Bullspeak is the language of business. Otherwise known as corporate doublespeak, buzzwords, spin, or just plain ol’ BS, this style of speaking seems to be encouraged in most large organizations. Business people are enamored with big words, acronyms and phrases with multiple interpretations. The bullspeak rules to follow when communicating in business are:
• Always use extra words when possible (e.g., “worst case scenario” or “knowledge base” versus knowledge).
• Use as many acronyms as possible (e.g., “BPO will be used to reduce expenditures in our CRM system at HQ during the 3Q”).
• If you don’t understand what people are saying, respond with a trite generic phrase like “Been there, done that,” or “I can support that,” or try to respond with an even longer litany of buzzwords and acronyms.
• Try to master the use of important business phrases like “best-in-class,” “new paradigm,” “business intelligence,” “value proposition” and “thought leadership.” Use these and other related phrases while speaking, and others will be amazed and impressed with your business acumen.
Here’s an example of some typical business communication:
We’re currently in the process of benchmarking best-in-class customer relationship management and ERP value proposition key business processes to maximize implementation of key performance indicators to drive strategy and growth goals important to our major stakeholders. Huh?
It starts in college. College professors love big words and phrases and convoluted concepts. As a student, you need to learn to speak the language of the field you are studying so you can sound like these people once you graduate and get a job.
I recall spending the first two years out of grad school having to un-learn how I was taught to write and speak in college. Once I had a job, I had to write at an 8-10th grade level when I had been trained to write for scientific journals. I had to learn to speak in plain English, not the jargon I learned in school. Luckily I had an employer that understood the importance of clear communication. Yes, sometimes it is important to use precise language to clarify your meaning with technical audiences. However, most of the time, this sort of communication is not called for.
What's the Proposed Benefit?
If you are a consultant, or some other type of seller of BS, your livelihood depends on your ability to sling the bull with the best of them. In fact, if you selling anything from raw materials to copiers to software, you’d better learn some cool acronyms and buzzword phrases like “scalability” or “knowledge base.”
If you have a great product like a Ferrari or an Apple iPhone, you don’t really need to sell; the product sells itself. However, most salespeople need to master the buzzwords so they can sound like the people they are selling to. In the military or government it is even worse. Perhaps one of the benefits of all the acronyms and BS in the military is to confuse our enemies.
If you are not a salesperson or in the military, a benefit of being able to speak using technical and business jargon is that your bosses might think you are smarter than your peers, and you may just get that big promotion. Another benefit of doublespeak is that people may not be able to figure out you are an idiot. I remember a client that was a master of buzzwords and consultant phrases. Once I asked a few questions I realized the guy didn’t know he was talking about.
What Really Happens
What really happens is that we all walk around wondering what people are saying. We go to meetings and get confused, we read reports that we don’t understand, and listen to presentations that are fogged up with doublespeak and jargon. Rather than stop someone and ask, “What did you just say?” we nod knowingly, make a few notes and pretend we comprehend every word.
Customers don’t understand our literature, employees don’t understand our policies, and communication does not occur. Because of the confusion and poor communication caused by bullspeak, it is a big threat to your organization. Just about every large organization has a problem with communication. Speaking in jargon and acronyms is one of the reasons for this.
I notice that you use plain simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.
Action Plan for Improved Communication
• Write all of your communication using 8-10th grade reading level. College graduates read at about the 10th grade level, which is the reading level of Time Magazine or the New York Times.
• Make it a point to tell people you don’t understand what they just said. Make them translate their buzzwords into English. Believe me, no one will think you are the dumb one. They will applaud you for having the guts to ask—they didn’t understand either.
• Make use of the Clio award-winning software called Bullfighter to improve your written communication.
• Adopt the practice of playing “Buzzword Bingo” in all of your meetings—particularly those with consultants present. This helps reduce Bullspeak.
• Try to eliminate acronyms from your vocabulary.
• Keep a list of idiotic phrases and words, such as “leading edge,” “core competency,” “value proposition,” “employee engagement,” “mission critical” and “centers of excellence” (see any writing by Scott Adams or George Carlin for additional examples), and rid them from your vocabulary.
• Hire people who can speak in plain English and encourage this from your employees.
• Make it a point to replace the words and phrases below with simpler terms:
Best in Class/Breed.....Best
Out of Pocket.....Unavailable
Outside the Box.....New/Different
Soup to Nuts.....Complete
Mark Graham Brown has 33 years of experience helping organizations measure and improve performance. He is the author of many books, including his latest: Killer Analytics: Top 20 Metrics Missing From Your Balance Sheet (Wiley, 2013).