When the inquest into London’s 7/7 suicide bombings started in October last year, the coroner became increasingly exasperated. On the final day of evidence, she snapped. “All you senior people [of the emergency services] are allowing yourselves to be taken over by management jargon,” Lady Justice Hallett said. “You people at the top need to say, ‘We have to communicate with people in plain English.’”
There is much to mock in management-speak. In the Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway is brilliant at pricking the inanities and pomposities of corporate communication. Yet the idea that, in Lady Hallett’s words, “the use of plain English ... would make everybody just that little bit more effective” is so obvious that it leaves big questions in its wake. Why is the language of management so contorted? Why does so much of it seem to be about concealing meaning, rather than revealing it?
The answer, surely, is that the language faithfully reflects the insecurities and uncertainties within. As the financial crash has revealed, almost everything we thought we knew about organisations and their management principles was misleading or plain wrong. If companies are schizophrenic and their management a conflicted and contradictory mess, it is hardly surprising that the language they use should be contorted, too. Put that way, the fact that emergency service managers feel unable to express themselves in direct, plain English is a striking embodiment of the stuttering impasse into which management has run itself.
Companies that understand the force of straight talking are so rare that we are astonished when we find them – Apple, the technology company, and Berkshire Hathaway, the investment firm, for instance.
Why is straight talk in business so difficult? Plain words and simple messages are only possible when organisations have their goals, values and behaviour in register. Such companies are comfortable with themselves, their relationship with their customers and their role in society. So Apple can tell developers in no uncertain terms what they can do with more fart apps for the iPhone, while in a letter to shareholders, Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, can candidly own up to his mistakes.
When the pieces are not in register, the picture is blurred or worse. How could it be otherwise? If managers succeed by hoarding shareholder value, protecting advantage and preventing anyone else from eating their lunch – including customers, suppliers and their own employees – then efforts to persuade customers they are king and employees they are precious assets are unlikely to ring true. When the manager’s job is to minimise tax and externalise costs, talk of corporate social responsibility will sound hollow. For banks to boast of probity strains language beyond breaking point when they are guilty of creating toxic financial instruments to sell to customers with the sole purpose of betting against them.
Sometimes business uses language in an Orwellian way to mean the opposite of reality. For most companies, “customer care” is an afterthought, banished to call centres on the other side of the world. Whether it be public service organisations claiming to care about the individual when they are really reporting to government pay masters, or providers of financial services defending the indefensible, such as bankers’ bonuses, most organisations are faking it. The crime shows through the words they use as surely as a bloodstain under ultraviolet light.
Take the cacophony of advertising. Consumers know that the real difference between Pepsi and Coke, a Big Mac and a Whopper, or almost any similar brands of commodity products is minimal, if not zero. The billions spent on tricky ads are a substitute for real differentiation, and the fakery shines through. As Umair Haque, director of the Havas Media Lab, a consultancy, writes in his book The New Capitalist Manifesto: “Words without meanings behind them – valid, accurate and powerful economic meanings – lead inexorably to stuff that offers largely imaginary benefits.”
Mighty marketing budgets, suggests Haque, should be a warning sign. The less the products can speak for themselves and the more the work has to be done by words and appearances, the more likely both are to be fake. The result is an arms race in which more means less and loudest signifies least. Sometimes the aim is simulation, as with brands that appear to be something they are not, such as the cod-Swedish Häagen-Dazs. In other cases, the aim is dissimulation, often of the harm the products may impose on the wider society. The real cost of a hamburger may be nearer $30 than the $3 it costs in a restaurant; the “profit” comes from subsidies, suppliers and the dwindling resources of the planet. Likewise, the profits from selling cola are borrowed from the future health of the population. Not surprisingly, another cost is the meaning of the words that are used to advertise the product and to justify the behaviour that produces them.
The truth is as rare as it is in business because it is explosive and revolutionary – not only does the emperor have no clothes, but he is also not a pretty sight without them. That is also why it is precious. Lady Hallett was right: management-speak is not a speech impediment but an understanding impediment. When managers – and management academics – speak plain English, we will know they are getting it right.