Talk Normal, Stupid

The dangerously seductive power of corporate speak

boardroom bingo

Although the polish has dulled over the years, I was raised to be a bit of a stickler when it comes to the use of language. One of my great mentors was Mrs. Lane, my eighth grade English teacher. She was an alternately sweet or stern old black lady who spoke “White English” with vastly more precision than any of her uptighty-whitey peers at the mostly white midwestern middle school I attended. She taught us useful things like the fact that “snuck” isn’t a word, made us articulate our consonants, and vigorously prohibited prepositional endings. She enforced these rules with a policy she announced at the beginning of the year, which was that violating any of her carefully outlined golden rules meant the offending party would be the target of a high-speed projectile in the form of a blackboard eraser or a paperback version of Catcher in the Rye. This would probably get a teacher fired these days, but it was one of the best lessons I ever learned. Communication isn’t only about words, it’s really about engaging people. We loved Mrs. Lane, and she taught us much more by building this relationship than she ever could have with a pile of textbooks and writing assignments. Which she had plenty of too, by the way.

Later, I was influenced by George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (one of his Collected Essays), in which he skewered the bloated language that is so handy for influencing political thinking, and pointed out that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”. He focused especially on things like “dying metaphors”, “verbal false limbs”, and “pretentious diction”, and pointed out how people who think they have something important to say will spout an ornate phrase like “In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that” rather than simply saying “I think“. I also was influenced by something the Nobel Prize winning Richard Feynman shared in his autobiography Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. He was talking about how some fields of study were really all bluster, with little if any science to back up their “facts”. He was attending a series of seminars presented by other professors from various fields, and shared his bemused contempt in this passage:

There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read – something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn’t read any of the books on that list. I have this uneasy feeling of “I’m not adequate,” until finally I said to myself, “I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.”

So I stopped – at random – and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read.”

There are many examples of this in modern life; and in some cases, the results of this language abuse are not only confusing, they might be downright dangerous. Let’s use the DSM-IV as a sort of case study itself. The secret cabal of psychiatrists that engineer this monstrosity of diagnostic recommendations are in a sickening symbiosis with the pharmaceutical industry, and make a business of cleverly crafting disorders out of common human behaviors to market new drugs with decades-long marketing cycles. Take, for instance, the DSM’s parameters for defining AD/HD. For a positive diagnosis of the disorder, the subject must exhibit the following symptoms of inattention for at least 6 months to a degree that is “maladaptive and inconsistent” with their developmental level:


a) often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities
b) often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities
c) often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
d) often does nor follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace
e) often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
f) often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort (such as schoolwork or homework)
g) often loses things necessary for tasks or activities (e.g., toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools)

Hyperactivity and Impulsivity

a) often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat
b) often leaves seat in classroom or in other situations in which remaining seated is expected
c) often runs about or climbs excessively in situation in which it is inappropriate (in adolescents or adults, may be limited to subjective feelings of restlessness)
d) often has difficulty playing or engaging in leisure activities quietly
e) is often “on the go” or often acts as if “driven by a motor”
f) often talks excessively
g) often blurts out answers before questions have been completed
h) often has difficulty awaiting turn
i) often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversation or games)

Forgive me, but having been influenced by the plain and incisive speech of folks like Orwell, Feynman, and Mark Twain, I’d venture to suggest that not only is that all relatively normal behavior for a kid, you might state it all a little more efficiently by saying “boy, that kid’s fidgety”. I jest a bit, but this is a serious issue. Language is manipulated to label children as social deviants, merely on the basis of their ability to sit still and pay attention, and this is accomplished by plastering polysyllabic pseudo-scientific jargon on top of airy fairy descriptions of behavior. This phenomena is equally dangerous in politics. We live in an era when even a neoconservative thinks that neoconservative means “the new way that conservatives think”. It doesn’t. It means that the person wasn’t always a conservative!

So where where am headed with all of this? Well, to be honest, I sometimes wonder if my own inability to speak the convoluted language known as “corporate speak” has prevented me from being more successful in business. This topic came up for me the other day when my associate Nick used the term “edgecrafting” in a sentence, without missing a beat. The term is of course from marketing guru Seth Godin’s book Free Prize Inside, so I knew what Nick meant. Or did I? It’s a handy phrase; it really makes it sound like you’re doing something innovative and cool, when in fact you’re just doing finish work and driving your idea to completion. But that sounds really dull at a meeting, so suddenly we’re edgecrafting.

But this isn’t some outline for a dataviz-driven preso for extensible, frictionless, and future-proof strategies for reconceptualizing your core competencies to re-invest in and empower your intellectual capital to optimize your quality vectors and leverage existing potentialities for envisioneering economically sound strategic theme areas to architect your new clicks-and-mortar brandgagement. No, I just want to point out that sometimes, language might get in the way of what you’re trying to say, and more importantly, what you’re trying to DO. One of the funniest examples I’ve ever seen of this was when I was presenting a design comp to a client several years ago, a small local bank. One of the executives sitting in on the meeting was a VP with the bank. I had used Dreamweaver – the software commonly used at the time for website development. Dreamweaver had a plugin called “Lorem & More” which would let you replace the classic Lorem Ipsum with other styles of filler text. One of the options was “Corporate Mumbo Jumbo”, and I had used a block of auto-generated gibberish something like:

As knowledge is fragmented into specialties an investment program where cash flows exactly match shareholders’ preferred time patterns of consumption measure the process, not the people. Benchmarking against industry leaders, an essential process, should be a top priority at all times in order to build a shared view of what can be improved, an important ingredient of business process re-engineering. To focus on improvement, not cost, building flexibility through spreading knowledge and self-organization, in a collaborative, forward-thinking venture brought together through the merging of like minds.

After commenting on the color scheme and asking if we could “punch it up a little”, he said “and I think some of that copy needs to be tightened up too”. Yes, this man was so used to seeing meaningless gibberish in his line of work that even knew how it could be refined. To his credit, the guy was making easily five times what I make, and his day seemed to consist largely of saying he didn’t like stuff and wanted it fixed.

So is this bizarre and inflated language really a necessary component of a successful business? Well, if it’s an organization with 500+ employees which adheres to things like the 80/20 workforce rule and believes in daily strategy meetings, probably so. How the hell ELSE would you fill the time? If you’re an up-and-coming cubicle farmer, fear not – there are plenty of resources for meaningless twaddle to pad your PowerPoint deck. The Business Jargon Dictionary is one, or if you’re too lazy too actually cut and paste the phrases, Andrew Davidson’s Corporate Gibberish Generator™ does the heavy lifting FOR you.

But if you actually just want to get crap done, and convey to others how to do it, there are some really simple tricks. Many of these are no-brainers, but that’s exactly the problem. Our brains get so worked up trying to make our ideas sound important that we forget whether or not they actually ARE.

1.) Are you preparing a “deck” merely because you have nothing to say and a PowerPoint or series of infographics will make it seem like you do? If it’s the latter, ditch the PowerPoint.

2.) Do you really mean “Accelerated Emergence of High Maturity Behaviors” or are you trying to say “faster results”? If you’re actually looking for faster results, you’ll get them with the latter.

3.) If you strip your descriptions of a product or service down to the simplest possible form, and it sounds like the product sucks, there’s a good chance it does. Ditch the product AND the language.

4.) Does your deck consist mainly of slides with 3 to 5 bullet points? Try a whiteboard, and write them as you deliver them. It keeps both you and your audience more engaged.

I could go on for hours about PowerPoint, and am sometimes tempted to do so with a PowerPoint. I’m the guy who you can quote for saying:

“PowerPoint. Helping people who don’t know what they’re doing prove it since 1984.”

What it all really boils down to is this: Talk Normal, Stupid.

About Ian

Ian is a media consultant, writer, musician, and budding public speaker with an eye on being the next Ellen. Ian's interest in helping others find success and happiness stems from his experience with events planning and media consulting with organizations like and the Kenya/US NGO Amara Conservation from 2000-2008, which taught him how little we all know about what we're really doing. From 2008 until April of 2011, Ian wrote for and maintained the site Ian learned long ago that the journey to success may take occasional detours, and often eschews the road map in favor of taking in life's scenery. His first business venture was a small telecom company in the late 1980's, but subsequent ventures included pursuing a pop music career, screenwriting, and the foodservice and retail employment that often follows such pursuits. After struggling with addiction for years, Ian is happily embracing recovery and the clarity it brings.