I love language—I’m a part-time poet and a full-time grammar geek.
So my short commute got sweeter yesterday when I caught Lucy Kellaway (the management columnist at the Financial Times) on BBC Newshour, “tackling” the abuse of language. (Kellaway’s commentary starts around the 24-minute mark of the podcast. You can also read her comments on the Financial Times Web site, if you’re a subscriber.)
As Kellaway shares, the British government released an online style guide in July. Section 1.5 lists 36 things civil servants are not to say, including the following no-nos:
- Tackling (unless you’re talking about rugby—or football on this side of the pond)
- Promoting (unless the subject is an ad campaign)
- Leveraging (unless you’re using it in the financial sense)
- Key (unless it unlocks something)
The goal of the style guide is better communication: “We […] lose trust from our users if we write government ‘buzzwords’ and jargon. Often, these words are too general and vague and can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text.”
Even with the best of intentions, it’s hard to use plain English (a fact that’s painfully clear to me as I’m analyzing “key” data points for the new version of The Speaker Report, which we’ll release for free in September).
Kellaway also refers to a blog post from the Harvard Business Review titled “Your Company Is Only as Good as Your Writing,” in which Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, argues that good writing “makes the difference between great business and bad business—a sale or no sale.” But Kellaway points out that Wiens offers no evidence to support his argument.
She, on the other hand, offers some evidence to the contrary. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, was asked if his company
planned any more acquisitions, to which he replied: “I would say that we have enough to digest in the near-term, and there’s nothing candidly in our sightline that would suggest that we’re involved in engaging anything that we’re going to acquire.”
This is diabolical. It is 34 words, where one would do. It is self-important, horribly waffly, and makes a queasy nod towards honesty that makes one suspect the reverse.
It should be taken seriously, not just as a reminder of how business people are addicted to abusing meaning, syntax and metaphor, but to show that Mr. Wiens is wrong: there is no link between business success and talking like a regular human being. The company that launched the Caramel Frappuccino has no problem selling things.
Thanks for indulging my fascination with language—and I’d love to hear what you think the relevance (or irrelevance) of language is when it comes to your organization’s success.