How to become fluent in business guff
Lucy Kellaway outlines her top rules when it comes to spouting absolute nonsense
Over the past month, I have been rummaging through the collection of business bullshit that I have built up over the past couple of decades with a view to republishing some of the finest exhibits. But as I studied the archive it occurred to me that all languages have their own rules — and guff is no exception. Here, I reveal the top eight rules, along with some splendid examples of how to follow them.
1. Never use a short word when a long one will do
If the first principle of journalism is to simplify then exaggerate, so the first rule of guff is complicate then obfuscate.
An HR manager running an off-site meeting showed how it was done last year by warning attendees to “be cognizant of the optics of your personal brand”. In other words: tuck your shirts in.
Management consultants have been world class at touting for business this way, inventing problems and then offering to solve them.
A decade ago, Accenture demonstrated how to turn the banal into the portentous: “With the rise of the multi-polar world, the task of finding and managing talent has become more complex, turbulent and contradictory.”
Never mind that the world has only two poles, and that finding good people is no harder than ever, Accenture added value by subtracting sense.
The interesting thing about obfuscating/complicating is that it can be done with only a couple of words.
The best ever title of a research paper: Robustifying Learnability a 2005 report from the Federal Reserve.
2. Everyday euphemisms are the way forward
In guff, all negatives are spun, so no one need take full blame for anything. Uber has done pioneering work in the past few months by producing language so ugly and boring that the audience can only respond by switching off.
The company has variously admitted to having “underinvested in the driver experience” and being “in a reputational deficit” in the hope that no one will notice it has screwed its drivers and its name is mud.
Rule 2 is handy when companies sack people. The latest euphemism comes from an investment management company that recently described sackings as going “into the gym . . . inducing cell renewal and thus making the company fit for profitable growth”.
Though horrible, this is nothing on how EY got rid of a number of partners by sending a message around saying “we look forward to strengthening our alumni network”.
Not all companies get it right. In 2013, HSBC announced it would be “demising” the roles of 942 relationship managers, forgetting that the whole point of a euphemism is that you take something horrid and make it sound better.
HSBC took something bad (sacking people) and made it sound considerably worse, as if it was not only depriving people of their livelihoods but actually killing them.
3. Disregard the grammar you learned at school
One of the charms of guff is its syntactic flexibility – all nouns can be verbs and vice versa. Oscar Munoz made great use of this rule when he talked of “deplaning” a man who was manhandled roughly off one of his United aircraft in April.
Other great examples of nerbing and vouning fill the archive: to cold towel; a global touch-base; to effort; to front-burnerise; to town hall; to potentiate; to future; to value add; to bonus well. But my favourite came from a manager who, in trying to draft a memo, said: “There must be a better way to language it.”
He’s right. There must.
4. There is no such thing as too much emotion
It all started in 2003 when the late Jimmy Lee sent an email to everyone in his corporate finance department at JPMorgan, saying: “Call a client and tell them you love them. They won’t forget that you made this call.”
In the years since then, Irene Rosenfeld of Kraft has described herself as the “CEO of Joy”, while John Cahill, global CEO of McCann Health, has said: “Doubling down on our humanness will be the magic in how we drive better outcomes.”
When it comes to ratcheting up the emotion, millennials are particularly gifted. A twenty-something Estée Lauder employee was recently quoted in the Financial Times: “Senior leadership was ecstatic about the level of ideation that came from this session.” This, I fear, bodes ill for us all. Passion, it would seem, is no longer enough. Ecstasy is the next frontier.
5. If you produce something simple, rebrand it so no one will know what it is
Over the years, Toyota has renamed the car a “sustainable mobility solution”; Amazon has called the book a “reading container”; Speedo has rebranded the swimming cap a “hair management system” and a Nestlé bottle of water has been described as an “affordable, portable lifestyle beverage”. This rule is the most baffling of the lot as there is no reason for it.
6. Do not limit yourself to words that are in the dictionary
Make up your own by stitching together two or more existing ones. The greatest ever example of this was Eversheds, a frumpy law firm, which in 2007, tried to appeal to young recruits by looking for “knowlivators, innovateers, performibutors, proactilopers, prioricators and winnomats” – the last being a particularly unwinning combination of winners and diplomats.
7. There is no such thing as too much metaphor and cliché in one sentence
Rick Hamada, CEO of Avnet, is a master at this: “Drilling down one more click on services, we actually think of multiple swim lanes of opportunity around business.”
However, he is not quite as good as the following management consultant: “You have to appreciate that the milestones we have set in these swim lanes provide a road map for this flow chart. When we get to toll gates, we’ll assess where you sit in the waterfall . . . ”
8. Ignore Rule 1
The most lethal new language is not a mass of robustifying learnability. It is simpler but no less confusing. You use short, well-known words, but the catch is you use them to mean something different. The word of the moment is “play”.
Strategy consultants pose the questions to gormless clients: Where to play? How to win? And fashionable business people refer to working activities as playbooks and playlists. On the lips of guff speakers, play does not mean play. It means work.
The most gifted guff giants don’t use all the rules, but pick the ones that suit them best. My following three eternal favourites are great in different ways, but all deserve prizes: I am medalling (nerb) all of them.
Bronze goes to Rob Stone, co-CEO of advertising agency Cornerstone, for heroically mixing cliché, metaphor and hot air to say nothing: “As brands build out a world footprint, they look for the no-holds-barred global POV that’s always been part of our wheelhouse.”
Silver belongs to Angela Ahrendts who, in a Burberry annual report, wrote the most mysterious sentence ever composed in the English language: “In the wholesale channel, Burberry exited doors not aligned with brand status and invested in presentation through both enhanced assortments and dedicated, customised real estate in key doors.”
I have showed it to many business experts over the years, but no one has ever been able to say what it means or explain why a raincoat maker could be talking so intently about doors.
The runaway winner and deserved gold medallist is John Chambers who, while CEO of Cisco, fired off an email to underlings beginning “Team”, and ending: “We’ll wake the world up and move the planet a little closer to the future.”
He has used plain words and simple syntax to produce the most terrifying piece of bullshit ever.
In the four years since he said that the planet seems to have been reaching the future quite happily on its own, without the assistance of Mr Chambers or anyone else at Cisco.
– Copyright The Financial Times Ltd