You can smell it the minute he opens his mouth. One after the other, the noxious words tumble from his lips: core competency, impactful, monetize, scalable, asynchronous, value-add, leverage, synergize, verticals, collaborative, enterprise-wide, node-specific, fault-tolerant. As these professional-sounding blurtings fill the air, a hazy cloud of incoherence drifts through the room almost unnoticed. The cloud has a disorienting, narcotic effect on you as your brain tries in vain to translate the odd, disjointed syllables. You can feel your eyelids growing heavy, the joints in your knees and arms going stiff and numb. You recognize this distinctive smell from somewhere else – the news, maybe, or an ad on TV? – but you can't quite place it. Then it hits you: This strange smell has the distinctive odor of – oh, but it's a business setting, so you can't say the actual word – bull----.
You are not alone. Every day, vast multitudes of working people sit in similar rooms, listening to human robots drone on about metrics and market share, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the respectful silence in the room may not be a sign of rapt attention, but rather a natural byproduct of boredom, resentment and, often, outright dismay. How, the listener wonders, can someone stand up there and ricochet buzzwords off the wall for an hour, without pity or remorse, and still believe at the end that they have delivered a competent, professional presentation?
Indeed, to be trapped in a room with someone who speaks in endless ribbons of jargon is like being forced to watch a bizarre circus act in which the performer exhibits his or her mastery of freakish, slightly disturbing verbal gymnastics. It's sort of interesting to watch, but it leaves you with an icky feeling inside.
That's what happens when you ingest large quantities of business BS.
Most people take a certain amount of BS in the workplace for granted, however, especially when someone is giving a presentation. Listeners have come to expect presentations full of lifeless, mechanical catch-phrases, and presenters from the CEO on down have discovered that their underlings will tolerate, and sometimes even respect, a BS presentation – if it's done with enough conviction and a sufficient lack of humor.
Which is precisely the problem: Too many meetings, speeches, product pitches and professional seminars these days reek of excessive and relentless BS. In some professional circles, one's ability to juggle the latest buzzwords is even a point of pride, if not a job description in itself.
Unfortunately, by choosing to convey their ideas in obfuscative or inscrutable business-speak, presenters are not only BS-ing their audiences, the audiences that sit and take it are BS-ing the speakers by pretending they have absorbed and understood every syllable. Furthermore, a speaker and audience who do this box-step of bull together are BS-ing each other into believing that something akin to communication has occurred.
It has not.
A backlash is brewing
In fact, what happens in far too many business presentations is really the antithesis of communication. There's no true sense of connection. Between speaker and audience, a genuine trust is never established. Confusion is the usual result, not clarity. In the end, after all the bull-tossing and bloviating, the people in the room do not feel they understand each other better. More likely, they feel skeptical, manipulated, resentful or disgusted. Or worse, they feel nothing, because repeated bludgeonings of BS have left them numb to hyperbole and indifferent to falseness and evasion. Tired of trying to decipher what the man in the suit is really saying, they give up, surrendering their outrage for the price of another cup of coffee and a mini-muffin.
If you are a presenter, this sad state of affairs should concern you, because your primary objective should be to establish just the sort of connection and trust that eludes the average business BS-er. Unfortunately, in business, advertising, politics, the news media, academia, the law and practically every other arena of public life one cares to mention, BS has become our primary mode of communication. Our culture encourages and perpetuates it in a thousand different ways, not the least of which is a failure to expose professional jargon-slingers for the charlatans they are. On the contrary, they are often promoted through the ranks because of their eerie command of today's bloated business lexicon.
But a backlash is brewing. A number of books dedicated to fighting the proliferation of BS in daily business life have been published in the past year. Dozens of Web sites chronicling the abuse of language by businesspeople and politicians are seeing brisk traffic. And the surest sign that some sort of threshold for the tolerance of jargon has been breached is that blatant examples of it are now regularly held up for public ridicule. The Onion, a popular weekly tabloid and Web site of satirical news, recently published a story with the headline, "Man trapped in airport speaks only business."
Funny, yes, but the sad part is that almost everyone gets the joke.
Identifying and laughing at business BS is much easier than reducing or eliminating it, however. To do serious battle with BS, one must understand where it comes from, why it is so popular, and what the viable alternatives are.
One measure of the growing desperation to understand the role of BS in contemporary life is the fact that a book called On Bullshit has been on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for the past five months. Even more amazing is that the book itself sheds very little light on the subject, and, though only 67 pages long, is all but unreadable.
Penned by Princeton University philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt more than 20 years ago as a conversation-starter for his monthly philosophy coffee-klatch, On Bullshit is in fact its own special form of BS – an essay masquerading as a book (the hardcover version is small enough to tuck into a suit pocket for easy reference), written in the pedantic, throat-clearing style of tenured academicians, yet marketed to masses of people whose tolerance for close linguistic analysis likely ends at reading 20 short but grueling pages devoted to the differences between bull---- and humbug.
Having read the book, it's hard to escape the conclusion that On Bullshit made its remarkable climb up the best-seller list solely on the strength of its disarmingly straightforward title. People who buy this book are clearly hungry for some no-nonsense insight into the actual nonsense they encounter every day. It's just a pity Frankfurt's book doesn't provide it.
False vs. phony
To be fair, Frankfurt does offer some handy insights into the symptoms and causes of BS – and, since you're unlikely to read the book, we'll gladly share them with you. The first observation worth noting is this one, offered two-thirds of the way through: "...The essence of bull---- is not that it is false, but that it is phony."
In other words, BS-ers aren't necessarily lying, they just aren't telling the truth in a believable or trustworthy way. In corporate presentations, this phoniness often takes the form of a junior associate pretending to know more than he does, or an executive trying to act the way she thinks a leader ought to act and saying things she thinks a leader ought to say. Witness the executive or manager who wraps himself in the cloak of sincerity and conviction – to win at all costs, thwart the competition, meet the challenges ahead, etc. – when everyone in the room knows that the speaker is not saying these things out of a deep sense of personal belief, he is saying them because they are the sorts of things he thinks one is supposed to say in such situations. At a loss for anything genuine or original to communicate, the speaker invokes the weary bromides and platitudes of business.
On such occasions, the feeling in the audience is that the presenter is not being genuine or authentic. Presentations in which the presenter seems oddly disconnected or distant are the primary symptoms of such phoniness. Either the presenter is saying things he or she doesn't really mean, or they are speaking in an unnatural, artificial way. Depending on how many layers of fakery separate the presenter from the audience, the listener's experience can range from mild discomfort to a sudden urge to shower.
Ignorance + speaking = BS
Another of Frankfurt's observations that applies particularly well to the professional world is, "Bull---- is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about."
In the real world, the problem isn't podiums overtaken by complete ignoramuses, it's speakers who end up speaking on a subject before they are truly prepared, most often because the situation demands it. In truth, almost everyone is eventually sucked into speaking before they are 100 percent ready; it's almost a rite of passage in some circles, and a necessary evil in others. How one walks the fine line between professionally acceptable posturing and outright BS is the tricky part. In almost all cases, however, the best strategy is to be honest about what you know and don't know. For one thing, it's easier. For another, people can forgive almost any transgression if it's honestly owned up to, but if they find out you have been BS-ing them, their memories will be long and their judgment harsh. The kiss of death is pretending to know more than one actually does – either in an attempt to impress one's colleagues, or as a way of hiding one's lack of knowledge in areas that ought to be familiar.
Of the books available on BS, On Bullshit is easily the least helpful. One book on the subject that should be climbing best-seller lists is Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter's Guide by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky, the same folks who, in 2003, released the Bullfighter software program for detecting and eliminating jargon in everyday communication. The three authors are former or current executives at Deloitte Consulting, which evidently is an ideal petri dish for studying the cultivation and dissemination of high-grade, professional BS.
The central thesis of the Bullfighter team is that prose and speech laden with jargon almost always makes for lousy communication. Phrases such as mission-critical and value-add are emotionally empty, they say, and do part of their damage by sterilizing and dehumanizing the language of the workplace. The use of this neutered, artificial vocabulary is "the exact opposite of real, authentic conversation," they argue, and executives who continue to use this "hollow and vapid" terminology risk being laughed at, disrespected and ultimately ignored.
Don't take the low road
That's not the worst part, though. For presenters, the most insidious thing about using canned, prefab business-speak is that it masks the most important aspect of an engaging, persuasive presentation – the presenter's own authentic, original voice. But, since so many professionals have become linguistic lemmings, mindlessly hurtling themselves into a sea of syntactic nonsense, a golden opportunity exists for presenters who want to be heard. To stand out from the business-babbling masses, the Bullfighters counsel, all you really have to do is work at being yourself.
The Bullfighters' flaying of the suit mentality has an entertaining, emperor-has-no-clothes quality to it. The next time someone sends you a buzzword-laden memo, for instance, it may be instructive to consider that the sender has likely chosen the language of business-speak more for what it hides than what it says. Business-speak is the language of evasion, the authors argue, and most people who use it do so either to sound smarter than they really are, or to hide the fact that they have nothing worthwhile to say. "Business idiots" are fundamentally insecure about their own intelligence and competence, the authors contend, so they tend to waste their energy trying to impress people rather than inform them. "The low road to impressing an audience is to make them feel inferior, by using words they won't understand," which is why presentations laden with jargon always feel so condescending. In most cases it's a ploy – a smokescreen for the abuser's lack of original ideas. After all, the Bullfighters counsel, "If you have nothing to say, jargon is the best way to say it."
Breaking the habit
From this clarion call for straight talk one might be tempted to conclude that jargon in all its forms is the enemy, but that's not the case. In fact, the Bullfighters concede, used in an appropriate setting by people who know what all the obscure terms and acronyms mean, jargon can provide a handy shortcut for communication. The line gets drawn at gratuitous jargon, used with intent to evade, obscure, impress, hide or otherwise cloud what could otherwise be communicated in a more honest, straightforward way.
Breaking the BS habit can be difficult, though. If you work in a business environment in which there is an extremely high threshold for bull, or where the top executives are the biggest BS-ers of all, a culture of mutually assured deception can set in, causing everyone to believe that hours of unrelieved tedium are what presentations are supposed to feel like. Boring each other to death becomes habitual. Pretty soon everyone does it in the mistaken belief that the mark of professionalism is how little heart and soul someone can put into a speech.
Like any addiction or dependency, however, an unhealthy reliance on business BS is often a sign of deeper troubles. If nothing else, the Enron debacle and the Internet bubble taught us that. Breaking the cycle of language abuse isn't easy, though, especially if one's own thoughts have calcified into rigid, lifeless clumps of business double-speak. To begin, the abuser must become aware of their problem, then they must commit to changing it – first by acknowledging their own tendency to torture the English language, then, over time, learning to substitute more solid, honest, accessible words for the gaseous terminology of professional BS.
Egos in denial are the next big hurdle. After all, if BS is used primarily as a smokescreen for personal or organizational shortcomings, or a tool for intimidating or manipulating co-workers, and it seems to work for the person doing it (because they have risen to upper management on an odiferous cloud of the stuff), one might reasonably wonder why such a person would want to change. The answer, for presenters, is that the communication dynamics of the boardroom or the water cooler, where shop-talk shortcuts and insider lingo may be appropriate, are rarely transferable to a larger audience. The moment a presenter steps outside the collegial cocoon of their closest colleagues, the chances their banter will translate well, even to people in their own company, diminish drastically. Insider riffs that made a CEO look brilliant in the boardroom can, in front of a broader audience, make him seem hopelessly out of touch with everyday operations and real-world concerns.
To be sure, nothing puts more distance between a speaker and an audience than a language barrier, which is why many a bewildered executive has left the stage baffled that their professional-sounding patter wasn't received more enthusiastically. BS has its place and time, certainly, but more often than not it is a communication hindrance and a crutch. Leaning on it too hard has doomed many a presenter to the uncomfortable purgatory of utter silence that often follows a buzzword-heavy manifesto of strange and otherworldly verbiage. But if you can learn to talk straight and true, rest assured that the cloud of confusion will clear, and in no time the acronym BS may end up standing for something else: Better Speaker.
Tad Simons is Editor-in-chief of Presentations magazine.