What business can learn from Tom Stoppard

By Rupert Morris

Too much is made of the difference between American and British English. Our moments of mutual incomprehension can be entertaining – remember how tickled Americans were to discover the word “shag” and more recently “the full Monty”? But Oscar Wilde’s gag about “two countries divided by a common language” is horribly overused.

We should ignore British pedants who hate Americanisms, many of which are inventive, expressive and thoroughly useful. The English language is not the property of either Britain or the United States. It is a tool that is employed every day by non-native speakers in many countries in Europe, and throughout the world. All the more reason why we should set high standards for the way we use it.

With this in mind, it was great news that Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing, which enjoyed a triumphant revival in the West End of London a year or two ago, was an equally huge hit on Broadway. I just hope there were some business school professors in the audience.

For although The Real Thing is ostensibly about love, it is also about the power of language.

“Words,” says Henry, the main character, “are innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more.”

“I don’t think writers are sacred,” he continues, “but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.”

Business achievers may not aspire to poetry, not in the course of their normal work,anyway. But if they have goals and ambitions, and care about what they do, they surely want to “build bridges across incomprehension and chaos”, as Stoppard puts it. And if they mean what they say, they must want to convey clear messages about their priorities, their strategy, their vision.

Or must they? There are plain speakers in the world of global business, but they are the exception.

Day after day we read about innovation, synergy, value, functionality, integration, performance, delivery etc. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these abstract nouns, but when they proliferate, they produce sentences, paragraphs and often entire pages that mean next to nothing.

I shall always treasure this sentence written by one management consultant to another:

“In the last engagement our charter was to help the executive team evolve the strategy to fit into the new environment and simultaneously to evolve the new environment to fit into the strategy.”

What is it about abstractions that people in management find so compulsive? In the above example, no one can possibly be any the wiser since nothing intelligible has been said.

Yet this is how we use language in business. Instead of looking after words and using them carefully, like the precision tools they are, we reach unthinkingly for familiar phrases, words that seem vaguely appropriate to the business context. We do exactly what Stoppard warns against. We overuse certain words and allow them, as he puts it, to “get their corners knocked off”, until they are “no good any more”. And do we worry about this? Not at all.

On the contrary, the abuse gets worse. At the most mundane level, people become obsessed with synergy, going forward, benchmarking, new paradigms and other such nonsense. And at supposedly elevated levels, the conspiracy of obfuscation becomes more intense.

The Harvard Business Review contains some interesting articles, but an awful lot of pseudo-intellectualising that adds little to the sum of human knowledge. A case in point was a recent article entitled “Coevolving – At Last, a Way to Make Synergies Work”.

According to Kathleen M. Eisenhardt and D.Charles Galunic, coevolution “refers to successive changes among two or more ecologically interdependent but unique species such that their evolutionary trajectories become intertwined over time.” And what does it mean for businesses today? “In essence, they need to take their cue from nature and approach cross-business synergies with a very different mind-set.” They need to think “Velcro organization”.

Confused? If not, you certainly would be if you were to read on, as the article progresses via “collaborative webs” to “significant multibusiness synergies”, and “patching”, which involves “combining, splitting, exiting, and transferring business within the corporation”. It is contrasted with “co-evolving”, in which “multibusiness teams (the heads of individual businesses working together) drive synergies by reconnecting the collaborative links among businesses as markets and businesses evolve”. I think this means that if you run separate businesses in more than one sector, you should allow each business to develop independently while keeping an eye open for opportunities to collaborate or share costs. But that sounds too simple. Someone might understand it.

This is sheer abuse of language. It happens in business every day, and it is reinforced every day in business schools. It is inappropriate and dangerous – like using a bread-knife to open an oyster. And the biggest danger of all is that it gets us out of the habit of thinking clearly.

Too much of the language that pervades the English-speaking business world has evolved to protect the weakest. As long as we all use the same jargon, and write to each other in long, impenetrable sentences riddled with abstract nouns, we can reassure ourselves that we belong to the same club. People outside won’t understand what we’re up to, and as we hardly ever commit ourselves to anything, we are unlikely to make any serious mistakes. We use words as bricks in a protective wall, and we feel safer for it.

But “safety first” is not actually the slogan of a successful company. Not only is this a conspiracy of obfuscation, it is also a conspiracy of failure.

In a world of discontinuity, when original thinking is at a premium as never before, we can no longer afford to have our senses dulled by the comforting cotton-wool of management-speak.

Why be obsessed with being “world-class”, “best of breed” or even worse, “better than best” – which is literally impossible? Corporate-speak of this kind makes people feel good; it makes them feel that they are doing the right thing; and it discourages them from thinking.

Most of us can go to a Stoppard play and revel in his ideas and his language. But dare we go further and do some thinking of our own along similar lines? For business people to think about improving their writing is not an admission of weakness. Rather, it is a decision to concentrate on an unjustly neglected area of work in which you can quite quickly add tangible value to your business.

So go for it. Dare to be clear. Someone might actually get your message first time, and if you are talking sense, they might listen. It would make a refreshing change from the steady bombardment of jargon and abstraction that dulls the senses of most of us who work in what is loosely known as “corporate communications“.

Think about it. Write it. And reap the rewards. You will deserve them.