Corpspeak: From Boardroom to Bored Room

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (15-Oct-2007)

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We've been using technology to deliver corporate communications for decades, but why is it so many people in the corporate world sound as though they're born of the same bits and bytes that make up the media that carries their messages?

While I agree that business communication often demands a more formal and official tone, why pepper it with so much corporate jargon as to necessitate an English-jargon/jargon-English dictionary and a bottle of Dextroamphetamines? What on earth makes people in the corporate world dole out gems like, "We need to align our core competencies with industry best practices in order to implement initiatives to better leverage our assets and accelerate our efficiencies"? (Come again?) Perhaps they're under the impression that using pompous and verbose language makes them sound more serious or important.

It seems as though a lot of corporate communication—both written and spoken—has gone beyond formal tone and morphed into unique and inane language filled with buzzwords: "paradigm shift", "thinking outside the box", "growing your business", or any new species of verb created by adding the suffix "-ize" to a noun like "monetize" and "strategize". The corporate world throws these words together just as quickly and easily as Hollywood throws together a movie with Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence in a prosthetic fat suit. It's gotten to the point where the term "buzzword" itself has become a buzzword.

Although it's not always possible to avoid some of these corpspeak terms, there is such a thing as moderation. Using one or two corpspeak terms sparingly is fine, but using five or more in a single paragraph or breath shows lack of substance and original thought. There's an old German proverb that goes like this, "Empty heads are very fond of long titles." I think the same can be applied to communication. There's no need to carry around a checklist of jargon as though you have to fill some daily quota.

I've always been impressed by CEO's who manage to give a presentation and speak like a real person—warm, articulate, and personable. Unfortunately, for every one of them, there are 10 graduates of the Institute of Productive Productiveness, sounding as though they were hatched from some corporate laboratory and given a textbook of mandatory corporate lingo. They strip all color and humanity from their writing or speech until their message winds up sounding like it was written by a machine—processed and re-processed. Maybe they're afraid that they will scare shareholders or clients away by sounding like a real human being. Look everyone, he's using everyday English and contractions in his speech; he must be a serial killer.

There's a chapter on business writing in the William Zinsser book, On Writing Well—a book that I think everyone should read at least once—where Zinsser gives some sage advice, "Just because people work for an institution, they don't have to write like one." In fact, the software code I wrote as a developer seems to have more life in it than some press releases I've read. Sounding human shouldn't equate to frivolity. Humanity and professionalism aren't mutually exclusive.

Is the corporate world really devoid of individuality and creativity? No, I always like to believe that there's hope, but then this:

A few years ago, a good friend of mine was having dinner at my place. We were in the middle of coffee when she said, "Hey, The Apprentice is on. Let's watch." Knowing my longstanding aversion to corporate buzzwords and jargon, she saw the reluctance on my face. But before I could answer, she added, "If you let me watch The Apprentice, I'll do your dishes!"

I grumbled.

She quickly made a counteroffer to sweeten her proposition, "I'll also take you out to lunch tomorrow."

"OK, fine," I relented. "But if I hear one person say the word 'synergy', I'm going smash my TV with my baseball bat and throw it out the window."

She laughed hysterically.

"What?" I asked.

Struggling to regained her composure, she finally said, "One of the teams on the show is actually named 'Synergy'!"

The next morning, I went TV shopping.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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