When I teach a business writing course, my favorite part of the class is when I get to rail against “corporatese,” that pompous, inflated and indecipherable language that business people of all levels seem to feel compelled to use. I put great examples like this up on the screen: “Unless otherwise specified, the following specifications and standards of the issue listed in that issue of the Department of Agriculture Index of Specifications and Standards specified in the solicitation, form a part of this specification to the extent specified herein.” We have a great time with this, and we make fun of the government for using such language and speculate about whether it’s done on purpose to confuse people into thinking they’re getting a better deal than they really are.
So this week when I went to teach a business writing course to a group of employees at a federal agency I thought, uh oh, how do I handle the “corporatese” discussion without offending anyone?
I needn’t have worried. Within a milisecond of my first example hitting the screen, everyone laughed and said, “That’s government-speak.” So they know, I thought. They know it’s ridiculous but they do it anyway.
I learned a lot from chatting with them. I’ve always presented a list of the causes of corporatese: one is that the attorneys make us do it, sometimes for good reasons, such as that we need to be very specific and detailed about a particular topic in order to protect against alternative interpretations of the language. Another not-so-good reason is that managers are conditioned to believe that simple language reflects a simple mind. As Scott Adams says, “If you want to advance in management, you must convince people that you’re smart. A manager would never say, ‘I used my fork to eat a potato.’ A manager would say, ‘I used a multi-tined utensil to process a starch resource.'”
What the folks in my class this week added to my list of causes is that they work from templates. Creating letters and emails from scratch every time would be incredibly inefficient, so they adapt from previous pieces of communication, and thus they institutionalize the old “that’s how we’ve always done it” dilemma.
We had a great time in that class. We took some of their templates, beamed them up onto the screen, and attacked them, working as a group to simplify the language and make it more accessible and understandable. I got the impression we could have spent another couple of days doing that and it would have been worth our time, because they would have had a whole new set of templates to work from.
The next time you put on a business writing class for your organization, send the participants to class with some of the forms and letters you typically use. If the group can spend time revising them, it will have a lasting effect for years to come.