Technical Writing Trends: Translating Corporate Speak

I have come to understand something. When I’m in a meeting and I feel like I’m having a stroke and have lost the ability to process English effectively, I’m hearing corporate speak.  Instead of clutching the table and asking someone to call 9-1-1, I’ve learned to write the word or phrase down and try to keep looking smart. There’s hardly anything more career limiting than creating a false alarm for a stroke.

The most insidious corporate speak terms come from the latest best sellers on business. This sort of corporate speak softens and obscures things like more work, raised expectations without additional resources, and gives the corporation a way of scripting messages without sounding like jerks – corporations are people after all. Things like “paradigm” (standard thinking on a topic), “moved my cheese” (changed my world, altered my goals) and “A-player” (positive, versatile, adaptable, problem solvers – who may or may not also be “anointed” by executives) are all best-seller terms that overtook corporate America and quickly became the strained and mashed vegetables of everyday corporate conversation. They can be spoon fed and spit back with ease.  And like mashed vegetables, no one really likes them, but we consume them because we’re told it is good for us (and because someone is cramming it in our faces).

On the beautifully human flip side, other corporate speak phrases are grassroots terms that come from somewhere deep inside the corporate group psyche (as it tries desperately to resolve its naturally conflicted cyborg nature). Organic corporate speak is never mandated and won’t show up in a memo, but is typically a lot more fun. It is the yin to the latest management craze yang.  It subversively generates non-politically correct phrases like “open your kimono” (share information with a third party in a way that will build trust), a term so wrong on so many levels that I’m thinking of getting t-shirts made.  Or, even better, is the self-explanatory “blame storming.”  Unlike our mashed vegetables, they are the spice of corporate life – until they become rampantly overused and start to back up on you.

Technical writers work with the subtleties of an ever changing language in an ever changing world. It is just what we do.  And large organizations need us to help them translate languages of all sorts. We translate technical terms into chimp sign language, code into application interfaces that amaze, delight and sometimes even work, and Sanskrit user guides to Canadian English (and French – viva les Quebecois!).  And, yes, we translate corporate jargon into simple messages that won’t turn the cube farm into a vomitorium.  Fortunately, today we can look up the latest and greatest corporate speak terms in seconds on useful websites like Wikipedia, www.theofficelife.com  and www.buzzwhack.com. But because definitions can morph, asking someone exactly what they mean can get you to the heart of a message much more quickly and establish you as the ever curious language ninja you really are.

Here’s a little exercise to help you hone your corporate speak skills. Decode this memo.

MemorandumTo: All Managers and AboveFrom: The Corporate Office of Optimized Language (COOL)RE: “Be Smarter” Phrase of the Week

As a critical path of the recent ‘Be Smarter’ initiative, our team will be facilitating thought leadership in change management by proactively defining weekly phrases targeted to win employee mindshare.

Each week, terms will be bucketized to synergistically drive optimized dissemination of the “Be Smarter” culture in a frictionless environment. The weekly phrase will help build a meme of core leadership skills in your team in a Be Smarter culture-centric way and will drive behavior anchors to support our mission.

Our program kicks off next week. We look forward to your feedback and partnership in building a smarter tomorrow!  


TechWhirlers! Submit your translation for review to qualify for an honorary B.S. Certification in Corporate Demystification and Meaningology.

Cheryl Voloshin

Cheryl Voloshin is a technical/freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She would never (ever) intentionally rob a team of their will to live and is so utterly dependent on external validation that failure is never an option. Like her stuff? Contact her by email or connect via LinkedIn or Google+

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