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iOn The Contrary-i Vague Speak and the Thistlebottom Line

January 30, 2003
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I'd like to thank all of you for coming out on this icy winter morning.Today's workshop, as you can see from the stack of yellow handouts in front ofyou, is titled, "How to Gain Power and Influence in Corporate America."

I'd like to start by getting to know more about you. How about you, ma'am, inthe red blazer. What do you do for a living?

"I'm Maria Nonsenseker and I'm vice president of knowledge management for anelectronics company."

Wow! That sounds important. What does a VP of knowledge management do?

"I facilitate the strategic alignment and fiduciary integration of humancapital capabilities with viable top-line corporate objectives."

Fascinating--I think. What brings you here today?

"I'd like more authority to effect positive cultural changes, but I'mexperiencing difficulty getting a seat at the executive table."

Well, Ms. Nonsenseker, hopefully we'll be able to help with that. How aboutyou, sir, in the green bow tie. What do you do?

"I'm Rich Obscurich and I'm a human resources executive. I work tocontinually revisit, reinforce, and renew my organization's commitment tomarketplace eminence by ensuring that our associates are supported by therequisite operational, transactional, and pharmaceutical infrastructure."

Thanks a-

"Wait! I'm not done. I also benchmark best-of-breed process leaders in orderto effect functional excellence related to reputational capital, brand identity,breast implants, and strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles."

I see, Rich. And what brings you here?

"People in my organization don't understand me."

"Well, duh!!!"

Excuse me! Who said that?

"Here! In the back of the room."

What did you say, sir?

"I said, duh!"


"Yes. Duh. No wonder nobody understands Mr. Obscurich. He doesn't uselanguage that people can understand. Reputational capital? Transactionalinfrastructure? What the hell do they mean?"

I'm sorry to be nosy, sir, but what makes you such an expert?

"Mrs. Thistlebottom."

And she is?

"My eighth-grade English teacher. She was a kick. She always had littlestains on her blouse. Usually spaghetti or coffee or something like that. Shelooked peculiar, but man, that woman could teach."

And what, exactly, did she teach you?

"She taught me to communicate clearly. 'Speak to be heard,' she always said.'Don't speak to impress.' People in this room obviously don't get that."

Don't you think you're being a little hard? I mean, you don't know thesepeople.

"Yes I do. I used to be one of them. I was head of human resources for ahigh-tech company. My goal, at the time, was to--quote--'get philosophicalalignment about the relationship of human capital to the business model in orderto devise the strategic framework necessary to optimize our shareholder value'--unquote.My sentences were so long I often didn't breathe for minutes at a time."

What changed?

"I ran into Mrs. Thistlebottom."

Your old teacher?

"Yes, sir. Turns out Mrs. Thistlebottom was one of the primary shareholdersin our company. Apparently, her husband had invented a highly successful stainremover that turned them into millionaires overnight. Mrs. Thistlebottom retiredfrom teaching and started investing in high-tech start-ups.

"One day she was present at a shareholder meeting in which I stood up andbabbled, as I often did, about centers of excellence, blah blah, talentdevelopment, blah blah, delivery-system redesign, blah, blah. After thepresentation, she came up and asked me about my career goals. I told her Iwanted to be CEO."

And her response?

"'Fat chance, sonny.' I swear those were her exact words. She told me I'dnever get anywhere unless I remembered what she had taught me all those yearsago."

Which was?

"Be clear. Be concise. Be understood. I thought I'd been doing that, butMrs. Thistlebottom pointed out that I was suffering from a debilitating case of'vague speak."'

Vague speak?

"Yes. It's an affliction suffered by business executives who think that towalk the walk, they have to talk the talk."

You're losing me.

"Sorry. Sometimes I have periodic lapses. Vague speak is the tendency ofpeople in organizations to utilize trendy but ambiguous phrases like 'valueequation' and 'transformational leadership.' The words may seem fresh andthought-provoking, but they really don't provoke any thought at all. Use enoughof these phrases and believe me, people will have no idea what you're trying tosay."

You rid yourself of this affliction?

"By taking Mrs. Thistlebottom's advice: 'Be clear. Be concise. Beunderstood.'"

That's all?

"Yes, but it wasn't easy. Every time I used a phraselike--and I shudder tosay this even now--'strategic partner,' I forced myself to stop and think abouttwo things: One, what was I really trying to say? And two, who was I speakingto?

Now, I have a workshop to continue, but I'm curious. How did that help?

"It helped me eliminate the buzzwords from my vocabulary and learn to speakin terms anybody could understand."

And what are you doing now? Have you become CEO?

"No. Fortunately. Once I eliminated the vague speak from my vocabulary, Ireally began to have an impact on the workplace. Our employees became moreproductive. Morale improved. And our company started to make more money thanever."

Sorry to be a skeptic, but this is all because you learned to speak clearly?

"No, of course not. There were a lot of factors at work. But I had to beable to explain how those factors could work to improve productivity beforeanyone would give my ideas a try."

So why aren't you CEO if you've had such an impact on your company?

"Because now, I don't want to be. I thought the only way I'd get the powerand influence I needed was to become CEO. Turned out, I didn't need to change myposition. I needed to change my communication style."

So if you have the power and influence you need, why are you here today?

"Mrs. Thistlebottom."

Again? What does she have to do with this workshop?

"She bought the company that does these seminars. She knew that nowell-meaning executive would go to a workshop on communication skills, so shehad to trick people into believing there was some magical secret behind powerand influence."

Wait a minute! Are you the co-facilitator I was supposed to meet today?

"You got it. And now, ladies and gentlemen, please go to your stack ofyellow handouts, turn to the first page, and repeat after me: I am not astrategic partner. I am a business person."

Workforce, February 2003, p. 20 -- Subscribe Now!

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