A Critique of Public Discourse

This is the place where television campaigns, road signs, outdoor billboards, city stickers, gig posters, on-hold music, band-bios, Linked-In posts, corner preacher screeds, train-station announcements, urgent bathroom signage, and suburban village mottos will be celebrated or excoriated, as appropriate. …Yes, some of our posts will do both.

If it’s said or displayed in public, it’s fair game here.

Once we get a head of steam, you’ll see what it’s all about, and I’m confident that some of my faithful readers will become contributors.

Hope the ride is entertaining!

Don’t Hone In On Me Bro

Nope, still no such thing as a “Honing Pigeon.”

As dictionary.com explains, beautifully and concisely, the familiar phrase “home in on” began to take shape as “home” morphed from noun to verb — starting in the mid 1800’s with pigeons, then picking up considerable steam through most of the 1900’s, with radar, aviation, and missile technology.  They politely note that “hone in on” is a new usage that is now picking up a lot of steam too — enough that a few dictionaries are listing it as an acceptable use.

It’s not.  Fly with me awhile and I’ll try to explain why…

The main reason you don’t want to use this phrase is because people like me are listening, and there are more of me than you think.  When someone uses this phrase, we hear the dissonance of a perfectly useful and familiar locution being passed over for shiny new confederate coin: something bold, attention-getting, and stupid.  We hear an expression that was equal parts wrong and grasping when it was first minted — and despite the fact that so many strivers have mindlessly drifted hone-ward — it still sounds wrong and grasping.  It makes us sad to think that those who use it, reveal more about themselves than they’re aware, (because that’s a thing civilized adults try not to do). 

If you’re irked with me at this juncture because you have used this phrase on occasion, you may be taking some comfort in the notion that there aren’t really that many grammar and word people out there, and they’re all losers anyway.  That last assertion may be true, but I wouldn’t take too much comfort in it.  Because the secret, terrible truth is this:

Even the hordes who love forgeries like “hone in on” — trust less the colleagues who also employ these phrases. They can sense a fellow striver, trying to sound authoritative, just as easily as we grammar bastards do. (Almost everyone has better antenna for other people than they do for themselves, civilized adults or no.)

But if that still goes down sideways, just dial up YouTube and scan the top 10 or 20 TED Talks. Or the top 50.  Note how rarely these most-beloved speakers trot out the battered ornaments of MBA business prose.  If there’s a “hone in on” in the bunch, I’d be quite surprised.

But if there is…well…now you know where to send ’em.   

Why “Impactful” …Isn’t

Remember Joe’s excellent question: Impactful how? *

Impactful seems to be the latest and greatest of the dandelion words. After decades — actually, centuries — living without it, this gritty, tough-sounding expression has become as ubiquitous as my previous verbal shoe-pebble: “partner (the verb).” Still loathe that one.

Rare is the Linked In feed-refresh that doesn’t have at least a sprinkling of impactfuls. It shows up frequently now on the nightly news, in political discourse, and it trips off the tongue of every coach and sports-owner this side of the Atlantic (or Pacific). My guess is that it mostly stays below the Canadian border however, as our neighbors to the north retain their familial discourse with England, where “impactful” surely sounds too earnest, obvious, and self-serving. That is: quintessentially American.

Of course the main problem with using any dandelion word is that your audience starts to detach the minute you utter them.  I don’t have the brain-scan and galvanic skin response evidence modern science provides (and thus requires!) for this assertion, but I’d bet a thousand bucks this is something that could actually be measured.  (I know you could measure it on my skin, and if you had an eye-roll sensor, you’d get that too.)  Until that test occurs, just glance around at the next CMO gathering you attend, and watch as people start looking at their smart phones the minute clichéd speechifying starts spilling down from the podium. 

Teams are impactful. Leaders, lead teams, and teams lead to results!

And so on, and on and on.

My main problem with impactful is that it trades sensation for meaning. Hardcore users surely like the way it sounds: authoritative, explosive, powerful…and manly. It does make a dent after all!  …But like any blunt object that leaves an impression, the specifics of the message tend to get obscured. 

Possible Cures

First, take impactful to the currency-exchange in your neighborhood and see if they’ll give you some older coin. I’ve yet to read a passage or hear a speaker utter the phrase without thinking that many of its proven elders might say more:

influential

impressive

persuasive

exemplary

definitive

decisive

pivotal

crucial

essential

vital

convincing…

Take your pick. They’re all adjectives, so they’re not going to do the job by themselves — but that’s an argument in their favor, actually. And it also points out the primary temptation (and weakness) of impactful. Far too often, speakers seem to think that this one word says it all:

It was an impactful message,

He was an impactful player.

It was an impactful seminar.

This is an impactful book.

I’m reminded of Joe Pesci’s immortal “Funny, how??” inquisition from Goodfellas.  …Every time I hear impactful, I get a little Joe Pesci in me, that’s for sure. 

The best solution for solving the impactful problem, is to put this wisdom to good use — start out by answering, as best you can, Joe’s eminently sensible question:

Impactful, how?

If a message was impactful because it stirred you to action, caused discussion, changed minds, started a movement, revealed heretofore unknown facts — all of that is more interesting and word-count worthy than brash and brawny (but inarticulate) impactful. The same is true about players, seminars, books, and anything else that’s especially affecting or effective.

I’m not sure what it is about impactful that makes speakers feel like they’ve said it all, but it seems very popular with folks who are impatient to do just that. The same way it closes off inquiry for the speaker (who really should be all about the business of answering Pesci’s question), it also has a kind of confrontational quality for the listener, as if the term is implicitly accompanied by a kind of pre-rebuttal:

Whaddaya mean impactful how?  Imapctful! Like I said!

The word also seems to have a performative or incantatory aspect, whereby its use confers its qualities on the utterance, and the speaker. Which is to say: impactful is…impactful.

The only problem is…it isn’t.

*Credit goes to my pal Pat Daly for the Joe Pesci metaphor. Doenke Schoen!

Don’t Talk Like A Sausage: Part Two

Rhetoricians Are Everywhere: Sports Radio Proves It

In Part One of “Don’t Talk Like A Sausage,” we tried to spell out what it means to talk like a sausage, theorized why people do it, and began trying to calculate the costs for those who do.  We also noted that the ability to hear gobbledygook is actually quite widespread, despite the vast majority of language-scolding coming from a small group of hobbyists.

In this installment, I want to use (of all things) Sports Radio to provide a glimpse into just how pervasive sensitive listening has become. While we’re at it, we’ll look to sports in general for examples of just how important sausage-less speech can be.

Alert Ears Are Everywhere

Before we dive into the turbid waters of sports-media, I want to point out that there are ALWAYS more “experts” listening than most people realize. This is especially true of people in positions of public influence — like members of “the media.” Remember them?

Self-styled language bastards are almost certainly all over the joint in any marketing or entertainment focused environment.  We’re on the news and on the analysis of the news, on Facebook and Twitter and Linked In and yes… we’re even on flipping Sports Radio. 

I listen to way too much of it, but I still know what I’m hearing. A good 70% of modern-day Sports Radio is grad-level textual analysis of words uttered by jocks, coaches, and owners. Chicago’s Dan Bernstein typifies the trend.

Dan Bernstein, Chicago Sports Radio’s finest rhetorician.

An honors grad from Duke University, Bernstein’s specialty is picking apart press conferences and locker-room mumblings with surgical precision. His colleagues all used to make a big show of Bernstein being an over-intellectualizing-freak — but now his kind of analysis has become the meat and potatoes for every show on the station.  I guess you can only say so much about the damn plays.

Actually, Everybody’s Listening…and Closer Than You’d Think 

Even on Sports Radio, subtle rhetorical analysis is not limited to the guys on the air.  It’s the callers too — even the ones who can barely speak themselves. Between the word choices of losing jocks and managers, and batting orders…you’re up to about 95% of the programming day.

Sports radio is a perfect example of Stanley Fish’s contention that language encloses all human experience. If you haven’t read Fish, do give him a try. What he has to say about language should be taught in every business class. I always recommend “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, And It’s A Good Thing Too.” …Seriously, give it a look.

The major franchises all seem to understand the need for linguistic talent, as coaches and general managers are increasingly hired for their PR skills. After all, major league sports franchises are media products — especially if you look at them through the balance sheet.

Theo Epstein: rhetorician extraordinaire.

And you won’t find a better poster-boy for this whole trend than Theo Epstein, the Savior General Manager for the Cubs. Theo’s precision with language is clearly a big part of his brand. And by extension, it’s now part of The Cubs’ brand as well. I may have missed a “hone in on” during one of these pennant races— but I’ve personally never heard him say it.  Sports has its own superset of clichés and he does his best to avoid those too.

Cub fans will always love Theo because of that World Series victory, but he’s still earning acclaim now, during much-less magical seasons, because he’s so damned articulate. Largely because of that quality, he’s also perceived as honest, and smart. The ultimate accolade?  Even White Sox fans like the guy. Take it from me: we don’t even like ourselves.

Feel The Benefit

Theo illuminates all the benefits of talking sausage-less-ly. Watch the whole press-conference linked above, and you’ll see an ideal model for rhetorical performance.  When Theo speaks, he takes the time to form his thoughts, and as he goes on, he remembers what he says. In every meaningful way, he is present, and his presence has the effect of placing listeners “in the moment” as well. The phrase “hanging on every word” has its origins with the kind of effect his speech creates. For listeners, Theo’s zero-sausage style creates a feeling of intimacy and connection. But crucially, the connection point is with his words. You’re actually invited to share his perspective, rather than being overwhelmed by his identity and authority. Because of this nuance, you’re also implicitly invited to disagree.  That’s the key the waffles and sausage crowd always seems to miss.

And ultimately, I think that’s why it’s worth it to go back and review our Ten Steps To Sausage-less Speaking.  I promise if you take them, you’ll be ten steps closer to finding your inner-Theo.

“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.

toasted_35
“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.

Life, Death & Verb Agreement

Impressive and impressively serious campaign from the Illinois Department of Transportation. I particularly like “We’re all at risk, we’re all at fault,” as it takes the campaign down from the high-horse that can so quickly switch people’s ears to off.

But I find myself wishing my ears had an off switch whenever I hear the radio ad.  See transcript-excerpt below:

“…That means everyone you know — even yourself — are at risk.”

Italics mine. The “are” coming immediately after “everyone” and “yourself,” clanks hard on my ear.  I suppose some grammar technician felt secure that “everyone you know — even yourself” describes a plural collective, but I would have avoided the jarring sound of this formation by writing around it.  Whenever I find myself looking up hardcore grammar-referee sites, I always rewrite.  If it’s wrong to my ear, it’s wrong.

Okay then IDOT, I’m letting you off with a warning — try this:

“….You’re at risk…and so is everyone you know — everyone you love.”

Ahhh…much better. “Everyone you love” also reminds us why we’re listening in the first place.  It heavies things up, and lifts that weight at the same time.

Now that’s the, uh…ticket.