No, not that Se7en.
For a long time now, I’ve observed many people struggling with business communications. (Truth be told, I wasn’t exactly great at it coming out of grad school.) As my career has moved towards technology and data, I have noticed that this problem is becoming even more acute. The inability to effectively speak and write effectively results in all sorts of inefficiencies, misunderstandings, gaffes, squabbles, and missed opportunities. And this goes double when it comes to technology-related matters.
I’ve addressed on this site more than a few times the penchant of many to use buzzwords and jargon when plain English would suffice just fine. Far too many people think that they’re being clever or clear when they drop ostensibly sophisticated terms and bastardize others. (Incent is not a word.) Beyond that, they turn nouns into verbs. In reality, they’re only bloviating. (Use case and price point are real pet peeves of mine.) They fail to consider the context of what they’re saying. They ignore their audiences. They “talk without speaking,” to paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel.
You may not think that none of this is a big deal. Many of us do it, right? For several reasons, I’d argue the opposite. First, the need for clear, concise, and context-appropriate communication has never been more pronounced. Employees are inundated with messages throughout the day, many of which arrive via confusing or inscrutable e-mails. Why? Often simple, clear, and honest in-person conversation is almost always preferable, more effective, and faster than a chain of pointless e-mails.
Second, you also may believe that new times have always required new words. On this, I would agree, but only to a certain extent. The verb “to google” developed organically. People understood what it meant. But what about horrible and contrived terms like Big Data Platforms as a Service or even a Next Generation Big Data Platform as a Service? Shouldn’t these words accurately explain an important concept?
Bad Communication Is Bad Business
Forget for a moment any one vendor’s poorly worded press release. The larger question is whether emerging technology trends really require an entirely new and confusing vocabulary. In short, no. At a high level, I can explain Big Data to a teenager without getting all technical. In fact, I have on several occasions.
The proliferation of faux and contrived terms just plain rankles me. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I can be a bit persnickety when it comes to language. That aside for a moment, I just don’t think that bad communication is good business. Let me explain.
In the mid-1990s, chief executives who bought ERP, CRM, or BI software knew exactly what they were buying. Despite that, as I wrote in Why New Systems Fail, those projects still suffered from deplorable batting averages. But what happens when CXOs don’t understand what they’re buying? In the case of Big Data or another newfangled “solutions”, I’d argue that confusing marketing coupled with a relative dearth of client understanding are inhibiting the adoption of truly important technologies like Hadoop.
Of course, not everyone can be Dale Carnegie. Many of us take software salespeople, management consultants, techies, and CXOs with a 50-lb. bags of salt. We don’t expect them to speak in a straightforward manner. But the downsides can be significant. For instance, it’s impossibly to carry out a strategy when employees don’t understand it. Exhibit A: The Ballmer One Microsoft Memo:
Today’s announcement will enable us to execute even better on our strategy to deliver a family of devices and services that best empower people for the activities they value most and the enterprise extensions and services that are most valuable to business.
If technology were a fleeting trend, then perhaps we could excuse bad communication. We can’t. Technology and data are permeating every instance of our lives–and not just in the workplace. The Internet of Things is coming–and fast. Every company is becoming a tech company; some of them just don’t know it yet.
Many people need to reexamine not only what they say, but how they say it.
Against that backdrop, at a high level, Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It will examine technology, collaboration, and how we communicate. Once again, Wiley will be publishing it. Look for it in early 2015.
Brass tacks: It’s my firm belief that many of us need to reexamine not only what we say, but how we say it.
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