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Why do corporate executives talk like parrots?

Corporate executives must really hate their work.

I only say this because they seem to need a different language to describe what they do, liven up their meetings, dress up their mundane lives in metaphor. How else do you explain the modern disease known as corporate jargon?

A recent Forbes magazine article defined jargon as “a heinous amalgamation of terms with unknown origins and delivered with no explanation, irony or even a crumb of guilt.”

Businesspeople are stealing language from movies, from the military, from medicine, from art, from engineering – from pretty much everywhere except business itself! Is the occupation that boring, people, that you need to appropriate language intended for other things?

Karen Friedman has written a hard-hitting book on the subject, and tells us: “People use jargon because they want to sound smart and credible when in fact they sound profoundly dim-witted and typically can’t be understood, which defeats the purpose of speaking in the first place…”

Ouch. I hope you felt that. And just in case you think you’re a corporate animal who’s exempt from the jargon disease, let me summarize for you my most frequently heard inanities in Kenya.

“Think outside the box.” Do you say that? Of course you do. But why? It might have sounded impressive in the 1980s, but it is the most overworked and tired phrase around these days. If you want people to be more creative, find a different phrase. That one is not cool.

“Let’s cut to the chase.” A very tired way of saying let’s get to the conclusion. But you’re not fighting in the Wild West, folks. Your daily life is way more boring than shooting gunslingers or chasing after Apaches. Using script language won’t help liven up business life. Livening it up by making it more meaningful would liven it up.

“Giving 110 per cent.” You can’t give 110 per cent. If you give everything you can, with absolutely nothing left over, you’ll be giving 100 per cent. Which is pretty much impossible in the first place, so finding another 10 per cent from somewhere is both physically inconceivable and mathematically silly. As for people who give 200 per cent…

“Let’s break down the silos.” What are silos? Do you even know? Towers that house grain. Or missiles. Why would you want to break them down? This expression also has a long history, originating from the time when organizations operated in long vertical enclosures that separated accountants from marketers. These ‘silos’ needed to be broken down so that people could mingle and solve things together. But here’s the thing: people who say they need to break down silos, never do. They just talk about it. Those who don’t work that way don’t know what a silo is.

Jokes aside, the way we talk matters. If we are perpetually seeking metaphors to describe what we do, rather than describing what we do, then what we do must be very boring indeed.

After a while, everyone hears this babble, everyone repeats it, and pretty much no-one understands what it really means. Which means we are not communicating, just mouthing. Parroting the same phrases endlessly is not cool. Saying what you mean, and saying it simply, is very cool. Not to mention productive.

Business should be way more interesting than that. It worries me when executives are forced to rely on glib hand-me-down phrases to communicate. No wonder hardly anyone produces a genuinely unique product or provides refreshingly distinctive service. When we are all trapped in the prison of mediocre language, how can we be bold or different?

OK, I’ll let you go. Tomorrow is Monday, and you’ll no doubt have to drill down and manage expectations, offer solutions and leverage some synergies, and take everything to the next level.

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