The Language of Business
Let's face it: Business today is drowning in bullshit. We try to impress (or confuse) investors with inflated letters to shareholders. We punish customers with intrusive, hype-filled, self-aggrandizing product literature. We send elephantine progress reports to employees that shed less than two watts of light on the big issues or hard truths.
The average white-collar worker goes to the office every morning, plugs into e-mail, dials into voicemail, and walks into meetings only to be deluged by hype and corporate-speak:
After extensive analysis of the economic factors and trends facing our industry, we have concluded that a restructuring is essential to maintaining competitive position. A task force has been assembled to review the issues and opportunities, and they will report back with a work plan for implementing the mission-critical changes necessary to transform our company into a more agile, customer-focused enterprise.
He sees right through it, too, because these contrived communications are the exact opposite of the natural conversations he engages in everywhere else. Outside of work, he has a fundamentally different kind of conversation -- a human one, with stories and color. Informal, spontaneous, warm, funny, and real. Then he hops online, and the natural and unfiltered dialogue continues in chat rooms, message boards, blogs, and instant messaging. Even his virtual life is more real than his office life.
There is a gigantic disconnect between these real, authentic conversations and the artificial voice of business executives and managers at every level. Their messages lack humanity in a world that craves more of it. Between meetings, memos, and managers, we've lost the art of conversation. Bull has become the language of business.
But most business people stumble forward in a haze. They copy and paste and crank out hollow and vapid communications that become the butt of jokes as soon as they leave the e-mail server. Even worse, they get ignored. They're full of jargon, they say very little, and -- most important -- these messages are out of touch, arrogant, and condescending. And everyone knows this, except for the idiot hitting the Send button.
We've become immune to these empty, generic messages. And as a result, no one really listens anymore.
Enough with the endless charts and graphs; enough with the templatized mission statements; enough with the pre-digested language. What's the compelling point? Why should I listen? Is anyone worried about what I'm worried about? Do they get it? Will the truth ever show up in my inbox? Don't hold your breath.
This is troubling, because almost any time we need to deliver a message at work, it's because we want to persuade someone to think or do something. We persuade people to hire us. Then we persuade them to approve our budgets, sponsor our projects, or buy what we're selling. If we're lucky, we'll also persuade people to do their assigned tasks, and persuade others to promote us.
When everyone tunes out, this persuasion doesn't happen.
Persuasion is so important. One 1995 study by Donald McCloskey concluded that one-quarter of the gross domestic product is linked to persuasion.
So here's what you need to know: You have a huge opportunity to become more persuasive. To be that one infectious human voice -- the one that's authentic and original and makes people want to listen. In a world of business idiots who can't make anyone care, this is your golden opportunity.
How can we have such confidence in you, having only met you a page ago? Well, we can't. You may be the poster child for mediocrity when it comes to writing or giving presentations. Or you may run the Microsoft grammar checker in Word and think, "This is brilliant, an incredible gift -- I should accept every suggestion!"
But we're betting that you're like us.
We're betting that you want to be heard.
Origins of the Bull Species
So how did it get this bad?
There are many reasons, all of which ensure that nobody makes any real promises or delivers any real meaning. The tide of political correctness has stranded us so that business idiots can't speak frankly about anything. Fear of liability or even responsibility rules the day, and attorneys shape every document into a promise-free blob of text that deliberately says nothing. And then there are business schools, consultants, and gurus, all of whom make a living repackaging old concepts as something "new."
Beyond that, there's technology, which makes it all too convenient to automate the one part of business that should never be outsourced: our voice. Whether it's using someone else's jargon, a generic template, or even a speechwriter, too many business people give away their biggest chip in the influence game without a thought. The temptation is everywhere. We now have the option of deleting our personality from what we say and write.
Your Own Fuzzbuster
Navigating our way through business communications is like driving on a Georgia highway -- there are traps everywhere. What we need is our own business Fuzzbuster. If you want to connect with an audience, the traps are a roadmap to being heard: if you know them, you can avoid them.
At their root, the traps are about obscurity, anonymity, the hard sell, and tedium:
- The Obscurity Trap. "This is just the kind of syner-gistic, customer-centric, upsell-driven, churn-reducing, outside the box, customizable, strategically tactical, best-of-breed, seamlessly integrated, multi-channel thought leadership that will help our clients track to true north. Let's fly this up the flagpole and see where the pushback is." These are the empty calories of business communication. And, unfortunately, they're the rule. The Obscurity Trap catches idiots desperate to sound smart or prove their purpose, and lures them with message-killers like jargon, long-windedness, acronyms, and evasiveness. The ones who escape do so through plain language and candor.
- The Anonymity Trap. Businesses love clones -- they're easy to hire, easy to manage, easy to train, easy to replace -- and almost everyone is all too happy to oblige. We outsource our voice through templates, speechwriters, and e-mail, and cave in to conventions that aren't really even rules. What business idiots have forgotten is that your personality is the thing that helped you make friends, find a date, get a mate, and probably even get a job. It may take some work to create an original message, to make people smile, or to stop running your office life through your e-mail inbox, but if you want to escape the Anonymity Trap, that's where you have to start.
- The Hard-Sell Trap. Legions of business people fall prey to the Hard-Sell Trap. We overpromise. We accentuate the positive and pretend the negative doesn't exist -- not because we received our business training on used-car lots, but because we're human, and we like to be optimistic. The result is that we do too much hard selling. This may work for those pushing Abdominizers on late-night television, hoping to sway a few clueless, lonely, or drunken souls. But it's dead wrong for persuading (sober) business people to listen. At the end of the day, people hate to be sold to, but they love to buy. With access to loads of information and instant communication, people today question everything. They know the hard sell and -- with trust in business at an all-time low -- even the slightest whiff of it sends people running for the exits.
- The Tedium Trap. Everyone you work with thinks about sex, tells stories, gets caught up in life's amazing details, and judges others by the way they look and act. We live to be entertained. We all learned that in Psychology 101, except for the business idiots who must have skipped that semester. They tattoo their long, executive-sounding titles on their foreheads, dump prepackaged numbers on their audience, and virtually guarantee that we want nothing to do with them. Death by gener-alization replaces those spontaneous, personal, and compelling details. But if you have a good working knowledge of storytelling, conversation, procreation, and recreation, you can escape the Tedium Trap.
Your Huge Opportunity
Great business leaders live life outside the four traps. Honest language; the hard truth; a passion for what they're doing; a personality that shows up at the office five, six, or seven days a week -- we recognize these people, and we love to hear from them. Jack Welch, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos have all found ways to make straight talk a hallmark of their companies, and any of them can fill an auditorium at will. Yeah, the CEO at our company knows widgets and gives speeches. But Virgin CEO Richard Branson is the business equivalent of a rock star.
Jeff Bezos built Amazon.com from a wobbly Internet startup to a viable business, and took a lot of punches from a cynical press. But every time we heard from him during those tough years, it was like listening to a boy who had just unwrapped a mountain of presents on Christmas morning. Bad earnings news was everywhere during the startup years, and Bezos owned up to every bit of it. No jargon, no excuses, no bull. Just a lot of zeal and a lot of personality at the office.
Entire careers can be built on straight talk -- precisely because it is so rare.
This goes well beyond grammatical rules or fashionable expressions. It requires honesty, humanity, and confidence from business people. Anyone can put together a presentation that describes the "extensible synergies derived from repurposing intellectual assets." It takes more work to express the idea (no, we don't know what it is) in plain English.
We're not recommending that you go back to Rhetoric 101. And don't get the impression that this book was written by a bunch of grammar geeks waiting to spank you for using a gerund, unless you're into that. (Gerunds, we mean.) This book is about being yourself, reclaiming your voice, and letting some personality, warmth, and humor into your work life.
The payoff for this is huge, mostly because so few people are trying. The messages around you are so bad, you'll be surprised how far a little straight talk, humor, and storytelling will take you.
Beyond that, it's a lot more rewarding to bring your real voice to work. We may save ourselves some effort by using templates, burying our noses in e-mail all day, and sticking to the same stifling agenda all the time, but that's not what makes us happy outside of work. It's a fool's -- that is, an idiot's -- errand to think it's going to lead to nirvana in the cubicle.
There is a ton of mediocre books out there on bad business writing. However, there are no mediocre books that get beyond picking on grammar to throw some light on why and how the voice of business became so dull. That's about to change.
This is your wake-up call. Personality, humanity, and candor are being sucked out of the workplace. Let the wonks send their empty messages. Yours are going to connect.
Copyright © 2005 by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky