In a meeting recently, a friend of mine had a hard time keeping a straight face when the person pitching him a new service kept using the expression “a 360 approach.” As in: “This is a 360 approach. What we’re talking about here is a 360 approach. You see what I’m getting at here: a 360 approach.”
My friend, a successful entrepreneur, also hates the expression “24/7.” “It’s impossible to do something 24/7,” he says. “It drives me wild.”
Corporate-speak consists of buzzwords or catchphrases or lingo that makes little or no sense to outsiders, and may not make all that much sense to insiders either, but that makes those who use it feel more important. The very fact that they feel a need to say things like “a 360 approach” or “I’ll be out of pocket today” or “touch base” implies that the English language is not sufficient for the task at hand, even though most people seem to get by just fine without “emotional quotients” and “connectivity” and ridiculous expressions like “Socialize it!”
Using argot like this is meant to alert the listener that the speaker has come into possession of an abstruse and highly particularized knowledge that is not shared by the hoi polloi. Those who lard their presentations with corporate-speak subconsciously think of themselves as members of an elite club, as if they were nuclear physicists or Gnostic monks or Nobel Prize-winning economists, a verbal Skull and Bones society complete with arcane terminology that the uninitiated cannot possibly understand. Not to mention secret handshakes, masks, and perhaps even the occasional use of ceremonial cloaks.
A mixture of prefab clichés (“Can we take this offline?” “Copy that”) and newly minted expressions that sound hackneyed the first time you hear them (“Let me see the bullet points on that one” “Could you try to reach out to her?”), corporate-speak can range from the illustrative (“I don’t have the bandwidth for that”) to the colorful (“I’m in the weeds on this one”) to the esoteric (“Open the kimono”) to the infuriating (“I’ve got a hard stop at 3:30”). But it always has the same effect: It draws attention to the speaker himself, and not to the message he is trying to convey. If, indeed, he has any message.
Sometimes, corporate-speak consists of straight-ahead jargon (“What metrics are you using?” “What’s the net-net of it?”), sometimes it is needlessly metaphorical (“I’m going to do a deep dive on this one beforehand”), and sometimes it consists entirely of first-rate blather (“You’ll want to update all your tasks in the Quality Management Systems to make sure we standardize our process management, which is critical to our risk management and crisis management. And, of course, our global marketing operations management”). But in each case, corporate-speak is used as a substitute for the English language. It does not enhance communication. At best, it embellishes it. All too often, it impedes it.
Corporate-speak turns especially maddening when it becomes incantatory – when the same terminology is used over and over again to reinforce a point that has already been made. Thus, if you have already discussed your strategic issues, your strategic overview, and your strategic goals, you do not also need to dwell upon your strategic level, strategic thinking, or strategic direction, even if you are, in fact, a strategic thinker. Imagine Abraham Lincoln, a strategic thinker if there ever was one, speaking at Gettysburg and describing the battle as “a win-win situation for both Blue and Gray,” or Mark Antony delivering Julius Caesar’s funeral oration using a torrent of daft buzzwords. “Friends, Romans, associates, servant leaders, let me reach out to you! I come here not to open the kimono about Caesar, but to add value by incentivizing. But first let me give you the bullet points …”
There’s a saying that nothing is sadder than an old baseball writer. I disagree. Nothing is sadder than an old cliché. That is, an expression that has been around so long and overused for so many years that it now sounds about as fresh and new as “Hang On Sloopy” or “Free Bird.” The low-hanging fruit. FYI. Paradigm shift. Facilitate. Skill set. Empower. Up to speed. Hit the ground running. All sizzle, no steak. Style versus substance. Think outside the box. When people use these expressions today, it sounds like Rip Van Winkle has just sauntered into the room. With Polonius – the Immortal Bard’s sententious mush-mouth – right behind him.
An awful lot of corporate-speak is a glorified way to say “Um.” It is a case of hemming until you have a chance to haw. It is something you say for no particular reason until you can think of something that is actually worth saying. For example, the phrase “At the end of the day” is merely a series of tiny, monosyllabic sounds used to take up space. Some time back, for reasons that are not clear, the expression “At the end of the day” deep-sixed “In conclusion” and “To sum up” and “In the final analysis,” and perhaps even “The long and the short of it is.” But “At the end of the day” fixed a problem that did not require fixing. The expressions it dislodged were perfectly suited to the task. “At the end of the day” might just as easily have been “Come closing time” or “Round ’bout midnight” or “Once Elvis has left the building.” At the end of the day, to say “at the end of the day” is to say nothing.
This is equally true in cases where the speaker says something that is obviously true, but then adds an extraneous subordinate phrase to make it seem even more true. For example, the expression “sooner rather than later” is utterly fatuous. If something is going to happen “sooner,” it is obviously not going to happen “later.” So you can just stop saying it. Things that happen later do not happen sooner. Not once in the history of the world has something happened sooner than it happened later. Reality doesn’t work that way. Saying “Sooner rather than later” is exactly like saying “wetter rather than dryer” or “blacker rather than whiter” or “smarter rather than dumber” or “prettier rather than uglier.” It suggests that the speaker really hasn’t done much legwork here.
It is widely known that the best jokes are invented not by stand-up comics but by stockbrokers. But nobody knows where jargon comes from. It’s hard to pinpoint when expressions such as “vertical sunrise” and “nuking the placebos” came into being. No one can say with absolute certainty who invented the phrase “icing the snowman” or “Don’t go hemostatic on me!”
For those who are not tracking these bullet points, either because they are out of pocket or offline, let me just outpoint, on a touch basis, that when you net it out, the key message here is that cascading goals do not always contribute to the bottom line. In other words, expressions such as “vertical sunrise” and “nuking the placebos” and “icing the snowman” and “Don’t go hemosatic on me!” do not actually exist. I simply made them up to demonstrate how easy it is to manufacture jargon that sounds vaguely plausible.
There is nothing wrong with using a bit of corporate-speak. If an expression like “It’s a 360 approach” helps you close a deal, go ahead and use it. But don’t abuse it. Don’t use it 20 times in a 10-minute presentation. Be aware that when you constantly resort to these catchphrases, you start to get on other people’s nerves. It starts to sound like there’s not much thinking going on inside your head, that you’re merely regurgitating pap, that you might be a bit of a knucklehead.
Expressions that employ metaphor, like “Think outside the box” and “All sizzle, no steak,” eventually become tiresome because they are overused. But when they first appear, they have a cute, refreshing quality. This is not true of prefab banalities like “a 360 approach.” Expressions like this are grating. They wear out their welcome fast. They sound like fancy gift wrapping used to disguise really crummy gifts. The use of such expressions suggests that the speaker needs to pull his pants up and stop looking silly. As the old saying goes, when you get to the end zone, talk like you’ve been there before.