Posts Tagged 'office culture'

For one day only

The budget cuts in local radio were starting to bite

6pm update: here’s a link to my interview on Ireland’s Newstalk. It starts about 35 minutes into this stream, but I thoroughly recommend the 10 minutes that precede my segment too: it’s an interview with the inventor of a special bag that you pee into when you can’t find a toilet. It was easily the most amusing discussion of urine that I’ve listened to before the watershed.

Today (Friday), any of you who are pretending to work from home might get the bonus of Talk Normal on your radio. That really is me! Or, if you’ve come here because you just heard me on the radio, that really was me!

Or, indeed, if you’re planning your Friday and are wondering what to do until happy hour, then residents of Coventry & Warwickshire, Leeds, Cumbria, Belfast, Antrim, Omagh, Kent, Stockport (and Congleton) and Norfolk (and some more) should tune in to local radio. During the day I’ll be chatting to all of you about a survey of jargon.

Here’s an article in the Mail online about the jargon survey. I’m quoted near the bottom. My quote about communicating in a way that people could understand was, when I checked, next to the headline “Precocious Honey Boo Boo stumbles over Spanish… and bursts into tears as ‘pageant good luck charm’ pet pig Glitzy is sent back”, which I can only assume was written by a duck pointing its bill at random words in an old copy of Hello!.

This is, of course, also how new copies of Hello! are written. It takes a lot of ducks but, crucially, not many journalists.

For first-time Talknormalists: now you’re here, have a look around. Find out my views about penguins on conference calls or discover my intimate connection to Katie Price’s breasts. Residents of South Ribble, I know your secrets. Then, most important, buy the Talk Normal book. There’s secret stuff in there that I never talk about on the radio.


Softening the impact

HS2: I'm just saying, it could happen

Reading my copy of Private Eye this week, I was interested in a letter (page 13) from Robin Stummer, who was complaining about the government’s feasibility study into HS2, the new high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham – and especially the use of the weasel phrase “physical impact” to describe what will happen to 300 or so listed buildings, conservation areas and woodlands along the route. Here’s an example from the report, which warns us that building HS2 will include:

Adverse physical impacts on two Scheduled Monuments, 14 Grade II listed buildings and 3 Grade II* Registered parks and gardens within the physical impact corridor.

Imagine a man with a clipboard and a peaked hat saying it. I like trains, but I like them less when I read documents like this.

I quote newfound talknormalist Optymystic, commenting to an article about Talk Normal:

Impacts is used as a substitute for causes, influences, bears upon, determines, affects, all of which provide precise ways of expressing the sense clearly, by contrast with which “impacts” is vague.

He could have included stronger words such as decreases or destroys, but he makes a good point: it’s part of a flattening of the language that seems to be assisting in the flattening of listed buildings. You can’t tell what an adverse physical impact is, because it could be anything from having a train tootling by just outside your moat to having one whizzing up your Grade II listed hallway – maybe that’s what they mean by an impact corridor.

“Impact” is a technocratic weasel word that avoids having to explain what the result of the impact is, which is precisely what we need to know. It’s also a successful weasel word, twice as popular as it was 10 years ago:

“Impacts” usually means something bad: rule of thumb from Factiva is that there are two admitted negative impacts in the press for every one described as positive; with the majority left unqualified so that we have to work out for ourselves what people are carefully trying not to tell us.

I’m guessing that the unqualified uses of the word are, in the main, bad news avoided to make sure we don’t get too upset. After all, impact is not an efficient word when used to deliver happiness: no one tells you that you’ve won the lottery by announcing that it will “impact your ability to pay the rent”. But, if I’m working for you and I tell you that creating silly pictures of trains for Talk Normal will “impact my ability to meet your deadline”, then take it from me: I’m going to be late.

Three principles of Talknormalism

Evidently I am still getting the hang of the whole motivation thing

Delighted as I am to be mentioned in the Observer yesterday, I worry that some readers might get the idea that I am a grumpy negative old man who thinks everything was better before the internet was invented.

This is incorrect in more than three ways. I’m actually middle-aged and remarkably cheerful, all things considered. Taking into account the decline in the TN Joy Index, I’m looking comparatively more chipper by the hour. I’m such a positive person that I spent 5 minutes inspiring others by creating my own motivational poster (top) using the free app at Big Huge Labs. I encourage you to go there and make your own version to share with us. If I get a few in I’ll put them in a post and I’ll send the best submission a Talk Normal mug and a signed book (or unsigned, if you’d prefer). What an incentive.

I also don’t think we should be stuck in the past. “But what does he think?”, you ask. At risk of telling you all the good bits about the book for free, I’d like to point out the three principles of Talknormalism:

1. Try to be understood by everyone who’s listening. This takes imagination. For example: Professor David Crystal, who is a wonderful writer about the history of the language, points out that there are 400 million native speakers of English – and 1.4 billion more who speak it as a second language.

It makes sense to consider people who don’t speak English first, especially if you’re in business: their domestic economies are usually more successful than ours.

2. Stop trying to sound clever for no reason. Anyone can make complicated things complicated. It takes thought to make those things easier to understand.

3. It’s about attitude, not rules. I would guess that there’s a lot of bad punctuation, in Talk Normal. Were I to be put to the test, I would not be able to remember grammar rules with which to make your writing more elegant, um, with. Therefore, if you want a set of rules to follow, try this book instead. I’m also not against new words and phrases; I make some up on this blog.

Talknormalism doesn’t look back to a fictitious golden age and ask that we preserve it; but we can do a better job with the language we have today. That’s why we need to see your motivational posters, fellow Talknormalists.

Role players

On the evidence of this headline, my job is half way to being a soap opera

I was scanning the comments to this excellent blog post about how our jobs are getting worse. One of the commenters asked: “When did a job become a ‘role’?”

My guess is, about the time that we started to think of ourselves as the romantic leads in a heroic work-based melodrama, which is about when we started to treat CEOs as philosophers and action heroes rather than businesspeople. Graduating from a job to a role implies we are acting the part rather than just doing something. We’re important enough to have an image.

As in any soap opera, in business not all roles are equal. Some hams overact to get attention. For example, a dedicated Talknormalist passed me details of Steve Lundin at BIGFrontier (“Our event archives provide a walk through the wild west days of Chicago’s burgeoning technology scene”), who is apparently the company’s Chief Hunter and Gatherer.

He’s certainly playing a role. You might have an opinion as to what that role is; I’ll let you come up with your own description.

Research on Factiva shows that, in UK work-related press articles, the roles-to-jobs ratio changed dramatically between 2001 and 2007. In 2001 there were about 10 jobs for every role. In 2007, the number of roles peaked: there were only four jobs per role in the press. Then, when the recession hit, the ratio declined to seven jobs per role. The higher this graph went, the more we were writing about roles:

Compare the shape of the graph with the Office of National Statistics estimates of UK employment and UK vacancies during the same period:

Best to be cautious when drawing a conclusion from this, because more or less every economic graph goes up between 2001 and 2007 and then goes off a cliff. But I’d guess that, when everything seemed exciting and full of promise, we fantasised (and were told) we had an important role. When we were fired, it was from our meaningless jobs.

Conference call etiquette

Still don't have an answer to the penguin question

I’m doing more conference calls these days, but so is everyone else. It’s the perfect activity if you are working from home: your boss knows you are apparently doing something, but it’s the sort of activity that needn’t interrupt other home-office tasks – such as watching Homes Under The Hammer, or playing internet poker.

Another reason that I’m doing more calls is that, for decision makers who don’t like to make decisions, it’s the answer to every question:

Me: If penguins wore trousers, would they be better off with a belt or braces? They’ve got no hips, but no shoulders either.

Decision maker: I’ll set up a call

There are informal rules of etiquette for these calls. If you are new to conference calling, the most important thing is to have another activity – such as deleting spam, indulging in ritualised self-harm, or squeezing out quiet tears of rage – that you can perform comfortably at your desk during the call.

I almost finished that paragraph off with “…to avoid disappointment”, which is ridiculous. Conference calls are institutionalised disappointment. We tolerate them only because we don’t have to look each other in the eyes while we waste each other’s lives.

So, for newbies, this is what to expect:

Day minus 2: Marketing Person 1 decides we need a call to discuss the Penguin Pants Project Crisis that you have created. A flurry of emails results, during which we establish that there are no mutually acceptable times for the next three months. Eventually Alpha Male 1 sends an irritated email saying that his PA could possibly try to move some things around for him because he’s about to get on a flight to Singapore. PA instantly offers six available slots in the next 48 hours. The call is set up for the day after tomorrow.

D -1: Marketing Person 1 sends calendar notification to all announcing that The Bridge Has Been Set Up. It includes dial-in details for a list of 25 countries, not including the one you are in – but including Slovakia and Norway, where your company doesn’t have offices.

Day zero: Emails from three people asking if our call is still going ahead, because if not they have another call that’s quite important, but don’t worry they’ll cancel the other call, even though it’s quite important, if our call is still going ahead.

Time -55 minutes: Email from someone who is confused by daylight saving time, asking where everyone is.

T -15 minutes: Email from Marketing Person 1 to remind us that the call is in 15 minutes. Response email from Alpha Male 2 warning that his previous call with Important Customer might not finish on time to join our call. Try to get the ball rolling without me, he says, difficult though it might be.

T +2 minutes: After frantic and unsuccessful attempts to dial in, you call from your mobile using the Slovakian access number. It’s just you and a marketing intern on the call. The intern has been instructed by Marketing Person 1 not to say anything during the call. Small talk is difficult.

T +5 minutes: Someone who speaks no English dials in using the Norwegian access number. This may, or may not, be a mistake. Small talk not improving.

T +5 to T +15 minutes: A new person joins each time you get three words into a sentence. Fragments of speech about difficulty of using access codes, and weather in New York/Singapore/Slovakia, occur. Alpha Male 1 and Alpha Male 2 have not joined yet, but seven middle managers you’ve never heard of are present on the call. They seem to know each other, despite being based in different continents, and exchange opinions about previous relevant conference calls to which you were not invited.

(I hear the opinion that these call-hangers don’t contribute. If we look at the conference call as an attempt to make a decision, this is certainly true. On the other hand their real job is to send emails afterwards to a Senior Person which

1. Questions the wisdom of any decision, hinting that it might undermine Senior Person’s authority

2. Suggest Alpha Males 1 and 2 might be unhappy with the outcome agreed on call

3. Subtly implicate you as the cause of both

This makes sure that any decisions will swiftly be reversed, giving them the opportunity to build a career based on lurking destructively in the background.)

T +15 minutes: Alpha Male 1 joins from airport lounge, and asks us to recap summary of Penguin Pants Project Crisis. Marketing Person 1 attempts to do this, but airport announcements picked up by Alpha Male 1’s phone keep cutting in.

T +20 minutes: Alpha Male 2 joins, and tells us to carry on as if he wasn’t there.

T +21 minutes: After 10 seconds, Alpha Male 2 announces he hasn’t received the agenda for the call from Marketing Person 2. Intern is silently surprised when he is blamed by Marketing Person 2 for this. He is sent to email the document (which he doesn’t possess) so that Alpha Male 2 will have the opportunity to learn why he was on the call after we hang up. Alpha Male 2 asks that, in the absence of an agenda, Alpha Male 1 clarifies Marketing Person 1’s recap of the summary.

T +25 minutes: Silence.

T +26 minutes: Alpha Male 1 remembers he muted his phone because of airport noise, and starts clarification again, which is twice as long as the recap, which was twice as long as the summary.

T +33 minutes: Alpha Male 2 remembers you are on the call, and asks you for the Penguin Pant Crisis action item options. You list the action item options as quickly as possible. You recommend that we decide, while we are on this call, which action item option to take.

T +35 minutes: Long silence.

T +38 minutes: Alpha Male 1 breaks silence by announcing they are calling his flight, so let’s pick this up next week. Call-hangers burst into life to say sycophantic goodbyes to Alpha Male 1, including jokes about performance of local sports teams. Marketing Persons 1 and 2 compete to thank Alpha Male 1 for sparing this time because they know how busy he is, but discover he has already hung up.

T +43 minutes: Marketing Person 1 proudly announces that she has been given access to Alpha Male 1’s diary to schedule follow-up call, and suggests a time. Alpha Male 2 says he knows that Alpha Male 1 is not available at that time, because Alpha Male 1 has offered to meet Alpha Male 2’s Important Customer. Marketing Person 1 says she has Alpha Male 1’s diary in front of her, and Important Customer is not in diary.

T +46 minutes: Alpha Male 2 says he knows that Alpha Male 1 is not available at that time, because Alpha Male 1 has offered to meet Alpha Male 2’s Important Customer. Marketing Person 1 says she has Alpha Male 1’s diary in front of her, and Important Customer is not in diary.

T +49 minutes: Alpha Male 2 says he knows that Alpha Male 1 is not available at that time, because Alpha Male 1 has offered to meet Alpha Male 2’s Important Customer. Marketing Person 1 says she has Alpha Male 1’s diary in front of her, and Important Customer is not in diary.

T+52 minutes: Alpha Male 2 politely points out that his agenda hasn’t come through yet.

T +54 minutes: Everyone agrees to pencil the meeting depending on Alpha Male 1’s availability. Alpha Male 2 points out that Alpha Male 1 is meeting his Important Customer during that hour, so we might be wasting our time.

T +57 minutes: Exaggeratedly polite goodbyes. Marketing Person 2 says we made some great progress today.

T +60 minutes: You are accidentally CCed on an email from call-hanger suggesting that you placed Alpha Male 1 in an awkward position, and that they should revisit any decisions offline before the follow-up call.

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