Though I have been subjected to it for many years, it’s only been in the past year that the language known as “corporate speak” has been creeping into my vocabulary. I must make it stop.
I switched jobs a little over a year ago and moved from the thankless ranks of financial journalism to the thankless but better paying ranks of financial public relations. For years as a journalist I waded through corporate euphemisms and double talk. A journalist’s job is to cut through corporate speak like an explorer cuts through dense jungle. I didn’t loath public relations people, I just knew I could not sound like one when I spoke or wrote if I wanted to be taken seriously.
I vowed to myself that I would not let this nonsensical and vacuous vocabulary creep into my speech, but in some ways it has. There’s no prohibition from sounding like a corporate automaton because now I work in public relations and corporations pay our salaries. Corporations paid my salary when I was a journalist also, but those businesses were depending on me NOT sounding like a corporate mouthpiece in order for my work to me marketable.
Now I AM a corporate mouthpiece, whether I like it or not. None of the companies I serve through my public relations job are ominous monoliths that are trying to cloud the truth or cover up any wrongdoing; they are for the most part small entrepreneurial companies doing some interesting things, but they are companies that expect us to be their representatives to the media. We have to be the bridge between the corporate world and the jaded, skeptical world of journalists and we have to sound the part both ways.
Whenever you speak with someone, you want to sound like you belong, like you understand where they are coming from. If everyone’s slinging the same corporate bullshit, they’re establishing a rapport in some small way. In agency public relations, you are not only selling your clients to media, you’re constantly selling yourself to current and potential future clients. Thus you have to sound like you could fit in at a corporate board meeting, and that’s easier to do when you shovel two-cent words around like so much manure.
So as a writer who takes pride in my ability to find the right works for any situation and a human being who decided long ago to embrace reality-based life, it horrifies me to find myself using corporate speak in any non-ironic capacity.
It’s only happened once or twice, but no matter. Like Ebola or cancer, corporate speak must be wiped out entirely if you wish to survive in the reality-based world.
The one phrase I’ve been guilty of using is “next steps” as in “we’ll discuss next steps” instead of saying, “we’ll talk about what to do next” or “what steps to take next.” Another word that’s lapsed into corporate speak is “leverage,” such as “let’s leverage our resources to gain media traction.” In my own overuse of the word “traction” regarding how to get media attention, I risk making that corporate speak. Now both lever and traction are real words that wouldn’t be corporate speak at all if you were talking about pulleys, debt or driving over snow, but when applied to business situations and overused, they become corporate speak. There are damning lists of useless and pathetic phrases that comprise corporate speak. The list is always evolving.
There are a lot of things I am willing to do to provide for my family. I’m willing to read work emails on the weekend, endure mind-numbing meetings and phone calls that should have been emails, write trite crap about boring topics and be courteous to asshole clients. But I won’t become a corporate speak user. I have my limits.
So I resolve here and now to avoid corporate speak and expunge it from my vocabulary. I will be a better person for it.
One of the perks of working as a financial journalist is that you sometimes get to go to parties in nice places where food and drink are free. It doesn’t make up for working for years without a raise and being in constant fear of being laid off, but it’s nice nonetheless.
Last evening was one such party, a charity event put on by people in finance.
Ostensibly my coworker and I were there to meet people that would help us do our job. Schmoozing with financial people is part of my job, but it’s a part of the job that I am bad at.
I dressed well enough and was pleasant and polite and still had no hopes of blending in. Members of the financial class are their own race, though they are made of different races. They can look through you as if you are not there and walk with a confidence that bristles with a condescending hostility and feels perpetually offensive and false. I wore a nice suit but maybe there was something in the way I said thank you to the caterers, or the fact I thanked them at all, that gave me away as decidedly not one of the financial class.
There’s nothing wrong with finance, but the people who work in the higher echelons of finance today are not cut from the same material as the people who invent things or pioneered and forged new industries. They are custodians of other people’s money and often speak in a gloating jargon that moves lots of money but creates little of value. I’m sure many of them are decent people and good at their job, but they do not possess the fire of the technology entrepreneurs or venture capitalists I met during previous jobs.
After thirteen years of working in financial journalism, I have actually gotten worse at the art of fitting in at these types of gatherings. My motivation for the easy smile and the glad-handed talk has waned. But I am glad not to fit in among this alien class. Somehow I feel that in the important calculus of life I’ll have more to show for it at the unspoken reckoning at the verge of the great beyond.
I ate as many miniature lobster rolls as I could without making a spectacle of myself and made my discreet exit after putting in a respectable amount of time at the event. I briefly enjoyed the sights of the city on the first really warm evening of the spring before making my descent to the subway for home.