Piffling waffle that fails to tickle

Why Business People Speak Like Idiots

April 28, 2006

Are all business people uptight neurotics lacking in self-assurance? To meet them you would not think so. Almost invariably they exude confidence and self-satisfaction, often to an exasperating degree.

But if they are as confident and self-satisfied as they appear, how come they need all those self-improvement books? Bookshop shelves buckle under the weight of volumes telling business executives how to be better at their jobs: how to take decisions, show leadership, be creative, manage other people, manage themselves, manage everything under the sun. Many of these books become huge bestsellers. And all assume that their readers are worried sick about their inadequacies and are desperate to improve.

In this welter of self-improvement tomes, authors and publishers are always searching for new angles - new ways to disguise the same old messages. Why Business People Speak Like Idiots is a perfect example. Its title won my heart before I even opened it. I expected a witty little potboiler about business people's vacuous pronouncements and self-protective pomposities. 'Fraid not. It is yet another self-help book for uptight managers. You cannot judge a book by its title.

Indeed, as soon as you ask yourself, "who would want to read a book about why business people speak like idiots?", you realise that this is a subject for an entertaining essay, not for a hardback volume. We all know why business people speak like idiots. Some of them want to obfuscate the facts, some do not even know the facts, some are congenitally lazy - and some are plain idiots. That is about it.

In fairness, Why Business People Speak Like Idiots does not shrink from making these criticisms - and repeating them often. But it does so only as a springboard for its self-improvement homilies. Avoid speaking like an idiot, it says, and you will climb the greasy pole more swiftly. This might be true (though I would not bet on it). In any event, once the book gets on to the old self-help treadmill its originality largely peters out.

As the title implies, it is a book about speech - or, more precisely, about communication. And almost all its general advice on improving communication has already appeared in countless other self-help books. Advising managers to avoid waffle, to eschew jargon - it is all old hat.

Moreover, some of the authors' advice is downright questionable. The book insists that managers should be amusing in their presentations, their correspondence and in meetings. It claims anyone can be amusing if they try. Codswallop. Most of us have suffered agonies listening to unfunny speakers trying to be amusing. It is gruesome and counterproductive: listeners remember their discomfiture, not the speech's content. Nor should unfunny writers try to be funny.

Unwisely taking their own advice, the authors constantly horse around, and most of their jokes are excruciating. Indeed, the book is best when it is being serious, particularly when it deals with the dangers endemic in using today's computer-based communications techniques. Cut-and-paste e-mails, round-robin voice mails and formulaic PowerPoint presentations all rightly inspire the authors' wrath. This stuff is up to the minute and, while the objectives of avoiding balderdash and piffle are the same as they always have been, the authors show how easily balderdash and piffle can creep into computerised communications.

So if you are looking for a handbook on improving your communications using modern technology, you may find Why Business People Speak Like Idiots helpful. But it does not really say much about why business people speak like idiots.

Winston Fletcher is chairman of the Royal Institution.

Why Business People Speak Like Idiots

Author - Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky
Publisher - Free Press
Pages - 176
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 7432 6909 8

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