Speak English, for goodness sake!

My colleague Tim Phillips usually has more to say on this. But, at last, it’s official – 62 per cent of managing directors, marketing directors and CEOs believe that prospecting communications sent to them are so riddled with ‘new business-speak’ that they are made almost unintelligible and are, therefore, counter productive.

The result is that most letters, emails and direct mail are binned within the first five seconds of being opened. In fact, the practice of inserting gobbledegook to replace plain English words has become so prevalent that many companies are harming their chances of working with other organisations.

The company that carried out the research – Retriever – found that 54 per cent of companies used unintelligible and meaningless words instead of straightforward prose. Says Mark Young, Retriever’s MD: “There is a belief amongst a significant majority of business personnel that inserting new business-speak somehow shows them as being intelligent and professional. Instead, it would seem that the opposite is true. People are just fed up with being sent letters that, rather than convey intention, are full of innuendo and misleading sentences.”

The research found that the words most detested are:

‘at the coalface’ (42 per cent)

‘win win situation’ (39 per cent)

‘over arching’ (34 per cent)

‘mind set’ (31 per cent)

‘think outside the box’ (30 per cent)

‘client interfacing’ (27 per cent)

‘tooled-up’ (25 per cent)

‘blue sky thinking’ (24 per cent)

‘singing from the same song sheet’ (19 per cent)

‘drill down’ (18 per cent).

Some of the more bizarre sentences included:  ‘run up the flag pole and see who salutes’, ‘working to a wire frame structure’, and ‘not lying in the long grass on this decision’.

Whilst many consider the use of clichés and tortuous sentences as a reflection of their business acumen most senior personnel see their use as a reflection of the senders’ ignorance and inability to be direct and engaging.  Explains Young:

“There are over 171,000 words in the English language; there is no need to add more. There are plenty of existing words in everyday usage that can explain most business situations. Unfortunately, a whole industry seems to have grown up to try and distance business from those it is there to serve. The use of convoluted language has served only to alienate people. The research shows that most people respond better to plain, simple and straight forward messages, especially those that are emotionally engaging as well as commercial.”

Some of the more irritating words that those researched disliked included: ‘elucidate’ instead of ‘make clear’, ‘heretofore’ instead of ‘until now’, ‘a percentage of’ instead of ‘some’, ‘promulgate’ instead of ‘advertise’, ‘over arching’ instead of ‘all’, and ‘mind set’ instead of ‘think’.

The research also found a correlation between the use of business jargon and the seniority of the personnel interviewed. Employees  – those under 25 years of age – were less likely to pepper their correspondence with new fangled business jargon, as were those over 50 years old or those who were at director level. However, managers or those aged between 25 and 45 were over three times more likely to use language that sought only to confuse rather than define.

It would appear that the less confident a person is the more likely they are to use inappropriate or, in many cases, completely inaccurate and meaningless words. Those new to work have not been indoctrinated into the dark arts of gobbledegook, and those confident in their position within a company seem to favour plain talking.

In fact, Retriever’s research also found that the use of plain English within communications – letters, emails, memos and direct mailers – generated a three-fold increase in response over ones that incorporated ‘new business jargon’ – the use of any of the words like ‘client interfacing’, ‘win-win’, ‘at the coalface’ or other inane words for which there already exists a perfectly clear, succinct and accepted one.

There were differences in opinion between business sectors. Some directors responded more favourably than others to the use of jargon. Advertising agencies used more jargon than any other industry, followed by marketing agencies, estate agencies and IT companies. Retail was low down the list, just ahead of banking. However, the finance industry, as a whole, was relatively clear of jargon with most of its correspondence in plain English.

The hotel, travel and leisure industry seemed to have a predisposition to using as much jargon as humanly possible, coming second behind the advertising industry.

3 responses

  1. ‘not lying in the long grass on this decision’. I love it! In a hating-it kind of way. Thanks for the link Clive. We need to stand together against the forces of blue-sky thinking. It’s interesting, and not something that I’ve seen before, that it’s the 25-45s who are the problem.

    also it’s just my personal experience, but I note that people who claim that an hour of answering emails in an air-conditioned office is working “at the coalface” usually don’t come from a mining family.



  2. This jargon has annoyed me ever since I went into publishing in the early 80s. There are plenty more words and a lot of new ones that have crept in since then…


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