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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Beaten-to-death words and phrases that need to be banned

May 06, 2019 - 12:00 PM



When I was in the U.S. Air Force, I was picked for a plum job working for a chief master sergeant - a “lifer” who had more time in service than I had on the planet - simply because I could write. The chief had hundreds of men and women reporting to him, and he asked me to write his personal correspondence, official memos, award and medal applications, proposals…everything.

He said he liked the way I wrote, adding that I “seemed to know how to drop in commas and could spell.” Granted, a compliment about good writing from someone who doesn’t know there are rules about the use of commas takes some shine off the trophy. There are, by the way, 13 rules about comma use…something that I recall mystified the chief.

I discovered early on that most military folks wrote like they spoke…over-salting every sentence with jargon and acronyms that often resembled something other than English. Pity the poor civilian reading this gem: “All NCOs with NY APOs, except for NCOICs, must file DOD 212 APS before rotation at the CBPO NLT 1700 HRS today.”

After my stint in the Air Force, I worked for two multinational companies and discovered that communication in the military was like playing in the minor leagues. I left the Air Force to return to the University of Florida and later a corporate job. Surely, “corporate speak” was without rival, I thought.

In my years with GE and Du Pont, I heard executives prattle on in meetings…saying things that defied comprehension…and yet people around conference tables nodded in agreement. Memos - and later emails - written by senior vice presidents were often so convoluted that reading them even two or three times didn’t even seem to help.

I remember a memo from a Du Pont company lawyer whose first sentence was 192 words long. I sent the memo back to him with a yellow Post-It note that said “If it’s all the same…I’ll wait until the movie comes out.”

It couldn’t get better than this, I thought…but it did. Twenty years later I led an advertising and PR firm and then my own consulting practice. Finally, I was playing Yankee Stadium during the World Series. Nothing beats “consultant speak” for communication that is best described as nothing less than complete and utter bull****.

I had a friend who worked with me at GE…he was in advertising…and I handled public relations. We both became consultants later in our careers…but I have to hand it to him…he was the most believable person I ever knew. What he said was generally true...but his statistics were almost always wrong. Still, he could sell any idea he wanted to any group or management team. Seriously, I never saw him fail.

He would give a presentation…without notes…sprinkling an array of statistics that would overwhelm you. I heard him give the same talk to two different groups…and none…absolutely none of the statistic were the same.

He would say something like…“Some 28 percent of those we surveyed said the most important factor in buying a refrigerator was their identification of the GE logo.” Next time…it would be 34 percent. All believable, I guess, but I asked him about the different percentages and he said, “It’s amazing…no one ever questions what I say.” The thing is…ethical issues notwithstanding…he really was good at what he did…developing creative advertising that worked.

As for me, I love the written word…crisp, clear communication that informs, persuades, entertains and more. Good writing stands out because there is a plethora of bad writing that obfuscates, confuses and clouds real meaning. However, I must confess…poor communication can entertain. But it can make you cringe, as well.

Jargon and trite expressions are the playgrounds of poor communicators. There are many beaten-to-death words and phrases that I think should be forever banished. Maybe - and it’s maybe with a capital M - some were colourful and original enough to have a brief shining moment. We have all heard them…and perhaps even used them. I know I have. But, I gave up most of the tired, almost incomprehensible terms that we hear everyday in favour of plain…almost impossible to misunderstand…English.

So, what would I banish? Let’s start with some phrases that are often misused…but even worse…they’re just tired. There’s not necessarily an order of offensiveness here…they pretty much all qualify. My cheeky thoughts follow in parentheses.

  • At the end of the day (If you have to use this…at least change it from day to night).
  • I’m with you 110 percent (There is no such thing…so don’t say you’ll give what you can’t).
  • Think outside the box (Most that say this…don’t).
  • Boots on the ground (If you’re not invading a country…drop it).
  • Core competencies (As opposed to peripheral competencies?).
  • Let’s do a deep dive (Let’s not).
  • Drink the Kool-aid (Tired of this expression…even more so of those who predictably use it).
  • It is what it is (Spoken more than written, thank God).
  • It’s a paradigm shift (Rarely is it!).
  • Results-oriented (Because failure-oriented isn’t an alternative).
  • Synergy or synergistic effect (I have not hit anyone who says these words…yet).
  • Where the rubber meets the road (I don’t know…maybe if you’re Henry Ford or Harvey Firestone…but both are seriously dead).
  • Strategic partnership (Is there a non-strategic partnership?).
  • More bang for the buck (Unless you’re selling drums…please).
  • Better late than never (Not necessarily).

If you have expressions you’re tired of…feel free to tee off in a comment and share them.

Trust me, you’ll feel better.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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