Posts Tagged 'Buzzword bingo'

Five things I learned from Google Ngram

Note: I promised that I’d ask Richard Stallman if I had represented his ideas correctly. Turns out I hadn’t. I have pasted his response in the comments section below. It’s a fascinating debate, and goes to the heart of Talknormalism: if you describe something with a misleading name, then you start to make assumptions based on the name, not on the facts.

Before I went on holiday, I pointed out the address of the Google Ngram viewer, which originally came from my creative friend Ryan Hayes. Ngram allows you to search for the frequency of a word or phrase in books going back to 1500: the database is 500 billion words. You type in the phrase, and it draws a graph for you.

You can imagine that after a couple of Mojitos on Miami Beach last month I was thinking about little else, so here’s what I thunk:

1. Intellectual property

I once wrote a book criticising the abuse of our intellectual property laws, but the more people I meet who have profited from them, the less I feel like defending IP in its current form. I particularly recall speaking at a very posh luxury goods conference in Paris which made me want to set about my fellow panellists with a cosh.

Dr Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation is the enemy of lazy IP thinkers, and in this article he argues that “intellectual property” is a meaningless term, popularised for propaganda purposes by the people who have most to gain financially from it, and that it was rarely heard until 1990. Here’s the Ngram of intellectual property that he created, showing how recent the concept is:

Original research: Dr Richard Stallman

2. Angels

As committed Talknormalist Brett Hetherington writes on his blog, “we live in superstitious times”. Having seen my tip, he used Ngram to go searching for “angels”, and discovered that, in a secular age, we’re actually writing twice as much about these fantasy beings as we were 30 years ago. Brett or Dr Stallman might argue that intellectual property is no more real than the idea of an angel: both concepts being a convenient construct designed to give power to, and increase the revenues of, global organisations that seek to exploit us. I’ll email Dr S to ask, and Brett can comment below if he thinks I’ve overstepped.

Original research: Brett Hetherington

3. Paedophiles (or pedophiles)

Moral panic or long-overdue recognition of a problem that was ignored for too long? Although the term was coined in the 19th century, we certainly write a lot more about paedophiles these days.

4. Low-hanging fruit

The Patient Zero of buzzword bingo was not always so pervasive. The phrase took off at about the same time as “intellectual property” did – probably because many of the same people were using both phrases. If some consultancy firm made up the phrase “low-hanging fruit” today, it would probably use IP law to protect it, and we’d all have to talk about MegaGlobalConsult Low Hanging Fruit™ instead. I think I’m saying that we got lucky, but it doesn’t feel that way.

5. Honesty and transparency

The great thing about “transparency” is that it doesn’t have ethical baggage – it’s a technical description of your activity that’s suited to amoral business relationships. Therefore transparency is a much more useful word than “honesty” if you work in marketing. Transparency is jolly popular lately, but honesty is in long-term decline – in books, anyway. And we write more often about angels than we do about honesty, which is proof that we’re collectively bonkers.

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This is the world social media made

I had hoped my introductory remarks from the Market Research Society’s Social Media Conference last Thursday would have been the highlight, but I was wrong. I thought people would be retweeting my rousing speech about the path to the fire exits and the location of lunch, but I was mistaken.

Instead the delegates were talking about a ripping speech by internet Eeyore Andrew Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur.

The Cult of the Amateur was an angry book about how the internet is destroying culture by creating a world in which everyone’s contribution to a debate is equal, whether or not they know anything worth contributing; a world in which a CEO blog is more “authentic” than a press release, even though they are both written by the same person (a clue for anyone who isn’t in the copywriting business: that’s not the CEO).

It’s a book that is easy to hate (two stars on Amazon from reviewers), but I loved it. This is not to say I agreed with all of it.

Now he’s worrying about the effect that pervasive social media is having on the way we live, and that’s what he was talking about at the conference. A clip here:

The way that social media changes our behaviour worries me, for personal and professional reasons. Personally, as Keen points out (though not in this clip), the ease with which data about us can be collected may mean that privacy becomes something that only rich people pay for, rather than a right. Professionally I note that, when I’m doing editing jobs, increasingly better communication is confused with frantically saying more things.

Most of us spend hours a week hoovering up thousands of pointless status messages, tedious posts, updates and tweets, just in case. It’s like stuffing yourself with the entire menu in a crap restaurant, in the hope you will find something worth eating.

The enemy within

"Firmly grasp large-scale revolutionary criticism"

It’s not fair to blame everybody for the amount of crap that plugs up our inboxes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a few people ruin it for the rest of us. This table of jargon that I compiled from 2009 press releases demonstrates it:

What’s can it mean? Read across the row. There’s a 3.7 per cent chance that a press release will use robust. But, if it also describes something as next generation, it is three times as likely (10 per cent) it will chuck in robust as well. And if it describes something as next generation and flexible, now there’s a 17 per cent chance you will find robust in there as well.

In short, the more jargon you use, the more you’re likely to use.

We get to the silly situation where, having described the product or service – or, I’m willing to wager, the solution – as next generation, flexible, robust, world class and scalable, more than a quarter of press releases chuck in easy to use as well.

I have three explanations why the press releases might need to call on “easy to use” in this situation:

1. It’s really important for sales: the company thinks that something which is next generation, flexible, robust, world class and scalable might sell badly because we worry that we won’t find the on switch.

2. Ease of use is not an obvious feature: if you can’t even write a press release that ordinary people can understand, it’s unlikely we will believe you can make a product that ordinary people can use.

3. Once I watched a TV report on how they used to typeset Mao-era Chinese communist newspapers. Because the Mandarin alphabet has a basic vocabulary of more than 3,000 characters it was easier for the typesetters to keep entire ready-made Cultural Revolution jargon phrases at hand, like the one at the top of the page, and just assemble the daily paper from the revolutionary brainwashing twaddle kit with a few names thrown in.

When we close our minds we tend to rely on empty, grandiose phrases to please authority. Of course in the West we’d never do anything like that, because here we are free to choose which words we use. Apparently.

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Tech PR: twice as much business jargon as average

If you think the picture's dull, imagine the press release

Last week I pointed out that some of our most hated business jargon terms really caught on during the dot-com boom, where a lot of crap was spoken by a lot of people with MBAs. Their qualification could stand for “Master of the Bullshit Arts”, ha ha ha. See what I did there? It doesn’t stand for that really.

Well it’s unfair to single out the dotcommers and their graduate degrees, I’ll admit. So, to redress the balance, look at this graph: the top seven business jargon words that I’ve used before, and their frequency in US press releases over that period. Along the x-axis, US press releases in general; along the y-axis, technology press releases. Not just dot-com: any type of techie or telecoms business, consumer or not.

Over 20 years, consistently in every year, for every phrase, techies use business jargon about twice as much as the average. That’s maybe understandable for a word like scalable, which has a technical meaning of sorts. But world-class? There’s no excuse.

Maybe more tech PR is business-to-business. But that is a rubbish excuse too.

Occasionally someone posts on Twitter that I blame PR people for causing our jargon problem. As I pointed out last week, British journalists haven’t been doing their jargon-filtering job either, and at least the non-techie PR people among you can feel better today. Not good mind you, just better than that other lot.

Jargon’s golden age

Low-hanging fruit is a pain in the neck for them, too

Was there a time when we didn’t have to listen to people in meetings telling us what to do with low-hanging fruit? Indeed there was, and it was more recent than you think.

Usually I go back only a few years when I do my research. But if we take a longer view, it is possible to get some perspective on when we really began talking like idiots.

I can’t tell you when jargon was invented. It is thousands of years since someone discovered that by using words that they didn’t really understand he (it was a he, take my word for it) could kid people that he actually knew what he was talking about, and convince them to do his dirty work for him (even if they couldn’t quite understand what it was he was asking for). Like this:

Caveman 1: (pointing at cave painting of buffalo) Ug!

Cavemen 2, 3 and 4: Ug?

Caveman 1: (raising eyebrow significantly) Ug.

Caveman 2, 3, 4: (nodding sagely at each other) Ah, ug.

It should be pointed out that “ug” is cavespeak for “value proposition”.

Fast forward to the sort of jargon that needles us today. For a lot of the buzzword bingo-type words we hate, the real growth occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, rather than recently. Look at this graph of how often low-hanging fruit, outside the box and brainstorming turn up in American publishing, adjusted so that their frequency in 1993 was 100 in each case. For these three, as for countless other jargon phrases like world class or cutting edge, a period of slow growth during the early 1990s suddenly accelerates for five or six years. After 2003 or 2004, growth often stops.

The phrase outside the box, used as jargon for thinking creatively, was five times as common in 2003 as it had been in 1998. It’s not like we were unfamiliar with the concept of creative thought until 1998 – of, for that matter, the concept of a box – so it looks like it’s down to people trying to sound hip.

Some of today’s most painful jargon was effectively non-existent in our lifetime. Until the mid-1990s no one wrote about low-hanging fruit (1990-92, seven articles mention it), unless they were writing an article about the location of, well, fruit.

What can this mean? My big theory, based on information that I’m not revealing yet to build up the suspense, is that this was a dot-com phenomenon. With hindsight most of that generation of entrepreneurs were a bit rubbish at changing the world (though few were as loopy as the creators of the iSmell), but they talked a lot about how they were going to do it. For a short time we all wanted to be like the dot-com kids, so we parroted the same crappy MBA jargon that they used. After 2003 the dotcommers mostly disappeared; but now apparently we can’t stop ourselves from talking like them.

The buzzwords the dotcommers left behind are the fag burns in the plush carpet of our language after a bullshit orgy has been held on it. Thanks, guys.

Shooting the messengers

A firing squad: sometimes it's not so much about who to to shoot, as who to save

Having been distracted by a research project that was like a giant, academic version of Talk Normal, I’m even more convinced of the power of the dark forces that would undermine our work. On the other hand, I’m less certain who the dark forces are.

It’s always easy to blame PR companies and their often laughable press releases for the pain of irritating jargon. In the UK, at least, that’s not the end of the story.

Let me show you why: I did some research which measured the frequency of the top seven jargon phrases identified in David Meerman Scott’s Gobbledygook Manifesto in 2006, which I already used as the source to find the worst press release in history. I looked at the frequency of these seven jargon phrases since 1990. While the use of jargon has increased dramatically – especially during the 1990s – the frequency of the jargon phrases was consistently approximately equal in newspapers and press releases in the UK.

So in the UK, on this (admittedly limited) evidence, jargon’s not just a PR company problem.

In the graph below, each blob maps the relative frequency of a jargon phrase in one year. If it’s on the diagonal line, it appears equally frequently in newspapers and press releases in that year.

Below the diagonal line, and the phrase is more frequent in press releases. Above it, and it’s more more frequent in the press. I used only major news sources and newswires, not geeky jargon-filled magazines.

As an aside, I did a similar plot for US sources, and the same jargon phrases are between 10 and 20 times more frequent in US press releases as they are in US news; and US news has much less jargon than UK news. So the conclusion that I draw is that, if a journalist’s job is partly about weeding out jargon from its raw material, American journalists are doing a good job and British journalists are doing a rubbish one.

It’s called a holiday

Scarborough

Scarborough: a commitment to integrating modern architecture that is perhaps most reminiscent of Barcelona.

Now that most people are mostly back in a country that mostly matches the one on their plane ticket, it’s time to strike an optimistic note about one other thing that didn’t fly last week: the attempt by holiday operator Thomson to popularise the phrase “awaycation” to describe a holiday overseas.

Thanks to Will Randall for showing me the press release, based on a survey by Opinion Matters. It needed someone to point it out to me, because afterwards I could count only four publications that wrote about it – and one of them only printed the word to make fun of it.

The awaycation is the latest shot in marketing’s tedious Buzzword Wars. Imagine, if you will, a group of dedicated marketers and PR people in early 2008, huddled into a meeting room, desperately trying to make the prospect of a week in Scarborough seem attractive to people who would prefer to take their leisure in Ibiza or Florida.

There’s a reason why we choose not to go on holiday to the same places that our parents visited. It’s broadly speaking because, compared to most popular destinations in the world, a British holiday is what travel experts call a bit crap. But call your holiday a staycation” and you’re not just eating overpriced jumbo haddock and chips while watching the drizzle, you’re part of a global economic trend. Also, it gives the travel section something to write about that isn’t holiday companies going down the tubes or how you’re only getting one Euro per Pound.

The tedious buzzword magic worked for the staycation marketers – seven uses of the word before January 2008, more than 4,000 since then –  so in 2010 Thomson, which owns 77 planes and even bought a Boeing 787, needed to work the same magic by describing something like a staycation which involves getting on a flight. Just don’t call it something boringly descriptive like a holiday abroad. It’s much better than that, it’s an awaycation!

Sigh.

This tedious rebirthing isn’t new, because there are so many reasons beyond inspiration-free desperation for marketers to do it. It might just be the self-importance that turns a personnel department into human resources. It might be a way to do an about-turn without making it look like you were wrong, which turns outsourcing into insourcing, rightsourcing or even upsourcing.

Or, sadly, it might be our need to see every event in our lives as a jolly project with a special name and a happy ending. Losing your job has always been a pain for you and an opportunity for buzzword manufacturers. In vogue at the moment: you’re apparently re-careering.

If you have expertise in inventing pointless words for marketing purposes but currently find yourself unavoidably re-careering, perhaps a job in an expanded Ministry of Euphemisms for Bad Things is on the cards. On the evidence of this election, trying to pretend that it’s OK really is one part of the public sector that has continued to expand in the recession. If we’re going to fight the Buzzword Wars, our troops need to have the right euphemisms. Sorry, I meant they need to be optimally resourced with appropriately context-sensitive descriptors. These meaningless government phrases don’t invent themselves, you know.

A quick search shows that even the mildly silly “re-careering” had a better run in the press than “awaycation” has, so far at least. I find this encouraging: we have discovered that it is possible to come up with a marketing buzzword that’s so obviously rubbish that everyone simply ignores it, like a bad smell.


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