Sunday, January 4, 2015

Bad Corporate Writing

Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway deserves special praise for her bad writing awards.

Professors write so badly that it has become too easy to point out how bad it is. One is slightly surprised to find serious corporate executives, the people who have teams of PR geniuses combing over their every word, who can match the professorial elite for mangled syntax, incoherent phrasing and poor word choice.

If corporate types are guilty of verbal infelicity, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Kellaway begins by giving the Fallen Angel Award the Church of England for this syntactic jumble. The Church calls for:

… 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.

She adds that the CEO of AT&T had this to say one day:

We actually think that the industry is at a place where you can actually see line of sight to the subsidy equation just fundamentally changing in a very short period of time.

Only the most charitable soul would declare this sentence to be literate.

Kellaway grants the obfuscation award to Apple CEO Tim Cook. Responding to the leak of celebrity selfies from its cloud service, Cook 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.

She offers a euphemism award, or perhaps the inadvertent humor award, to EY, Ernst and Young, for explaining that, in firing a large number of staff, it was:

… looking forward to strengthening our alumni network.

Allow Kellaway to explain her choice for the Golden Flannel Award:

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.


Josh said...

Good language is indicative of good thinking, and its inverse is also true.

Reminds me of this, which I read often for fun and sobriety:

Sam L. said...

"If corporate types are guilty of verbal infelicity, what hope is there for the rest of us?"

Plenty: We know pretty well how smart we are, and how smart we aren't, so we look things up and work a bit harder on our writing.

That COE bit is 99% pure corporatese, and 100% pure dreck.

"… looking forward to strengthening our alumni network." NO donations from that crowd.

Sam L. said...

Good stuff at your link, Josh! Thanks.

David Foster said...

Laura Rittenhouse is a consultant who analyzes CEO letters for clarity or lack of same, and says that her research has actually shown a correlation between clarity and subsequent business performance

Anonymous said...

My military Honchos didn't write a blooming thing. I wrote it all. Even came up w/the topics of speeches 98% of the time.

Unfortunately, the newer ones became enamored of CEO crap. I got out just in time.

Tragic. Making more money is quite different than Fighting & Dying. I have personal experience in the subject. -- Rich Lara

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Smokescreen. Plausible deniability. Lawyer repellant. Obfuscation. Duplicity.

That's the description of most corporate writing today. The whole "We have to make a statement about this!" results in a verbose mess of... nothing.