A few months ago a friend posted on Facebook that his company merged with a bigger one. Half-jokingly, I commented that he should watch out for the impending flood of emails from top management talking about how the “synergies will maximize shareholder value” and other corporate-speak. He laughed because by the time he read my post, he had already received two emails with almost that exact phrase.
How did I know this? Was it because I had an MBA? No. It was because I have lived through two such mergers; have read financial statements about companies in which I’ve invested; and, as a consultant, have witnessed organizations undergo massive change. And every time, the message is the same: “blah…blah…blah….profits…blah…blah…blah.” Not surprisingly, the reactions are the same, too: Top management is excited but middle management and lower don’t even really understand what the benefits are or what the new company does. No wonder rumors fly, morale sinks, and turnover increases during these times of change!
If you are trying to convince staff that a new change will do them good, talk about it in simple, concrete terms that anyone can understand. If you want to get them excited about your mission or vision, use words to which they can relate. Where would you rather work: at the company whose mission is to “produce the best quality widgets at affordable prices” or the company that aims to “conveniently synthesize professional intellectual capital and proactively monetize leading-edge resources?” At the end of the day, most of us want to be able to point to something concrete and say, “I helped do/create that.” It’s pretty hard to point at “monetized leading-edge resources.”
This problem of big words that say nothing has become so common that the internet contains many corporate-speak random word generators. One of my favorites is http://cmorse.org/missiongen/. That same problem invades training programs, too. Training material becomes laden with undefined jargon that means something only to subject matter experts. If you want people to do something, tell it to them in a way they can remember it. So, instead of saying “If the failure rate for products exceeds the 10% threshold of inoperability…” simply say “if more than 10% of the products do not work…” In other words, keep it simple!
How can you avoid falling into the “expert-ese” trap?
- Use words with less than three syllables.
- Define acronyms and industry-specific terms the first time you use them.
- Use action verbs.
- Avoid verbs ending in “–ize.”
- Search for sensory or tangible words: words that represent things you can see, hear, or touch.
In short, follow the advice of personal injury lawyer Joe Miller in the movie Philadelphia: “Tell it to me like I’m a four-year-old.” You might not need to dumb it down to quite that level, but the point is well-taken: your messages should be easy enough for a child to understand. This is not because adults are dumb. It is because adults are busy, and the simpler it is to understand the more likely they are to remember, accept, and believe it.
That leads us to….
This month’s question:
What is your favorite corporate-speak or consultant-ese word or phrase that you would like to see eliminated from this planet?
Please share your ideas below so we can learn from each other.