Taking Out the Garbage (Language)


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

March 5, 2020 

Taking Out the Garbage (Language)

“People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling.”

— Anna Wiener

"Business-speak" is too soft a term.

We've used it to refer to the conflated, jargon-heavy language that creeps into corporate communication.

Verbiage like growth hacking, operationalize, and upleveling come to mind. What do these words actually mean? Cracking the code is a fool’s errand—you’ll only enter into a meaningless void.

"Business-speak" doesn’t do this type of language justice. (In truth, the term itself is, well . . . business-speak.)

Instead, we need to begin calling business-speak what it really is: garbage language.

We’ve borrowed this term from Molly Young’s brilliant article on the subject in New York Magazine.

[T]he hideous nature of these words—their facility to warp and impede communication—is also their purpose. Garbage language permeates the ways we think of our jobs and shapes our identities as workers. It is obvious that the point is concealment; it is less obvious what so many of us are trying to hide.

Growth hacking, parallelization, touchpoint, holistic roadmap, high-level integrated decks, futureproof, business-critical—these examples of garbage language sound important but communicate next to nothing. They’re all flex and no substance.

Using such language purposely pushes people off balance and excludes them in order to defend one's own lack of contribution. Colleagues on the receiving end of garbage language sometimes feel forced to pretend to understand and use it, or risk not fitting in.

When garbage language becomes the dialect of a business culture, less business gets done. Think of the time wasted using and deciphering such messages. Think of the potential clients lost due to confusion and false bravado.

Garbage language, therefore, is bad for business culture, bad for business communication, and bad for business bottom lines.

So, what’s the solution?

Plain language. (Scream it from the rooftops: plaaaain language!)

Communicating in clear, precise terms allows you to accomplish more business in less time and reveals the true value of your work.

By using plain language, you contribute to a culture of clear, honest communication in your workplace, which is good for business. No garbage about it.


Play the Editor!

The following email responds to a request for a raise. The message is riddled with garbage language, making it difficult to understand and disrespectful to the recipient. How would you rewrite this email in plain language? (Scroll down to see one possible revision.)

Hi Alexandra,

We appreciate the 110% you’ve given to develop your swim lane and contribute to the company ecosystem.

As you know, we didn't achieve peak upleveling in the last 365, and Rankin Technologies must keep our ducks in a row to make sure that the business reboots well for all of our employees and loyal customers. In accordance with managerial decision makers, corporate has operationalized a freeze on remunerative upscaling across the board, including those at the top. Ipso facto, we don’t have the bandwidth to grant you a bump at this current time.

However, we can make hay where the sun shines. I have made the ask and been greenlighted to grant you 10 hours of overtime per week, which will be paid at time and a half. If I can get your buy-in for this opportunity cost, please let me know.



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Editor’s Recommendation

Hi Alexandra,

You are one of our valued employees, and we appreciate the hard work you put in, day to day.

As you know, our last fiscal year wasn't strong, and Rankin Technologies must keep a trim bottom line to make sure that the business continues for all of our employees and loyal customers. As a result, management has instituted a freeze on pay across the board, including those at the very top. Unfortunately, that means I can't grant your request for a pay raise at this time.

However, that does not mean that you cannot earn more money. I have asked for and received permission to grant you up to 10 hours of overtime per week, which will be paid at time and a half. If you are interested in taking advantage of this possibility, please let me know.