Is Your Workplace Drowning in BS?

The Ig Nobel awards were handed out recently at a ceremony at Harvard University. The annual awards are given out to recognize the quirkier, sillier side of scientific research – research projects that make you laugh, then make you think (which is not a bad goal for any attempt at effective communication by the way). This year’s winners included a biologist who created prosthetic limbs so he could live with a goat herd, and a study that delved into the pressing matter of how wearing polyester, cotton, or wool trousers effected the sex lives of rats (because, well you just never know how rat fashion is impacting the rat dating world, let along their sex lives).

But the study that caught my eye was the one that won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize, first because it went to a Canadian team, and secondly, because it was awarded for a subject matter near and dear to my heart: bullshit. A team from the University of Waterloo published a study called “The Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit.”  And in case you’re wondering, bigstock-Stress-7508650they discovered there’s too much of it! There’s definitely too much of it in our political discourse, and far, far too much BS-speak in our workplaces.

It seems to me a lot of English-speaking leaders and managers these days need to take an English as a second language course, because although they’re speaking English, most of the people around them don’t have the foggiest clue what they are saying!

I’m not talking about “dumbing down” your language, but we need to use the same language (for the most part) we use at home with our spouses and kids. And dogs!  “Jargon speak” is a surefire way of getting everyone’s eyes to glaze over, and study after study has shown that a high use of jargon corresponds to low morale and higher distrust in the workplace.

S0 get real with your communication and remember the importance of speaking human at work. And most definitely speak human to your customers.

A simple example: When the social media management platform Hootsuite goes into sleep mode because you haven’t Tweeted anything for a while, the owl icon lets you know with the message: “I was bored, so I decided to take a nap. Let me know when you get back.” It sounds eerily un-owl-like and very humanoid-like.

Or consider this example from a T-Mobile quick start guide for a mobile phone:

  • Use only batteries from the original manufacturer. Hint: If  it’s being sold out of someone’s car trunk, walk away.
  • Keep your phone close. If it rings and you discover it’s in the back seat, do NOT crawl over the seat to answer it while driving!
  • Phones aren’t cheap, so keep it in a safe place – away from children who may find it fun to see if the phone sinks or floats, and away from dogs that find plastic-coated products to be irresistible chew toys.

Again, human-like, fun, and conversational in tone.

Remember, most normal, well-functioning people don’t go home on a Friday evening and share pie charts with their families, fire up a PowerPoint presentation, or speak using convoluted buzzwords. They have conversations. They laugh and share stories. They speak human.

Speaking human isn’t just about using plain, direct language. It’s about being conversational, authentic and conveying a tone that people trust. As we’ve seen in so many examples throughout the book already, whether you’re talking about your values, help wanted ads, job descriptions, employee policy and training manuals, safety regulations, voice mail messages, website communication, or e-mail auto-responders, speaking human brings messages to life by imbuing them with a personality.

This isn’t about being lazy, sloppy or casual with your language. It’s not about dropping the “f bomb” so you sound more real. It’s simply recognizing that to be effective and more professional when you connect with other humans, it helps to sound like a living, breathing human being.

So what can you do in your workplace to lessen the harmful impacts of BS? Here are a few fun ideas that might help:

  1. One company holds a theme day once a month where everyone purposely tries to speak using jargon and business cliches as a way to remind themselves NOT to speak that way the dog-and-books-33514622rest of the time.
  2. Create some Buzzword Bingo cards for your meetings complete with the buzzwords, acronyms and phrases your fellow employees find most annoying, and award prizes for the first to complete the bingo card at your next meeting.
  3. Hold a survey asking people to submit their choice for their most annoying business words or overused phrases. It’s fun and it always generates a lot of conversation around the topic.
  4. Create a mock dictionary that explains what people really mean when they use those dreaded buzzwords.
  5. Like the old “curse jar” incentive, create a “buzzword jar” for charity and have everyone pay a quarter or dollar into it each time they use the “word of the week” or “phrase of the week” that you are trying to eliminate from day to day use.
  6.  Create a drinking game for your meetings. And no, not with alcohol. Have everyone take an exaggerated gulping drink of their water, coffee, tea, or beverage of choice every time someone uses one of the “banished buzzwords.”

I’d love to hear from you. What business words or phrases drive you bonkers? Or what have you done in your workplace to slay the BS beast?

Michael Kerr. September 2016. Michael Kerr is an international Hall of Fame business speaker who speakings on inspiring workplace cultures. His latest book is called The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses Are Laughing All the Way to the Bank. 

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