Imagine a building contractor facing an urgent deadline in the dust and chaos of a kitchen renovation. He has a job to get done on deadline, so he urges the carpenter and other workers to “fully leverage their unique skill sets and synergies” to “better optimize the project’s trajectory for success.”
We’ve all seen phrases like these – contrived, hollow and without meaning – used every day in our organizations, but they are not words that a contractor or any other good manager should use to direct a team to get a job done well and on time.
So if we know better, why do thousands of companies and communicators continue to dish up lofty and distorted language that floats over the heads of their audience? Why is the epidemic of Corporate Speak still infecting speeches, press releases and newsletters despite the best efforts of many communicators to cure what ails them?
The remedy isn’t always easy to find
In the spirit of full disclosure, I offer a confession. In my 30-plus years as a communicator, I’ve been a part of the corporate speak problem. I have played the game of crafting it, approving it, and perpetuating its use. Even today, when I feel so much passion to make it go away, corporate speak creeps into my writing and speech – like a cookie or bowl of ice cream on day two of my latest diet.
I believe one of the reasons Corporate Speak remains alive and well is that communicators serve two masters: organizational leaders and their target audience. Unfortunately, the interests and objectives of these dual masters are often at odds. That means the words that are best suited for our audience get diluted by a leader or overzealous member of the legal team with different ideas about how to communicate.
Solving this problem isn’t easy. It takes a strong spine to push back against leaders who hold messaging veto power and contribute to our performance appraisals. Since we pick and choose our battles, it’s understandable when communicators take the path of least resistance and compromise to secure approval.
In the book, Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, Barton Swaim describes his job writing speeches for the former Governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford. Swaim did his best to avoid trite language and political jargon and to help the Governor better connect with his varied constituents. But the writer’s drafts were consistently rejected by Sanford. It wasn’t until Swaim began sprinkling in gratuitous phrases of the Governor’s liking that the speeches gained approval and recognition. What’s the writer to do?
These realities aren’t going away anytime soon. That’s why communicators must acknowledge their responsibility to create the best possible result for those we serve – both leaders and audiences.
Three steps to vanquish Corporate Speak
1. Set realistic goals
- Don’t try to swallow the problem whole. Set incremental goals to make stories, speeches and announcements conversational and brief.
- Identify platforms where you have the most direct influence: formal channels like digital or newsletters. Then apply simple, direct and easy-to-understand language and use more graphics and visuals.
- When creating a speech or attributing a quote, avoid jargon. Stand firm and make leaders defend why their alternative is better than the one you wrote.
2. Keep it audience-centered
- Begin with the end in mind and consider the what, why, how and what it means for the target audience.
- When coaching leaders, help them to visualize the recipient on the other end of the message. Explain that real communication doesn’t happen unless it’s understood by your audience.
3. Test assumptions
- Use surveys to better understand what your audiences want and need.
- Host informal focus groups to get input on contrasting styles. Use their words to clarify for leaders what works best.
- Be open to objective points of view. We are exposed to so much corporate speak, it’s difficult to know when we’re in it.
If you’re still struggling to say what you mean and mean what you say to your audiences, remember that the new year is just around the corner, so make your resolution now to stop kicking the can down the road and put your organization on a Corporate Speak diet.