Listening to ‘Truth, bullsh*t and weasel words’


It has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with the fact that I can’t stand corporate speak.

Anybody who loves clear writing knows – and loves – Don Watson. I took the opportunity to hear him speak as part of Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s public events program last week. His books on language include Weasel Words, Bendable Learnings and Death Sentence: The decay of public language.

This question-and-answer session focused on language in political discourse, about which there is plenty to lament. We’ve seen a profound change in news media in the last while, Watson argued, which has changed news into a combat between talking heads. And while there has always been lies and trickery in politics, we are now less able to judge truth and lies as politics has become so tribal. The suggestibility of the public has risen at the same rate as the lies.

And along came Trump

Trump, of course, had to be discussed. Watson pointed out that he ‘didn’t drop from the sky’: Bannon et al figured out that what we saw on our screens was what was important. All he had to do was make sure Trump was the centre of the story. And we can agree that Trump has been pretty good at keeping himself there, front and centre day after frustrating day.

So what’s the answer?

The refreshing thing about hearing this witty, accomplished and intelligent speaker and writer is that he didn’t pretend to have the answers. Is it education? That’s part of it. Better journalism? It would help, and it would go a long way if journalists bothered to consult academics when writing their stories. Are independent candidates making things better? At least they save us from the party operatives who are presently running the show, and make us begin to think again.

And those weasel words?

I discovered that a book is to be referred to as a ‘cultural externality’. When he was asked what his (least) favourite weasel words were. Watson listed:

  • impact, and more particularly impactful learnings
  • window of opportunity
  • appropriate and/or inappropriate

You can contribute your own to Don Watson’s website. The next day I noticed this one in Sydney’s Hyde Park:

‘For your safety we advise you not to visit the park during or just after heavy rain and strong winds because of the risk of tree failure.’

If I’m not wrong, that’s a piece of tree falling on your head, whether anybody’s there to hear it or not.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?

A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon

By Steven Poole

We hate it, we laugh about it, and then sometimes we hear it come from our own mouths. The horrible jargon that was once confined to office life slowly ekes its way into everyday language. So ‘leverage’ started in high finance, and now it’s everywhere. The first time I heard somebody say they’d ‘reached out’ to a colleague, I was alarmed; now I think I might have said it in a meeting, once. I’ve created a list of alternatives for some of the worst words.

An A to Z of unbearable jargon

I bought this book because I do find office jargon unbearable. I also love a good laugh, and this provides an A to Z of amusing entries. Here’s one of my favourites.

Going forward helpfully implies a kind of thrustingly strategic process, and moving forward perhaps even more so – even though none is likely to be made as long as the work-day is made up of funereal meetings where people say things like ‘going forward’.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower, p. 91

The alternatives to ‘going forward’, ‘in future’ or ‘from now on’, don’t have the implication that the slate is being wiped clean. Using them might sound rather like owning up to a mistake. ‘We won’t charge dead customers in future’ has a different ring to it.

If you write in your job, get your hands on this book. Every time you want to use a tired office cliche, such as bandwidth, leverage or deliverables. You’ll find an alternative. Or if you work in an office and want to know what a brown-bag session is, or what they really meant by saying they would ‘open the kimono’, look it up.

Then circle back to me with your favourites.

Mind your language! A handy list of substitutes for some tired workplace jargon

Managerial language, suitspeak, weasel words… it’s hard to say exactly what we dislike about them, and why we groan inwardly when we hear one. They start as buzzwords, then worm their way into our consciousness and become part of our own language. When it’s time to write a report or blog post, we can’t find an alternative.

Here’s a short list of some clichés to avoid like the plague (did you see what I did there?) and some substitutes.

They won’t work in every situation, because clear writing depends largely on context and audience. Try them when next you write an article for social media or copy for your website. You might find your prose starts to cut through the noise, like an opera singer at a football game.

The examples I’ve used were collected over two days on LinkedIn and Facebook, plus a couple of websites I routinely consult.

But what’s wrong with these terms?

1. Sometimes your readers/customers won’t understand the terminology you use because it’s just not part of their world. Some of them are just plain hard to understand.

2. Their tone is often evasive and indirect. Most of the time, plain, direct language would be more suited to what you’re trying to convey. Here’s a real example:

‘[xxx] gives you and your account manager visibility over which elements of your content marketing are actually working by collecting data across all your activities.’

If they said something like the following I would understand what they propose to do for me – and I’d be more likely to feel I could work with them.

You and your account manager can see what parts of your content marketing are effective, because we measure them for you.

And, most importantly,

3. It makes you sound just like everybody else. Content marketing is everywhere. Just one platform, LinkedIn, had 467 million users at last count. That’s a lot of competition for attention. Why sound like a corporate drone when you can say things in a fresh, original style?

Words to stop using. Just don’t.

Innovate. Everybody’s innovating so routinely that the term has become meaningless. Same for passionate, iconic, savvy and unicorns. Challenges and solutions. They’re tired and worn out, so give them a rest.

There’s a great book on the topic. In Who Touched Base in my Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon, author Steven Poole says that while there’s nothing wrong with jargon in context, we can ‘fight back against the filthy tide of verbal slurry that treats us like idiotic automata every day’.

The battle starts with you.

What workplace words do you find unbearable? Do you have a simpler substitute?