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:

Summer of 2016 Vacation Reading List

Churchill

William Manchester is a great popular historian who is best known for his The Death of a Presidenthis account of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. I came to him through A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance which reminded quite of Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history A Distant Mirror. This summer has been enlivened by Manchester’s three volume biography of Winston S. Churchill, The Last Lion, which I’m now near the end of the second volume which covers Churchill’s near banishment from Parliament in the 1930s when he alone warned of the growing threat posed by the re-armament of the Third Reich as the English people and His Majesty’s Government, ravaged by the horror of World War I, embraced pacifism at all costs and derided Churchill as a Victorian war monger.

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The first volume, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 was a remarkable look into the childhood and formative experiences that went into defining what would become a truly great man, one named the most important Briton of all time in a poll by the BBC a few years ago. From his birth in Blenheim Castle to an American mother and a syphilitic Engish Lord, to his wartime exploits in India, the Sudan, and South Africa, the portrait emerges of a dynamic man who loved the English language and went on to become one of the most famous, prolific, and well paid writers in the world.

The second volume, The Last Lion: Alone, 1932-1940, is slower going but needs to be given the tumult of the decade in Europe and the role Churchill played on the backbench of the House of Commons, denied a cabinet seat and thwarted from a role in the government after taking the blame for the the Gallipoli debacle (unfairly if you believe Manchester’s take).

More to come …..

Jimmy Guterman

Jimmy Guterman died unexpectedly in July of this year (2016), gone too soon and leaving behind a wife and three children. News of his passing spread through the PC Week alumni network and I wished I had this blog revived at the time to write some words of appreciation for a good friend and esteemed colleague who was with me early in my career and for decades ever after.

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Jimmy was a writer. He wrote about rock and roll — not as a critic per se — but one of those loves of the music who could weave a great story about its roots as well as the humor. The Sex Pistols, Sinead O’Connor,  Jerry Lee Lewis … he wrote books about all of them. But for some weird reason he took a shine to tech journalism just as it was getting to be cool in the 1980s, and stuck to it with the soul of a reporter and a certain sardonic mensch-like view of the world that kept him curious but pragmatic all the time.Jimmy not only chronicled the amazing development of the tech world over the last three decades, but contributed to it with deep thinking, great thoughtfulness, and a blend of skepticism and utopian hope that came through his work at the Harvard Business Review and on stage at TED.

When I was his editor in 1988 I sent him and another writer across the Atlantic to England to look at prototype of Steve Job’s Next PC — the ahead-of-its-time workstation with the black magnesium case, the first optical drive, and the operating system Jobs would bring back with him a few years later when he returned to Apple to revive the company’s flagging fortunes. Jimmy and his cohort Jeff Young (who had written the first biography of Jobs – The Journey is the Reward) went to some lab at one of the big universities — I think Cambridge, to do a quick analysis of the Next machine’s speeds and feeds. It was a bit of a fool’s errand — the machine was there, being tested by some coders in the beta test program, but it was concealed in mufti with a down  vest — like LL Bean would sell — and Jimmy was unable to get more than an unusable picture of a goose-down encased rectangle on a desk.

We were early lovers of hypertext. Jimmy was fascinated by early precursors to HTML and the World Wide Web and did some interest experiments with hypertext fiction. We created a partnership to do some hypertext projects — and together went to Newport, Rhode Island to pitch the CEO of the US yacht racing association a project to turn the rules of sailboat racing into an interactive, animated CD-ROM. They looked at us like we were Martians, Jimmy looked at them like they were something out of JP Morgan and Lady Astor’s garden party, and we were sent packing. Later we registered Vineyard.com and a few other domains. I hired him on a freelance basis to help write some great early features for Forbes.com, and later he repaid the favor by giving me some freelance work when he was editor of Forrester Research’s short-lived but fantastically edited print magazine.

I have, in my dusty music collection, a CD I burned with some of the worst songs of all time — songs inspired by Jimmy and Owen O’Donnell’s 1991 book The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time. 

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Jimmy and I bickered over his inclusion of the Grateful Dead’s live Europe ’72 album — he was not a Deadhead. But his description of some of the horrors committed to vinyl in the name of rock live on on that CD. I take some small pride in knowing I contributed at least one entry that made it into the book.

Jimmy was a great craftsman with his writing. He was a careful reporter, checked his facts, but delivered very clean, spare copy with the pragmatic professionalism of a true freelancer. Everything I know about the craft of the freelancer I learned from Jimmy Guterman.

I’ll miss him. I sent him a note last winter when I realized he was an editor for Newco, John Battelle’s start up for start ups. My company,Acquia, was involved in some Newco event in Boston and so I sent Jimmy a quick “Hey-How-Are-You?” but didn’t head back.

Jimmy was one of a kind and I think about him often now. My condolences to his wife, son, and daughters and friends.

Sausage

Now is the winter of charceuterie and this weekend’s project was sausage, about twenty feet of forcemeat I mixed up and extruded into pig casings. No photos or video. Way too digusting. I trashed the kitchen and smeared emulsified raw pork and chicken over every available surface, including a Tivo remote, phone, all knives, bowls, the KitchenAid, the grinder, the extrusion tubes ….

I bought the casing in Osterville and made the forcemeat from a pork shoulder. That was diced and then mixed into two recipes – one for a sage/ginger/garlic sausage, the other for hot Italian (which I over salted). I made a third sausage out from three pounds of boneless chicken thighs, fresh and sundried tomatoes, and basil. The chopping, spicing, and grinding were fun, basically Play-Doh Fun Factory with dead pig. The filling of the casings … that was as primal as it gets in the Churbuck kitchen. I’ll spare you the details, but I found myself a little less than hungry when I cooked up a few for dinner, doubtlessly because I had just spent a couple hours a bit too intimate with my food.

The payoff for this winter dry run is going to come in May during the bluefish run. My intent is to get good at a smoked bluefish sausage only because I have always wondered if it actually might be any good.

Next – rillettes and confit.