Archive for September, 2009

Scenes from corporate life

Friday, September 25th, 2009


Scenes from corporate life

Friday, September 18th, 2009


Harvard: where managers learn to speak like that

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

I’ve always been suspicious of management theory. As someone who spent six long years doing a properly researched PhD at a properly old university in a properly useless and obscure subject, it’s hard not to find all those pseudo-academic, multisyllabic explanations of how to get stuff done at work faintly ridiculous.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when a reader alerted me to the following publication, created in affiliation with the business school of one of America’s top universities:


Regular readers will spot at least three words and phrases in there that have already appeared on my long list of words that should be banned. So let’s dispense with them first, shall we? They are:

Impact (verb) – as you will know by now, most of the time this word is used by people who are too lazy to learn the difference between “affect” and “effect”.

Bandwidth – a silly piece of corporatese, rescued in this instance only by the provision of a definition. Better still, for those of us who like to laugh at the more ridiculous examples of the office lexis, said definition doesn’t disappoint. Bandwidth, it turns out, is “your repertoire of techniques for moving adaptive change forward in your organization”. So now you know.

Key learnings – corpspeak for “important lessons”, which elicits in the reader the “key learning” that the user of the phrase “key learnings” is semi-literate at best. (Heck, even as I type, my autocorrect wants to stick an apostrophe in the non-plural that is “learnings”).

But there’s still more to savour in this wonderfully ridiculous piece of copy. Take the whole concept of “adaptive change”, for a start. I’ve no idea what “adaptive change” is – let alone what it means to “lead” it or to “move it forward”, but I strongly suspect it to be tautological.

And while we’re on the subject of tautology, does anyone else detect repetition in the phrase “the self-imposed limitations you place”?

But you’ll probably forgive such linguistic indiscretions, under the flattering gaze of three authors who are able to perceive the “complex system that is you”. I can’t decide if this phrase sounds new-agey (a reference to your chakras, say) or pseudo-biological (an allusion to the links between your gut and your liver and the fine balancing act performed by your kidneys, perhaps).

I wonder if it’s the latter, given that the guide being described will enable you to “diagnose” your “repertoire of techniques”. What, you’re still talking about your “skill-set”? The corporate idiom has moved on, my friend. You’re an artist now – the Maxim Vengerov of office life – with a whole “repertoire” at your disposal. It’s just a shame that in this mangled mixed metaphor your repertoire, unlike Vengerov’s, has also become a disease.

Never mind, at least you’ll be able to draw on techniques that “span the spectrum from graceful and inspired rhetoric to in-your-face confrontation”.

For what better way to engage your colleagues in the process of adaptive change than by terrifying them with your schizophrenic ability to flip between a sweet-tongued Cicero, always ready with an inspiring aphorism about adaptive change, and an effing and blinding bully trained in the management school of “just do it because I said so”.

But, as the authors argue, changing the world – and people’s familiar reality – is difficult, dangerous work, requiring you to get outside your comfort zone.

Perhaps my PhD was the easy option after all.

What are your personal oxymorons? (Yeah, yeah, “oxymora” for you pedants out there)

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Reading another blogger’s post on irony and paradox, I was reminded of a particular type of paradox: the oxymoron.

An oxymoron is defined as “a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction”. The most commonly cited example seems to be Tennyson’s “faith unfaithful kept him falsely true”.

Sometimes, however, phrases are labelled oxymoronic for humorous effect, the most well-known, perhaps, being “military intelligence”.

So in response to Robert Hruzek’s group writing project, “What I learned from laughter”, I’m taking a break from whinging about bad corporatese to present a light-hearted but highly revealing list of my personal oxymorons.

What did I learn? That I’m still an old curmudgeon. That – amazingly – I grew up to be the coolest kid in the class. That I like food more than I like children. And that I better not find myself with a black marker pen near any corporate art. Read on . . .

Skiing holiday
I’m sorry, but any holiday that requires you to spend most of your time a) cold and b) engaged in near-frictionless travel down a big slippy-slidey hill is not a holiday – it’s torture.

It’s particularly not a holiday when taken en masse, as so many skiing trips are these days. Being the only person in a large group of your peers who is rubbish at engaging in near-frictionless travel down a big slippy-slidey hill is just a cruel reminder of school sports. I guess at least this time round I have the option of spending all day sipping margaritas in the jacuzzi. (Hey, it turns out I was the cool one at school after all!)

Sports news
The content of your typical sports report is this: “Group of not-very-bright men kick round object into square object more times than other group of not-very-bright men”. And this is on the Today programme because . . . ?

Street art
If it’s in the street it’s not art – it’s graffiti.

That’s not an insult, by the way. Give me gloriously grubby Rome – where every other ancient monument sports some anarchist scrawl – over the sanitised streets of London, any day. Besides, by way of art, the latter are invariably decorated with anodyne works of corporate nonsense commissioned by some large developer as an unwanted gift to the local community in return for a shameless land grab.

(Yes, Land Securities, I am talking about that rubbish stripy panel you’ve put under the bridge at Blackfriars in London’s SE1. At what point did you not realise it looked like a carrier bag from Paul Smith? Or was this a deliberate attempt to attract high-end retail into those buildings of breathtakingly inhumane scale that you’ve thrown up nearby).

Child-friendly restaurant
If it’s child-friendly, it’s not a restaurant. It’s a nursery that happens to sell mediocre food. Unless you’re in Italy, of course, where all the children are restaurant friendly – i.e. they can sit still for the duration of a meal without crying when presented with garlicky stuff, food that still has a face attached to it, and tentacles that were still twitching only minutes before they hit the plate.

Folk music
I can’t say it better than one of my heroes: “There’s a reason folk music is so bad – it was written by the people.” Thank you, Tom Lehrer.

So, I’ve fessed up to my gripes and prejudices – what are your personal oxymorons?

Introducing the edible typo

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

It’s one thing to let a spelling mistake creep into a typed document, but quite another to go to the trouble of baking a cake, covering it with marzipan and carefully icing the thing – only to pipe some garbled message on your lovingly crafted creation.

To see what I mean, do check out the latest post on the truly wonderful Cake Wrecks blog.

Bad copy never tasted so good!

Punctuation: why do we need it anyway?

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

Today, I’m delighted to feature a guest post by fellow copywriter Sarah Turner. As you’ll see, she’s a definitely a woman after my own heart . . . (more…)

Scenes from corporate life

Friday, September 4th, 2009


See more scenes from corporate life.

Another 30 words and phrases you should stop using right now

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

For words 1-30, see thirty words and phrases you need to stop using today

31. Anticipate
Admit it, most of the time, when you use “anticipate” you do so simply because it’s got more syllables than “expect”, don’t you? Look them both up now. See, they mean different things, don’t they?

32. Value proposition
Any copywriter who tells you they can help you communicate your value proposition is like a priest who tells you they can recommend a good strip club: they’re either a charlatan or they’re slightly unhinged. The next person to draw on this nasty bit of marketing jargon when talking to me will be met with a quizzical stare and the question: “Value proposition? Value proposition? Why are you banging on at me about a cut-price offer in a brothel?”

33. Utilise
Use not utilise. Use use. Please.

34. Evangelist
Hang on, I’m only talking to you because I thought you were going to tell me a story so inspiring that people will still be relating it two millennia hence. Now you go and hit me with some drivel about a new platform for delivering integrated business intelligence solutions? Sorry, but that ain’t gonna get me up and dressed before noon every Sunday.

35. Narrative
Does anyone actually buy this nonsense about corporate campfires and storied products? Other than the marketing consultants who are making a lot of money narrating stories about narration?

36. Thought leader
If you claim to be a thought leader, then I’m sorry, but you aren’t a thought leader.

37. Value-add
Using the term “value-add” doesn’t make you sound impressively clued up and in charge. It makes you sound like Martin Lukes. If you don’t know who Martin Lukes is, order a book called Who Moved My Blackberry now. (It’s satire, by the way, not a manifesto for how you should conduct your life).

38. Reaching out
It made my skin crawl when this one started doing the rounds at my last firm as a substitution for “getting in touch with”. I thought it was cringey because it sounded so touchy-feely – until I heard Tony Soprano use it, at which point I realised it was actually completely sinister.

39. Roadmap
I feel a pang of sadness whenever I see tourists sitting in a café outside the Trevi Fountain with their nose stuck in a map. The corporate equivalent is the executive who’s so busy “building a roadmap for change” that they never get round to actually changing anything.

40. Facilitate
I hear the word facilitate and I smell the distinct whiff of the bureaucrat at work. A bureaucrat who facilitates his day such that everyone else does all the actual getting of stuff done.

41. Stakeholder
Shareholders = the people we really care about. Stakeholders = the people we have to pretend to care about. I tell you what, see this stake I’m holding in my hand? I plan to drive it slowly into your shinbone if you use that patronising descriptor of me one more time, OK?

42. Talent
Every single employee in your firm is talented, are they? Are you sure?

43. Deliver
Business people, if there’s one thing you can do to instantly sound more articulate, it’s to ditch this stupid word that you’d never contemplate using outside of the office. Do you “deliver love” to your kids? Or do you simply “love” them? Do you relax by “delivering cooking”? Or do you simply “cook”? Then why are you still delivering change/success/innovation and a whole host of other abstract nouns? And by the way, the addition of the word “on” or “against” after “deliver” doesn’t make you sound more impressive either.

44. Drive
And no, you can’t use “drive” instead of “deliver”. Unless you can articulate right now the difference between “driving change” and “delivering change”? Thought not.

45. Integrated
Business models, strategies, solutions – all the best ones are integrated apparently. I just wish I knew what it meant.

46. DNA
Do you keep referring to our corporate DNA because you’re planning to splice half our workforce with half the workforce of our main competitor, thus creating a genetically superior super-company from which all the defective DNA has been eliminated?

47. Learning
A vile, anaemic little word used instead of the word “education” by people who regard thinking as an elitist activity. Those same people often talk about their “key learnings”, suggesting that they are under the mistaken impression that pluralising a noun that can’t be pluralised and preceding it with the word “key” doesn’t make you sound illiterate at all.

48. Outcomes
Another one of those nouns that normal people never pluralise, but corporate types do. I guess it makes managers feel busier and more important if they’re striving after several “key outcomes” rather than just one.

49. Synergy
Everyone knows that synergies (especially leveraged ones) are a good thing. It’s just a shame that no one quite knows what they are. Except perhaps those terribly clever people who are now talking about the antonym of synergies, “disynergies”.

50. Regarding
In the words of my hero Harry Blamires, author of The Penguin Guide to Plain English: “It would be good advice to any writer to say, “If you are thinking of using the word ‘regarding’, don’t”.

51. Concerning
And no, you can’t use “concerning” instead of regarding, either. Trust me, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the word “about”.

52. Methodology
UK readers might recall the famous ’80s TV advert in which Maureen Lipman gets a call from her grandson telling her that he’s failed all his exams apart from pottery and sociology. Her response? “He gets an ology and he says he’s failed. You get an ology, you’re a scientist!” Use the word “methodology” (unless you really do mean “the study of methods”) and you’re that grandson.

53. Best practice
Otherwise known as “doing things properly”, “best practice” tends to be used by the sort of person who uses the word “methodology”. A best practice methodology for writers would be not to use the words “best” and “practice” next to each other, except in the sentence: “I mastered F Minor today – that was the best practice!”

54. Creep
Scope creep? Mission creep? Ugh, I’m starting to get irritation creep.

55. Reimagine
What do films, architecture, Christianity, the War on Terror, Yugoslavia and prosthetic arms all have in common? Well, they’re among the many things that have been “reimagined” in recent years. I just wish that this pompous, inflated word were in the dictionary so I could find out what it actually means.

56. Concept
Advertising concept. Concept album. Concept shop. Yep, “concept” is a word used by not very bright arty types to describe something that contains no concepts.

57. Granular
You could say you were looking at all the details, getting down to the nitty gritty as it were. But it sounds so much more impressively science-y to talk about adopting a granular analysis approach. So go on, say it that way. And dare me not to laugh.

58. Persons
Note to anyone considering posting an officious-sounding sign such as “Persons requiring service should request a ticket at the counter”: the plural of “person” is “people”, unless you really do want to sound like you’re arresting someone. Note to all those organisations whose remit is to help “older persons”, “persons with disabilities”, “displaced persons” or “trafficked persons”: calling them “persons” doesn’t make them sound individual and humanised; it sounds as if you’re a bit scared of them acting as a collective, as a group of “people”. Possibly with good reason.

59. Authentic
Doesn’t anyone else find it odd that there are so many books out there on “How to be an authentic leader”? I’m sorry, but can’t help thinking that it’s like jazz: if you have to ask . . . That said, I’m looking forward to reading the next publications in the series, namely: “How not to appear shallow”, “How to make like you care” and “How to fake not being the office sociopath”.

60. Pursuing new challenges
This phrase has the dubious distinction of being quite possibly the the most offensive euphemism for sacking someone ever invented. And in a world where downsizing has become rightsizing, that’s really saying something.

For words 1-30, see thirty words and phrases you need to stop using today