Improving communication: take out the corporate trash

Winston Churchill, a master of rhetoric and direct communication

“…we shall, um, fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall, like, fight in the hills; moving forward, we shall never surrender…”

Churchill didn’t say it quite like that, but you will certainly be familiar with the offending interjections in everyday communication. They are the junk food of language, the dead space in your bag of Cheese Supreme Doritos; nothing, really, but filler.

So why do we use filler in speech?

Unscripted speech is harder (and more terrifying) than writing. It relies on charisma, projection, body language, eye contact, tone, immediate delivery – not to mention quality content. While searching our minds for the right content to speak, let alone deliver in the right way, words or utterances such as ‘um’ or ‘ah’ let our listeners know we’re still with them.

And psychologists and linguistics experts agree that, when used in speech, verbal fillers buy us time until we can find not only the right word, but often the right grammatical sentence structure to make sense.

The catch, of course, is that listeners who are familiar with the content might perceive this as a lack of familiarity with the content on your behalf, never mind a lack of confidence in delivery.

While there is nothing essentially wrong with umming and ahhing (and you might know the meaning of life, but you just get a little nervous in front of crowds), perception means a great deal in life and business.

So, does being given the time and space to write eliminate fillers?

Not quite.

Unfortunately, these umms and ahhs simply change form. Consider this familiar language in office communication:

‘Effective immediately, I expect you to implement high-level strategic thinking in lowering the toilet seat after use moving forward.’

Ok, it’s unlikely anyone would ever write that sentence (or is it?), but we have all experienced managers or fellow employees who seem to relish in this class of corporate verbosity.

While it’s easy to accept the above sentence as everyday, or even harmless, by taking a step back you will see it for what it is: an expression of insecurity and a lack of conviction in authority and intent behind words.

Consider the alternative.

‘After you use the toilet, put the seat down.’

Same meaning, fewer words, better delivery = more memorable.

In speech and in writing, the phrase ‘moving forward’ and other corporate-speak sneaks into communication like goon into Falls Festival. In larger organisations it can spread like osmosis (or, depending on your point of view, the plague) because its nature as a type of padding or qualifier for intent suits risk and litigation averse businesses, or anyone afraid to be proven wrong.

Improving your communication means releasing the hot air

David Brent: the master of corporate speak.

Fillers and corporate speak impede the meaning behind our communication with hollow words. Overly verbose statements may even suggest to educated listeners the omission of truth and fact, and can even be connected to lying.

On an individual level, it pays to eliminate such language – particularly ‘moving forward’ – from your vernacular. There are three main reasons that this corporate trash belongs in the bin:

  1. It betrays a lack of originality. People who parrot each other tend to force the eyes of those listening or reading to glaze over, shifting their focus to something, or someone, that stands out.
  2. It betrays a lack of application. Unoriginal speech and writing is easy to perceive as lazy – and not unjustifiably so.
  3. It betrays a lack of conviction. Laziness, especially from management, breeds contempt in employees and co-workers and diminishes any threat of bite behind bark.

At a more basic, syntactic level, there exists an inherent and absurd redundancy in the use of ‘moving forward.’ Let’s take our example of a request to put the toilet seat down.

  • You and a friend are fixing a toilet. You need the seat lowered. You don’t say, ‘Put the seat down moving forward,’ because the immediacy of the context doesn’t require any reference to future lowering of the seat.
  • You have been asked/commanded by a superior (or partner) to lower the seat after use – ‘After you use the toilet, put the seat down.’ The context of discussion positions an answer – or statement of intent of action – as applicable to all subsequent uses. ‘Ok, I’ll put the seat down,’ doesn’t require ‘moving forward’ to qualify it, nor does the original request to do so.

Moving forward and other types of corporate filler take the function of ‘um,’ ‘like’ and ‘ah’ and wraps them up nicely. However, this process distorts and conceals the intended meaning of what’s actually being delivered – sort of like receiving a pair of socks for Christmas in a gift box.

Simply by eliminating these boxed pairs of socks from your writing and speech, you can build trust, inspire confidence and develop a reputation as a straight, effective communicator. After all, the great orator Winston Churchill may be remembered for many things, both good and bad, but never as a corporate goon who said he’d take on the Nazis moving forward.

Written by Mason Engelander