Lucy Kellaway: 2016 – have we hit peak corporate guff?

Published: 27 March 2018

Lucy Kellaway: 2016 – have we hit peak corporate guff?

Time to action the annual Golden Flannel Awards for horrible business jargon

 

2016 proved that the most egregious jargon is a sign not of failure, but of overexcitement. Illustration: Getty Images

2016 proved that the most egregious jargon is a sign not of failure, but of over excitement. Illustration: Getty Images

 

Every January for the past decade I have handed out awards for horrible use of language in business. Usually the task amuses me. This year I have found the sheer weight of euphemism, grammatical infelicity, disingenuity and downright ugliness so lowering I have decided to start the 2016 Golden Flannel Awards with something more uplifting: a prize for clarity.

I am calling this the Wan Long prize, after the Chinese meat magnate who once uttered the clearest sentence ever spoken by a CEO: “What I do is kill pigs and sell meat.” Mr Wan will surely approve of my winner, a BNSF railway executive who told a conference: “We move stuff from one place to another.”

This elegant, informative and borderline beautiful sentence is a reminder that despite the horrific nature of the entries below, clarity remains attainable.

I used to think guff was a product of failure and mediocrity – it existed because the truth was too painful, or because executives had not bothered to ascertain what the truth was.

Indeed, last year produced the usual crop of new euphemisms for firing people. Infosys announced an “orderly ramp-down of about 3,000 persons”. Upworthy, a small media company, had the nerve to call sacking 14 people an “investment lay-off”. Otherwise, 2016 proved that the most egregious jargon is a sign not of failure, but of overexcitement.

‘Laser-focused’ People promoting driverless cars, the most hyped industry segment of the moment, became world leaders in verbiage. Elon Musk claimed to be “laser-focused on achieving full self-driving capability on one integrated platform with an order of magnitude greater safety than the average manually driven car” (ie Tesla cars must stop crashing).

Still better was Iain Roberts, global managing director of the design company Ideo, who asked a question to which I hope never to hear the answer: “How to activate insights around latent mobility or multimodal needs?”

 

But the runaway winner was Ford CEO Mark Fields, who began the year with the depressing news that his company was “transitioning from an auto company to an auto company and a mobility company”. He then went on to declare: “Heritage is history with a future.” He was so chuffed with this, he said it more than once. On hearing it repeated, I’ve concluded it is less gnomic than downright moronic. Mr Fields is thus my new Chief Obfuscation Champion.

The PR industry excelled itself with increasingly fancy descriptions for the basic activities of emailing, talking and meeting. Entrants included: “I want to jump on your radar” (a bad idea as, if you jump on radars, they break) and “let’s find a time to connect to mutually update”. My favourite came from a PR man named Michael who wrote: “I hope you don’t mind the outreach.” Alas, I do mind. To reach out has always been hateful, but making it a noun, and reversing the word order, does not help. Michael, you’ve won the Communications cup.

‘Weekend well’ Take the intriguing reintroduction of “unfeigned regards” – last big in the 18th century and now found on emails from Indian help centres. But the winning sign-off, at the bottom of a message sent one Friday, was: “weekend well”. I nearly awarded it second prize for the best noun pretending to be a verb, though at the last minute this award was snatched by a consultant overheard saying: “Can we cold-towel that?”

While he wins the Nerb prize, the sister prize, for the best verb masquerading as a noun, is won by another consultant who referred to a “global touch-base”.

Siemens broke records last year by winning two awards for renaming its healthcare business Healthineers. Not only does it land the Martin Lukes prize for the worst combination of two words, the accompanying video, featuring a singing CEO and writhing spandex-clad employees, wins a gold medal for most embarrassing company song of all time.

Spurious renaming My favourite award every year is for a spurious renaming of a common noun. A couple of years ago, Speedo rechristened the swimming cap a “hair management system”. Last year, Falke went one better by renaming a line of socks “Life Performance Solutions”.

Falke’s fall from grace is sad, but nothing compared with eBay. The company I thought I would love forever for supplying my entire wardrobe and the contents of my house told the New York Times: “We are passionate about harnessing our platform to empower millions of people by levelling the playing field for them.”

Bingo! In fewer than 20 words it combined five previous years’ winners, only to say nothing at all. With a heavy heart, I award eBay my overall Golden Flannel Award for 2016.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

 

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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