The Last Word
Let’s face it: Business today is drowning in bull—. We try to impress (or confuse) investors with inflated letters to shareholders. We punish customers with intrusive, hype-filled, self-aggrandizing product literature. We send elephantine progress reports to employees that shed less than two watts of light on the big issues or hard truths.
The average white-collar worker goes to the office every morning, plugs into e-mail, dials into voicemail and walks into meetings only to be deluged by hype and corporate-speak:
“After extensive analysis of the economic factors and trends facing our industry, we have concluded that a restructuring is essential to maintaining competitive position. A task force has been assembled to review the issues and opportunities, and they will report back with a work plan for implementing the mission-critical changes necessary to transform our company into a more agile, customer-focused enterprise.”
These contrived communications are the exact opposite of the natural conversations he engages in everywhere else. Outside of work, he has a fundamentally different kind of conversation — a human one, with stories and color. Informal, spontaneous, warm, funny and real. Then he hops online, and the natural and unfiltered dialogue continues in chat rooms, message boards, blogs and instant messaging. Even his virtual life is more real than his office life.
But most businesspeople copy and paste and crank out hollow and vapid communications that become the butt of jokes as soon as they leave the e-mail server. Even worse, they get ignored. They’re full of jargon, they say very little and — most important — these messages are out of touch, arrogant and condescending.
Everyone knows this, except for the idiot hitting the Send button.
Your own Fuzzbuster
Navigating our way through business communications is like driving on a Georgia highway — there are traps everywhere. What we need is our own business Fuzzbuster. If you want to connect with an audience, the traps are a roadmap to being heard — If you know them, you can avoid them:
• The Obscurity Trap: “This is just the kind of synergistic, customer-centric, upsell-driven, churn-reducing, outside the box, customizable, strategically tactical, best-of-breed, seamlessly integrated, multi-channel thought leadership that will help our clients track to true north. Let’s fly this up the flagpole and see where the pushback is.” These are the empty calories of business communication. The Obscurity Trap catches idiots desperate to sound smart or prove their purpose, and lures them with message-killers like jargon, long-windedness, acronyms and evasiveness.
• The Anonymity Trap: Businesses love clones — they’re easy to hire, easy to manage, easy to train, easy to replace — and almost everyone is all too happy to oblige. What business idiots have forgotten is that your personality is the thing that helped you make friends, find a date, get a mate and probably even get a job.
• The Hard-Sell Trap: Legions of businesspeople fall prey to the Hard-Sell Trap. We overpromise. We accentuate the positive and pretend the negative doesn’t exist — not because we received our business training on used-car lots, but because we’re human and we like to be optimistic. At the end of the day, people hate to be sold to, but they love to buy. With access to loads of information and instant communication, people today know the hard sell and even the slightest whiff of it sends people running for the exits.
• The Tedium Trap: Everyone you work with thinks about sex, tells stories, gets caught up in life’s amazing details and judges others by the way they look and act. We live to be entertained. We all learned that in Psychology 101, except for the business idiots who must have skipped that semester. They tattoo their long, executive-sounding titles on their foreheads, dump prepackaged numbers on their audience and virtually guarantee that we want nothing to do with them. Death by generalization replaces those spontaneous, personal and compelling details.
Honest language; the hard truth; a passion for what they’re doing; a personality that shows up at the office five, six or seven days a week — we recognize these people, and we love to hear from them. Jack Welch, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos have all found ways to make straight talk a hallmark of their companies, and any of them can fill an auditorium at will. Yeah, the CEO at our company knows widgets and gives speeches. But Virgin CEO Richard Branson is the business equivalent of a rock star.
Entire careers can be built on straight talk — precisely because it is so rare.
Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky are the authors of “Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide” (Free Press, $22).