Posts Tagged 'win-win scenarios'

Nearly famous now

We’re all winners here at Talk Normal, but today I’m a tiny bit more of a winner than you are.

I haven’t actually won anything, you understand. Yet.

A very pleasant person from the Plain English Campaign told me that Talk Normal has been nominated for a Plain English Champion award.

It’s not the first time I have earned a nomination on merit, of course: in 1990 I was nominated for redundancy.

I don’t find out out if I’m a winner until the end of the year but, in the proud tradition of companies who haven’t actually won but don’t want you to notice, I intend to squeeze this particular orange for all the juice I can get. Maybe I will leverage my reputation enhancement strategy by putting news of this not-quite-award in a giant email signature, with the word “nominated” in tiny tiny tiny yellow type.

Meanwhile, put your weight behind the Plain English Campaign, not least because it invented the name ploddledygook for police jargon.

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.

The future of broadcast news

Following a positive reaction to my proposal to reclassify many apparent crises as palavers, or even kerfuffles, I have taken a few minutes to blue-sky the Kerfufflometer, which I believe will add to the Talknormalist content of broadcast news. I know that many influential broadcasters are avid readers of this blog. You know where to find me.

The power of positive thinking

Many people claim to me that journalists are only interested in bad news. Why can’t we write something happy for a change? Who wouldn’t want to read a story like “weather tolerable, light breeze”, or “mild work problem solved”?

I may mock, but those who want more happiness in their news might be getting your wish. the graph below is an index of how often the words “positives” and “negatives” show up in Factiva’s global major news stories database. I’ve taken 2002 as the base because, in 2002, there were about the same number of positives and negatives in the press.

As you can see, the graph doesn’t change much until the end of 2008. Then it whizzes up. The number of stories mentioning negatives hasn’t changed very much, but there are hundreds more stories mentioning positivity. We’re obviously learning to look on the bright side.

I excluded sports stories from this on purpose, because I had chosen the jargon noun “positives” (the thing that footballers “take”) rather than the more common adjective “positive”. There are few setbacks so appalling, no disappointments too depressing that a news story can’t quote someone taking positives from them.

The news business is changing: it is less about what’s happening, and more about how people feel about what just happened. These reactions may not be informed or relevant, but they’re certainly easier to report quickly. It is news for the Facebook generation, because we can all get involved. Not only have we taken the positives, we’re evidently not ready to give them back.

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.

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.


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