View from the Street: Do you speak plain English?


View from the Street: Do you speak plain English?

The next time you feel the need to reach out, touch base, circle back, sing from the same hymn sheet or do some blue sky thinking, by all means do it. Just don’t say you’re doing it. Because - and please believe me - all that meaningless business speak will not make you sound any more ‘in the loop’.

I won’t deny ever having used any of these expressions. We’re all guilty of using the occasional jargon at work.

But here is the issue: this seemingly everyday office chat can damage your authenticity and waste your valued time.

Meetings, calls and emails are too often cluttered with meaningless, confusing and, quite frankly, annoying phrases. We may be used to them - after all they are so common in the workplace - and we even know what they mean but, seriously, do you ever take a helicopter view with your significant other when planning a weekend break? Do you peel the onion when your kid’s school report isn’t what you’d hoped? Or do you think outside the box when your train is cancelled? For your sake, I hope not.

There is so much of this jargon it can be difficult to avoid. A quick office poll just confirmed a colossal list of grating phrases - so let’s focus on some stolen from the track or sports field.

I accept that there are many valuable lessons business leaders can - and should - take from sport. We only need to look at Sir Alex Ferguson’s management approach as a prime example. Both sport and business depend on performance, motivation, strategy - and plain speaking. Now, consider how these simple sports idioms translate to the workplace.

“Pass the baton” really does mean pass the baton (from one track athlete to another), a concept lost in our professional environment, translating as shrugging off a difficult project to a colleague. 

To “get the ball rolling”, “throw a curve ball” or “slam dunk” usually involves the presence of an actual ball. These sayings were not intended for use in the boardroom (although clients can, obviously, continue to tell us that we knocked it out of the park).

When I think about the origin of these phrases, I cringe knowing that I’m guilty of using them. It’s learned behavior: humans, just like dogs, tend to follow the pack. I think it was only when I met some prolific users of jargon that I sat back and realised just how much time is wasted in each breath, sentence and conversation with meaningless words – that’s time wasted for both speaker and the unlucky listener.

Most of us are too busy to waste precious time on deciphering mysterious business speak. Be authentic, literally say what you mean and allow time to talk about the things you really want to be discussing (in my case, dogs - I’ve even managed to mention pooches in this blog).

If I haven’t yet succeeded in convincing you to speak plain English, consider yourself sounding like Angela Ahrendts, former Burberry CEO, who in an annual report wrote one of the most perplexing sentences ever composed in the English language: “In the wholesale channel, Burberry exited doors not aligned with brand status and invested in presentation through both enhanced assortments and dedicated, customised real estate in key doors.” 

If you can tell me what that means, there is a bar of chocolate making its way to you.

Now, let's take this offline...

Laura Leslie is a partner at Charlotte Street Partners.