Why Business People Speak Like Idiots

May 14, 2020

It was early 2001.

The dot-com-boom had taken people on a Thelma-and-Louise ride and sailed them off a cliff. Enron’s crazy accounting debacle ended up in the largest corporate bankruptcy (until WorldCom out did it a year later).

Arthur Andersen execs looked the other way while Enron did their dirty deeds and even helped their buddy out by having employees shred incriminating documents.

The U.S. Federal Reserve inched up interest rates to try and protect the economy.

Then the attacks of 9/11 happened, and everyone froze.

Employees scrambled to avoid the inevitable layoffs, and companies scrambled to stop the hemorrhage of customers so they could keep their talent in-house.

It was during this time that Brian Fugere took on the role of CMO at Deloitte Consulting. His task was to craft a strong, distinct market position for the multi-billion consulting business when the industry was perceived as a necessary evil, unnecessary bloat and overall, unsavory.

These were the nice comments.

Cut the BS

Brian started out what smart CMOs do, by talking directly to customers about what they needed.

He expected to hear things about value propositions, industry expertise, methodologies and other regulars from the consulting trade, the people he talked to kept coming back to the same unexpected grievance.

Deloitte employees (and every other consultant) had stopped behaving and speaking like real, honest-to-goodness people.

Brian summarized their sentiments this way…

So much bullsh*t! I wish they’d just talk straight to us.

He sent out a company-wide email that let every Deloitte know what customers through about how they presented themselves: Clients were fed up with the way we communicated with them and were requesting straight speak — communications without jargon or hyperbole.

One idea came back that stuck. What if they could develop a software that detected bullsh*t? Like a spellchecker, but for BS?

Brian was all over this.

Masking poor performance with ambiguity

He assembled a small team made up of a designer, programmer, a writer and himself. The combined a curated list of words that Deloitte employees offered up with research from Dr. Rudolph Flesch, a 1940s researcher who did extensive work on clear writing.

They created a sophisticate algorithm to measure the readability of a document on a scale of one to ten and called the score a “Bull Index.” A one meant the writer was completely full of it, and a ten meant the writer had crafted clear and highly readable content.

They names the software “Bullfighter” and then put it to the test.

The team researched the public communications of the 30 companies in the Down Jones Industrial Average.

Here’s what they found…

Companies that had a positive financial performance used clear communication. In fact, the clearer the communication, the better the stock performance.

Invasion of COVID CRAP

In the last two months, you’ve been inundated with crappy communication as brands try to stay in touch by telling you how much you care.

Some brand, in fact, care so much right now that despite the fact I haven’t heard from them in five-plus years, they want me to know that they’re here for me. 🙄

YouTuber Microsoft Sam put together a compilation of COVID-19 commercials to show how much every brand, in their never-ending quest to prove they’re here for you, all sound exactly the same.

He’s pointing out how they’re all CRAP –

Communication
Rampant with
Ambiguous
Propaganda.

Jargon filled. Cliché heavy.

And, I fear, this is still only the beginning.

Take, for example, Lysol’s FAQ page about Coronavirus

OK, first I can’t get beyond the word “efficacy”. Lawyers, clearly, got ahold of this.

Next, let’s look at the three paragraphs in the “Improper Use of Disinfectants” section…

Due to recent speculation and social media activity, RB (the makers of Lysol and Dettol) has been asked whether internal administration of disinfectants may be appropriate for investigation or use as a treatment for coronavirus (SAR-CoV-2).

As a global leader in health and hygiene products, we must be clear that under no circumstances should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion, or any other route). As with all products, our disinfectant and hygiene products should only be used as intended and in line with usage guidelines. Please read the label and safety information.

We have a responsibility in providing consumers with access to accurate, up-to-date information as advised by leading public health experts. For this and other myth-busting facts, please visit Covid-19facts.com.

First off, if the communications team at Lysol did nothing else but pay attention to how many words they put in a sentence they’d be way better off. The first paragraph is a single sentence of THIRTY-SIX WORDS. The average sentence length is 22 words.

I input this text into the Readable app, which gave is grade of D.

Perhaps most telling, is that you can assume that this content is targeted toward the general public. People have questions about Lysol and Dettol, and want to know if they should ingest it or not.

But the readability score is so low, that at least half of readers won’t be able to understand it.

It’s no wonder that people fear we’re going to hell in a hand basket and have no where to turn.

And we haven’t even touched the content we know is coming about the financial performance of companies. I guarantee you, organizations will blow the top off the BS index trying to avoid coming right out and saying, “Let’s face it, 2020 sucks and here’s our numbers to show how much. (Unfortunately, the Bullfighter software ran its course and Deloitte no longer supports it.)

Examples of clear communication

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Take, for example, Airbnb and how they’ve handled the layoff of thousands of employees. CEO Brian Chesky send a message to employees (that they also made public) about COVID’s blow to the company and that, unfortunately, it meant layoffs.

He wrote his 3,374-word letter with empathy and compassion for employees. He included background on the company’s financials and how the decision to make cuts came about:

“Our process started with creating a more focused business strategy built on a sustainable cost model. We assessed how each team mapped to our new strategy, and we determined the size and shape of each team going forward. We then did a comprehensive review of every team member and made decisions based on critical skills, and how well those skills matched our future business needs.

“The result is that we will have to part with teammates who we love and value. We have great people leaving Airbnb, and other companies will be lucky to have them.

“To take care of those that are leaving, we have looked across severance, equity, healthcare, and job support and done our best to treat eeryone in a compassionate and thoughtful way.”

Then he puts his money where his mouth is, and promotes these employees, trying to help them find new jobs –

Has anyone ever felt so good about getting laid off? I doubt former Airbnb systems designer has…

Airbnb didn’t need a boatload of BS to tell people times were tough or they’re laying off employees. Brian Chesky just knew what everyone of Brian Fugere’s told him 20 years ago – that business people speak like idiots – and then chose to speak differently.

5 Tips to write clearly

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to add more humanity into your communication. In fact, you’ll probably do a better job if you aren’t.

People want to talk to, and hear from, real people.

Here’s five tips you can take and start using today. Right now, in fact…

First, look through your emails, webpages, social media posts, presentations, memos, reports and everything else you write. Now, make these changes immediately: Find any long-winded, run-on sentences. How many can you break into short, declarative sentences?

Second, use simple, direct and clear language (no “efficacy”, please). What words can you do without? (There’s always some.) Delete them. And don’t feel bad about it.

Third, what big-wig words (hint, there’s lots of syllables) can you replace with shorter, more specific ones?

Fourth, scan for buzzwords and phrases. Replace them with ones you’d actually use if you were talking to someone face-to-face. “Your talk was a hit at the conference–bravo!” is a waaaayyyy better lead-in than “I hope this finds you well.”

Fifth, get rid of passive voice. This means don’t use the words is, am, are, be, being, been, have or had any more than absolutely necessary. When you do, it’s a big flag that you’re lazy (and an idiot) with your communication.

If you’d like to know more ways to clean up your BS, read Why Business People Speak Like Idiots.

What brands do you see doing a great job of cleaning up the BS and talking like real human beings? Let me know in the comments below.

Photo credit: Gratisography

About Carla Johnson

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Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.

In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds -  Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. 

Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.