This week it’s not about one word but some combinations that left me cold.
There’s rarely anything terribly wrong with a particular word. And part of the joy of words is putting them together in creative ways. However, the reason a lot of corporate-speak is unintelligible to the reader/listener is that the combination of words just doesn’t make sense. I know it’s not normally a deliberate attempt to confuse us or obfuscate the truth. It’s more likely an attempt at making something (or yourself) seem more important.
I heard some lovely examples today. A journalist I know was posting live from a press conference on Twitter. Always good fodder for weasel word hunters! His posts included including the following gems, as direct quotes:
next generation learning space
(is this a classroom? A web site? An intergalactic playroom? NASA Class of 2011?)
underlying project management philosophy
(I am guessing they were quite organised and methodical in their approach, but really…)
overlay transport virtualisation
(well, that one is just tech jargon, plain and simple. Huh?)
The best writing and speaking paints a picture in our minds and sparks the imagination. The worst leaves us confused and bewildered. None of those words are particularly awful on their own (well, except perhaps the use of ‘space’ which has reached plague proportions lately in our quest to be non-specific), but in combination they fail to paint a picture. For me anyway.
In my first PR consulting job 13 years ago, I was fortunate enough to sit opposite a former Fairfax journalist and grammar stickler. I worked on all of the company’s tech industry clients; Peter worked on a variety of corporate accounts. Poor Peter also had the unfortunate job of proofreading many of my early attempts at press releases and removing the tech-speak.
He taught me a lot – including a list of words that should never appear in a press release. ‘Revolutionary’ was one of them. If he spotted it in some technology company’s marketing drivel that had found its way into my work, he would raise his eyebrows and ask, “are people going to take to the streets at the launch of [product X]? Will they raise their fists and shout? Protest? Bring down the government? No? Well, this isn’t revolutionary.”
I was reminded of his words this week when I read some of the many articles praising the new iPad tablet computer from Apple. Almost all of them quoted Apple CEO Steve Jobs calling the device “magical and revolutionary”. Fair enough. He’s allowed to talk it up, and it’s just reported speech.
The article that really annoyed me though was this one from The Times (you’d think they’d know better). The journalist described it as “pretty revolutionary”. Bad enough that he’s used a word that I’m sure he’d beat up a PR person for using, but then to add a qualifier? I guess at least he didn’t call it a “game changer”. Boy am I sick of hearing that one. In the same article, actor Stephen Fry calls the iPad “a transformational device”. Hmm, there’s an idea for another WWW in there.
Somehow, Mr Jobs, I don’t reckon people are going to take to the streets about this one either. Well, maybe a few Apple zealots outside the Apple store when it finally ships here…
In a column by BRW magazine’s Leo D’Angelo Fisher today, PR people once again cop part of blame for the growing use of meaningless corporate speak. However, he rightly points out that the real cause is a failure to listen to yourself, combined with a lack of care for what others think. As we all know, listening is the important part of communication, not speaking.
Last week I attended a long meeting of senior sales managers, all terrific people and competent managers. And yet there was one manager’s presentation that I could not understand at all, despite listening intently. One phrase used frequently was “around the collaboration piece”. What does that mean? Clearly I wasn’t the only one confused, because the first question raised was ‘so what are your top 3 priorities then?’ – a nice way of saying ‘I didn’t understand your presentation at all, could you please summarise it for me?’
The irony is that by not listening to yourself and using loads of jargon, people don’t listen to you – they tune out and understand only in generalities.