2014: not a vintage for creative business jargon

And the prize for Golden Flannel phrase of the year is – ‘to action forward’

The judges also commended Apple chief Tim Cook who was quoted as saying: “At the end of the day . . . this is a very key day for Apple”, thus combining two empty, clashing phrases. Photograph: The Irish Times

The judges also commended Apple chief Tim Cook who was quoted as saying: “At the end of the day . . . this is a very key day for Apple”, thus combining two empty, clashing phrases. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

On New Year’s Eve, just before the final judging session of my 2014 Golden Flannel awards, I put out a last-minute plea on Twitter. What were the most irritating new phrases uttered by business people last year?

Reach out, lots of people replied. Lean in. Going forward. Push back. Space. Learnings. Passionate. Content. My ask of you.

As I read these suggestions, I started to get pretty irritated myself. These phrases were aggravating in 2014. But they were also annoying in 2013 and earlier. Reaching out and going forward started grating back in the last millennium.

Yet the response proves something about the jargon space last year. If it was a feeble one for innovation, it was one in which existing guff spread wider and got more bothersome than ever.

This year I’m awarding a special prize to an organisation that ought to have risen above jargon, but has been dragged down into it. Winner of the inaugural Fallen Angel award goes to the Church of England, which in a paper on training bishops talked of “a radical step change in our development of leaders who can shape and articulate a compelling vision and who are skilled and robust enough to create spaces of safe uncertainty in which the Kingdom grows”.

Our Lord, looking down on a sentence in which His Kingdom was obliterated by a dozen dreary management cliches, must have found his genius for forgiveness sorely tested.

Standout services to guff

Randall Stephenson

But in the end, the judges actually felt that Tim Cook – who spookily was also chosen as the FT’s person of the year – deserved to be the 2014 Chief Obfuscation Champion. Under his leadership, Apple, hitherto the world’s only example of a successful company that uses words elegantly, succumbed to drivel.

As he took the stage at Cupertino, he declared “At the end of the day . . . this is a very key day for Apple”, thus combining two empty, clashing phrases. More bafflingly, when all those topless pictures of stars escaped from their iCloud, he said: “When I step back from this terrible scenario . . . I think about the awareness piece. I think we have a responsibility to ratchet that up. That’s not really an engineering thing.” Maybe it isn’t. But it makes Mr Cook my 2014 COC.

One of my favourite prizes every year is the best euphemism for firing people; this year I’ve decided to withhold the award, as no entries were worthy of it. ABN Amro fired 1,000 people to “further enhance the customer experience”, which was good.

Instead, I’m giving a new prize for the least appropriate start to an email. Stephen Elop began a 1,200 word message in which he axed thousands of jobs at Microsoft with “Hello there”. But he was beaten to the prize by Uber, which started a message to customers concerned by the alleged rape of an Indian woman by an Uber driver with the jaunty salutation: “Hey”.

Communications Cup

Better than either was “circle back with”, which though not new, got worse in 2014 as the preposition “to” was replaced by the cheesy and nonsensical “with”. But then, in an email from a PR, I found something even better. To reach out is yesterday. The new and more fashionable way of using this hateful term is back-to-front: “I’m outreaching to you . . .” The next award is for the silliest job title. The judges admired the way that Tesla calls its car salesmen “Delivery Experience Specialists” but, after fierce debate, have given the prize to PwC in Switzerland for calling its HR head: Territory Human Capital Leader. The first three words are intolerably pompous, and the fourth is a lie. HR people don’t lead.

In choosing my overall Golden Flannel phrase of the year, I considered the dementing “does that resonate with your radar?” but quickly saw it was puny compared to the terrific new verb “to action forward” which I heard an otherwise sensible manager utter last month. “Actioning forward”, with its dazzling combination of two of the most irritating bits of jargon ever, resonates with my radar so powerfully I fear I may have broken it. – Copyright the Financial Times Limited 2015 lucy.kellaway@ft.com

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