General Interest

An Excess of Corporate Double-speak

Write clearly or else.

Or else you’ll not only risk being misunderstood. But mocked. Hilariously mocked.

I just came across a piece in the Financial Times from a couple of weeks ago, in which the writer, Lucy Kellaway, awards the dubious distinction to corporate gibberish, the Golden Flannel Awards, which she supplemented with additional honoraria such as the Chief Obfuscation Champion.

Reading her examples, you shudder at the imbecile nature of corporate-speak, and wonder whether this turgid prose is inflicted upon us because the “writer” is trying to hide something, or because this person cannot think clearly. Or both.

Consider this example Kellaway provides, from an email that John Chambers sent to Cisco employees: “We’ll wake the world up and move the planet a little closer to the future.” As the FT writer said, “he has created a concoction of sublime arrogance and cheesiness out of short, household words”

There are many other hilarious and rather sad examples of corporate-gobbledygook and idiotic runaround.

This is especially galling in an age when most of us would rather just read the truth, and not see clumsy euphemisms for things such as firing staff: Citibank’s “optimizing the consumer footprint across geographies,” about laying off more than 1,000 employees around the world makes no sense at all. Just say you fired people: we get it. Times are tough, even for behemoths like Citibank. And spare us the indigestible prose.

Writing is often undervalued – and writers considered chattel next to the real brains of the operations, like overpaid lawyers and bean-counting CPAs. But, as an editor friend of mine (a truly talented force at the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek) said to me, “Most people not only can’t write a simple sentence, you get the impression they can’t think a clear thought.”

Good writing forces you to think clearly. This is more important than you realize. Not only do you not want to be singled out for idiotic sentences, but you want actually to speak in a comprehensible way to your readers and customers. Don’t you? If you’re trying to organize your own thoughts into a book, an article, a newsletter, a blog – anything that requires getting across what you mean in a clear manner – you should take care to be plain. Most people screw up when they think they need to be fancy. (Corporate press release writers screw up when they think they need to hide the truth.)

If you’re creating a platform for your ideas, engage with your audience in a clear and concise manner – and seek their help in making sure you’re making your points well.

And although Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times did us all a service in pointing out the most egregious examples of corporate bull, you are sure to find many more as you read through the materials that come across your desk.

Please share them with us. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    I’ve always found writing to force me into clarity as well. Pretty powerful stuff. One of my favorite mommy podcasts (Naptime Radio) has a segment on their show called “Biz Buzz” where they bring feature one word frequently used in corporate culture that is pretty ridiculous. It’s fun to poke fun at the gobbledegook. :)

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