Universities have turned communication, probably one of the oldest human skills, from an art into a science. Students in business and politics courses are trained to hone their communication skills with their clients, colleagues, the public, and the world at large in a way that is convincing.
Good communication should be about saying what we mean and mean what we say. Being eloquent and articulate are virtues that we need to treasure. Resorting to language wizardry like phoney rhetoric is often no more than a strategy to compensate for a vacuum of ideas.
These last few decades, we experienced the emergence of what Armando Janucci, author of The Audacity of Hype, calls “newspeak: the language of relentless optimism”. Business people and politicians seem to think that the public can no longer digest the truth unless disguised in mellifluous language that hides the underlying reality.
With all the modern technology that has become so affordable, most of us are spending more time than ever before in communicating through our smartphones. We have many options that enable us to make our voices heard.
We may not realise that the way we communicate is being corrupted by the frightening and unchallenged spread of happy talk – the dictionary of upbeat, light-hearted, fresh-faced optimism. Those who dare describe reality as it is risk being labelled as defeatists obsessed with failure and heartaches.
The problem with utopic language is that even superficial scrutiny often reveals there is nothing meaningful in what is said. Business and political communication aims to deliver a mesmerising vision. You either accept word-for-word what is being sold or remain one of the stubbornly unconverted. Non-believers in language wizardry are immune to the evangelical tone of those who claim that “good” communication is all that matters to achieve business or political success.
To have an honest dialogue, politicians and those listening to them need to speak the same language
In the early 1980s, business students were exposed to the ground-breaking ideas of In Search for Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman. I understand that this book is still a bestseller. It is no surprise that ‘excellence’ is one of the most often used words in business and political communication. It does not seem to matter much for those who keep talking about excellence in their strategies that achieving excellence is more than just having linguistically well-honed mission statements.
Politicians like to use the word ‘dialogue’ to convince sceptical voters that they are in politics “to make ordinary people’s lives better”. But to have an honest dialogue, politicians and those listening to them need to speak the same language. If you are an ordinary person, you are expected to listen patiently and empty your head of its baggage of negativity. You must make an act of faith in what you are being promised and leave behind doubt, difficulty, suspicion, blame and failure.
The use of euphemisms in business and political communication has become an indispensable tool for those who believe that form is invariably more important than substance in the way we speak. Many euphemisms used in business communication emerged in the 1990s. One of the most notorious is ‘greenfield opportunities’. The sacking of employees was at that time often described as ‘employment-opportunity launchpad’. Fortunately, this business verbiage is now rarely used.
Corporate puffery continues to increase, making business and political communication that much more hollow. We are frequently being exposed to the fake talk of salespeople and estate agents. Traffic wardens, we are told, aim “to better the street for a smoother nation”. Inspirational speakers, the high priests of modern communication, tell us that “we have the potential to achieve the impossible”.
Greenfield-speak and happy talk is not everybody’s cup of tea. The ‘greenfielders’ will presumably enjoy the pyrotechnic magic of the way they communicate between them. For the rest of us, saying what we mean and meaning what we say is likely to remain the bedrock of the way we communicate.
The autumn annual political conferences in the UK are an excellent opportunity to measure the gap that exists in the way politicians speak and the effect their rhetoric has on even their most dedicated followers. Mischievous TV cameras operators are always on the lookout for dedicated paid-up members caught sleeping while their party leader is waxing lyrical about a brighter future for everyone.
The lyrics of a 1970s song, that never made it to the top 10, ended with the words: “To common or gentry, I’ll talk elementary. It’s the only way I know”. So old school, but how refreshing!
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