Posts Tagged 'From the vaults'

Worst practice

Package of measures

At the weekend I enjoyed reading a review of the latest set of political diaries published by Chris Mullin, former member of parliament and lifelong plain speaker. In the latest volume, which covers the birth of New Labour and the 1997 election, he criticises the Gordon Brown – at that point a pushy shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer on the way up the political ladder. In the diary Mullin complains that Brown is spending every weekend trying to get on the TV news, “but having got there he has nothing to say beyond calling for a package of measures.”

The package of measures (PoM) promises so much – until you ask yourself what the person calling for it actually wants, and you realise you’re not sure.

(In one way, perhaps, Brown’s desire for packages of measures was satisfied in the ten years after 1997. An average of 2,685 laws was passed each year, more than in any other period. While Brown was prime minister, 33 criminal offences were created a month, including “Carrying grain on a ship without a copy of the International Grain Code on board “, and not nominating a keyholder for your burglar alarm.)

I checked to see whether Brown continued to be a prolific package-caller in government. Yes:

In the years 1994-1997, Mullin is spot-on. Brown called for (or announced) many more packages than Tony Blair while they were in opposition. After 1997, while Blair was prime minister, Brown showed PoM leadership in most years. Succeeding Blair in the top job, plus a financial meltdown, seems to have inspired a frenzy of late career measure-package-announcing in Brown, if PoMs can come in frenzies.

PoMs are hard to argue against unless you’re a complete contrarian, because they are sold as an outcome, not component by component – a “package of measures to…”, followed by a generally admirable suggestion. They’re the political equivalent of a Talk Normal business jargon favourite, Best Practice (BP). Calling for companies to adopt BP is a no-brainer, in that you don’t need a brain to do it. Claiming you follow BP is an impressive-sounding, though often empty, way to speak well of yourself.

BP-recommending has been on the rise since 1994, at least in the UK (it’s not nearly so popular in the US; I don’t know why). The red best-fit line shows that, since 1994, the rise in claims to use/provide/know/sell BP averages 34 per cent per year:

If you’ve been responsible for this BP inflation, I bring bad news. McKinsey has discovered that companies that adopt it often do worse than those who think for themselves. The optimal response to companies who chunter vacantly about BP might be the same as for a politician who calls for a meaningless package of measures on the weekend news. Switch off.

Tighthead or loosehead?

A prop forward and his ear

This week’s jargon argument with Crossrail, where I got cross – because being told what grown ups have already decided is not a “consultation” (no matter how many leaflets it stuffs through my letterbox) – leaves me in need of a relaxing true sporting jargon anecdote for Friday afternoon.

The moral of the story: when you don’t understand their jargon, don’t commit to an answer. Especially in a job interview.

My friend Stuart, from my judo club, has been practising for many years. He has two permanent cauliflower ears as a result. A few years ago he decided to join the police.

At his final interview the superintendent saw Stuart’s puffy ears and muscular build and immediately decided that this man must be a rugby prop forward (see above). Stuart had never played the sport and didn’t know that, in rugby jargon, props play with their heads on the tight or loose side of the scrum.

The senior officer tried to put Stuart at his ease with small talk.

“Tighthead or loosehead?” he asked.

And Stuart said: “Actually yes, I am circumcised.”

Kicking off

Wayne's father Mickey

I completely agree with Sally Whittle’s excellent blog about the desperate press releases that use the World Cup as a hook to write about something else entirely.

I’d nevertheless like to point out to all these opportunistic press releasers that Talk Normal had got there first.

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.

Dr Eurfyl ap Gwilym gives Paxman a mouthful

I know I’m behind on my posts, but until I finish them off I’ve got a quite exceptional interviewee here to keep you occupied: Dr Eurfyl “you let me finish my point” ap Gwilym, senior economic advisor to Plaid Cymru. If there was ever an example of how simple, well-presented statistics can give you the edge in an argument – against Jeremy Paxman at his sneeriest, too – this is it:

Boom! Stay in school kids, and one day you’ll be able to argue like him.

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Celebrity Big Brother: Deny the holocaust again, this time by texting your mates

Obviously my close personal connection with Katie Price means I have a personal interest in the outcome of Celebrity Big Brother – though obviously only from the point of view of corporate social responsibility; after all, I’m not a moron. I could go on and on about this, but it’s a better use of your time to listen to Stewart Lee explaining how corporate sponsorship sometimes works. The first five minutes of this clip tell you everything you need to know about “a brand profile awareness marketing marriage made in heaven”:

Don’t give me problems, rename them

It’s too tempting to complain about people using the word solution as a lazy way to describe their product. I’m sure I will get to it soon, but today it just makes my head ache.

Instead I bring you better news: an audacious and delightful innovation in the use of the S-word from the Talk Normal archives. The email is a few years old but I treasure it, as you can see. Hewlett-Packard’s support team sent it to me when I had a problem with a printer and I was getting a little testy in emails to them because they weren’t fixing it for me.

It shows a technical support operation that so wants to bring me good news, and so can’t, that it has adopted plan B: simply redefining the word “problem” as “solution” and emailing my problem back to me to see if I’d notice. Here’s what it said:

Why stop at printer drivers? Innovation like this could, overnight, solve much bigger problems simply by redefining them in a more glass-half-full way. Let us be bold and agitate for Hewlett-Packard’s technical support department to be given control of the biggest problem (soon to be solution) of all: the struggle for world peace. It would take but a few minutes to draft an email declaring that world peace has been achieved, with a proviso that the actual absence of “war” might take some time.

Of course, in the field of world peace, this would be ridiculous. It’s about as likely as someone being given the Nobel Peace Prize not because he had directly caused any peace so far, but because he’d identified and confirmed the current lack of peace, and promised to let us all know when a fix is available.

On the plus side: I remember that HP did eventually email me a printer driver that worked. So it stands to reason we should be optimistic about the other thing.


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