By Jerry Weissman
“Words, words, words! I get words all day through,” are the exasperated lyrics exclaimed by the title character of My Fair Lady, the classic musical play and film. Her exasperation is with the speech professor who is drilling her in word skills as part of an effort to elevate her social status from flower girl to an upper-class lady. Henry Higgins, the play’s fictional professor, is also exasperated—and so are countless real speech teachers and coaches, writers, and editors—with the decline of the English language.
The drive for status in the play is a perfect parallel with the drive for career advancement in business; and one of the primary means to both ends is the same: a person’s speech. In a prior Forbes post, I discussed one aspect of speech, the pervasive use of teenagers’ “like” in adult speech, but the language challenge is far broader. Common usage, particularly in business, has degenerated into what Harold Evans, the former editor of The Sunday Times, in his just-released book, Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters, calls “oppressive opaqueness.”
Mr. Evans has a comrade in journalistic arms in Lucy Kellaway, a veteran business columnist for the Financial Times. In a recent column she attacked “ugly business jargon” by using characteristic British irony to list a set of rules of how to create opaqueness. I’ll let Ms. Kellaway’s own descriptions of her rules and hilarious examples speak for themselves and offer you with six ways to avoid that curse.
If these rules look familiar, they should because many of them are also in The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Since its publication in 1918, the book has been issued and re-issued in multiple editions — more than 12 million copies— achieving iconic status. It is the gift of choice for graduations and promotions. However, given the continuing deterioration of our language, apparently nobody reads them.
So, summoning Shakespeare’s famous battle cry, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”
- Use short, familiar words rather long esoteric ones. Harold Evans offers an excellent example of the difference between “adverse climatic conditions” and simply, “bad weather.”
- Avoid euphemisms. A manager at a large corporation was laid off as part of a “profit improvement plan.”
- Practice good grammar. Read Strunk and White. Become the exception—and exceptional.
- Use metaphors sparingly and never mix them. I heard a CEO trying to raise financing for his company pitch an investor by saying, “We’re at the beginning of the runway in a greenfield market with lots of low hanging fruit where we can grab the brass ring.”
- Use familiar language, don’t invent new words. The overused “prioritize” is an invented word; made by converting a noun, “priority,” into a verb by adding “ize”—a practice that the legendary New York Times columnist William Safire called “verbification of nouns.” Look at the difference when you precede the noun with a true verb, as in “establish priorities.”
- Avoid clichés. Fellow Forbes contributor Dr. Travis Bradberry recently offered his list of pet peeves in business clichés; to which I add mine, “Does that make sense?”
Elevate your speech, elevate your career.
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