Thursday, May 06, 2010

Auto-Semiotic Asphyxiation



So there I was, taking a fast break from the world at the haircut place (after a winter of trying to maintain my John-Travolta/Battlefield-Earth look

done entirely in silk extensions and three-strand-micro-braids, I decided to clean it up a little for beach weather.) The place is cheap, with big, wide windows looking out at "el" tracks, trees violently erupting in 100 shades of green bold as you please, blue sky, and foot traffic enough for any semi-pro people-watcher (neighborhood moms in for touch-ups, and the odd med student squinting to watch "Tokyo Drift" on the matchbook-sized screen of his iPhone.)

A typical spring afternoon with a light William Gibson infusion. A chance to get my head out of working and writing and blogging for awhile. And because I'm a reader and I don't care about what kinds of colored gypsum Mary-Kate Olsen uses to limn her eye sockets, or what kind of ink Evangeline Lilly pours in her hair, eventually I pick up "Inc." magazine.

Leaf through it.

And then, this...

"Why Is Business Writing so Awful?"

Great. Like I have the willpower to turn that down.

Why Is Business Writing so Awful?

Nearly every company relies on the written word to woo customers. So why is most business writing so numbingly banal?

By Jason Fried | May 1, 2010

What's bad, boring, and barely read all over? Business writing. If you could taste words, most corporate websites, brochures, and sales materials would remind you of stale, soggy rice cakes: nearly calorie free, devoid of nutrition, and completely unsatisfying.

One of my favorite phrases in the business world is full-service solutions provider. A quick search on Google finds at least 47,000 companies using that one. That's full-service generic. There's more. Cost effective end-to-end solutions brings you about 95,000 results. Provider of value-added services nets you more than 600,000 matches. Exactly which services are sold as not adding value?

Who writes this stuff? Worse, who reads it and approves it? What does it say when tens of thousands of companies are saying the same things about themselves?

When you write like everyone else and sound like everyone else and act like everyone else, you're saying, "Our products are like everyone else's, too." Or think of it this way: Would you go to a dinner party and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night long? Would that be interesting to anybody? So why are so many businesses saying the same things at the biggest party on the planet -- the marketplace?

If you care about your product, you should care just as much about how you describe it. In nearly all cases, a company makes its first impression on would-be customers or partners with words -- whether they're on a website, in sales materials, or in e-mails or letters. A snappy design might catch their attention, but it's the words that make the real connection. Your company's story, product descriptions, history, personality -- these are the things that go to battle for you every day. Your words are your frontline. Are they strong enough?

Unfortunately, years of language dilution by lawyers, marketers, executives, and HR departments have turned the powerful, descriptive sentence into an empty vessel optimized for buzzwords, jargon, and vapid expressions. Words are treated as filler -- "stuff" that takes up space on a page. Words expand to occupy blank space in a business much as spray foam insulation fills up cracks in your house. Harsh? Maybe. True? Read around a bit, and I think you'll agree.
...
Yeesh.

OK, put the kids to bed and lock the cat in the cupboard, because I'm going to reveal an Awful Truth about the Real World.

Ready?

The Real World is run by dolts, drones and particle-board humdrums.

There. I said it. And there ain't no takesies-backsies on Teh Internets.

Me and mine have traveled far and crossed many latitudes and longitudes across the great, wide Sea of Gainful Employment and -- with all of the usual exceptions excepted and stipulations stipulated -- I can tell you flat out that, whether you're taking the measure of the titans of industry, or education, or gummint, or not-for-profits, or faith-based organizations, like as not the people you will meet in the executive suites are some timid, risk-averse motherf**kers.

Not necessarily evil people, but not the tamers of frontiers, conquerors of mankiller mountains or tortured geniuses who have shed blood and sinew to hew the Great New Thing from the raw rock of an unforgiving Universe. Instead, you'll find Organization Men who roll off the assembly line hard-wired with a whole set of behaviors optimized to mute and mollify and reflect back on their superiors flattering images of themselves.

This

is what their God looks like.

In their hundreds of thousands they rise on a slow, tepid tide, feeding on the next management fad like krill, and leaving behind them long, bland strings of words that those that seek to follow them to prosperity re-chew, ingest and re-excrete.

Because we are not a culture that values excellence, because genuine excellence is frightening and transgressive.

Excellence says that "this" is more noble, more deserving of your undivided attention and just plain fucking well better than "that". It demands that you judge; that you take a position. And it comes with the kinds of sharp edges, spectacular failures, effervescing passions and bareback opining that demand to be poured out of verbal amphorae thrown by Shakespeare, and not little plastic cups stamped out and given away as prizes at "Who Moved My Cheese?" management re-imaginationing retreats.

H.L. Mencken once said this:
"People deserve the government they get, and they deserve to get it good and hard."
Turns out it's also true of vocabulary.

7 comments:

hoemen said...

Is that nose hair that he's beaded?

Matthew Stephens said...

You've outdone yourself with this one, DG. I'm sending this to every friend who insists on shoving Economist articles under my nose and then gets a hurt look on their face when I laugh at them.

Capt. Bat Guano said...

Thanks for reminding me of why I am self-employed. It's because it allows me to have minimal contact with those very same meat puppets as possible.

Major Mel Funkshun said...

Excellence? You want Excellence? What are you, some kind of Elitist!

Anonymous said...

Corporate America, including its journalism branch, is a numb suckhole designed for and by ass-kissing, conformist mediocrities with inflated egos, shallow and mendacious to appeal to those who are shallow and mendacious; that rewards ruthless aggression and sound-bite stupidity, and is hostile to originality or independent thought. A shitty environment for journalism or just about anything.

Anonymous said...

Drifty, well said. Is this your response to that horrible interview Stewart gave to Jon Meacham last night? It made me weep how much he sucked up to Mr. Newsweek. I think even Dave Chappelle had a joke about how terrible it was - back in 2000.

It's weirder to me that, given all the business degrees that all colleges everywhere focus on (to the detriment of everything else save sports teams), more witty writers haven't turned up. I mean, what, Michael Lewis, Nasim Al-Taleb (Black Swan guy, 'sic'), and who? Where's this damn free market I keep hearing about? Where's the erudite John Galt?

I mean, clearly you can make money writing a book about how sociopathic you are (Jack Kemp) or how motivational a speaker you are (pick any football coach), but something for said drones? Small change.

-DupinTM

Interrobang said...

Worse than that, the timid, risk-averse drones are only timid and risk-averse when it comes to words. You can't say that you've "improved" your product because the suits think that means "it must have been shit to begin with" (I'm quoting verbatim from an actual meeting I was in), but those same suits who are cowering in fear of rather banal language will also do the most enormous dumb things in pursuit of whatever lamebrain idea the Head Suit has come up with this week, and nobody thinks anything of it. Call it the Principle of Selective Timidity.