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Think outside the jargon box

‘Dinosaurs ... think inside the box. Dolphins ... occupy the space outside the box.

29 November 2006

5:56 PM

29 November 2006

5:56 PM

‘Dinosaurs … think inside the box. Dolphins … occupy the space outside the box.

‘Dinosaurs … think inside the box. Dolphins … occupy the space outside the box. The dinosaurs’ negative headset creates a lose-lose situation, whereas the dolphins’ can-do headset enables them to score a try!’ ‘Set out to leave the first vapour trail in the blue-sky scenario!’ Readers of the Financial Times, and viewers of The Office, will probably recognise these words of wisdom imparted by corporate thought-leader Martin Lukes and branch manager David Brent. But even if you’ve never encountered the fictional creations of, respectively, Lucy Kellaway and Ricky Gervais, you may well recognise their language from your own working life. According to the latest research, more than half of all employees in large organisations say the use of business jargon is increasing. All this blue-sky hot air is getting out of hand: the training agency Investors in People warns that it could even be damaging UK productivity.

‘Management-speak’ only entered the Oxford English Dictionary in January this year, but it clearly entered the British workplace a lot earlier than that. A YouGov survey, commissioned by Investors in People to mark its 15th anniversary last month, found that the new vocabulary has spread as virally as any ‘value-added’ marketing campaign. Nearly two thirds of employees of large organisations said that management jargon such as ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, ‘heads up’, ‘getting our ducks in a row’ and ‘brain dump’ was often used where they work. Perhaps surprisingly, given the transatlantic overtones of this new language, you are most likely to endure it in the provincial backwaters of local government, where well over half say it is common, compared with just over a quarter in the retail sector. For all its pervasiveness, though, it remains unpersuasive. Investors in People found that employees have a low opinion of colleagues who rely on jargon: 39 per cent thought its use betrayed lack of confidence, and one in five reckoned managers who use it are untrustworthy or trying to cover something up.

Even outside the office, jargon is now regarded as plain annoying. In 2004, when the Plain English Campaign ran a poll to discover the most irritating phrase in the language, business-speak received the bulk of the nominations. In addition to all the ‘thinking’ — blue-sky, joined-up, boxed or unboxed — many other metaphorical present participles were cited, such as ‘moving the goalposts’, ‘pushing the envelope’ and ‘touching base’, as well as Americanisms such as ‘ballpark’ and ‘24/7’.

All of which raises the question: why do managers insist on singing from this ghastly hymn sheet? As John Lister of the Plain English Campaign pointed out: ‘You’re not David Brent — he’s funny in The Office but you’re not funny in real life.’ He concluded that the need must stem from insecurity and a desire to fit in. This view is reinforced by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky, authors of Why Business People Speak like Idiots, who identify four ‘traps’ for managers: the obscurity trap (thinking that jargon and evasiveness make you sound important), the anonymity trap (believing that companies prefer to hire sound-alike clones), the hard-sell trap (feeling the need to accentuate the positive) and the tedium trap (forgetting that employees actually want to be entertained).

But whatever the reason, business-speak is becoming a threat to business. Investors in People claims it creates a barrier between managers and their teams, with 55 per cent of senior managers thinking their ‘blue sky’ is crystal clear when 42 per cent of employees say such phrases do little but create misunderstanding. IiP director Nicola Clark says too much jargon ‘can impact on an individual’s performance and an organisation’s productivity’. She may have a point: since Messrs Lukes and Brent began satirising managerial mumbo-jumbo, in 1999 and 2001, UK productivity has taken a significant tumble. The Office for National Statistics says productivity per hour worked in industry fell 4.2 per cent in both those years, and has continued to fall by an average of 3.9 per cent every year since.

Thankfully, the fight against jargon has found some unlikely champions. A couple of years ago the California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — whose previous career did little to promote clarity in the use of English — drafted an executive order to make state workers use ‘common everyday words … avoiding jargon, technical terms, acronyms and other abbreviations’. And in 2003 the consultancy firm Deloitte — whose employees had hitherto seemingly devoted entire careers to eschewing plain English — devised a computer program to help eradicate jargon from company reports called, appropriately enough, Bullfighter. It seems that even the most hardened duck aligners can change their spots. Or perhaps not. A notice on the Deloitte website now says, ‘We are no longer affiliated with Bullfighter software. Any questions should be directed to the website. is not affiliated with us.’

Matthew Vincent edits Investors Chronicle.

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