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Spotlight: Author Joe Moran on Improving Business Communication

  • 8 Minutes
Are your business communications enjoyed or endured by readers? Author Joe Moran explains why he has an issue with “managerial blah” … and why you should too.

Many of us have played buzzword bingo at some point; perhaps at a conference or in a meeting, or perhaps to poke fun at a particularly bland and corporate tone of voice in an email or social media.

Yet the managers, marketers and other business communicators responsible for all of this “leveraging” and “synergising” seem impervious to the criticisms and ridicule. New examples of bad corporate language still pop up every day.

Joe Moran is a professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, and the author of First You Write a Sentence, a highly entertaining book about the art of writing. I spoke to Moran about bad business writing and what marketers and comms managers can do to *ahem* “move the needle on effective communications”.

JC: In your book, you describe a form of “managerial blah” most people are familiar with. While not all business writing is bad, why is this particularly style or tone of voice still so common?

JM: You’re right that not all business writing is bad. Really, it’s down to the nature of language, which is paradoxical because language is about communicating with people – but it can also be a way of not communicating.

Writing and speaking aren’t just about communicating; they’re also about thinking – they’re ways of working out what you think or what you want to say.

I’ve always thought it would be good to have the equivalent of a swear box, where you couldn’t say things like “moving forward”, “driving forward”, “celebrating success”, “reward and recognition”; all the kinds of cant phrases that managers often come out with. I don’t think it’s always a deliberately pernicious thing. I just think they haven’t thought about what it is they’re really talking about.

Like the phrase “celebrating success”, for example, which is all over universities. It’s a way of disguising the fact that you’re getting colleagues to compete with each other. But if you say it’s about “celebrating success”, who could possibly be against that?

The other thing about management speak is there’s no way into it. It’s kind of watertight. Good writing or good speaking has a bit of give in it. It’s a dialogue. Even if it’s a monologue, there’s a suggestion that you’re saying, “Is this true?” There’s a sense that somebody else can listen to it and challenge it.

This is why I talk about “nouny” writing in the book. Nouns are about solidity and fixity. A lot of business and management speak has long noun strings with three or four nouns together, like “supply chain resource issues”. If you have a lot of nouns in your writing, if you get rid of the verbs to just have nouns, it’s basically saying this is reality; get used to it.

Bad business writing often uses more words than necessary, as well as longer or more archaic words which most people never use in normal conversation, such as “utilise” instead of “use”. Why do businesses adopt this unnatural voice?

Another tendency in language is to grow words – to use three words when one will do – which isn’t necessarily a pernicious thing. Adding another noun like “solutions” to something that doesn’t actually need it is an example of that.

Using the Latinate word as opposed to the Old English one isn’t just a management speak thing. You get “utilise” quite a lot in student writing as well, because students are worried about not sounding clever enough. It may be unconscious. It’s just that “utilise” has become the default word instead of “use”. But I can’t think of an example where “use” can’t replace “utilise”.

George Orwell wrote that, “Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house”. What can marketers do to avoid this trap of writing-by-numbers, of falling into cliché?

We all do that. That’s not just management speak; that’s just a feature of language in a way, because it’s a collective creation. We all have our off-the-shelf words that we use. They’re called collocations; where you put two words together because they quite often appear together.

That’s just a natural thing to do. We’re kind of lazy and writing is hard.

That’s the other thing about a lot of management speak. It assumes that writing and communication are easy; that you can just stick together these boiler-plate phrases and that, somehow, you’ve then communicated with people.

But the way to avoid it is to realise that it’s difficult. Writing is not a natural activity.

Annie Dillard [Pulitzer prize-winning author], when she was teaching writing, said that she always looked in her students’ writing for two words that she’d never seen together before. She thought that was the definition of good writing.

In a way that’s what a fresh metaphor is; putting two concepts or two words together that you haven’t seen before but that make you think about the world differently. And a lot of management speak is dead metaphor. It’s using metaphor, but it’s become a cliché, it’s become cant, because it’s been used again and again and again.

I once worked in an industry where just about every new feature or bit of tech was described as “bleeding edge”, which is nonsense because everything can’t be bleeding edge. Do these clichés remain so popular because they sound big and impressive without actually saying anything meaningful?

I think there’s a slightly macho aspect to a lot of management speak. They use words like “robust” and “proactive”; those kinds of words that suggest strength.

Although I was talking about it being nouny, there is a sort of verbiness. There’s a lot of “drilling down”, and so on. I’ve noticed that people have stopped saying “going forward” and they now talk about “driving forward” and “moving forward” as if “going forward” is not active enough.

It’s a weird combination of this arse-covering language that’s all nouny and not doing anything, and then these macho verbs are stuck in there to give it a false sense of vibrancy.

Is management speak possibly a symptom of having to satisfy a series of other stakeholders – senior managers, legal departments and so on – so that becomes easier and safer to write conservatively with as little accountability as possible?

The language I’m familiar with is what they call “cascading down”, which is the emails from senior managers talking to people lower down the food chain. The way that they obfuscate is by getting rid of process and agency – and verbs.

One of the things I’ve noticed is they will say is things like, “There’s been a loss of functionality” in something. So, if the whole computer system is down and nobody can access their emails, they might say, “There’s been a loss of functionality”.

Of course, that’s using two nouns; loss and functionality. Loss of functionality doesn’t sound very serious. It just sounds like it’s not working as well as it should.

But if you say, “It’s broken”, you have to say who broke it and who’s going to fix it – and sorry that you can’t do your job at the moment because you can’t get into the system.

There’s a common idea that good, clear writing uses plain, unembellished English and short sentences, supported by readability tools like Flesch-Kincaid. But in your book, you point out that long sentences, well written, can still be easy to read and highly engaging.

Uniformly short sentences can be quite dull. That’s not how people think or speak. The best piece of advice is to vary your sentence length, often quite dramatically, and good writers tend to do that. It just mirrors how people think; that we veer between certainty and nuance.

You should have some simple declarative sentences, but you should also have sentences that stretch out a thought and suggest that the world is more complex, because that’s naturally how people think aloud and how they talk to people.

And that creates music and cadence. If you vary the gaps between the full stops, then you vary your cadence so your writing naturally becomes fresh and musical.

Those readability scores like Flesch-Kincaid are a good starting point. I do look at my readability stats as a kind of general guide. But they’re just the starting point. It’s a bit like the grammar and spell check in Word; they might help a little, but they’re no substitute for developing your own voice and getting a good ear.

If you’ve genuinely thought about what you want to say, if you’ve spent a long time shaping the sentences to communicate that, if you’re aware of how difficult writing is – and it should be difficult – if you’ve done all of those things, then that’s a much better guide to being able to communicate than any statistics.

Photo of Jonathan CrossfieldJonathan Crossfield

Jonathan calls himself a storyteller because freelance writer, editor, content marketer, journalist, copywriter and speaker wouldn’t fit neatly on a business card. His articles on digital marketing have won a couple of awards, but they were so long ago it seems boastful to keep mentioning it in bios. Jonathan lives in the Blue Mountains, perfecting the art of writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Twitter @Kimota.

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