Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Blither Age: Obfuscation and Fluff in Modern Business Communication

Our time has been dubbed the Information Age. Sometimes I think it should be called the Blither Age. In business and marketing communications, it has become acceptable, indeed expected, to use as many words as possible to say as little as possible. Certain words are especially popular: leverage, paradigm, dynamic. They are sprinkled liberally throughout written and verbal communications with little regard to their meaning.

Why did this practice come about? It was probably borrowed from the scientific and academic world. Professors and scientists alike have long taken pride in their ability to write dense, incomprehensible prose filled with as many long, obscure words as possible. It is a way for them to prove their education and credentials—not everyone can write like that, after all. When business adopted this tradition, it chose a different set of long, obscure words, but retained the denseness and incomprehensibility, as well as the goal of demonstrating cleverness and credentials.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this goal. Who doesn't want to feel intelligent, and persuade other people that they are intelligent? However, one must examine the cost of this ego gratification, which may be quite high. Typical business and marketing communication, which is in fact poor communication, may result in a loss of productivity, increased difficulty in hiring qualified employees, and loss of business.

Meetings may be called to give employees information that will help them do their jobs. But this goal of providing employees with information may not be fulfilled as well as it could be if the speaker has another goal: to show everybody at the meeting how clever he is. Many an employee has drifted off into dreamland as the speaker droned on about leveraging paradigms. The more difficulty your employees have understanding you, the less they will be able to concentrate.

Jargon-filled speech is much longer than straightforward, clear speech, so its usage will extend the length of the meeting. Because of the lack of clarity, employees will need to ask more questions in order to fully understand the material. Either they will do so, which will make the meeting take even longer, or they will keep silent out of fear of appearing foolish, thus thwarting goal number one of the meeting: to communicate information.

Consequently, the speaker's goal of appearing intelligent through jargon-filled speech works at cross-purposes to the meeting goal, and wastes time. A waste of time means a waste of money, as the meeting drags on and runs into time that the employees could be using to do their jobs. You can see how poor communication in meetings can result in reduced productivity, but you may be wondering how it can get in the way of hiring employees.

Businesses employ classified advertisements when they wish to find an employee with precise qualifications. It would make sense, then, to state what is required in clear, precise language. But that is not always what happens.

A typical classified ad may say something like, "Seeking friendly, dynamic sales associates." How many of the words here tell the reader precisely what is being sought? "Friendly" and "sales associates" are fine words. Everybody has a pretty good idea of what they mean. But what about dynamic? What does it mean?

Consulting a dictionary, one learns that dynamic means, "relating to the forces in nature; relating to activity or things in movement; causal; forceful, very energetic" (Chambers Dictionary). Is this company looking for a sales associate who is a force of nature? Probably not. Dynamic also means something that moves. Is the company saying they won't hire a paraplegic or quadriplegic worker? That could get them in trouble. What about forceful? Possibly they want someone with an aggressive sales style. That seems the likeliest interpretation. Still, an aggressive sales style puts many customers off. That might not be it at all.

The point is that the reader of the advertisement has to guess, and then they have to decide whether they are dynamic, whatever on earth it means. The way "dynamic" is tossed around in classified ads these days, used to describe employees, products, companies and everything but the kitchen sink, I strongly suspect it means nothing at all. Yet there it is, in the ad, taking up space and costing money.

Yet this is a relatively benign example. The higher up you go in terms of prestige and pay scale, the more obscure the language. In a typical ad in the Careers section, we are told that among the responsibilities of the Director of Business Development is to "provide strategic direction in the planning and execution of innovative, integrated and results-oriented business development." This is fluff. Would you want your business development to be non-strategic? What does it mean for the business development to be integrated? Integrated with what? And what about results-oriented? Would you ever want your business development to be oriented towards something else, such as thumb-twiddling and money-wasting? Perhaps the development of classified ads like this one would qualify.

If all the words that mean nothing are subtracted from this phrase, we are left with, "plan and execute business development," or even "develop the business." Even this is vague. The prospective director is left with little notion of what is expected of him.

If you doubt that business jargon can result in the loss of business, you need only check out the web pages of a few software companies and attempt to figure out from the marketing lingo what it is that they or their products do. The task ranges from difficult to impossible. Instead of solid information on product function, software company web pages are full of writing about "leveraging technologies" to "deliver maximum value" as part of a "solutions-oriented approach." You can feel your brain throb as you read these words and attempt vainly to glean any sort of real meaning from them. If you're trying to figure out what the product does, it can be very frustrating. I have little doubt that many a prospective customer simply gives up, deciding that if they can't figure out what the product does, they probably don't need it.

The most ominous result of modern blither jargon may be the erosion, not just of the user's ability to communicate clearly but even to think clearly. I recently saw a Dragon's Den episode that vividly and poignantly demonstrated this inability to think as a consequence of marketingspeak. Click on the link to watch it yourself.

If you're not able to play the video, here's a brief summary.

Three would-be entrepreneurs pitch their web site idea, Whizof.biz, where would-be entrepreneurs (like themselves, presumably) would be able to get free, expert business communication advice from experienced entrepreneurs.

"Now, you're going to tell us how we make money, right?" says Kevin O'Leary.

"Yes," says Peter of Whizof.biz.

"When's that happen?"

"Right now."

But it doesn't happen. The Dragons ask increasingly detailed questions and get increasingly frustrated at getting waffle in response. Peter claims he can attract customers by offering 50% lower fees than competing companies, but Reg says they will attract the experienced entrepreneurs by offering higher payments. They can't explain how this is going to result in profits but only talk in vague terms: "If you've done well on the review and decide you want to do a rewrite, the cost of the rewrite is far less than would otherwise be the case."

Says Arlene Dickinson, "I usually don't get so frustrated but I'm listening really intently and I can't understand what you're telling me."

A short time later, Reg says, "We have in our minds at least a very clear image of how it will work."

But that's just it: they don't. The conversation as a whole suggests rather that everyone involved has a fuzzy image of how it will work, with all gaps filled in by magic, and the fuzzy language they use to talk about it protects them from becoming aware of the fact.

Needless to say, they get no offers. As Kevin points out at the end, they need their own product—badly.

Let us therefore bring back clarity in our speech, not only for the sake of relationships and good communication but for the sake of our higher brain functions.

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