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Minding our business language

Business should be about serving customers and hopefully making a profit in the process. But there are other aspects to business life that some find amusing, while others consider upsetting. As a new debate starts on whether we should be teaching young people languages like Chinese and Arabic to reflect the changing dynamics in world trade, the quality of our business communication in English remains a fascinating topic.

Many consider the jargon used in offices to be a pointless irritation. A survey of 2,000 managers in the UK by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that the most irritating phrases according to those surveyed were ‘thinking outside the box’ – meaning to look at things differently. This was followed by ‘going forward’ which simply means in the future. ‘Let’s touch base’ – used when the person wants to call, e-mail or meet to discuss an issue – was a close third.

Chrissie Mahler, founder of the Plain English Campaign, believes there is a serious side to the irritation and overused jargon: it could be holding business back. She insists: “Management-speak gets in the way; it acts like a barrier to procuring new business. It is downright dangerous... the longer mangers sit around like gnomes with their fishing rods in a pool of ‘blue sky thinking’ the longer it is going to take for the economy to bounce back.”

Terry Smith is the CEO of Fundsmith, a UK organisation that aims to promote simple business communication. It has just published an amusing paper entitled Banned Words and Phrases. Having been involved in financial services for nearly four decades, Smith is particularly interested in analysing official corporate communication. Company management, analysts and commentators often communicate with investors in a language that is at times obscure, if not outright misleading.

Smith is particularly irritated by the carless use of the word ‘leverage’. In finance this word means ‘the use of borrowing for finance which magnifies or leverages the operating results of a business’. It should not be used to replace simpler words like copied, relied upon, benefited or learned from. Smith quotes some examples where the word leverage was misused: “ASDA is a leader in online grocery delivery, and we’ve leveraged that experience in the US”.

Even more irritating is the use of words that do not exist. Many readers rightly consider the use of such non-existent words as ‘management gobbledegook’. Smith identifies ‘agenderise’, ‘folderise’, and ‘futurisation’ as words that should never be used simply because they do not exist. He amusingly advises his readers: “If you are typing something yourself, a small clue is that if the word becomes underlined in red or otherwise highlighted, your software application is trying to tell you either that the word is misspelt or that it doesn’t exist”.

Would anyone ever contemplate adopting a policy of indiscriminate acquisition?

Other words which should be avoided are those which are used for a meaning beyond their original purpose. My favourite gripe relates to the word ‘holistic’. This word is used incorrectly to suggest that in operating or making a decision a business takes all factors into account. Smith rightly insists that “its use should be limited to types of therapy”.

Another category that should be avoided in business communication is that of words which are meant to sound profound when a simpler word will do. ‘Granular data’ and ‘granularity’ are examples of such words. ‘Detail’ is a perfectly good word.

Smith concludes his paper Banned Words and Phrases with another witty comment: “You should never use an expression if the opposite is so nonsensical that you would never say it.”

Some companies adopt a strategy of growth through ‘select acquisitions’. Would anyone ever contemplate adopting a policy of ‘indiscriminate acquisition’?

I argue that the linguistic challenges we are facing are more basic. They go beyond semantics and relate to the limited ability of many business employees to communicate in a simple and comprehensible way.

The sooner we understand the consequences of the deterioration in the ability of many business people to communicate in English proficiently, the sooner we can take action to remedy this situation. Foreign investors are attracted to Malta because of our reputation to be a bilingual country where practically everyone understands English.

But those who come in contact with our University and vocational colleges graduates know how most young people struggle to make themselves understood when communicating in English. I am not referring to eloquence, but the simple function of good communication.

We really need to mind our business language.

johncassarwhite@yahoo.com

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