It's a spade, not a soil-management solution

11 November 2005

If there is one thing that ticks off hacks, it is the buzzword-loaded language that finds its way into business presentations and releases. Some of it is material so devoid of content that you feel as though information is being sucked out of your head when you read it. So, we moan about the language with a regularity that leads PRs to collectively roll their eyes. It is not as if the Web is not short of articles written by PRs telling each other that they just cut out the claptrap. From the hack's side, this week it was Stephen Baker of BusinessWeek who publicly took exception to the word 'solution', a word that now permeates the world of business-speak. PRs responded, claiming they do all they can to eradicate jargon, but that it's hard to translate technical stuff into English, in the view of PR John Wagner, and even that, according to Tech PR Gems, some people like it that way.

Unfortunately, the PRs who commented on yet another plea for plain language claiming that they really do try to technical lingo into English have again confused jargon with the weasel words that get used to pad out press releases and presentations. And those are the bits that drive most sane people up the wall.

There is a difference between jargon, the dialects that make technology just that little bit more distant, and euphemism, the attempts to polish a turd into something shinier and more attractive. They are different, because the turd-polishing phrases turn up everywhere, not just in technology-related material. There is a simple test to work out which is which. Just try to rewrite the sentence in plain English. The euphemisms will drop conveniently out of sight. But that is the source of the irritation that most hacks have with this kind of language. It is entirely unnecessary and just wastes your time.

Take, for example:

SoftBrands’ POS (Point of Sale) solution is a complete management tool combining flexible functionality, platform stability and scalability with excellent customer support. SoftBrands provides a state-of-the-art, touch screen POS system, seamlessly integrating all front-of-house and back-office functions in one easy-to-use solution.

If you're wondering why I picked on Softbrands, the company's marketing people only have themselves to blame. I typed my least-favourite weasel words into Google - solution, functionality, platform, seamless and scalable - and their web page came out top. This particular paragraph looked to be the worst offender. However, the copy is no worse than the content of many press releases.

POS? That's jargon, clear and simple. It's tough to replace with one simple word or phrase and you need to know a bit about what they are really selling to recast it accurately, assuming you need to translate it for your particular audience. A trade audience will understand POS far better than any attempt to translate what it means into really plain English. For a consumer audience, it's the "computer that handles hotel bookings", or something similar. It won't be completely accurate but it's close enough for somebody who isn't really bothered about hotel POS systems in the first place.

However, the rest of this paragraph can certainly get the bonsai treatment. "Management tool". Ever found a computer system that wasn't some useful to management in some way. That can go. Flexible functionality? You can get it to do lots of things, presumably all hotel-related. "Platform stability". Doesn't crash. Actually, this could mean they won't change the design without telling you. Who can tell? That's the other problem with this kind of language: it's not even precise. Let's move on. "Scalability". You can run big or little hotels with it. "Excellent customer support". Why, do you also offer software with crappy customer support?

"State-of-the-art". A cliché that is a little bit old-fashioned in marketing circles this one. From this, I assume they make this POS computer out of current technology rather than some clapped-out technology. And then, the breathless sign-off: "seamlessly integrating all front-of-house and back-office functions in one easy-to-use solution". Gotta get that solution in again. So, it does stuff like take bookings from customers and makes sure the system that allocates the rooms gets updated. Stellar. Plus, it's not hard to use, they say. And it remains a computer system, just in case you got to the end of the paragraph and you were a bit confused.

In short, Softbrands says its POS computer does all the stuff you'd expect a system to handle hotel bookings and stuff to do. It doesn't crash and it has a touchscreen. "We make it out of new bits, not old bits and we take support calls without diverting everything to voicemail." (OK, I made the last bit up as I have no idea of what the company considers to be excellent technical support).

What's even more depressing is having to sit through someone talking in this kind of language. Reading has the benefit of being fast. You can tear through a release in seconds. Having this phraseology mixed in with copious amounts of Powerpoint is enough to send you straight to the window, Peter Finch-style. I have sat through a half hour of this kind of thing and found that my first question at the end was: "So, what's it do then?"

So, I have to ask if most of these words are useless, why are they there? This was the argument used by Tech PR Gems. Somebody approved this stuff. Indeed, they did.

Although they inflicted 50 more unnecessary words of text on the public, I feel a little sympathy for the copywriter on this one. They had to pad it out for a while and all they had to work with was that the company selling the POS system told them it was the dog's bollocks but had absolutely no evidence to back it up. There was no single feature the company could identify to make anyone think: "That's a bit different, I'll take a closer look". But, there's an empty Web page sitting there, and you've got to fill it with something that the client thinks puts them in a good light. Well, it doesn't say "this product both sucks and blows" in flashing 80pt letters, but that's about as good as it gets from the point of view of the reader.

The copy will have been approved by the marketing manager who probably thought that was just the thing to get sales rolling in through the door. Maybe the marketing manager is right. There could be mug punters out there who, dazzled by the loquacious promises for a POS solution, just pony up the cash there and then. In truth, the marketing manager has probably looked at everybody's else site in that market and thought, "if that's how they do it, I'd better too". That is not to say there is not one group of customer who buy into turd-polishing language lock, stock and barrel: managers.

The motherlode of this guff lies in the management-training courses and self-help that have spread like a cancer through every industry. Management gurus expound on how to leverage synergies and maximise core human resources assets to achieve excellence in the business organisation. Or rather, do what your good at and don't piss off the workforce. You can see why I'm not a top management guru.

Because gurus talk the fancy way, managers have come to believe that everyone should. It may even be worse than that, the mantras have become the message. Rather than translate the exhortations to "be excellent" - something that even Bill & Ted seemed to understand better than most people who attend these courses - they just parrot the phrases. Because, if they did translate them and think about them, they would be ringing up and demanding their money back: "You mean I paid ten thousand bucks for you to tell me to employ good people? What kind of a con is this?"