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As Paul Keating’s former speechwriter, Don Watson can probably lay claim to some of the most colourful and memorable passages ever to be uttered in the halls of Australian government. Nowadays he’s turned his weapon, the pen, on the sometimes dubious world of modern management. The award-winning author, academic and satirist joins Peter Switzer on his Sky New Business Channel program SWITZER.

Watson, the author of Weasel Words has just released his new book Bendable Learnings.

“[The title has] been pinched out of the whole fabric of management speak,” he says. “It came out of a description of a team building exercise. They’d played this game with little plastic pirate figures and from this they reported on their learnings. I kept thinking ‘these are grown up people that are doing things with pirates’. So we called it Bendable Learnings.”

Watson says he hates the word ‘learnings’ and that’s the point of the title of the book. He says he’s not comfortable with “virtually any management language at all”, finding it “really miserable and depleted and a horrible thing that’s happening to the [English] language”. Businesses have a responsibility for looking after language, he says, so much so it should be written in their “corporate social responsibility document” that they will look after English as best they can along with the environment and so on.

Depletion of language

Switzer suggests that perhaps it is a simplification of language (simplification that may have been taken too far) and asks whether Watson is opposed to this.

Watson says he is in favour of plainness of language as much as possible, but is opposed to “depletion” of language where people don’t use verbs any more – and he has three points to make on this subject:

1. “Business can talk to the general populus, if it tries, very well,” he says. “There are people that talk about business in very fine, concrete language, so it can be done.”

2. “A lot of people work in the private sector and they’ve got to live with this stuff. It’s dreadful. It forces a kind of complicitness. It’s a kind of power relationship.” He gives the example of Telstra where if you don’t buy into the corporate culture, then you are labelled “savage”. “You’re treated very badly if you don’t perform. It’s a coercive form of language.”

3. “Whether it’s good or bad for business – and I would think also in the recent meltdown – business lost control of the language. They really didn’t know what they were talking about – what the words were that were describing things they didn’t understand.”

Much of the language of the private sector has now got into the public sector.

“And then it got into politics too, of course, because it’s fantastic for filling holes in the news cycle.”

Business responsibility

Watson looked at the quotes of business people in the Australian Financial Review.

“Every bit of it was in this awful, lame language which is saying nothing to anybody at all,” he says. “But they’re noises which are satisfactory to those people that are reading the article.”

Watson says business has a responsibility to the wider world and when much of the economy was privatised, they took on government responsibilities that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was meant to meet.

“I think the language is one part of CSR, it’s the most important part of our culture – it’s how we human beings deal with each other, it’s how we understand things,” he says. “And if it gets into politics, it means in a way democracy doesn’t work quite as it should because words don’t mean what they seem to mean. I think it’s very bad for kids, and people shouldn’t take this language home and talk in front of the children in it.”

Switzer asks whether businesses have the same anxiety about talking to the media as politicians do, and by using this sort business speak it makes it a “safer communication” with the media. Watson says this safety is almost the principle reason this language is used.

“It simulates language … and it’s verbless and without any possibility – there’s no ironic possibility, there’s no lyric possibility, there's no imaginative possibility,” he says.

“Without any great loss, it wouldn’t hurt [business] to turn away from Jack Welch occasionally and away from Tom Peters, or whoever the guru of the moment is, and say ‘well, maybe there are other institutions that we might model ourselves on’.”

He provides the example of the Rockefeller Institution, which he describes as a “brilliant” institution that contributed much during the twentieth century.

“It didn’t say what we’re going to do is get all these scientists together and have them role play, or do team building exercises, or align their values with their goals going forward and have synergies and strategies. They said, look, you’ve got brains, now get together and do some work.”

So what will the ‘impact’ (as opposed to the ‘take-home message’) be on people who read the book?

“Businessmen are businessmen on the one hand and mothers and fathers on the other,” he says. “They’re a really very important part of the way we lead our lives now, and language is very important part. I would hope they would think ‘this is a bit embarrassing, maybe we can do better.’ Maybe we don’t need a lot of this stuff, maybe it’s just a fad we fell for." 

Work on your business, not in it. To learn how, book a complimentary business assessment today with a Switzer Business Coach.

Important information: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

Published on: Thursday, November 05, 2009

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