Clinton Cards: proof that bad writing is a sign of a bad business?

We get our company name, Doris and Bertie, from a story about clear English told by Warren Buffett, one of the world’s most successful investors. Buffett is famously straight talking, and we believe there’s a big link between how you write and how likely you are to succeed in business.

To prove the point, we’ve uncovered some jargon-stuffed prose from the 2012 Interim Results of Clinton Cards, which went into administration yesterday. Published in January, it’s a 198-word quote (hint: way too long), purportedly from the mouth of Clinton’s CEO, Darcy Willson-Rymer.

In it, Darcy (who we’d imagined as a rather posh, ditsy ballerina type, but is actually a chubby-cheeked “turnaround” guy) assaults you with a fug of jargon. The whole thing reads very much like a failed bid to bamboozle you into not noticing the company he’s trying to turn around is actually totally screwed.

His prose is packed with references to “customer focus”, “business cycle legacies”, and “journeys of”, and “platforms for”, “change”. Oh, and let’s not forget the overuse of that anaemic adjective so favoured by business types, “significant”.

The result is a mendacious load of corporate drivel that gives the impression Darcy was brought in simply to buy enough time for those in the know to get out before the brown excretory matter had a mid-air collision with the air distribution solution (as Darcy would no doubt phrase it). Next stop the EU, Darcy?

Anyway, for your illumination, we’ve provided a bit-by-bit clear-English translation, which exposes the real meaning behind Darcy’s mealy-mouthed corporate blah. Here goes:

Darcy said:

This has been a challenging period in a difficult retail environment, dominated by weak consumer confidence.

Doris and Bertie’s writing experts suggest we prune the redundancies of this sentence and just say:

Nobody’s buying anything from anyone at the moment.

Darcy said:

Margins have also been weaker as a result of the clearance of historic overbuys, obsolete stock and the sale of lower margin gifts.

Doris and Bertie’s writing experts suggest that if you don’t know the difference between “historic” and “historical”, you should use “past”. Better still, ditch all those abstract nouns (“margins”, “result”, “clearance”, “overbuys”, “sale”) and let a past tense verb do all the work, as here:

Our profits have also fallen because we’ve had to shift a load of cheap old tat that we’d bought too much of [assume that’s what you mean by “clearance of historic overbuys”, yes?].

Darcy said:

Since joining Clintons last year I have embarked on a journey of change, with a single-minded focus on the customer.

Doris and Bertie’s writing experts suggest you delete this woo-woo “journey of change” nonsense that no one will buy (oops, just like your products!)

Darcy said:

With the store portfolio undergoing significant restructuring and the management team and the Board strengthened, the business now has the ability to be stronger.

Doris and Bertie’s writing experts suggest you save the euphemism “restructuring” for employees and tell it like it is to your investors. We also note your attempt at ornamental repetition (“strengthened”/”stronger”), but this whole thing could be tighter so we suggest:

We’re closing stores and we’ve brought in some people who actually know how to manage.

Darcy said:

However, the legacy of the business cycle means that significant impact will only begin to come through from the end of the second half of the financial year.

Doris and Bertie’s writing experts think your investors might see through this attempt to make it sound like something or other will happen sooner than it will, and suggest:

But things aren’t likely to improve until the very end of the financial year.

Darcy said:

The strategic review – which examines the customer experience, the store portfolio, business efficiency, and the digital offering – is on target for completion at the end of April. This is the main platform for change and I am confident that the conclusions from the review will put the business in the best possible position for a turnaround.

Doris and Bertie’s writing experts say: Seriously, you’re writing a report? That’s it? That’s what a “turnaround” guy does? OK then, we suggest:

At the end of April, we’re hoping to finish a report about what we’ve been doing to save the business. It should tell me what I need to do to get Clinton out of the hole it’s in.

Darcy said:

The outlook for the second half of the current year is below our previous expectations but the changes we are undertaking to the business will deliver significant benefits in future years.

Doris and Bertie’s writing experts suggest you could say this more concisely and less pompously. How about:

The outlook is even worse than we thought it was. But things should get better at some point in the future.

Clinton Cards and the Gunning Fog Index

To highlight the difference between the two versions, we ran them both through our new favourite plaything, the Gunning Fog Index. This online tool tells you at what age you’d have to have left full-time education to understand a piece of text – and the lower the better.

To understand Darcy’s drivel, you’d need to be 19. To understand Doris and Bertie’s version, you’d need to be just shy of your eighth birthday.

The index also highlights in blue any words over three syllables. As George Orwell said, “Never use a long word when a short one will do”, so you can tell just by looking at each version which is better.

Here’s what Darcy’s mendacious corporate drivel looks like:

And here’s Doris and Bertie’s translation of Darcy’s mendacious corporate drivel:

Learned from this post? Boost your writing skills further at our one-day business writing course, Writing that gets results, in London on 4 July 2012.

10 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Caroline says:

    Great blog Clare. “Darcy was brought in simply to buy enough time for those in the know to get out before the brown excretory matter had a mid-air collision with the air distribution solution (as Darcy would no doubt phrase it).”

  2. B Lloyd says:

    Whilst I totally agree with simplifying the text, there is an expectation that senior managers talk total gibberish (business speak). If the CEO bucks this trend, would not his directors and shareholders be concerned that they had hired a simpleton?

    For me this is a double-edged sword. Successful communication is imperative, but so too is appearance for these people, and often appearance rests upon the use of buzz phrases and jargon.

  3. Susan says:

    Another outstanding post. Post like these (and the Churchill one) should be required reading for executives and all corporate communicators.

  4. Liat Gat says:

    Your blog is the only one that makes me laugh while I learn! Thank you.

  5. Hadi says:

    You seem to be quite angry about this.
    Do/did you have shares in Clintons?

  6. Clare Lynch says:

    Caroline and Liat – thanks for your nice comments. The one thing I love about bad business writing is there’s so much scope for humour in it.

    B Lloyd – yes, that’s the perennial problem, isn’t it? That no one wants to look like a simpleton. But I do think the best leaders, like Warren Buffett, are happy to talk in clear English – it’s a sign of intellectual confidence.

    Susan – I agree! But I suspect there’ll always be corporate writers who aren’t brave enough to tell it like it is. Still, I guess it means I’ll always have work.

    Hadi – no financial interest in Clinton Cards, whatsoever. If you have a browse around the blog, you’ll find I’m often quite angry about mendacious corporate biz babble.

  7. Jamie Lombard says:

    Timely post – obviously – but I also stumbled across this one yesterday (possibly written by the same communications consultant):

    “If users increasingly access WIDGET mobile products as a substitute for access through personal computers, and if we are unable to successfully implement monetisation strategies for our mobile users, or if we incur excessive expenses in this effort, our financial performance and ability to grow revenue would be negatively affected.”

    Who wrote that little beauty? Nope. Another guess? Still wrong I’m afraid, it was…Facebook. That’s right, the kings of modern communication!

    Ok, the context is relevant here: it’s a statement to potential investors ahead of its upcoming IPO (jargon alert, sorry). But still, it reflects B Lloyd’s earlier comment that almost every corporation feels obliged to rely this sort of language from time to time.

    Perhaps it’s a symptom of wanting to be taken seriously when you’re outside of your comfort zone – be it a CEO delivering difficult news to staff or shareholders, or a social media giant mixing with the suits of Wall Street.

    Like you said Claire, I guess it keeps us in a job!

  8. Clare Lynch says:

    Jamie, you just made my eyes bleed.

    I often talk to senior Wall Street suits and the thing you notice is the higher up in the organisation they get, the more straight talking they become (just think of Jamie Dimon coming out and admitting to “errors, sloppiness and bad judgment” yesterday).

    So I can only assume that horrific bit of Facebook copy was written by some junior grunt desperate to impress.

    Can’t resist translating it: “If we can’t make money out of people using Facebook through an app, our profits will fall”. That’s it, isn’t it?

  9. Paul Eveleigh says:

    Sadly, Clare, many CEOs neither read nor heed your commonsense advice. If they did, the financial masters of the universe wouldn’t get away with robbing us blind.

  10. […] with the now defunct Clinton Cards and the ailing Kodak, JJB Sports’ annual report is full of the kind of boastful, buzzword-ridden […]

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