Clear and effective communication is a key concept in any workplace culture. Unless you can identify clear, effective communication and get rid of it, your colleagues will quickly see you for the fraud you are.
It is human nature to assume that if you don’t understand what someone is saying, they must know more about the subject than you. It is this insight that lies at the heart of all great examples of unclear communication at work.
By using phrases such as ‘I just want to touch base’, ‘let’s circle back’ or ‘get into alignment’, you make yourself look like you know what you’re talking about even though you don’t. If you then add in phrases like ‘omnichannel ideation’, ‘fresh modalities’, and ‘scalable deliverables’ it is possible to get to the point where nobody can understand a single word you say.
At that point, everyone will be afraid of you, scared that someone in the office will find out that they have no idea what you’re on about. Luckily, this means that nobody will question you and find out that you have no idea what you’re talking about either.
Instead, you will be left alone, and able to do whatever you want at work. Not only that, but your colleagues will readily agree to do whatever you ask them to, simply to avoid having to admit that they can’t understand a word you say.
Let’s have a look at an example, or to put it less clearly, let’s dimensionalise this.
If you tell colleagues that they have to write a report for you about what they’ve been doing this year so that you can bind it into a thick-looking book that makes it look like you’ve been doing all of their work, then people will tell you to get stuffed.
But if you tell the same people that their annual report submissions are due by next Friday, and that it’s an opportunity for everyone to drill down on what they’ve been doing this year, and think outside the box to achieve some truly blue-sky thinking which, going forward, will result in a thought-shower of possibilities to action, then they will be too confused to question your demand.
As you can see, by avoiding clear language, your colleagues are now writing your annual report for you, and you can sit back and play the latest Wordle. (Today’s is quite difficult.)
Conversely, if you ever hear a buzzword that you don’t fully understand, don’t worry about it. Just start using it in your own conversations, even if it doesn’t make sense. People will assume that you know what you’re talking about, and you’ll sound like you’re up-to-date on all the latest trends. For example, you could say “Let’s pivot to a growth mindset and leverage our synergies to maximize our ROI,” even if you’re not sure what any of those words mean.
Creating a culture of confusing buzzwords in the place of actual ideas is particularly useful in jobs involving the law or government, where there is the possibility of public scrutiny. It allows you to duck responsibility for mistakes because nobody can quite explain what you meant in the first place.
This is particularly useful when your mismanagement of something inevitably winds up in court or a royal commission, and you are able to define what you meant in whatever way is most useful for avoiding liability.
The whole problem with the Robodebt fiasco was that there was very clear, unambiguous advice that the whole scheme was unlawful. If the public servants giving that advice had been a lot less clear and wrapped everything they said in meaningless jargon, then the whole scandal would have been far too confusing to become a scandal in the first place.
“I do distinctly recall putting a question … that everyone’s assured about the legal underpinnings,” Christian Porter told the Royal Commission in February. “I can’t recall who it was that affirmed that assurance, but someone did, and I recall that it was a departmental person.”
Of course they did, Christian. Straight-talker Porter can’t actually recall which department the “departmental person” that “affirmed the assurance” came from, but he definitely recalls they told him something that gets him off the hook.
Meanwhile, the legal counsel at the Tax Office was a tad more direct. “They are not lawful debts,” wrote Jonathan Todd in an email to the tax commissioner. And to make sure what debts he was writing about, he helpfully added “(‘robodebts’)”.
Beneath the frippery and saw-dust that the conga-line of coalition cockheads served up to justify the scheme, those advising them were in no doubt that the scheme they had concocted was cruel and illegal. The real problem from the perspective of the Porters and the Tudges and the Robertses and the Morrisons, was the clear and direct advice coming from the lawyers and public servants.
So what are some ways to communicate less clearly at work? Let’s ideate upon that so that we can be in alignment around that.
The most important word to use in management-speak is ‘around’ in place of ‘about’. It will allow you to say things like ‘we’ve been doing a lot of thinking around the climate change’, making you sound like a Harvard MBA graduate with lots of cutting-edge ideas and lingo, while if the words are construed properly, you in fact haven’t been thinking about climate change at all, but merely circling the topic without addressing it.
This approach results in what’s known as ‘circumlocution’ – language that is vague and evasive, using more words than necessary to create confusion. Or, as the principle can be put using circumlocution – ‘achieving some high level sandboxing around buzzword reconceptualisation and recontextification, resulting in a higher disorientation quotient for key stakeholders’.
By using words like ‘around’, you can spend a whole career avoiding accountability for all your stuff-ups. If you’re especially good at it, you may even end up as a Prime Minister, or the CEO of a large airline with a kangaroo in its logo. The key is to never, ever get to a meaning, as that may result in a tangible, measurable goal that you’re required to deliver.
In fact, avoid using numbers at all if possible. Numbers are too precise and can be easily understood by everyone. Instead, use vague words like “a bunch,” “a handful,” or “a smattering” to describe quantities. This will make you sound like you have a broad understanding of the topic, without actually committing to any specific details.
At the same time, use acronyms liberally. If there’s a long phrase that you need to repeat often, turn it into an acronym. This will not only save you time, but it will also make you sound more authoritative. For example, instead of saying “We need to optimize our search engine results pages,” say “We need to OSE our SERPs.” Or if you need to say “Let’s drive those poor defenceless welfare recipients to suicide by setting up an illegal scheme to automatically bully them into coughing up cash they don’t owe us”, instead say, “Let’s kill those PDWRs by supercharging Robodebt”
The great thing about unclear communications is that you are not required to be creative. There is no need to invent phrases yourself – in fact, if you do, your audience is more likely to pick that you’re making things up as you go along. It’s far better to string together blocks of phrases that are commonly used together, as they will trigger the memories of the last time those listening came across those phrases and didn’t understand what they meant.
For instance, you might like to try ‘let’s do a temperature check then deep dive our buy-in on low-hanging fruit’ or ‘best demonstrated practice would be to leverage scaleable quick wins on the return-on-investment piece, and then eighty-twenty our next steps for the core vertical on a going forward basis’. If you know what these sentences mean, congratulations.
And please let me know, because I have no idea.
Charles Firth’s live show about this topic “Wankernomics” is at the Melbourne Comedy Festival 12-16th April, and touring nationally later in the year (co-starring The Shovel’s James Schloeffel). Tickets and book info at wankernomics.com
(A shorter version of this piece was published in The Canberra Times in early March.)