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Easier said than done

By Stephen Howell

Actions speak louder than words, but unfortunately not nearly as often in corporate Australia.[1] We are faced with an ever-growing trend to substitute the latest jargon, cliché, corporate speak and weasel words for action.

I argue that we are facing a significant risk from this increasing insidious attack on the use of plain English. My risk alarm goes off when I see and hear people using meaningless or obscure language. I question whether they know or understand what they are saying. In fact, there is an inherent risk in accepting what these people say – being able to speak gobbledygook doesn’t mean you understand your topic.

Just as Jacques can “…suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs…”,[2] so can today’s weasel words suck the life out of the English language. My belief is most people resort to this behaviour in an attempt to camouflage their ineptitude and in some way appear more knowledgeable or smarter than the rest of us. Excuses for poor performance, bad behaviour and corporate malfeasance are punctuated by weasel words.

So, why do we think it necessary to speak in another language, other than plain English? I have been grappling with this question for as long as I can remember and thankfully Don Watson has come to my rescue. In his latest book, Worst Words: a compendium of contemporary cant, gibberish and jargon,[3] Don Watson exposes all.

In my view, Watson’s book should be required reading for all board members, executives and managers. In articulating expectations to management teams – those responsible for providing information, data, analysis and advice – boards should make it very clear that they will accept nothing short of plain English in order to make defensible decisions. As I have previously argued, boards exist to make decisions. Directors require clear, concise and defensible information and advice in order to make those decisions.

We need to be aware of and understand the risk of accepting information punctuated by language meant to mislead. In my experience, executives and managers are very good at snowing boards and directors by using language and data to manipulate a position. We also know the public sector excels at speaking gobbledygook, universities teach it and politicians are the masters of meaningless and obscure language. Unfortunately, this leads to copycat fatiguing language.

We do not impress when we use jargon, clichés and buzzwords. We impress when we use clarity, brevity and persuasive arguments expressed in plain English.

So, my warning is be aware that it is “easier said than done” (yes, I know it’s a cliché). Beware of those who speak in weasel words because if it sounds silly, it probably is.

[1] With apology to Mark Twain

[2] As you like it, William Shakespeare, Act 2, Scene 5

[3] D. Watson, 2015, Worst Words: a compendium of cant, gibberish and jargon, Vintage Books, North Sydney, NSW. See also, Watson’s website, which chronicles the decline in public language