"Bull has become the language of business."
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Every single one of us can tell the difference between human communication and business communication—when we’re reading. For some reason, when we’re writing, we lose our minds.
The best books on change are written, not by folks who never had to learn, but by those who’ve “been there” and wish they hadn’t done that. Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky – authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots – all worked at Deloitte Consulting, committing the very crimes outlined in this book when one day they woke up and smelled the, er, aroma of what they were saying in their professional writing. After creating software (called Bullfighter) to help them monitor their own writing, they gathered what they learned, verified their thinking with a little informal research, and identified the four main reasons business people speak like idiots—and how not to.
Fugere and company describe four “traps” that business people can fall into with their writing. In each case, they speak to how someone falls into the trap, give examples, and offer clear advice on how to avoid the trap in the future. In case the title of the book doesn’t make this obvious, every lesson is delivered with humour in clear, simple language.
Why business people speak like idiots is a fun read; educational without being too dense.
The Big Idea
Plain Speaking is Valued but Scarce
"Entire careers can be built on straight talk—precisely because it is so rare."
The four traps (covered in detail in insight #1) are hard to escape. Business writing and speaking is widely damaged by obscure, personality-less, pushy, boring prose. The rare examples stand out. And, in a world overrun by messaging, that means that rare plain speaking has very real financial value to your business.
We admire, even revere, plain speakers who aren’t afraid to be human. Billionaire Warren Buffet’s 2002 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders included the sentence “I was dead wrong.” Walter Cronkite, in the most moving and historic passage in broadcasting history, nearly gave way to tears while announcing the assassination of President Kennedy. Or this snippet by a chap named Churchill:
“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
(Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940)
Can you even imagine a politician today speaking so plainly?
Straight talk is scarce and valuable. Those who excel at it will stand out. So what are these “traps” to avoid exactly, and how do we do that? Well, I thought you’d never ask.
Avoid the Four Traps
"Great business leaders live life outside the four traps."
In your professional writing (and speaking) avoid – at all costs – the four traps:
The Obscurity Trap — Jargon, wordiness, and evasiveness obscure your message. Use common language. Where unfamiliar terms are the most appropriate choice, define them. Tell the truth directly. Be brief. (On November 19, 1863, noted orator Edward Everett gave a 2-hour speech which was 13,500 words long. You’re probable more familiar with the 5-minute 270-word opening act, which began “Four score and seven years ago . . . ”)
The Anonymity Trap — Bring your personality to work with you. Avoid the lazy safety of templates. Don’t polish every point to predictability. Use humour, fer cryin’ out loud! Folks will go out of their way to listen to someone who’s funny. Sometimes an email just won’t do. Pick up the phone! Make a human connection, with real voices and stuff.
The Hard-Sell Trap — Fear, habit, and bad role models have kept the hard sell alive long after it should have died a natural death. We all ignore commercials. If you don’t want to be ignored, don’t sound like a commercial. Instead of “selling”, talk like a human being. Bad news gets sold all the time, too. If you find yourself looking for a positive spin for bad news, stop. Bad news delivered in plain language gives leaders an aura of power. Delivered from the front line to someone higher up, it engenders trust.
The Tedium Trap — If your business speaking or writing is entertaining, you will thrill your audience. Use clear but lively language. Assume a modicum of intelligence in the audience and show, don’t tell. Acknowledge opposing points of view. People don’t listen well if they don’t believe you understand their point of view. Tell stories.
Readers Make Personal Assumptions Based on Your Writing
"When they see bull, they make negative assumptions about the person or company that spews it. When they see straight talk, they think good things about the source."
Readers draw conclusions about the writer based on the style of writing. This is one cause of long sentences filled with fancy words, the desire to be thought intelligent.
The conclusions readers draw, though, are to attribute positive qualities to writers who speak plainly—even qualities impossible to determine because they are completely unrelated to the content.
Talk straight and write plain and your audience will assume good things about you, whether there’s evidence for it or not. Conversely, blather like an idiot and they will dislike you. If they do, you can get everything else right and still not matter.
The cover of the book is a lesson, all by itself. The title, in black, is set over this pale grey text which fills most of the cover:
“Why many enterprise-oriented human capital assets consistently utilize complex linguistic architectures and niche-centric jargon to articulate mission critical messaging and action items to their companies’ diverse global constituencies, resulting in discernible disenfranchisement and change resistance on the part of each and every value-added stakeholder, who is consequently required at the end of the day to deploy more bandwidth toward drilling down into the communication than might otherwise have been required to maintain his or her comprehension of same and how not to do that.”
It is, of course, the title of the book as a business person might write it.
Why Business People Speak Like Idiots is more than a what-not-to-do book. The positive side of each lesson makes the writing of other bullfighters evident as I go about my business. Its straight-talk lesson is a cornerstone of my business writing and coaching.
In case I haven’t been clear: buy and read this book. It will improve your writing and speaking.