Posts Tagged 'Weasel words'

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.

The buck does not stop here

No one likes a blame culture. Especially when you’re the one taking the blame.

While News International flip-flops its way through the phone hacking palaver – offering various explanations of exactly what it was doing, who did it, and whether the evidence has been successfully deleted – one of the few things that most people agreed was adroit was Rupert’s personal apology (see right). We remember it because it has the word sorry at the top. You can argue that he is only sorry that they got caught, but you can’t dismiss the power of the apology.

Of course, it’s one thing to ask your advertising agency to write “sorry” on a piece of paper, it’s quite another to say it out loud. That’s why James Murdoch used a beautiful weasel phrase to describe the closure of the News of the World and any illegal phone hacking. Having got his sorrys out of the way at 3:30, phone hacking and its consequences quickly became a matter of great regret, so that he can get into the technical stuff instead:

Elsewhere in the scandal, Yates of the Yard went further. His impersonal regret was extreme:

Antitalknormalists use the Matter of Regret (MoR) when they are nominally in charge and bad things happen. They want to look concerned, just like ordinary people, while subtly emphasising their lack of individual responsibility. They want to stay on the outside, sadly shaking their regretful heads and tutting ritualistically, going along with the crowd.  This is especially the case when the crowd wants that head on a plate.

Transforming your apology or blame into a generic MoR means you keep a career-maintaining distance from the problem. It skips over who’s to blame and why it happened.

In the UK the MoR is also such a dull phrase as to be handily unreportable in most cases, because it provides no insight beyond the obvious: it’s like saying that something made you unhappy because it is sad. It has been quoted in stories in the UK papers more than 10 times in a month only twice – probably because if that’s the best quote in a story, it’s probably not much of a story. It was most popular in September 2010, when it was a matter of regret for the boss of Waterstones that demonstrators stopped Tony Blair doing a business-boosting book signing tour in his shops. That’s until July 2011 when, as we have seen, many of the people involved in phone hacking news stories were fond of using the phrase. Go figure.

MoRs imply a devolved responsibility that everyone can share but no one takes, and so they transform apology into a generic blanket of mild sadness. MoRs sit in the News International tactical toolbox alongside matters of profit and matters of political influence, ready to be used when they really want to say “don’t blame us”.

Cross with Crossrail

What a Crossrail station will look like. Memo to architects: if you leave your car there in East London, don't expect to see it when you get back

I’m having a bit of a Talknormalish to-do at the moment with Crossrail, or at least one of its contractors. The people I speak to tell me they are listening, though we all know they’re just tolerating me until I go away. If you’ve tried to complain to anyone with a complaints process recently, you know what I mean.

It’s about what we think consultation means, and what they know it means.

To recap: I live in a flat that’s facing the Olympic site for London 2012. As you can imagine, I’m accustomed to construction noise by now.

From time to time someone pushes a leaflet through the letterbox which tells me the builders are going to lower the street outside my door by two metres (this actually happened), or turn off the sun for the weekend, or put up a giant animatronic statue of Lord Coe.

The contractors are careful to phrase the leaflets in town planning jargon so you actually know less when you finished than when you began. They put a badly-drawn map on the back that looks like it was printed with a potato.

This is what is known in the construction business as consultation. Originally from the word consult: to seek advice, or consider, in this context it means telling us what they’ve already decided to do, and have often already started. It’s like going for a consultation with the doctor and discovering that he already sawed your leg off in the waiting room.

It’s all change in Stratford because, as well as the Olympics, we’re getting Crossrail – a new railway to take some Londoners left to right, and others right to left. It will be finished in 2017, but the contractors need to put this bit of Crossrail in now or else they’ll have to dig the Olympics up again as soon as it’s finished; and by that time they’ll have planted flowers for the tourists.

Crossrail has decided to extend its work to the evening: between the hours of 0800 and 2200 Monday to Friday, and on Saturdays too. They’re do this with a machine that the leaflet calls a piling rig, which is a giant BANG BANG BANG hammer which BANG BANG BANG thumps metal things BANG BANG BANG repeatedly until your KABOOM head explodes. I know this, because they started doing the work the week before they consulted us about it.

I can’t wait to spend the long summer evenings relaxing while I listen to it in action, mixed only with the background noise of tired babies crying.

So, I complained to the consultation number on the letter, and a liaison person called me back. It went like this:

Me: Why weren’t any of us consulted about the extended hours?

Her: We got permission from the Newham Borough Council. We have the obligation to consult you by sending out the letter to say whats happening.

Me: That’s not a consultation then.

Her: We’re just the contractor.

Me: Still not a consultation though.

Her: Crossrail organised the consultation.

Me: When?

Her: Before the Crossrail bill went through parliament*.

Me: But your leaflet doesn’t even explain what’s happening.

Her: What do you mean?

Me: It’s in jargon. Half the people in Newham have English as a second language**. They don’t know what bored piling to form the abutments for the bridge is, so they can’t understand what you’re telling them.

Her: We don’t write the final leaflet. We’re just the contractor.

Me: (overexcited) And you wrote that the work would start at 0800 and finish at 2200, but then that there are one hour startup and shutdown periods, so that means the work will actually take place between 0700 and 2300.

Her: (bored now) I see.

Me: (frothing) And you say that you will keep noisy work to a minimum on Saturdays and in the evenings.

Her: (frosty) Yes.

Me: (triumphant) Ha! But that just means that you will be doing noisy work on Saturdays and in the evenings. This is supposed to be information, you’re not meant to be twisting the truth to make yourselves sound nice.

At this point she offered to ask the director of jargon dissemination (not his real job title) to call me so I can give him the benefit of my irritating advice on his choice of words. I’ll keep you in touch, but I won’t hold my breath.

* To be fair, this consultation did take place. Eight years ago.

** I’m exaggerating here. It’s 47 per cent.

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.

Core value judgement

Obviously I looked younger in those days

I know the exact moment I decided to give up playing rugby. I was being carried off the pitch on a stretcher with blood pouring out of my head, and one of the prop forwards patted me on the leg and said, “Well, Tim, looks like your journalism days are over”.

Whether or not you find this joke funny probably depends on whether you think rugby is a noble pursuit for tough people or 80 minutes of institutionalised assault. To tip public perception towards nobility and away from criminality, the English Rugby Football Union has just done what the establishment usually does in these cases: made a big statue.

At least when the Victorians did this, they usually had the subtlety to try and hide their hidden agenda. The RFU, with all the subtlety of a prop forward, decided to call the latest addition to the Twickenham furniture the Core Values sculpture. Why now? I looked it up: “Two years ago the RFU put together a task group to run an extensive consultation exercise. The Core Values project – the first time a sport has set out to define its value system in formal terms – identified the following principles…”

Speaking as a big fan of Rugby Union, it has always had hypocrisy as one of its unspoken core values. The game was proudly amateur when my dad played, and you were banned if you were even suspected of taking money to play – so his club secretly stuffed money in his boot instead.

There have been a lot of people bragging about their core values recently: companies in the US and UK are about three times as likely to claim in their press releases that they have core values as they were in 2000, as the graphs below show.

But where, I thought, are we most likely to find an increase in these core values? I thought it might be good to look for the phrase in press releases on military procurement. Defence contractors discovered many more core values during the period between 2003 and 2006 – which is an improvement on the 1990s, when they didn’t mention core values at all. I shaded the area during which BAE Systems was investigated over accusations of corruption (In 2010 it admitted false accounting and, in a settlement, agreed to pay £257m criminal fines to the US and £30m to the UK – but the company denies bribery).

Banks, however, had a core value growth peak much earlier. This time I shaded a period which covers the Senate Committee of Finance’s investigation into Enron and the complicity of banks in the creative accountancy that took place.

But the real stars of the core values show are in the securities business. They didn’t make much noise about core values in the past: again, not a single mention of the phrase in the early 1990s that I could find. But they are making up for it now. You are now about six times as likely to read a securities industry press release that mentions core values as you were in 2000.  I’m not going to insult you by pointing out which relevant period I’ve highlighted in the final graph:

Of course, my simple measurement doesn’t explore what those core values might be. A few weeks ago I spoke to  Dr Doug Hirschhorn, who is one of the top trader coaches in the world. I asked his what the values of his trainees are: “These people get paid an obscene amount of money. They are not curing cancer or creating new ways to feed people. It draws the sort of people attracted to sensation-seeking,” he said.

The sensation-seeking search for obscene personal wealth is a core value, I guess. I’m also guessing that it’s not the core value mentioned in those press releases.

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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: 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!


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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