by The Inmate
These mythological words come to replace thought. They are the modern equivalent of an intellectual void.
—John Ralston Saul
One of the more frustrating things in life is to attempt to accomplish something and in the attempt accomplish the opposite. When I was in my early twenties, freshly graduated from college, I began to get serious with a woman I was dating. She was intelligent, witty, fun and attractive and somehow I wanted to convey to her the extent of my affection. One evening I said to her, “I really like you. You’re no Bo Derek, but it doesn’t matter to me because you’re such a great person.” When I started the sentence I truly thought this would instill in her adoration and love for me that had heretofore never been felt, but as the sentence ended on my lips the reality suddenly pressed itself into my brain: I had made a terrible, terrible mistake. The only good thing about the incident was that I realized, admittedly too late, but, nonetheless, I did realize, my folly. She was not as attractive as Bo Derek, but it was not necessary to state that fact. It would have been better not to have said anything.
Giving a speech to fellow employees may feel like a good idea. It’s not. Upper-management may insist that a speech is necessary. They’re wrong. Workers might look like they want one. It’s an illusion. Speech, as I am defining it, does not mean the dispensing of necessary information such as, “We are starting work one hour early tomorrow” or “The CEO is giving us Friday off.” I’m referring to those spectacles in which management attempts to motivate workers or convince them of management’s dedication, empathy and competence. Instead of motivating workers or making them proud of their superiors these discourses cause the reverse. Workers walk away dumbfounded, cynical and apathetic. This is the reality. Someone has to tell the emperor he is naked and it may as well be me, besides, everyone saw his flabby derriere the last time he gave a speech.
I know what management is thinking: Martin Luther King motivated people. So did Winston Churchill. So did Abraham Lincoln. So did Joan of Arc. True, true, but remember you are not at war with the Nazis, you’re just trying to sell underwear.
The first rule of speeches, much like the first rule of meetings, is this: don’t give them. If a speech must be given either because it is truly necessary or because the manager lacks the will-power to follow the first rule then the second rule is: do not use corporatespeak. Avoid corporate clichés. Here is a tiny, tiny percentage of the terms and phrases that a manager should never use in a speech.
- My office door is always open.(It is not)
- You are the backbone of the company.
- You are on the front-lines.(Again, this is not a war.)
- Our employees are our most valuable assets.
- If there is anything I can do for you . . .
- Human Resources
- We want your input.
Some of these may be true, but unfortunately workers have heard these words and phrases too often to connect them with reality. Past experience dictates the deduction that such phrases are not meant to convey anything tangible. Hence, that apathetic stare that managers see while they are speaking is not concentration and interest. Such a conclusion is a self-imposed delusion to escape the obvious: it is simply an apathetic stare. When workers hear corporatespeak they immediately and with good reason assume that the person using it is an ineffective or ignorant or insincere manager. If management does not want to be perceived this way then the use of original language is a necessity.
Speaking and writing without using corporatespeak will be difficult, but worthwhile. Corporate clichés are like having an inexpensive speech writer. The clichés write the speech for managers who hardly have to think about what they are saying, therefore, they don’t know what they are saying. If managers had to sit down and write out these speeches or memos without using corporatespeak it would make them ponder what it is they want to say. It would make them “think, think, think” as Winnie-the-Pooh says. I often consider what Einstein said when asked how he came up with original ideas. “I don’t know,” he replied, “I only ever had one.” Real thinking is difficult, probably rare, but even the attempt might allow speakers to convey something beneficial.
Right now, as I am writing, I am pulling out at random a newsletter published by my company. I’m going to pick out the corporatespeak from our CEO’s correspondence. This is from a 1994 issue and here is only some of the corporatespeak contained in it.
- “Staying on track . . .”(from the title)
- “This year started in a big way . . .”
- “I applaud everyone involved for their commitment to our success.”
- “I encourage you to voice your feedback . . .”
- “This is just the beginning of an exciting journey . . .”
- “I commend all of you . . .”
Sound familiar? Almost any correspondence from a CEO or upper-manager on down to middle- and lower-management at any company will contain this banal language. Until it changes workers will continue to dismiss it.
Management talks a lot about communication, but does little to improve it. Here’s one suggestion that could be applied over and over and over again: say it differently. For instance, instead of saying, “My office door is always open,” a manager might say, “If you want to talk to me about something I’m usually available in the mornings assuming I’m not being castigated during my weekly conference call with the CEO” or he or she could just state the fact: “I’m available to talk with you.” The way to improve communication is not to talk about it constantly or parrot phrases that died along with the founder of the company. Nor will more programs, more suggestion boxes, more newsletters and more videos improve communication. These will only make the problem more common, only help proliferate it. Communication will improve with the elimination of corporatespeak allowing language to become, as it should be, a vital, meaningful and important instrument in the workplace.