“Don’t Talk Like A Sausage…”

10 Steps To Sausage-Free Speech

Pleeeeeeease…Don’t do it!

I’m not exactly sure where my mother came up with “don’t talk like a sausage.”  She may have borrowed it from my Swedish father, but it’s her voice I hear whenever this phrase comes to mind.

Unfortunately, it comes to mind a lot these days, because so many of my fellow business-people do it.  Idiomatically, “talk like a sausage,” means nonsense or lies.  But the literal sausage: a thin-skin filled to bursting with ground up meat and fat, tied off at both ends, also seems apropos. I like the strong connotation of non-discrimination, and of being full of it. I like the idea that if things get heated, a sausage talker will actually spit grease. 

I want to discuss the cultural factors that are making sausage-speech a default standard, and offer an effective prescription to help folks avoid the frying pan.  I think when you see our “10 Steps,” you’ll agree that talking plainly is not a matter of intellectual attainment, but more an issue of will and discipline.  Before we dive in though, I want to talk a little about how we Grammar-Police types have created bad press for our own cause…

Scolds! (Good Grammarians, Bad Messengers)

Due to a series of iffy life-choices, I now spend a lot of my time among people who pride themselves on being super-fussy with language.  We never waste a chance to post our laments on Facebook about the latest overworked clichés. Whenever one of us offers up a tawdry example, the rest of the crew jumps in, and the end result is a dog-pile: the same-old listing of everybody’s favorite verbal peeves.  It’s a little tedious, even for us insiders.

“Insiders,” feels right, because we tend not to think or talk about this stuff as a matter of concern for the rest of the world. Our purpose, it seems, is identifying and fencing off the uninitiated. Patting ourselves on the back.

But I’m going to try to aim a bit higher here.

Because crappy language is everybody’s problem: and its an acute problem for businesses.  In fact, if you polled my little salon of language-fusses, we’d tell you that business culture has become the world’s leading exporter of sausage-talk.  By a mile.

It wasn’t always so. If you go back and watch a few episodes of Mad Men — well, the episodes where they’re actually pitching something — you can get a taste of what the world was like when businesses, advertisers especially, used familiar words in new ways, rather than creating ugly new phrases on a monthly schedule.  The game afoot was to create something new. Say something new. Say something familiar in a new way.

“It’s toasted,” familiar word, novel, relevant, ear-catching and thought-provoking use.

Crappy language-use for businesses and business-people costs.  I’n not a quant-person by any means but my belief is that the cost for sausage-speech can be devastatingly high. Just one man’s opinion here, but these are the losses I see every day:

  • Loss of trust. This is especially true for startups and for companies in the communications business. For startups: if you’re disrupting something and you talk like a sausage, all we can hear is your desire to be disruptive.  If you have a digital agency and your case studies are caked with MBA glop like “insight into” and “hone in on,” I’m personally wondering why the hell I would dream of hiring you to help me STAND OUT.  Here’s an actual quote from a legit, wannabe-real agency in the 312 area code: “{COMPANY NAME] crucially understood that while trust and awareness are ultimately up to the consumer, those things extend from an internal positioning first. A brand must be lived from within before it’s positively accepted from without.”  Where does one even begin to tabulate the horrors in that snippet? You won’t be surprised to  know that the rest of the case study is choked with this stuff…or if you prefer: those things. Which brings us to…
  • Loss of clarity. When a writer prances around this much to say a company’s culture has to be well established to build customer-trust, who can blame readers for losing the thread? What happens here is that the lack of clarity gets confused (by the writer, by the company) with substance.  This creates a double subtraction: the simple assertion is never clearly made, so it can’t be seen for how mundane it really is. As a result, commonplaces take up verbal acreage that could (conceivably) be much more productive. …Assuming you actually do have something new to say.
  • Loss of audience. When speakers clobber their audiences with clichés and seemingly-subtle mundanities, they lose.  They lose the sale. They lose their reputations. But most immediately and enduringly, they lose their audiences.  They lose them from the word go: “To be honest…”; they lose them mid-pitch: “What this is, is that…”; and soon, they lose them forever. There’s no need to: “circle back to your question.”  Sorry…you probably forgot your question anyway.

No problem, I have one:

 What Do I Mean, Precisely, When I Say Talk Like A Sausage?

There are lists of common sausage-phrases everywhere.  Here are a few of my (least) favorites: in no particular order. If you encounter one or two phrases below that you sometimes use, don’t fret.  But if you’re spilling these guys out on a regular basis, you’ve probably got some sausage-grease in your transmission: 

impactfulto be honestnext-levellevel-set
net-netgo to marketinsight intohone in on
visibility into with all due respectend of the daydeep dive
ducks in a rowboots on the groundactionablefocused on
take offlineopen the kimonoour A-gamedisruptor
tracking youempowerprocess thiswin-win
thought-leaderpartner (as verb)own dog-foodbreak silos
raise the barlean inget granularpick brains
lipstick on a pigdrink the Koolaidthe Uber ofcenter around

Think about posting this list for yourself. Expanding it. Thing is, making a list like this, making it public, and vowing to stay away from these old dogs, can force you to think and talk with more patience and clarity. That can be a good thing — it may even be a great one. I’m pretty sure that it can’t be bad.  

How Why Does The Sausage Get Made?

These are my theories — feel free to debunk if you’re the debunking type. But you might read these thoughts and have that spark of recognition. I hope you do…

Sausage-talkers like “actionable” words — terms that sound familiar and current. Many of these (like actionable), tend to have a kind of audible heft and presence. “Impactful,” “empower,” “net net,” and “go to market” all sound energized and masculine. Sausage speakers apparently believe these terms make them sound and appear energized, confident, and assured. They almost always betray that they’re not.

Sausage speakers also love jarring, masculine phrases like “open the kimono,” “drink the kool aid,” and “eat our own dog food,” because they sound and feel tough.  They also tend to overuse military jargon like “boots on the ground,” “line in the sand,” and “die on that hill” for the same reasons.

Some of this is just good old fashioned male-myopia, and its mirror image: women required to act like males to “lean in” (blecch) or “man up” (double blecch). Unambiguously, I want to say I blame men for this state of affairs. 

The other factor is less obvious, but may be even more insidious, and difficult to extricate: the cumulative effect of mega-dosages of televisual stimuli — tv’s, laptops, and smart phones. Among other cognition-bending outcomes, these megadoses have rendered an entire generation mute without their PowerPoint slides, and inspired many to choose their words primarily for sensational effect. Call me crazy, but I think the word “actionable” is a shiny object.  “A calf, of goooold!” ….I’ve never seen it mean anything except: “This person speaking? ALL ACTION!”

A Word About Waffles

They go so well together in real life, so it should come as no surprise that sausages often get served up with a side of waffles. Verbal waffles are those insidious helper phrases that were once primarily a signifier of adolescent insecurity…like, uh…you know? Just a few of these will give you the flavor for the whole family: like; you know?; sort of; kind of; anyway; you know what I mean?; it’s just; well it’s; I don’t know… The practical effect of these terms is to ask the listener to complete a train of thought that the speaker is too lazy to finish themselves. The comical apotheosis of these kinds of phrases is the now ubiquitous “I can’t even…” which amounts to a kind of confession. Points for honesty, anyway.

Waffles and sausages go together because they share the same root cause: a speaker who definitely wants to talk, and who may want to be understood, but is not yet sure they really have anything to say.

One other thing verbal sausages and waffles have in common with the real thing: when you’ve had a plateful or two, you feel like you need a nap.

10 Steps to Living Without Sausage

  1. Above all, listen. Listen and pay attention to the people you hear speaking, to the articles you read; to the people you trust and admire. Also listen to the people you don’t trust. …Count the sausages. Note the difference.
  2. Listen, especially, to yourself.
  3. Whenever you’re about to speak, take a breath and arrange your thoughts. Think literally about that term: “arrange your thoughts.”
  4. Make your own list of overtaxed business phrases. Start with mine if you like. Google a few. The lists are out there, and some include astute analysis of the problems they create.
  5. Pick a few phrases or words you have a weakness for, and…cut them out. Cold turkey.
  6. Do the same with ALL waffle words. Pursue a zero tolerance policy, and you’ll find #3 will start to happen for you.
  7. Make a pact with a friend or colleague. Call each other out on your respective waffles and sausages.  This will also make #3 happen.
  8. If you want to make your whole company more articulate, make this pact a public initiative. Throw a pancake breakfast!
  9. Take any piece of copy your company or department has generated and give it the once-over. Try to make it simpler and more specific. Take that scalpel to your website or your mission statement. Try The Hemingway App. 
  10. Stop it with the military and sports metaphors and tough guy stuff. Unless you’re Rob Gronkowski or something…in which case, be my guest.

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