On Straight Talk

Written on vacation, while deep in the final volume of Manchester’s biography of Churchill, a master of the English language who despised doublespeak and verbosity:

During my five years with Lenovo, the personal computer company born out of the acquisition of IBM’s PC division by the Chinese computer company, Legend, the experienced IBM executives who came over with the acquisition used to engage in something they called “straight talk.” I found this term a bit off-putting because it made me question what I was hearing the rest of the time, but it mainly referred to a mano a mano conversation in which one person told another person some blunt truth in unvarnished terms with some scatological obscenities mixed in to underscore the point. The official term for straight talk is, I suppose,  “Plain English” and while I’m sure anyone would agree simple-and-direct beats jargon and clichés, it amazes me how quickly we all lapse into wordiness and meaningless pomposity.

In corporate communications, indeed in any organizational vocabulary from governments to religions, the insidious creeping effects of bureaucratic doublespeak inevitably begin to infest the words and messages of the institution.  George Orwell wrote the definitive essay on this phenomenon in his 1946 piece, Politics and the English Language.  Dickens satirized it in Little Dorritt with the invention of the “Circumlocution Office.” For centuries, indeed as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, guardians of the language have railed against its pollution by double-speaking, pedantic bloviators who refuse to follow the canon of simple, clear communications.

As a corporate communicator, a so-called “content marketer,” I have a conflicted view of the disease as both a carrier and critic. Without casting stones inside my own house, let me just say that I fight a constant, daily war against the forces of derivative babble-speak, and think, after over a decade within the walls of corporate communications (after two spent in journalism), that I understand the source of the pestilence.

Its name is Google Search.

In technology marketing, language is defined by a three-way symbiotic relationship between the technology press (who are on the wane and not nearly as influential as they were in the 1980s), technology analysts (who are like the press in many regards, but carry the responsibility for creating the taxonomy of categories that define markets, such as “Marketing automation” or “Platform as a Service” or “Web Content Management.” Because technology and governments need acronyms to survive, these analyst categories lead to “WCM” and “PaaS” – and if the press adopt them, which they often do unwittingly, then two legs of the three-way relationship are set and it is only left to the corporate side to adopt them and try to define themselves within those terms.

The analysts rank the companies within a market category, issuing reports (sold at high cost to corporate subscribers) which are used by customers to select the technology that best suits their needs.

So where does Google come in? Simple. The best book on the topic remains John Batelle’s 2005 definitive work: “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture” It’s essential reading for anyone in digital marketing, but it does the best job of explaining the impact Google had on the language by using the citation system of academic journals to make a value-judgment of which links it returned on a search would be ranked first.  This gave us the sordid world of search engine optimization and search engine marketing, and before we knew it words and links had been, to steal a phrase from Doc Searls and David Weinberger, “weaponized.

Now, in corporate communications, when you put pen to paper so to speak, you need to wonder “how will this rank in search?” If a competitor seems to be doing well with “The Internet of Things” or “Big Data” and making claims to analysts and the press as well as on its own website and ebooks that its products are the best for “IoT” or “Big Data,” well then by golly why not us?

Technology doublespeak moves quickly and has no pride, more quickly than teenagers inventing new slang like “420” or “Netflix and chill.” If some “thought leader” says a startup needs to “pivot” to meet new opportunities and become “agile” then suddenly LinkedIn and Twitter are awash in other wannabe thought leaders jumping on the “agile pivot” bus. The end result is perfectly good words –words Orwell or Strunk & White or Ernest Gowers would approve of – suddenly start to get worn out like old coins that have had their embossing erased by so many fingers over time. We know that old dime means “ten cents” but poor old FDR is just a ghost and the date is barely legible anymore as we hand it over for a stick of gum.

The old Dudley Moore movie Crazy People is about an advertising executive who suffers a nervous breakdown and winds up in an asylum. This scenario leads to a hysterical extreme of “straight talk” taken too far. Moore, unable to let go of his workaholic ways, enlists his fellow patients to help him develop some campaign concepts. This yielded the memorable copy line: “Metamucil: It Helps You Go to the Toilet. If you don’t use it, you’ll get cancer and die.”

I’m not railing against the corruption of corporate communications and public relations. No one wakes up in the morning thinking, “I think I need the Freedom to Innovate” but yet we can easily toss that phrase it into some boilerplate and move on, having checked off some of the magic buzzword bingo words we want Google to rank us on. I’m not proposing we all move to some Hemingway-esque model of short declarative sentences with short declarative words. But I do believe that if a message is ever to truly standout, then it needs to leave the pack and be scrutinized for any bombastic, verbose, sesquipedalian tendencies to use the incomprehensible to blow a smelly fart of vaporware and its friend, fear-uncertainty-and doubt over the poor reader.

The challenge isn’t knowing how to write, it’s persuading other people that good writing is better than bullshit.  All I can say is good luck. It’s a lonely place to be inside any organization in love with the smell of its own verbal farts and try to open a window to clear the air. It can be done, but it is a constant battle, always rekindled as new carriers of the disease float in from some other plague town, spouting their theories of “lovable marketing content” that is “engaging, authentic” and spread like dandelions over the fields of social media. Just stick to your guns, remember the admonition printed on every reporter’s notebook: “Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity” and take heart that great men like Churchill railed against the insidious, pernicious infection as loudly as the greatest writers ever known. Heck, Churchill won a Nobel Prize for Literature, so I take that back. The man saved England with the language of Shakespeare, Gibbon and Kipling.

Let me conclude with George Orwell:

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

And for you lost souls toiling in the coalmines of jargon, a brief reading list:

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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