Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Troubleshoot Your Corporate-Speak

A friend of mine recently told me that I "have a hang-up about the meanings of words".

Guilty as charged. I just read yet another press release that uses the idiotic expression "best-of-breed"--I'm at the point where seeing that phrase makes me want to throw a rock at the monitor.

Here's a simple test for a CorporateSpeak buzzphrase: could you say the opposite, without sounding like a crazy person? If not, then your buzzphrase is meaningless. For example:

"Best-of-Breed Vendors Offer Tested and Validated Solutions for Multiple Cisco VXI Deployment Options"

Now, try the opposite:

"Mediocre Vendors With More Successful Competitors Offer Tested and Validated Solutions for Multiple Cisco VXI Deployment Options"

or

"Worst-of-Breed Vendors Offer Tested and Validated Solutions for Multiple Cisco VXI Deployment Options"

No sane person would write that. Thus, the result of the test is that the changed phrase, "best-of-breed", obscures rather than enhances meaning.

Another one I hear all the time is "IT should work to serve the needs of the business." This one doesn't have any suspicious buzzphrases in it, but it's still completely meaningless: can you imagine saying "IT should not work to serve the needs of the business"? Of course not; you'd sound insane. Compare that with a similar, but meaningful and concrete sentence: "IT should work to reduce costs by improving the performance of the accounting servers." With this sentence, IT is still "serving the needs of the business", but you could clearly state the opposite and still have meaning: one could certainly argue that IT's efforts are better spent in areas other than accounting without sounding crazy.

One final example from a friend at a software firm. He received this in email from a guy in sales:

"We need to write software that customers want to buy."

The utter poverty of meaning in that waste of bits is left as an exercise for the reader.

Now, I realize that these sorts of expressions have purposes other than enhancing meaning: they might serve to solicit agreement from the reader as a prelude to a more controversial assertion, or they might simply be not-so-subtle attempts at marketing tricking the reader into a positive first impression. I don't really accept those excuses, though: rational people seek to create meaning, not to obscure it. Get into the habit of troubleshooting your meaning. One way is to test the opposite.

Endnote:
I have no idea if this idea is original or not. It seems like a simple enough idea that I may have gotten it from someone else, but if so, I don't remember and can't attribute the source.

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