"B.S."; Stands for Business-Speak

Jan 24, 2019

A few years back, a scientist named Alan Sokal decided to conduct a little experiment—well, a prank,  really. The basis of this experiment/prank was simple. He wrote an article full of trendy, imposing-sounding words and concepts and submitted it to a respected academic journal. The catch? The article was deliberately devoid of logic or coherency. It was, in fact, nothing more than total gibberish.

Sokal staged his prank to prove a point. He was convinced that certain quarters of the academic world would give credence to absolutely any argument, no matter how nonsensical, so long as it used the right buzzwords and sounded impressive enough. His theory was right. The journal accepted and published the paper, whereupon Sokal revealed his prank, sparking a lively debate about academia’s fondness for doublespeak and logorrhea.

Any one who has spent time in the corporate world will be particularly appreciative of Sokal’s prank, because it often seems as if business-speak consists mainly of meaningless catchphrases and clichés. “Out of the box,” “vertically integrated,” “paradigm shift”—there’s practically a dictionary-length supply of stale expressions. Here are some current buzzwords that Performance and Profits readers find particularly annoying:

The sheer volume of daily communication makes such expressions all the more tempting. No one has the patience to parse each and every word they speak. It’s easier to use one of the stock phrases that are always within reach. Such a cut-and-paste response requires no effort or thought and takes little time. Moreover, just as was the case with Sokal’s prank, it’s unlikely that anyone will ask for an explanation, so accustomed has everyone become to hearing the meaningless phrases used.

Ironically, such inane and banal expressions provide rich source material for wickedly inventive satire. Take, for instance, the popular “buzzword bingo” game in which contestants vie to fill out bingo-style cards printed with popular clichés during meetings. There’s also a substantial library of books that send up business-speak, although a decidedly less polite term is often used to describe it. Then there’s everybody’s favorite comic-strip chronicle of office life, Dilbert, which occasionally takes a jab at corporate jargon. (Sample line from a recent cartoon: “Don’t ping my cheese with your bandwidth.”)

Business-speak might be the punch line for cartoons, but it can also represent a serious problem. The authors of the book Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide describe an informal experiment they conducted in which they asked ordinary people to review two actual company writing samples. One was simple and straightforward, and the other was garbled and inexplicable. The participants were asked to rate the samples using 30 terms, 15 of which were “good” terms such as likable and friendly and the other 15 “bad” terms such as obnoxious and unreliable. Unsurprisingly, the participants strongly disliked the sample with poor writing.

In his famous essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” What Orwell meant by that was that the words we use have an impact on the way we think. By themselves, clichéd phrases are innocuous, but the cumulative effect of speaking this way is that we begin to think this way—shallowly and without true understanding. Barren, sterile language leads to barren, sterile thoughts.

Although Orwell’s essay examines political writing and communication, it’s equally applicable to business. So what can we do to combat the advance of business-speak? For starters, Orwell offers a few guidelines:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Simple suggestions, yes—but then, that’s the point. Ideally, communication should be simple. The one thing that all poor communication—whether business, political or academic—has in common is needless difficulty. If you want to be heard, business-speak will do the trick. But if you want them to listen, you would do well to leave the jargon out.