Thursday, March 19, 2009

200 Buzzwords and their Alternatives

A few weeks ago I wrote a list of six phrases that I felt should be added to the corporate jargon banned list. Now, Reuters is reporting that a government group in Britain believes that a lot more than six phrases need rethinking.

The story quotes the chairman of the Local Government Association, offering her simple and clear view of the problem.

"Why do we have to have 'coterminous, stakeholder engagement' when we could just have 'talk to people' instead?"

Margaret Eaton, UK Local Government Association

What I love about the list of 200 words and phrases is that the LGA offers alternatives to the phrases that drive most of us crazy. When there is no good use for a word, they let you know that, too.

You can see the whole list right here.

People sometimes get bored with simple, clear words. Sometimes people think flowery language sounds more important and thus might make people pay more attention.

I had to look up what "coterminous" meant. It means having the same or coincident boundaries. So "coterminous, stakeholder engagement" means "talking to your neighbors."

I've never asked my wife if she wants to go over and engage with our coterminous stakeholders. I wonder if that would go well?

Bill Salvin

Saturday, March 14, 2009

From Bad to Worse: The Perils of Underestimating Bad News

When I conduct crisis communications exercises and simulations it is very common for the trainees to minimize the bad news that is in front of them or to delay reporting it. Human beings generally hate delivering bad news. In the exercises we run, you can see the instinct kick in and the discomfort that comes with the prospect of telling a relative that their loved one has been killed or informing a neighborhood that your company has just polluted its groundwater.

That instinct was on display big time this week in Australia, where a massive oil spill coated more than 40 miles of Queensland beaches. Those beaches are called “The Sunshine Coast.” Seems like a great place to visit and a lousy place to have a big oil spill.

According to the BBC, “The crisis was sparked when high seas whipped up by Cyclone Hamish toppled 31 containers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer from the deck of the Pacific Adventurer. As they fell, the containers punctured the hull and released the oil, also taking 620 tonnes of the chemical fertilizer to the ocean floor.”

The Pacific Adventurer’s first report stated that only a small amount of fuel had been spilled. The shipping company, Swire Shipping, said in a posting on its Web site that the “earlier estimates of oil loss were made in difficult conditions on board.”

Public officials, some of whom are in the midst of an election campaign, are livid that the amount spilled is 10 times the initial report. Some of them claim that the shipping company lied. As I write this, Swire Shipping reports that 42.5 tonnes of oil went into the water, but other news outlets are reporting that about 200 tonnes spilled. If I did my math right (and I make no guarantees) 200 tonnes of oil = about 61,000 US gallons. I have no idea if the shipping company is deliberately understating the amount of the spill or if public officials are deliberately overstating their estimates. Maybe everyone is simply reporting the best estimates they have. Reliable information in a crisis is often elusive.

Reading the updates from Swire's Web site leaves me with the feeling that they are resisting releasing bad news because maybe something positive will be uncovered and they can release that. Where could all that good news be hiding? Under the oil that's covering the beach?

Crises tend to go from bad to worse, and the Pacific Adventurer is no exception. As the ship was being righted in Brisbane Harbor, more oil escaped booms placed around the ship to keep oil from spreading. The small slick went into the Brisbane River raising even more ire among already agitated public officials. Now, officials warn that a second wave of oil could wash ashore on the beaches in the next few days.

So what can you do to prepare for a crisis and give yourself the best chance to overcome the powerful human nature to delay bad news? Here are two tips:

1) Train to Deliver Bad News
The first time you deliver bad news shouldn’t be when there is real bad news to deliver. You should train with scenarios that simulate interacting with the public, the press and those directly impacted. This type of training helps you understand your reactions to these situations. If you know how you'll react, you can control your reactions more effectively in a real crisis.

2) Make the Training Realistic
Train for the worst-case scenario. That means practice a catastrophic environmental disaster or an accident involving death or serious injury. You do yourself no favors if you rehearse a scenario in which there was a small fire, no one was hurt and everyone reacted perfectly. No real crisis EVER works that way, so don’t train that way.

And just in case you doubt the crisis concept of "bad to worse," consider this. It's not just about the oil. Remember, this ship also dumped 31 containers full of fertilizer into the sea. A leak from any of those containers could cause a harmful, toxic algal bloom.

Lastly, let's put a fine point on the human propensity to hope for the best. Someone at Swire Shipping made a decision to sail that ship into a cyclone.

Good call.

Bill Salvin

Monday, March 2, 2009

New Buzzwords that Need Banishing

Most everyone knows or has heard about "Buzzword Bingo." That's the game where you listen to the corporate drones talk about the latest initiative and mark off the buzzwords they use in their presentation.

The best communications are simple, clear and are easy to understand. Buzzwords hinder clarity and tend to add little if anything to your audience's understanding. In my media training, I spend a lot of time working these buzzwords and phrases out of my client's vocabulary. I have been thinking about buzzwords lately because there are some new ones that have overstayed their welcome. Sadly, most people know buzzwords add nothing, but use them anyway.

Some of the new words or phrases that need to be added to the Bingo card include:

Buzzword or Phrase:

At the end of the day

Why it doesn't work:
The Cambridge Idiom Dictionary defines this phrase as "something you say before you say what you believe to be the most important fact of a situation." Media trainers would call this a "flag." Flags are good in that they focus people's attention, especially in oral communication. A more preferable flag would be "The most important thing I can say is..." or "What's most important is..." I guess I can live with it as a flag when someone is speaking, but I see it in writing all the time. Especially in news releases. People's attention spans are short today. Why waste what little attention people have on a phrase that adds nothing and is in no way distinctive?

Buzzword or Phrase:
That being said

Why it doesn't work:
People use this when they want to offer contrasting thought to those they have previously written or spoken. For example, "We have a great team and you have all contributed to our success. That being said, the economic uncertainty means we're going to have to layoff 10% of our workers." People often use "that being said" as a way to portray false thoughtfulness. The other downside is that it takes you far away from story-telling. You could say "I've thought a lot about this..." and engage your audience far more effectively than if you use the stilted "that being said" or its shorter cousin "that said."

Buzzword or Phrase:
Time-critical decisions

Why it doesn't work:
All decisions are time-critical. At some point, a decision has to be made. When that point arrives, it will be the time-critical point. This phrase adds nothing but a false air of urgency.

Buzzword or Phrase:
Mission critical

Why it doesn't work:
This is another phrase used to create a false sense of urgency. If you have to say "mission critical" whatever you are referring to probably isn't.

Buzzword or Phrase:
I'm just saying

Why it doesn't work:
We live in a snarky world and this comment usually follows some form of sarcastic comment. People say it to lessen the impact of the preceding sarcasm. The phrase assumes the listener knows what you are implying by saying "I'm just saying..." I say if you're going to be snarky, be snarky. Don't apologize for it.

Buzzword or Phrase
Solution (in any form, i.e. Web-based solution, best-in-class solution)

Why it doesn't work:
People use this term to let people know that they are doing something that will solve a problem. I have been around a long time and I've never encountered anyone who is offering a problem. Telling me your product offers a solution tells me nothing about it. Be distinctive and tell me what the product does.

True Confession:
I have succumbed to this word. In fact, one of my clients used a slogan I wrote with the word "solutions" in it and actually put it on a coffee mug. But, we were up against a time-critical decision to come up with a marketing plan for the mission-critical services provided by this company. That being said, we did consider other slogans. At the end of the day, "Delivering the Solutions that Power Freedom" won out.

I'm just saying.

Bill Salvin