Words Matter - or - the Curious Case of the Patagonian Toothfish

Words Matter – or – The Curious Case of the Patagonian Tooth Fish

On the Menu tonight we have steamed Patagonian Toothfish on a bed of wild rice, or pan-seared Chilean Sea Bass with wild mushrooms and fresh spinach. What would you like? Can’t interest you in the Toothfish? really? It’s the same thing. Back in 1977 some marketing smartypants decided that people wouldn’t eat it if it looked and sounded ugly. The looks could be cared for with a filleting knife and a good pan, but the name had to go. Going old school wouldn’t work, since Dissostichus eleginoides just doesn’t trip off the tongue. So the Chilean Sea Bass was born. We’ve been eating it ever since.

The words we use matter. They hook people. They move them from one side of an issue to another. They make people buy. They help people understand. If pictures are the soul of communication, words are the heart. So why, once we put on a tie, hang up the MBA certificate, or sweat for that promotion, do we start saying (or pretending to understand) things like this:

To increase shareholder value by delivering systems solutions that help our customers exceed their goals, are safe and environmentally responsible, and distinguish us as the supplier, employer and community citizen of choice.”
” Our mission is to build unrivaled partnerships with and value for our clients, through the knowledge, creativity, and dedication of our people, leading to superior results for our shareholders.”
Guided by relentless focus on our five imperatives, we will constantly strive to implement the critical initiatives required to achieve our vision. In doing this, we will deliver operational excellence in every corner of the Company and meet or exceed our commitments to the many constituencies we serve. All of our long-term strategies and short-term actions will be molded by a set of core values that are shared by each and every associate.

If you work at or with Visteon, Lehman Brothers or Albertsons, you’ve heard these before. They are a symptom of what stifles innovation, constrains cultures, and stumble strategies. Business is about people. It doesn’t matter how many you have working for you, or in your company, the more they know what to do, the more they can see themselves in the bigger picture, the better off you are. So the pandemic of weasel words and corporate pig-Latin* has to stop.

What can you do? First, breathe in, pause, exhale. Rid your mind of the thought that you have to use big words to sound smart. Replace it with simplicity. Go for understanding. You have to engage, you want people to remember. Picking and using the right words will help. Follow these simple rules. It will help your presentations. It will drive Message Discipline.

  1. Cut the Jargon. You know too much, and you are too passionate about your subject. This sounds like a good thing, but the curse of knowledge will get you every time. Laminar flow means something to an engineer and maybe a plumber. But everyone else has to look it up, and they won’t. They just don’t care that much.
  2. Go for Fewer Syllables. Use, don’t utilize. Enough said. Avoid the Innate persistence to utilize multi-syllabic confabulations. (I couldn’t help it.)
  3. D.U.A.A.T.I.P.U.M.C. Don’t Use Acronyms to Avoid the Innate Persistence to Utilize Multi-syllabic Confabulations. They don’t make it any simpler. I’m always amazed when in a workshop and I ask someone to unpack an acronym for me (the outsider) how few people can actually do it. And then when you ask for an explanation instead, you hear different definitions.
  4. Use Surprising Combinations. The Naked Chef. Secure Cloud. Putting together a couple of words that don’t normally go together. The imagery and the surprise in the phrase makes it memorable and repeatable.
  5. Pick Provocative Words. A favorite phrase of mine from the world of project management: “One throat to choke.” Just be careful that HR doesn’t come after you. “Land man on the Moon.” Simple, yet challenging.
  6. Make the Meaning Obvious. “Listen for the wish.” is a term of art in the advertising industry. It’s what account people, planners and creatives do with clients.
  7. Choose Sides. Make people use words that put them on the side of the argument. If you’re MasterCard or Visa, and you don’t want to your payments backbone to turn into a commodity, it’s better to say that you don’t want to be a “Dumb Pipe.” No one want’s to be on team Dumb. Now if we are building a “Smart Pipe” I would vote for that. I want to be on team Smart.
  8. Appeal to People’s Listening.  Remember, just because it appeals to you, it may not work for your audience. Steve Jobs famously talked about the computer as a “bicycle for the mind”. That’s a phrase that appeals to a group of engineers and product designers bent on imagining and creating a future. It clearly worked in the culture of Apple. “Stretch every dollar.” Much more meaningful and doable to an organization than the more typical, “manage capital and expense allocation.”

These ideas are straightforward, and not really new. Rhetoric has been around for over 4000 years. There’s plenty of ancient wisdom to weave in to our modern world. Somehow, when we open up PowerPoint and start typing, we forget. A great book on this subject is, Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide, by Brian FugereChelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky. Well worth putting on the shelf.

*Corporate Pig-Latin. I think that’s a phrase that sums it all up. But it’s not mine, I first heard my partner Rose use it a few years ago. She has a gift for language, naturally following and demonstrating the simple rules that the rest of us struggle with.

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Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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  1. kellyhesketh | November 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    I found this article extremely useful and very insightful.

  2. Siobhan Jacobs | November 21, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    Wow I get what you mean. I love the way you put it so simply. Thank you

  3. Peter Thomson | November 27, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Having just come back to England after 2 years in NY, this article made me smile as I thought of some of the corporate nonsense I had to digest (and in fairness produce) for the US market.

  4. David Kanigan | December 4, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Reblogged this on Lead.Learn.Live. and commented:
    Gavin McMahon has an excellent blog on “Making PowerPoint Powerful.” Beautifully designed. Thoughtful. Intelligent recommendations and examples. Highly recommended.

  5. Pingback: The REAL Death by PowerPoint | make a powerful point

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