Posts Tagged 'Technobabble'

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.

Cheer up! Blue Monday will soon be over

I’m not looking forward to 17 January 2010, which at this desk will be known as Crap Sunday, one of the unhappiest days of the year for Talknormalists.

Why is this? Because Crap Sunday comes one day before Blue Monday, the arbitrary media invention of the most depressing day of the year, and so it marks the beginning of the (luckily short) season of pseudo-scientific stories which show that this day is, apparently, mathematically depressing.

If you don't know what this is you missed the 1980s

I’ve written about rubbish equations before, but much to my surprise my blog post alone hasn’t solved the problem. And so this weekend we must hunker down for the annual attack of the idiots.

Look on the bright side. For students of the asinine, Blue Monday 2010 has a lot to offer.

1. There are two Blue Mondays this year. Excitingly, some press releases I’ve seen quote 18 January, some say it’s a week later, on 25 January. This could be a demonstration of how the scientific method means our knowledge advances in small steps; its conclusions should not be taken as revealed truth; they are merely suppositions based on the best evidence that we have today. We should welcome uncertainty as a stimulus for debate and further research.

On the other hand, it might just mean that one PR company timed its campaign a week earlier than the other, and the equation is so vague and subjective that you can fit it to more or less any day of the year if you try hard enough.

2. Who should we put in the stocks and throw fruit at? Dr Ben Goldacre did the real research on this when the equation first showed up. Blue Monday was invented by Porter Novelli (“We have the right conversations with the right people at the right time”) in 2006 for Sky Travel. The idea of the equation was shopped around academics, offering them money if they claimed to have derived it. Dr Cliff Arnall, at the time a temporary lecturer at the Cardiff University Centre for Lifelong Learning, grabbed the opportunity and made some good publicity for himself – though his former employers seem less delighted. He has no genuine insight into the day when you are least happy, but at least he has “Dr” in front of his name. If we could only get a picture of him in a white coat, then Blue Monday would be so much more credible.

3. How do we give depression more pizazz? The question has been asked in a thousand marketing brainstorms. One genuinely sad aspect of Blue Monday every year is the miserable attempt by some PR companies to inject pep into unhappiness by telling us to buy something. Recall that the whole sham was set up to sell holidays; other people use it as an excuse to bung out a lightweight “why not buy this?” press release – just as long as they don’t get too hung up on the depression thing. For example:

Blue Monday is believed to highlight a more general temporary gloominess for a usually more balanced and positive population, says Caroline Carr, hypnotherapist and author of the just published Living with Depression.

General temporary gloominess: translation – “as a therapist, how can I describe this fictional marketing construct as if it was real so that I can plug my book without overstepping any kind of regulatory guidelines.”

Journalists trot out exactly the same Blue Monday feature every year, partly because the end of January is pretty barren if you’re looking to fill the inside of a local paper. You did detox diets, giving up smoking and and gym membership in week one, and it’s not time to do “Put some spark into your love life with these Valentines Day ideas” yet. Those lifestyle pages don’t fill themselves, you know.

I don’t like to miss out on a misery party and so I feel the urge to explain my personal general temporary gloominess with an equation. After as much as 30 seconds of careful research, I came up with this:

Where D is how depressed I will feel

Ci is the number of column inches given to article Ai where i=1, 2, 3, …
E is the number of times they mention that stupid equation
and delta is the number of days that this story lasts

If you want to use my formula in a meaningless and generic story about how journalism bloggers get sad when they read press releases about Blue Monday, please quote me as “Dr Tim Phillips, an expert in disappointment at the Polytechnic of Cynicism”.

There’s an app for Talknormalisers, too

What do you give your dearest office friends for Christmas, especially if you can’t be bothered to go outdoors in the snow or don’t want to buy something expensive, like a scratch card or a jumbo Twix from the vending machine? It’s possible you might want to spend 59p on the iPhone app Meeting Magician, which is produced by this guy. It helps to while away the time in dull meetings.

It would be stretching the point to call it useful, but it allows you to work out how much money you’re wasting in your meeting, and as you can see from the video it will even set up an automated fake call to get you out of the room in a “sorry, I’ve got to take this” sort of way – so that you can go and read Talk Normal instead while the people still stuck in the meeting room stare daggers at you through the glass wall.

If you were thinking of buying one for me, thank you – but I’ve already got it. On the other hand I don’t have the Associated Press Style Book iPhone app yet, mainly because it costs $28.99! Strewth. It’s like a tax on competence. But, if you want to thank me for all the graphs I’ve drawn for you this year, I’d be delighted to receive it: imagine my happy face when, I finally work out, where to put my punctuation.

The Plattie 2009: and the winner is..


It’s awards season, and you don’t need one of my fancy graphs to know that more bullshit has been published in the last 10 years than in any decade in history. I wanted to recognise this by giving Talk Normal’s first Platinum Bullshit Award (“Plattie”). What better way to celebrate than giving the award this year to the Gobbledygookiest Press Release of the Decade?

How to measure this? Luckily, I’m not the only person who snoops around in Factiva looking for bad communication to make fun of. David Meerman Scott, who has many more Twitter followers than me (I started late but I’m catching up – and at the time of writing, with almost 100, have only 31,416 more to attract), wrote one of the best anti-gobbledygook manifestos in 2006 with the help of the Factiva Reputation Lab’s text mining tools. He established a list of the most over-used rubbish gobbledygook phrases in the language, and did some entertaining analysis on them. Download it here.

In order, Meerman Scott’s top 10 worst offenders were: next generation, flexible, robust, world class, scalable, easy to use, cutting edge, well positioned and mission critical. I’m sure I’ve listened to keynotes where all of them came in a single sentence, but it takes some nerve to commit more than two or three of them to a single press release and then let other people see it.

different plattie

I wanted to give my first Plattie Award to the press release that had used the most words from his list. When I searched PR Newswire on Factiva I imposed one rule: I looked for single releases that were 2000 words or less to exclude the “mega press pack” effect – because, like with an infinite number of monkeys, if you leave enough press release writers in front of a computer for long enough, then combine their output together in a single giant release that describes a really rubbish trade show (for example), it might have every piece of drivel ever conceived in it. Imagine a release like that! Well, I’ve witnessed one, and let me tell you: it’s like staring at the sun – but not in a good way.

First of all I searched Factiva for releases using the worst phrase (next generation), then the worst two used together, and so on. There have been more than 77,000 releases which talk about next generation something-or-other, with Factiva reporting that the top five offenders are Microsoft, Motorola, Lucent, Sun and Texas Instruments. Add flexibility, and the number drops to less than 9,000, but – get this – the same five companies are the five most frequent transgressors.

At this point we note that, from now on, no one outside of the technology business even gets into the top ten.

Add another term (robust), and we’re down to around 150 releases per year. Lucent temporarily drops out of the power five, and in comes Intel. Only one in 10 of these releases – barely more than one per month at this stage – adds the claim of world classness to this potent mix. Intel’s gone, Lucent is back, and in a move that will be satisfying to many in Scott McNealy’s inner circle, Sun is suddenly gobbledygook provider number one, ahead of Microsoft! It couldn’t win the technology war, but when it comes to the battle to put the four most overused crap phrases into a press release most often, Sun finally bests its bitter rival. Factiva tells me Sun also had the largest share of the 60-odd releases that include scalability with the other four.

Eliminate every press release that carelessly fails to mention easy to use, and we’re down to six releases in 10 years. Could anyone use every one of the top seven gobbledygook terms in one press release? Sun falls at the final hurdle and is beaten by…

Lucent, the only company in history that dared to add cutting edge to the other six phrases and still send the release out.

When, in 2006, Lucent announced that Six New European Value Added Distributors Contract to Resell Lucent’s Security Portfolio, the press office probably had no idea that it was epitomising what historians will come to regard as the Decade of Twaddle. Ms Martina Gruger-Buhs and Mr Peter Benedict, your names were on the document; but something tells me this was a collaborative effort. Commiserations to Sun Microsystems too: no one could have tried harder.

Presentations to inspire you

This blog is sometimes accused of being too cynical about, well, everything. My first response is that there’s a lot to be negative about, but occasionally I like to inspire rather than criticise.

My post abut the excellent publicity video for the Retro Encabulator has proved to be an inspiration for Talknormalisers everywhere, and some readers have pointed out that the story does not stop there, as the technology was enhanced and licensed, eventually becoming the Turbo Encabulator. Those of you who worked in Chrysler dealerships will be familiar with it.

You can keep your Steve Jobs. If you’re looking for a difficult presentation done well, check out the videos, still some of the best examples of how to make sense of difficult technology. This was a simpler age: there’s not a PowerPoint slide in sight, but I feel the presenter captures something that today’s tech keynotes strive for, but miss.

If that’s not clear enough, it’s explained in more detail here:

Post-PowerPoint stress disorder

It’s not exactly pushing the boundaries to say you don’t like PowerPoint. Our common dislike has even become a sort of business non-apology apology. When someone says “I know the last thing you want is death by PowerPoint ha ha”, what they are really saying is, “Sod you. You’re getting 20 slides whether it’s the last thing you want or not.”

I was trying to work out how much of my life I have spent looking at PowerPoint slides. Over the last 15 years, as an absolute minimum, I have spent at least three hours a week looking at presentations. If I spend 12 hours a day awake and get Sundays off to sit in the corner crying softly, that’s two weeks of every year. When I got involved with the exciting worlds of business and technology, sitting in room trying to work out why I am staring at pictures of two racially diverse men shaking hands wasn’t how I saw my future.

I earn some of my money presenting webcasts, where often the preparation time includes the following conversation:

Me: What does the slide with the man punching the air in front of the graph with the line going up next to the cloud inside the interlocking oval shapes balancing on the three pillars mean?
Vendor: (consults notes) It means we add value.

I’ve collected three examples of the type of slides that have been quietly making me crazy in 2009. I know the last thing you want is death by PowerPoint, but I could make that into three bullet points, maybe add a flow chart of my slow descent into fatal madness, perhaps some clip art of a doctor strapping me into the straightjacket…

First category: What the hell are you looking at? Or: why have so many slides got pictures of casually-dressed self-consciously ordinary people looking into the middle distance on them? Like this one from Cap Gemini:

If you’re wondering what the bland expression on the face of the data centre manager is meant to imply to us, I have discovered that he’s thinking these batman pyjamas are comfortable. I offer you this as evidence: recognise the expression?

(Click on the picture to buy the pyjamas. They’re top value at £22 from Great Universal. I’m hoping for commission).

Second, if you need three paragraphs to explain the diagram then you didn’t draw the bloody picture properly. Note to IBM: when you show your diagram to people and they tell you it needs some explanation or it looks like a lot of blobs with arrows coming out of them, don’t make the explanation even more opaque than the picture:

And third, what are you graphing against what? I’m talking about diagrams with the structure of something along the bottom and then two different categories up the sides and then layers of other things at the top and then lines across the middle and then some extra blobs that don’t relate to the graph in the top corners. Best done using bright colours or 3-D shapes so that no one notices.

I know the last thing you want is death by PowerPoint but this next one might just kill you. Combining elements of all the above, here’s one from Big PowerPoint itself that just makes no sense at all:

If you created this slide, I’ll enable one more business imperative for you: I’ll give you a mug if you can explain what it means to me. If the rest of you have any slides that you think deserve an unsympathetic audience, you know who to send them to.

I take comfort in the knowledge that, though I have lost months of my life looking at these crimes against communication, I’m better off than the poor sap who spent years training as a graphic designer and then ended up having to draw them.

Black letter law

Magna Carta

"But what does 'Magna Carta' actually mean?"

I don’t care what you think: I like several lawyers. They can be witty, interesting people. They hold conferences in nice hotels and sometimes ask me to speak. Usually they’re polite afterwards. And get lawyers talking about something that isn’t the law, and often they are funny and clever.

Also, for a jobbing freelance, law firms pay well and usually have excellent biscuits when you visit them. I went for a meeting in one firm’s office and chef in a tall hat came to ask me what I wanted for lunch. Another firm has by far the best pencils I have ever used in its meeting rooms (at least it did until they left me alone for five minutes).

But if you’re editing copy for them, they don’t half make you earn the money. Lawyers write like badly-programmed jargonbots. Here’s a paragraph that I was asked to fix up a while ago for a business magazine:

Section 217 of the Companies Act 2006 provides that (except in the case of a bona fide termination payment) it is unlawful for a company to make payment to any of its directors by way of compensation for loss of office, or as consideration for or in connection with their retirement from office, without particulars of the proposed payment (including its amount) being disclosed to, and approved by ordinary resolution of, the members of the company.

No, I don’t either.

I’ve learned that it is basically pointless offering advice to lawyers on how to write like a journalist. Maybe that is because they’re earning ten times as much as me, so it’s understandable if they don’t really see an urgent need to adapt to my way of thinking. It’s more useful for me to pass on a few tips on how the rest of us can write like a lawyer:

1. If you don’t want to be easily understood, Latin is always better than English. When writing for a general reader I can tell you a priori that inter alia it’s your erga omnes right to stick in a few phrases in a language that they don’t understand, just so they know who’s the daddy. After all, nulla poena sine lege. I have no idea what I’ve just typed.

2. Qualify every statement no matter how meaningless. A rule of thumb: never use less than four clauses in each sentence, and don’t use full stops when there are perfectly good commas going to waste. If you used short sentences then people would be able to read your article out loud to peasants; and then poor illiterate people would understand your argument and your status will be forever compromised.

3. Ultimately, sit on the fence. Real advice has to be paid for, so make anything written for non-payers look like you’re going to help them right up to the last sentence – then don’t. Useful final-paragraph phrases for appearing to be helpful while being no bloody use at all include telling us that we should keep a watching brief rather than actually do anything, or that we might also give careful consideration to something you haven’t previously mentioned, or that we could usefully keep abreast of whatever it is that you’re supposed to have made us abreast of in the preceding six paragraphs. Not many people will complain, because few of them will have made it this far anyway.

4. Use the passive voice where at all possible. It will be seen that this may possess utility. Paragraphs should be drawn up by the lawyers concerned only after careful consideration of this advice. Articles composed in this fashion will be credited with education and poshness – by other lawyers, anyway. Other people ask why you are writing in this weird way. Ignore them! Or should I say: endeavour to ensure that they are ignored.

5. Favour obsolete words. Keep a stock of aforementioneds, hereinafters, forthwiths and herebys, and use them to give your prose the authentic feel of the 18th century.

6. Most important: never take advice on this subject from people who are not lawyers.

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