One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the poverty of language used in corporate environments. People seem to swing to one of two extremes:
- Complex, jargon heavy language, wrapped in convoluted syntax
- Simplistic statements that tend to hyperbole and cliché
On the one hand, authors of management drivel seem to think that the more jargon they can use and the longer their sentences, then the more intelligent they will appear. Either that, or they are afraid that they will expose their own weak understanding of a complex situation, if they tried to explain it clearly.
On the other hand, some authors take the commendable “keep it simple, stupid” message to extremes. They move from simple to simplistic in one smooth sashay and, in so doing, lose the meaning or distort the truth.
Whatever happened to style and structure?
Yes; I am aware that, on this topic, I am sitting in a glass house, throwing stones outwards.
It’s a Vision Thing
Many organisations have picked up on the need to create a compelling vision to drive their change programmes. Some project managers have even embraced the value of articulating their project goal with a clear vision.
The problem is that most vision statements contain no vision. They are often crafted by a committee, following a “visioning” workshop, or are put together in a rush, as an afterthought.
For a vision statement to have vision, it must create images in our minds. Let’s look at two versions of a powerful vision statement and see how they compare on those stakes.
“I have a vision for an ethnically diverse society in which everybody has full equality of opportunity and where we can harness the synergies of a multi-ethnic workforce, collaborating to construct an enhanced society.”
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!”
No prizes for knowing whose is the latter version. The question is, how inspired would people have been by version 1? It cover all the right topics, but it is devoid of the vision it claims.
Let us Compare the Two
What is it that Dr King was able to do with his rhetoric? I am no expert, but it is clear that the real difference is that King’s words create images in our mind and sensations in our bodies.
Phrases like “sit down together at a table of freedom” and “sweltering with the heat of injustice” and “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls” lodge in your mind and cannot be moved.
If you are trying to move people, I think your language needs an emotional charge; I think it needs to be precise; and I think it needs to engage the senses.
It seems to me that, when thinking about creating change, and the need to move people’s attitudes from one place to another, it is no coincidence that the word “move” has two meanings.
I can move you physically and I can move you emotionally. Can you move your people from one culture to another, or from one way of doing things to another, without also moving them emotionally?
How wonderful language is. Let’s use it to its fullest extent.
The “so what?”
Take a look at the words you use to describe your project and the vision you have created for your change programme. Does it move you? Do the words craft magic, conjour images, entrance and captivate? If not, you have a job to do.
Remember, the pen is mightier than the keyboard. Take a fine writing implement and a fresh sheet of paper.