My first job in journalism was in business news. This wasn’t my first choice; in truth it would probably have been my last, but it was the only place that would have me. I was as bewildered as the next work experience bod but, since I had three weeks there, I thought I might as well try to get to the bottom of the stuff they were talking about. At school, no teacher had ever had to encourage me to put my hand up if I didn’t understand something. Invariably, my hand was raised already. My powers of concentration, severely limited at the best of times, diminish to zero if I hear words and phrases I am unfamiliar with. I have to put my hand up and seek clarification. I’m sure my teachers got tired of this, but not half as tired as the staff in the BBC’s Business Programmes department.
“What’s RPI?” I would ask.
“Inflation,” someone would explain.
“But what’s it stand for?”
“Retail Price Index.”
“Oh. And what’s RPI-X then?”
And so on.
All this came back to me when I was in conversation with the speechwriter Philip Collins about his book To Be Clear: A Style Guide for Business Writing. In it, he explores why so much business writing has become dreary, boring and incomprehensible, with all its jargon, cliches and downright absurdities. Collins pores unlovingly over an address Microsoft’s chief executive gave to his employees in 2015. Satya Nadella told his flock that their “mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more”. Every person on the planet? Really? I can’t put it better than Collins when he wonders if “every person, no matter what their passion – Benedictine monks, repertory actors doing Shakespeare, the company that has the cleaning contract for Birmingham city council, a retired crofter on Jura – there is not one of them that will not find their capacity to live the good life enhanced by Microsoft”.
The truly terrifying thought is this: there must have been people in the audience that day who actually bought this drivel and admired the boss for sharing it with them.
It’s almost a cliche in itself to marvel at new and terrible buzzwords. When exactly was it that people started telling us they would revert rather than get back to us? When did things start being done at pace, rather than quickly? Buy-in? Core competency? What was policy based on before it was evidence-based? To search companies’ mission statements is to take a tour of Planet Cringe. My favourite so far is McKinsey’s. The promise here is to help organisations create the “Change that Matters”. The capital letters are McKinsey’s. In order to effect this Change that Matters, the consultancy explains, it partners with clients “from the C-suite to the front line”. C-suite? That was a new one on me. Who or what is this C-suite? What does the C stand for? Well, that might depend on whether you ask somebody plying their trade on the “front line” or someone with a seat in the C-suite itself. Because it turns out the C, I was appalled to read – from between my fingers – stands for chief, as in chief executive officer, chief financial officer etc. Oh please.
The conversation with Collins was on my radio programme. It was all entertaining stuff that, judging by the texts, our listeners greatly enjoyed. Alison, a former senior employee of a bank, said that, in her experience, “jargon was the gift of the person desperate to get on without having any more talent than their peers”.
Another message unsettled me. A man in Wiltshire who had worked in several big corporations said: “The introduction of a new language, buzzwords, is a form of control. If you can get people to talk like you, you can get them to think like you.”
This is so true, and I for one have been guilty of it. Back in the day, as soon as I had learned a new bit of jargon, I would be using it at every opportunity. It was a way of showing I was a grownup and one step above whichever befuddled work-experience kid came along behind me. It’s a brave and brilliant person indeed who dares to use only the simplest language possible to make themselves clear.