Monday, 3 May 2010

Making Sense

A while ago, I quoted some of Paul Keating’s better turns of phrase. Don Watson was Keating’s speech writer and since Keating left parliament Watson has spent quite a lot of his time attacking management speak. His books on the subject are: Death Sentence; Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Cliches, Cant and Management Jargon; and Bendable Learnings. In February, he talked about language at the Perth Writers Festival. Here is an edited extract of what he said:

‘Yesterday at 8.55 am, I went to an all-day in-house seminar in a Victorian government department. The seminar was on plain English. They invited me to open their seminar, and about 70 people were there. But before I went in, I was sitting in reception and a brochure was lying on the table. It had a picture of the director of the department on it and he had put his signature under this:

“For the past three months, we have been focusing heavily on strategic planning. I am excited by our new vision - and I want you to be excited too - to be a catalyst for continuous improvement in the accountability and performance of the public sector, supported by our values: integrity; personal accountability; teamwork learning; and being outcome focused. I look forward to working together over the next five years towards achieving our vision through the implementation of our key priorities.”
He winds up:
“These are challenging and exciting times ahead, and I thank you for your support and welcome your ideas and input.”

Now that encapsulates modern management language as it has spread out into everything - into everything. For instance, Cardinal Pell ended his pastoral letter the year before last, “May the Lord be with you, going forwards”. And Anglicans aren't exempt: I noticed last time I was in St Martin’s in the Fields that they now have their mission statement on the wall, and it refers to their “excellence in hospitality.” When they were surviving the Black Death, the Great Fire of London and all of that, they never had “excellence in hospitality” - they just gave out soup and bread. But now they provide “excellence in hospitality”.

Anyway, no sooner had I read this brochure and stuck it in my pocket, than the man whose image is on it appeared before me and escorted me into the seminar. I wanted to say to him, “How could you? How could you hold an all-day seminar on plain English and offer up this piffle? This is to language what dead sheep round a dried up bore are to pastoralism. This is what ghostly ring-barked gum trees are to nature. This is what PowerPoint is to Abraham Lincoln. This is terrible.” But I couldn't bring myself to say it.

But it does go everywhere this stuff. It is even in grade 2 school rooms, where they write mission statements now - as one of their first tasks - in the language of business. They even talk about risk-taking -- and then they laminate the things and put them on the wall. This is in school rooms where kids have to wear helmets before they can go on the monkey bars - they are not talking about risk-taking as in taking risks climbing trees; they’re talking about risk-taking in the business sense, the entrepreneurial sense

To cut this very short, I think the threat to the English language is real - year after year of this has convinced me - and I think the biggest threat to the English language is that it is not necessary any more. George Bush didn't need language to succeed; he got two terms. Kevin Rudd uses language every now and again, when he thinks it’s a good idea; the rest of the time he knows it’s better not to use it. John Howard rarely used language; he used images. Embracing people mainly. Rather awkwardly, I thought - but nevertheless he did it. And language is not doing Barack Obama any good at all.

People like Samuel Johnson and George Orwell wanted to stabilise meaning. The way business stabilises meaning and management language stabilises meaning is to remove meaning. It flattens it out. It uses one word where we used to have to decide between 20 or 30.

Take a word like ‘issue’. I turned on my cable television the other day, and on the screen it said, ‘We apologise - we are experiencing an issue - please bear with us.’ How do you experience an issue? We would once have been told what the issue was – well, ‘issue’ wouldn’t have occurred to us.

‘Impact’ is the same. We were impacted by fires in Victoria last year. We weren’t warned, but we were impacted. We weren’t warned because, as the responsible authority - the Country Fire Authority - said at the Royal Commission, “We couldn’t warn people about the fire, because the fire was unprecedented.” When the commissioners said, “But surely there had been fires before,” they said, “Yes, but not like this one.” Because they had been to management school, they did not have the language to warn people. This is literally the truth. It is there in the transcripts of the Royal Commission.

When you cannot do that, you really are in trouble. If you cannot say, “hot”, “burn”, “danger”, “get out”, then you are really in strife.


  1. I see your point, and you make it well. Being old-school I was of course impressed by poor old Obama's grasp of language when I first heard him, but maybe the management-speakers have successfully taught us that this kind of thing is dangerous and that it's better for a president to grin at the camera and utter some banality coined in a Western or wherever.

  2. It's funny because I thought one thing that everyone seemed to warm to was Obama's gift for rhetoric. But when the chips are down, it hasn't made it any easier for him to persuade the American public to go with his health ideas.