Confuse, obscure, evade

(This essay appeared in the Blue Ridge Business Journal, March 23, 2009)

What’s wrong with the following sentences?

It is advisable to limit breaks to fifteen minutes.
Technologies can be leveraged to effect the necessary changes.
We are very excited for this one-of-a-kind opportunity.

Nothing, right? Now try these:

Please limit breaks to fifteen minutes.
We can use available technologies to make the changes your company needs.
The opportunity to work together fills us with excitement.

When you read the two sets of sentences above, there is no question the second set represents clearer, more forceful writing. Why, then, are we far more likely to see sentences from the first set?

When I started writing copy for an instructional software company in 1992, business writing seminars and journals were working to stem the tide of “corporate-ese.” Experts begged us to avoid jargon, obfuscating phrases and passive voice. They touted “e-prime,” a linguistic style that eschewed most forms of the verb “to be,” forcing writers to use active voice and evocative verbs. Even the SEC got into the act. Then-chairman Arthur Levitt demanded corporate and mutual fund prospectuses use “plain English.” What has happened since then? Why does one “engage in issues-based solutions” instead of “solve problems?”

David Silverman, a business writing professor and contributor to harvardbusiness.org, blames “an education system that rewards length over clarity.” Since teachers look for certain key points in essays and papers, students carpet-bomb them with verbiage, hoping they hit the magic words by sheer volume. This habit carries over into the working world, where, according to Silverman, it’s “better to make every possible point, use three words where one will do, and even be redundant, than leave out something that might win the boss over.”

Still others blame the rise of electronic communication. Tom Clark, a business professor at Xavier University, sees a new generation of professionals fixated on speed instead of quality. “Young people are wrapped up in the speed with which they communicate rather than seeing writing as a reflection of their best selves,” he said in a December 5, 2006, Associated Press story. In the same story, another business writing expert shares a different thought on the cause of poor business writing: laziness.

As a writing professional entering his thirteenth year of reading (and occasionally penning) appalling prose, I have my own thoughts on why people, including myself, resort to inelegant, roundabout or redundant phrases, or use words incorrectly. Before I lay them out for everyone to read, though, here’s a disclaimer:

Any reference, implied or explicit, to any client, associate or employer, past or present, living or dead, is unintentional. All examples are for entertainment purposes only. Tumble dry on lowest setting. Cool iron if needed.

• The writer is terrified of offending someone.

“Please limit breaks to fifteen minutes” commands. It implies a hierarchy, where the writer is superior to the audience. In our age of “teamwork” and “buy-in,” this cannot be permitted (or rather, “it is not advisable”). How, then, does one say what’s needed without sounding too imperious, admonishing or skeptical? Simple — make it sound like someone else — some mysterious otherness — is doing the writing. The Associated Press article quotes a touchstone of achievement in this department:

“It is my job to ensure proper process deployment activities take place to support process institutionalization and sustainment. Business process management is the core deliverable of my role, which requires that I identify process competency gaps and fill those gaps.”

Translation: “Hi. I’m the training manager, and I’m here to whip you incompetents into shape.” You almost feel sorry for this person, being forced into this job and all it requires. He craftily avoids all verbs in favor of nouns — he doesn’t sustain, he ensures sustainment. And best of all, he litters this short missive with meaningless buzzwords.

• The writer is terrified because he doesn’t know what he is saying.

I’ve written for the tech industry and I’ll be damned if I can tell you what “best practices” means. I’m fairly certain it means different things to different people. What I have learned is that if you pepper your writing with these catchphrases, you can disguise the fact that you have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s like saying “d’accord” every five minutes in Paris. It doesn’t mean you know French, but you sure sound like a Parisian. Likewise, calling attention to “management solutions” instead of plain old “management” seems to indicate you’ve read your Fast Company.

But here’s the thing — corporate catchphrases are like the emperor’s new clothes. I’m convinced no one really knows what they mean, and those that do are too afraid to speak up. How many times has a manager asked for a post-mortem after a project kick-off, or requested a quick perusal of a document, or (my favorite) concise verbiage? Each of these phrases contains a gross contradiction. Not only do we not question these usages, we propagate them, maybe because re-using them might, as Silverman surmised, “win the boss over.”

• The writer is terrified of being understood.

Another benefit of using buzzwords is the ability to disown them. If you “meet expense management goals,” a manager can’t accuse you of cutting her budget. If you “optimize resource allocation,” you’re really not taking away the department copier. Not only do you avoid offending people, you avoid communicating. And that seems to be the new goal of business writing.

In his inaugural address, President Obama called for “a new era of responsibility.” Perhaps it’s time for managers and writers to take this to heart. Stand up and be understood. Be direct and be effusive. Use active voice. Let everyone know you’re doing your job with gusto, and let your fair and pleasant demeanor inoculate you from your audience taking offense.

Or not. But at least keep a dictionary at your desk.

— Otto E. Mezzo

One thought on “Confuse, obscure, evade

  1. Pingback: Two seconds to a better sentence | Lexicide

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