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Why Businesspeople Speak Like Idiots

— Because let’s face it: Business is boring —

bored_businessman.gifYears ago when I worked for the Dilbert-sized corporation, there was an in-house taboo on what I privately considered “bad news” words.

For example, we couldn’t say “sales are down.” We had to say “we’re experiencing an unfavorable sales variance” (I’m not making this up).

Once, in mid-meeting I was actually reprimanded for using the phrase “poor quality” in referring to likely customer perceptions of our company (upon delivery, one of our machines was discovered to be rusted and useless). Instead, I was sternly reminded, I should have used the term “questionable quality procedure.”

That was the beginning of the end of bureaucorporate life for me. I figured staying honest was better than slow brainwashing with organizational newspeak.

So imagine my delight when, thanks to author and Presentation Zen meister Garr Reynolds, I read a book that begins with the following line, a truth after my own soul:

Let’s face it: Business today is drowning in bullshit.

In their delightful book, Why Business People Speak like Idiots, authors Fugere, Hardaway, and Warshawsky take on the important — and excruciatingly funny — job of clarifying, demystifying, and, well, de-bullshitizing the language of the workplace. Here are their three main points:

1. Businesses focus on themselves over readers
Too often businesses aim to impress, not to inform, say the Idiots authors. Rather than using plain, simple language everyone understands, business writers use jargon or insider phrases, with the ambition of becoming “a kind of intellectual powerhouse, generating concepts that are too lofty to be expressed in something as mundane as English.”

2. Business people fear concrete language
Businesses like to avoid commitment, and therefore liability, say Fugere et al. Speakers and writers who want to avoid saying anything use a lot of words to say nothing, the authors write. The result? Readers recognize the B.S. and give up looking for meaning.

3. Business is boring
In a hilarious section called “Romancing the Dull,” the authors offer another explanation for why businessspeak is so ridiculous:

The third motive for obscurity is business idiots’ relentless attempts to romanticize whatever it is they do for a living. All of this romanticizing keeps the business world from talking about work and instead allows business idiots to pretend to be secret agents and quarterbacks.

Here’s the unvarnished truth: Business is dull.

That’s not something I need to tell my students; they know it already. In fact, that’s exactly why they show up for my entrepreneurship classes: First, because I’m not a dull teacher. Second, I freely acknowledge that business is boring. And third, because being an entrepreneur is not dull, and many students hope eventually to extricate themselves from soul-crushing labor as salaried employees (to hear the flip side of this coin, see In Praise of Salaried Employment).

idiots_book_cover.gifUnfortunately, it’s not just businesspeople who sound like idiots. Academics aren’t much better, except that what they write is often so unintelligible that readers figure that they, not the authors, are the dummies.

And I sound like an idiot whenever I start generalizing or sermonizing instead of saying plainly what I know to be true from my own experience (thank you, Brenda Euland, again and again — I’m still working on it).

Plain talk is soul-affirming. So whether you’re reader or writer, speaker or listener, you’ll find much to love in Why Business People Speak like Idiots. Procure a volume today to ascertain whether your personal value proposition might be enhanced through application of the value-added paradigms proposed by Fugere, et al. (alternatively, share your favorite example of ridiculous companyspeak in the comments section below).

At the very least, please subscribe to the e-mail version of Soul Shelter. You’ll enjoy two soul-satsifying essays weekly — never more, never less — and we promise not to speak like idiots.

You may also enjoy:

An Uncommon Way to Express the Real You

In Defense of “Aimless” Learning

Simplify, simplify!

11 Comments to Why Businesspeople Speak Like Idiots

On Feb 19, 2009, Cindy Marsch commented:

No wonder I made a D in Management the first time through! I was an English – Business co-major and the two worlds could NOT coexist in that class. I’d actually worked in Management (for a consultant) for two summers and could DO the job, but I couldn’t “get” the language of the “discipline” in my university course.

On Feb 19, 2009, Traveler commented:

All so true. Here’s a good example: Just a few days ago, Microsoft announced it’ll open retail stores (like Apple) and make shopping simpler for customers. Their message is “we want to make it easier to understand and buy our products.” But here’s how the COO decided to explain that:

“We’re working hard to transform the PC and Microsoft buying experience at retail by improving the articulation and demonstration of the Microsoft innovation and value proposition so that it’s clear, simple and straightforward for consumers everywhere.”

And apparently, the guy doesn’t see the irony in that. Sigh.

On Feb 19, 2009, by Tim commented:

@ Cindy: You obviously hadn’t articulated your paradigm along the value chain. Which is just as well, because as it turns out, there’s nothing to manage.

And now you are a writer, and a teacher of writing, which is a very fine profession, and so much more rewarding for you than being in business. Thank you for writing clearly, and for helping others do the same.

@ Traveler: Thank you for this priceless quote. Soon I will share some other stories about the company that takes us where we don’t want to go today, including the time I physically knocked Bill Gates down (I’m not making this up).

P.S. Glad to know that Soul Shelter has a least one reader in Japan, my second home :)

On Feb 23, 2009, Traveler commented:

Actually, Tim, I think we’ve met briefly in Japan years ago. It was spotting your name somewhere recently that brought me to this blog. Will have to send you a short email some time soon to say hi again.

In the meantime, more great posts, please!

On Feb 24, 2009, by Tim commented:

Please do. I’m hoping to visit Japan in June and would like to arrange a Soul Shelter meet up.

As to great posts, thanks for cheering me on!

On Feb 24, 2009, jim commented:

This is great, it reminds me of my days as a consultant where I would identify synergies and synergize identities. The word soup was getting to be ridiculous, I felt like the only people buying it were the fools who came up with the words. :)

On Feb 25, 2009, by Tim commented:

Synergize identities? Wow, that’s a new one.

Consultants are like lawyers; they sell words ordinary people can’t understand.

Jim, I like your Bargaineering identity much better :-)

On Feb 25, 2009, Traveler commented:

I forgot to mention, Tim: Don’t leave us in suspense about your “I mowed down Bill Gates” story. Looking forward to it!

On Feb 25, 2009, by Tim commented:

Yeah, I’m working on it, but I’ve got to milk it for all it’s worth, since I can’t really write 12 posts about it …

On Sep 26, 2012, Thomas commented:


I have a feeling we met during the dot.com days – good to see your blog.

You fall for the newspeak trap yourself – check your header – “businesspeople” – that’s an unnecessarily long PC term. :-)


On Sep 26, 2012, by Tim commented:

Yes, we did, and I’m trying to remember where :-)

This is my latest project:



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