Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Business Getting Soft?

Five Pieces of Weak, Confusing Patter to Ban from Your Language

President Barack Obama has been criticized of late for weak messages and language. This doesn’t surprise me: he’s a 21st-century politician in an industry (politics) that’s fast reaching its nadir.

What does surprise me – and scares me – is the growing number of business people who regularly use weak, unnecessary language or patter.

“Patter” is language that fills in the breaths between statements and questions. Patter appears to be on the upswing, probably because we have so many bits to fill – hence its extensive use in social media. But just because the bits are there, you don’t have to fill them.

Here are five pieces of patter that you should exorcise from your business language:

“Just Saying”: As opposed to what?

“IMHO”: If you feel unqualified to offer an opinion, then don’t.

• “My Two Cents”: If your opinion is really only worth two cents, then why say it? And why admit to it?

“Oh, and” (often followed by “did I mention?"): Did you really forget to mention it? If so, was it because you don’t think clearly? Or because it was an afterthought? Many people seem to use “oh, and” and “did I mention” to set off the most important item in a list. This makes no sense to me at all.

“Kind of,” when used to obscure what it refers to (“we were kind of confused”), not distinguish it (“Kate Moss is a different kind of cover girl”)

In business, “kind of” is a pox on precision. It calls into question the truth of whatever term it modifies, as well as the knowledge and seriousness of the speaker. The phrase is cropping up in many executive quotations in news stories, making me wonder if reporters’ word processors have a macro that automatically inserts it into quotes.

“Kind of” is particularly deadly when it describes a corporate action or financials. It makes me wonder: “Doesn’t the speaker know how much, or how little?” “If he means ‘approximately’ or ‘estimated,’ why not say this, instead of using the verbal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders?”

Here are two recent examples:

Example 1: “When [former Walmart CEO Lee] Scott was thinking about what qualities his successor should have, he saw a match with [new Walmart CEO Mike] Duke’s skills. ‘I kind of thought -- and I think the board thought - that the company could be better managed,’ says Scott, who is careful to say that it was the directors who picked Duke for the job, not him.”

Example 2: “Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company, wanted to increase its visibility to U.S. investors but worried about associating with over-the-counter offerings, says Thomas Kudsk Larsen, head of investor relations in North America. The OTCQX designation addressed those concerns, and the company started trading there in 2007. ‘By segregating out high-quality companies, we kind of get away from the reputation of the Pink Sheets,’ Larsen says.”

Perhaps by using equivocal patter, business people hope that they won’t offend anyone. (Offending anyone is the third rail in our Post-Crisis world.)

True, if you wallpaper your business speech with weak, equivocal patter, you probably won’t offend anyone. But I can almost guarantee that people won’t remember you – or the points you are trying to make.

Perhaps this is the idea?

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