December 2, 2009

Recently, opinion columnist Stanley Fish asked his New York Times readers to weigh in on their least favorite popular phrases—And the Winner: ‘No Problem’—things people found to be overused, latently offensive, or just simply redundant. My own personal faux pas is the tag phrase “To be honest…” Does this not suggest I am lying every other time I open my mouth?

A few of the funnier ones readers reported back included:

  • “This is a courtesy call,” or worse “Your call is important to us”
  • “You’re getting defensive”
  • “I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

I found this exercise extremely amusing, especially since one of our favorite running jokes in the office is when we try to “out-corporate-speak” one another. Here’s a sample of what I mean:

Me: I feel as though there is a process flow gap which is going to hinder our aggressive pursuit of the core competencies here.
Boss: Agreed. At the end of the day, we just need to be in synch relative to the most salient action items.
Me: Want to go to lunch? I hear it’s low hanging fruit salad day…
Boss: Hang on; I need to put out some fires first.
(If you’re looking to have a little fun, visit this corporate speak generator:

Sadly, as these much maligned phrases circulate in our sarcastic emails and conversations, I find myself using them in a business context now again—asking people to “circle back” and “align their goals with the overall organizational approach.” In fact, the word “synergy” has even made an appearance or two, much to my embarrassment.

The funny thing about corporate speak is that it often becomes so stale and threadbare that whatever original thoughts are at the roots of the dialogue become buried by the exchange itself. Dare I state the obvious? Half the time, I don’t think we do actually communicate. It’s easy to open your mouth and ramble about something that sounds great—believe me, I talk to public relations and marketing folks all day.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t dress up our products and concepts so they sound better, but I think there is a point where this approach plateaus, and we wind up caught in a hamster wheel of metaphors (ooh … sorry. A metaphor about metaphors).

Perhaps our attempts to sound professional get in the way of being professional—as in we undercut the value we could offer in utilizing our verbal skills to communicate effectively. In fact, I think the space between articulate speech and meandering corporate gibberish is a hairline fracture; perhaps denoting the very brokenness that divides the truly effective communication from our misguided idea of it.

Though it’s hard to extricate ourselves from this corporate web, I’d say it’s worth trying to curtail its infectious reach. Verbal communication is valuable, and it’s important we make sure it maintains its impact.

Are we on the same page? Good… because I just want to make sure we have all of our ducks in a row.

What are your thoughts on corporate speak, and its role in communication? What are your least favorite corporate phrases? Email me: