Lucy Kellaway: record year for euphemisms, obfuscation, ugliness

Here are some of 2015’s worst examples of the drivel spoken and written in business

As Howard Schultz of Starbucks, a superb peddler of drivel, put it: “Innovation is the force that will . . . enable us to expand and increase revenues and profits – always through  the lens of humanity. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

As Howard Schultz of Starbucks, a superb peddler of drivel, put it: “Innovation is the force that will . . . enable us to expand and increase revenues and profits – always through the lens of humanity. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Last year was a ripping one for flannel. I know I say that every year, but 2015 broke all records for obfuscation, euphemism and ugliness. Sifting through the drivel – much of it brought in via the FT’s new Guffipedia site – in search of worthy winners for my Golden Flannel Awards, what stood out was the number of entries that offend the eye, the ear and make the flesh creep too.

So I decided to add a new category, the Sick Bucket Gong, for which the shortlist is as strong as it is revolting. There was “sweat the footprint”, leaving one fearing athlete’s foot. There was a banker who was “pregnant with the deal”. There was “wet bench testing” and “merchant stickiness”. But the soaraway winner was “executive brownout” brought to us by the Harvard Business Review.

One of the most eagerly awaited prizes every year is for the Chief Obfuscation Champion (COC). I’m uncomfortably aware I promised this to guff veteran Tim Armstrong for the new verb “to game-change”, but I hope the AOL boss will forgive me for changing my mind. Last year two successive chief executive’s of Twitter perverted the clarity and brevity their site is meant to promote. Dick Costolo crammed into a single, interminable sentence the words “iterate”, “logged out experience”, “curate”, “moments”, “platform” and “deliver”.

Impactful opportunities

Jack Dorsey

Yet even the Twitter duo’s efforts are feeble compared to the HR head who warned managers attending an off-site meeting to “be cognisant of the optics of your personal brand”, by which he meant: tuck your shirts in. He is this year’s COC.

Dorsey almost won a consolation prize for best euphemism for firing people (“part ways”), but this goes to the head of HR at a big oil group who announced plans “to ventilate” underperformers. This ingeniously suggests people are stale air and, if you open the window, they will fly out.

The Nerb Prize – given to nouns pretending to be verbs – has had a bumper year, with six dazzling runners-up. To effort. To front-burnerise. To town hall. To potentiate. To future. To value add. Any would have been a worthy winner; yet all were swept aside by “to language”. A reader overheard a colleague saying: “There must be a better way to language it.” He’s right – there must.

The Communications Cup – given to the worst way of describing a meeting – has an impressive shortlist: diarising visitations; co-creating conversations; to caucus and (a favourite) to front-face. Yet the winner is “bilateral telephonic meeting”, which reveals the sad truth that the conference call is so much the norm that a conversation between two people needs a special term to describe it.

The 2015 Mixed Metaphor Award goes to Rick Hamada, chief executive of Avnet, who said: “Drilling down one more click on services, we actually think of multiple swim lanes of opportunity around business.” Although this is a modest three-way mix, quality makes up for quantity. Each one of these metaphors is bang on trend, and he has thrown in a gratuitous “actually” for nothing. He well deserves the prize.

Job titles

Danone

Now comes the word that summed up 2015. At first I wanted to make this “journey”. At the FT we were on an “efficacy journey” until our old owners, Pearson, ended that journey by flogging us. Meanwhile at Stansted airport (where real journeys start) the customer complaints department said the “customer journey is a seamless intuitive transition throughout the passenger journey”, adding “our Customer Service team now offers a team of Ambassadors providing a human presence”.

On reading this I had a change of heart. The word of the year is not “journey”. It’s “human”. Howard Schultz of Starbucks, a superb peddler of drivel, put it splendidly: “Innovation is the force that will continue to drive our business and enable us to expand and increase revenues and profits – always through the lens of humanity.”

To future, I’m going to make a prediction for the guff word of 2016. I found it in Larry Page’s memo on Alphabet, in which, after professing to be “excited” and “super-excited” five times, he said: “We are also stoked about growing our investment arms.”

I hope you are prepared for 2016. You’ll get stoked, whether you like it or not.

– Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2016

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