should be … well, businesslike. They should be clear, concise, and convey an understandable message. They should be crisp and clean, brief and to the point.

For guidance, look to the past.

Henry Ford: “History is bunk.”

W. Edwards Deming: “The aim of management should be to help people to do a better job.”

Yogi Berra: “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

Niccolo Machiavelli: “He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.”

“Engine Charlie” Wilson, CEO of General Motors and subsequently Secretary of Defense: “…for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

What can we learn from a baseball player, a Florentine political philosopher, a management theorist and a couple of industrialists?

Clarity.

If you don’t know what you’re seeing, if your thoughts are muddled, if you tie yourself in knots with meaningless rhetoric, you won’t get anything done. You’ll flail and struggle, and spend your time inventing a narrative of success to replace the reality of failure.

Just one of many possible examples: The Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance recently posted three job descriptions, seeking qualified applicants for each.

Connoisseurs of modern business-speak would love them, so sprinkled are they with the clichés and buzzwords of our time. Applicants need not actually do anything; instead, they are asked to enhance, implement, interface, interact, support, relate, outreach, maintain and strengthen. They’d better be prepared to work for a “fast-paced nonprofit development and advocacy organization.”

You or I may have no idea what is expected, but the successful applicants will figure things out quickly.

“Fast-paced means show up early if you know the boss is going to be there, and always appear to be busy,” a friend with long experience in the business world told me sourly.

What about the rest of the buzzwords?

“They don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t know what they want you to do, and the place is probably a total snake pit,” she said wearily. “Don’t apply — they might actually hire you, and then you’d be screwed.”

Whether not-for-profit or for-profit, companies use “business-speak” as camouflage, as a way to drape a gauzy veil over unpleasant realities. It rarely occurs to us that the unvarnished truth might better serve our company’s interests.

Here’s a rewritten job description for the Business Alliance’s post of marketing and communications manager.

“Help! The freshly created Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, the result of a merger between the Economic Development Corp. and the Chamber of Commerce, is having a tough time. Our staff has been decimated, morale is down, our public image is uncertain, and our new CEO is still adjusting. You’ll need to expertly apply lipstick on this poor pig and fluff the pillows of alliance members, politicians and the media. You’d better know what the hell you’re doing, because none of us will have time to hold your hand — we’re busy keeping the ship afloat. You’ll also have to help the CEO — he’s basically an OK guy who has a tough job ahead of him with others setting goals for the organization. The pay’s good, and if we can sort out our problems, you’ll have a job for a long time to come. Call today — we need you!”

That job description would attract just the kind of person that the Business Alliance needs — tough, unsentimental, plain-talking and uninterested in office politics.

A few days ago, I listened to an interview with Virgin CEO Richard Branson on National Public Radio. Dyslexia has protected him from business-speak.

“I think by being dyslexic; I simplify everything,” Branson said. “I calculate everything on the back of an envelope, and if it makes sense I’ll do it, and if it doesn’t make sense I won’t. I don’t overcomplicate it.

“I’ll just give you one amusing story: I was having a board meeting and somebody gave me some figures, and I said, ‘Well, is that good news or bad news?’ And the director said, ‘Richard, I don’t think you know the difference between net and gross.’ And I owned up, I don’t. I thought we were doing much better than we were. I suppose the interesting point about all that is it doesn’t matter too much, you know. … You can create an empire with 60,000 employees and find other people to add up the numbers at the end of the year.”

Clarity.

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