Tuesday, February 25th, 2020

How to Cut the B.S.*

By George Olds on Oct 15 2009 • Filed under Customer Service Secrets


I recently asked a group of HR executives what they did in their jobs. The answers included these two gems:

“I maximize efficiencies” and “I leverage best practices.”

So I said, “Okay, leverage one right now for me.” And “Could I please watch you maximize one?”

They, of course, looked at me as if I were green. I merely wanted to know what they DO at work. And in return, I got B.S.* (* That’s BureaucratSpeak! ™) And unfortunately, it’s become the language most spoken in theworkplace. Obviously I think it needs replacing.

Good communications should be public-spirited, plain-talking and professional. Here’s what I mean.

Consider the following news-releases…

“The Honourable Horace P. Somebody, QC, LLB, PHD, MP for Saskatoba-West and Minister of State for the Wheat Board announced today …”

Now compare that to:

“Fifty-thousand Saskatchewan farmers stand to benefit from a new program announced today by Horace P. Somebody …”

In whose interest is the first release? In Horace P’s. (Or Mrs. Horace P., who probably wrote the thing). The second release speaks to the actual audience – the sector of the public that stands to benefit from the program. It is written in the public interest.

The HR executive who “maximizes efficiencies” is using B.S. to the utmost – I still don’t know what it is he does at work. It’s more easily understandable to say, “I keep track of employee behaviour.” Or, “I compare what we’re doing to what other companies are doing to see how we can do better.” A bit more wordy, but far clearer.

In order to help people simplify their communications, I used to ask managers to take the “One Syllable Challenge.” But since “syllable” and “challenge” both have more than one syllable, I changed it to “The One Beat Test.”

Take a list of words commonly used in the workplace and replace them with words that have only one ‘beat.’ For example, do you “utilize” a pen to sign your name? Or do you “use” a pen? Do your employees “endeavour” or do they “try”? Do you “interface” with various “stakeholders”? If so, maybe you’ll want to try to “talk” to “groups”? Is your “project completed” or is the “work done”? You get the idea.

Why is this important? Good communication will reach the broadest audience.

"Good communications should be public-spirited, plain-talking and professional."

One tool you can use to increase the ‘readability’ of your documents is the Flesch Readability Quotient. (Rudolf Flesch wrote “Why Johnny Can’t Read” in 1955, and “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read” in 1981.) If you use MS Word, you already have this tool at your fingertips. It’s in the little ‘ABC’ button with the checkmark, commonly known as SpellCheck.

It will tell you the reading grade level needed to comprehend your document. I recently ran the ‘Privacy’ statement that appears at the end of every government e-mail through the Readability Quotient, and readers needed a Grade 14 reading level. (That’s right, you need to be reading at a University level to understand what the Government wants you to know about Privacy these days!)

Compare this with the famous book on change in the workplace, “Who Moved My Cheese?”, which is written at a grade 6.4 level – and it has sold gazillions of copies. People ‘get’ it because it’s easy to read. You want people to ‘get’ your messages too, don’t you?

(An aside: You can compare a book’s readability quotient with similar books on any subject on Amazon.com, under “Text Stats”. My book, “Never Say ‘NO COMMENT’” – about communicating with the media – is written at a grade 8.9 level. “Mediasmart” is written for at a grade 9.2 level, “Media Training A-Z” is written at a grade 10.2 level, and “Media Training 101” is written for grade 10.7. But get this: “Public Relations for Dummies” is written at a grade 10.9 level. In other words, you have to be smart to read a book intended for, er, “dummies”!)

To help you get your message across to the broadest possible audience, reduce (or eliminate) acronyms and jargon too. As a trainer, I often rely on SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) to help me design courses. But the CoC (um, that’s Chamber of Commerce) calls them Small to Medium Enterprises. Or, take this example (please):

“While on the DVP in my LTD, I passed the CEO of IBM coming off the QEW in her BMW, who had been stopped by the OPP on her way from the LCBO and got charged with DUI.”

People in central Canada may understand that sentence, but don’t count on it in front of a different audience.

A woman in a call centre used to drive me crazy when she said “I’m just in the middle of a script.” It sounded like she was a movie mogul, when in fact, she was only following a pre-scripted, automated computer program that made certain tasks faster. She just didn’t sound professional because she assumed people knew what she meant. Some don’t.

If you want more people to understand what you’re saying, make sure it’s public-spirited, plain-talking and professional and you’re on your way to success. (Oh, and by the way, this article is written at a grade 7.6 level.)

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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