Is that clear?

Why language is a key to organisational effectiveness

In the film The Last Emperor, Reginald Johnston (played by Peter O’Toole) is hired as a tutor to the young Pu Yi. During a lesson, Pu Yi challenges the necessity of learning the niceties of English vocabulary:

Pu Yi:
Pu Yi:
Pu Yi:
In your country men wear short skirts, do they not?
No, Your Majesty, Scotsmen do not wear skirts…they wear kilts
Kilts? A matter of words
Perhaps but words are important
Why are words important?
If you cannot say what you mean, Your Majesty…you will never mean what you say. And a gentleman should always mean what he says


You don’t need to have aspirations to become the perfect English gentleman to find value in learning to say what you mean, and to mean what you say. We seem to have both the capability for being creative with language – for example by inventing new meanings out of fusions of words (think of FaceBook) – yet also lazy when it comes to ‘saying what we mean,’ hence the prevalence of jargon.

There are three areas in which business leaders and managers might consider enhancing their literacy skills and so in turn improving organisational effectiveness. After all, if your working vocabulary is limited, tired or hackneyed, then your thinking or expression might have similar characteristics.


You may have suffered to hear, or read, leaders describe and express visions that are riddled with empty phrases and meaningless jargon. There is a danger that the more attention we give to constructing a perfectly formed vision, the less meaning or power it conveys. Lucy Kellaway, writing in the Financial Times, comments on a recent statement from a famous American bank:

Last week Goldman Sachs produced a 63-page document on how it proposes to clean up its act, which began with Goldman’s Business Principles (1). These are 14 in number, which is far too many for anyone to remember, even for Goldman people who, as the bank says, are the very best. Each principle is rather long, and after having read and reread them I am left feeling exasperated, confused and as if I’ve been lightly clubbed around the head.(2)

Kellaway contrasts Goldman’s statement with something she found by Finnish retailer Stockman:

The first of its six short principles goes like this: ‘We are in business to make money; all our operations should support this goal.’ After this, its customers get a look in: ‘We earn money only by offering benefits which the customer perceives as real and better than those of our competitors.’ This is the right way round, and I particularly like the honesty of the word ‘perceives’. Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

For an example of how simple, clear words can have a powerful impact, look at this statement by Sony from the 1950s, an era before spin and jargon really took hold. It’s a huge vision for what was a small company at the time:

We will create products that become pervasive around the world.… We will be the first Japanese company to go into the U.S. market and distribute directly.… We will succeed with innovations that U.S. companies have failed at – such as the transistor radio.… Fifty years from now, our brand name will be as well known as any in the world…and will signify innovation and quality that rival the most innovative companies anywhere.… ‘Made in Japan’ will mean something fine, not something shoddy. (3)

Performance feedback

Data, metrics and analytics occupy a central place for organisations wanting to understand and improve their performance. Unfortunately, this drive for greater numeracy is often not complemented by a richer performance vocabulary. Moreover, words we once thought were clear seem not to be so. For example, Ofsted has decreed that ‘satisfactory’ teaching is not sufficient. All teaching has to be at least ‘good’. Satisfactory is no longer good enough.

Even if you believe in the ‘feedback sandwich’ as a tool (and I don’t), its appeal is limited if the words inside lack texture or flavour. Whether appraising people or projects, or simply proffering relevant feedback; do your subject the courtesy of locating words, similes or metaphors that convey real meaning. You’ll find what you have to say lands better and is more helpful.

Argument and debate

I’m always stumped by an exhortation to ‘push the envelope’. Do I take the thing that’s being compared with an envelope and move it around a bit or do I make the thing bigger? And when I’m ‘going forward’ is there a presumption I know where I’m headed? Issues and ideas benefit from being defined and described concisely and precisely so those present readily understand what is being discussed. It’s possible for eight people to leave a meeting with quite different recollections of the same conversation. Disaster.

Lazy phrases are dangerous because they create an apparent, superficial sense of agreement about meaning. My favourite is culture, as in, ‘We need to change the culture round here.’ Perhaps so. But, from what to what, why and how? And what do you mean by culture? It would be better if we learned to describe simply what we see and hear, and what we feel and think, without trying to box and label it as we go. And perhaps we can do better at quizzing others on precisely what they mean next time they push an envelope towards us.

1 See
2 Lucy Kellaway, Finnish Lesson on Principles for Goldman, FT 2011
3 Jim Collins, ‘Building Your Company’s Vision’, Harvard Business Review, 1996