Communication: Nobody will understand a word you say

The stereotype of technical experts being bad at human interaction has been around since … well, about 1980, according to Google’s incredible n-gram viewer:

This idea that very logically-minded, rational, analytical thinkers are bad at relating to their fellow human beings is, of course… well, actually, broadly accurate.

While not everyone is as bad as Sheldon, the reason that character works so well amongst the geek population is that we all recognise a little of ourselves in him. The nuance, accoutrements and niceties of common, “real-world” interaction sometimes seem pointless, baffling or stupid to us.  Human communication is a system for transmission and reception of information which, in terms of fidelity, wouldn’t fare particularly well against two tin cans and a piece of string.

Every time you have to communicate with a fellow human being in your time as a software developer, there is a standard which serves to strip away subjectivity, reduce the signal to noise ratio and improve the consistency and quality of the shared understanding of that information. UML, use cases, flow charts, DFDs, ER diagrams – even code itself. These are the standard tools of trade for a developer and we like the certainty they provide.

The bad news: None of those tools exist in management. The effectiveness of your communication as a manager will be not be judged by any sort of objective standard.

“Right” and “wrong” become entirely subjective concepts. Not so long ago, at a company function, I was chatting with some of my closer colleagues – people who share a similar set of views, tolerances and ideologies. People who will be friends even if I leave the company.

One of them was talking himself up long and loud, as he often does. At one point in his monologue of self-adulation, I made the comment “You’re sort of like Jesus, really, only with less crucifixion.” I was joking of course and just doing my best to keep his ego somewhat in check.

The next morning, I had an email in my inbox from someone who had been standing nearby – not in the group, but just within earshot. He had taken offence to my mention of Jesus and the implied blasphemy against the holy word of his religion. He chastised my misunderstanding of the importance of the story of the crucifixion and offered to set me right.  I politely declined, with a very carefully worded email, offering apologies for any unintended offence.

Obviously I had no intention to offend with my comment, but simply by overhearing what I’d said, I’d managed to offend someone. In the world of management, this issue arises constantly.  The intent of the message behind what you say and the perception of the message by those who hear it may be poles apart, depending on a huge range of personal context factors. In this case, the issue was resolved between the two parties involved, but I have seen similar situations escalate to HR remediation and beyond, into the realm of legal action.

The fix: You know how you’ve been making fun all your life of ‘management-speak’? How managers hedge their words and don’t just come out and say what they mean? You’re going to need to do that. An understanding of language is going to be critical to how you are perceived.  Forwarding around “inappropriate” jokes or images just went from being a cheeky way to build camaraderie with your colleagues to a risky, potentially career-ending move.

You’ll need to build a variety of communication styles which you can employ, depending on the situation. When you’re speaking to large groups, you have to be most careful. Emails, read twice before sending – they are a permanent, archived and therefore retrievable record. You can drop your formality among close colleagues, but as my experience shows, even then you need to be careful who is standing nearby.

The beauty of buzz-words

Why buzz-words and management-speak flourish, despite universal hatred for them.

The internet is replete with shouty, angry blog posts decrying the overuse of buzz-words and management-speak. There are people who have dedicated time and effort to creating buzz-word phrase generators, as a demonstration of the meaninglessness of such drivel. I myself once penned an ‘easy-reading policy” which explicitly precluded the use of an ostentatious word, where a plain one would do.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve actually ever met anyone who would openly say they were in support of management speak – have you?

And yet, despite this complete lack of support from the general population, the phenomenon persists. And thrives. I am constantly encountering new buzz-words, new “management speak” phrases, new clichés, new business jargon. Nobody I speak to in the industry is even vaguely making an effort to eliminate this element of their speech.

Why is that?

There are two reasons:

Management speech is an adornment of language which communicates the competence of the speaker, regardless of the content.

A familiarity with these buzz-words, empty phrases, clichés and jargon shows that the speaker is an expert in the realm of business. This phenomenon is not limited to managers. Every field of human endeavour has its own lexicon of terms, meaningful to its experts and inscrutable to others. In a beautiful meta-demonstration, the concept even has its own meme:


In a fundamentally linguistic way, saying “going forward” instead of “in future” is identical to saying “the genoa halyard” instead of the “the blue rope”. The actual information contained in the phrase is the same in each case, but I know which would give me more confidence in the nautical expertise of the speaker.

Management-speak can be an effective shorthand for a complex concept.

Jargon can act as a place-holder for a concept which doesn’t otherwise have a short, succinct expression. Can you think of a phrase which means “run the numbers”, but is shorter than that? “Ask our accountants to put together a spreadsheet of the relevant figures”? “Look at the costs in detail”? Neither of those phrases contains a single buzz-word, but they are undeniably more cumbersome and unwieldy as a result.

In the same way that a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, buzz-words and management-speak often reduce complex concepts to a familiar shorthand, easily and instinctively grasped. You don’t need to know anything about marketing or sales to understand that “low-hanging fruit” means “stuff that is easier to get to than other stuff”. Nobody would sensibly get behind a project which aimed to “boil the ocean”. These phrases create an image in your mind’s eye which effectively communicates the intended meaning, without requiring an MBA.

Additionally, sometimes the phrase doesn’t only provide a shorthand communication of an otherwise more complex concept, it also adds tone – an important factor in business and management communication. The much-maligned “going forward”, used as a synonym for “in future” doesn’t just replace that meaning, it adds movement and a sense of intent.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that everyone who uses management-speak does so mindful of these factors. There are certainly those who are emptily parroting these phrases in place of actually saying anything meaningful. But the concept of management-speak itself isn’t the issue there – it’s the management doing the speaking.

Stephen Fry, for those of you familiar with him (and for those who aren’t, please stop reading this, go find his stuff, it’s much better) is the sort of person you might expect to be particularly pedantic about the use of language and the unnecessary re-arrangement of words for no other reason than to give managers a new way to say the same thing. You may be surprised to hear, then, that Stephen is, broadly, in support of the creative use language, over pure adherence to technical correctness.

“It is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language”

Perhaps we can stop thinking of management-speak as unnecessary obfuscation and see it instead as adding colour to what can otherwise be the grey, monotonous language of business meetings. Remembering, of course, to maintain a ruthless scrutiny of those who use it to replace, rather than enhance, meaning.