Why Consultants Speak Like Idiots

I have always been simultaneously amused and appalled by consultant-speak–and no more than when I hear it coming out of my own mouth. You know the buzz words. Like snakes in the underbrush, they lie everywhere, buried inside complex sentences:

* “The key to success for your organization is to discern how to leverage your assets for maximum return.” (Nowhere in Merriam-Webster is “leverage” a verb).

* “We’re experts at operationalizing your business strategy.” (“Operationalize” is simply.  not. in.  the.  dictionary).

* “Let’s utilize existing frameworks wherever we can.” (This one actually is in the dictionary, but it’s  a pretty complicated way to say “use,” dontcha think?)

More cringe-inducing, we don’t just write idiot-speak, we actually talk it!  It’s humorous at best, but trust-damaging at worst.  Imagine being a client and having to decipher all this lingo.  Imagine being a client, sitting through the 100th presentation given by the third consulting firm to be hired in the last three years, and thinking quietly to yourself, “I thought these guys were going to be different.”

One way we can stand apart – while simultaneously creating real human-to-human connection – is to simplify our language. You know, say it in plain language.

For an insightful and humorous take on this subject, check out Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide written by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky – notably, three consultants. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“Jargon, wordiness, and evasiveness are the active ingredients of modern business-speak, and they make up the Obscurity Trap. This trap is particularly pervasive, and its perpetrators are evil people who want to destroy civilization as we know it. (Well, okay, not really, but it felt good to get that out.) We call this a trap because the people who spew jargon and all of that evasiveness really aren’t evil at all.

"They’re us.”


What can we do? 

Listen to yourself. What do you hear? What are you really trying to say?

11 replies
  1. bob ashley
    bob ashley says:

    The "Why?".

    Jargonalizationers speak like idiots, I think, because they don’t know how to access the resources of their own imagination. When I hear the jargon blather it telegraphs a message for me, "I have no critical resources. I allow any and all threadbare cliches to enter my mind, unimpeded, where they set up permanent shop."

    It also telegraphs a message that the consultant has had little or no contact with literature, drama, or poetry. That is, the consultant has never sipped from the founts of creative expression in language–Homer, Shakespeare, Joyce, Milton, or even Stephen King.

    Your article provokes thought and thanks for that. Pointing on words that don’t exist, though, I think somewhat misses the mark. The clunky words "do" exist and common usage does not require any top-down legitimization by dusty old lexicographers. Rather, it’s the hamfisted "manipulation" or "morphing" of a word’s standard usage which I think is supposed to give the impression of a facile or deft hand with language (which it fails to do, of course).

    For example, "operationalize" is merely the clumsy attempt towards an appearance of erudition or intelligence, but delivers the exact opposite– the performance of a swaggering idiot.  Literature is full of these clowns.  A stock character. 

    Thanks for insights.




  2. Alexandra Campbell
    Alexandra Campbell says:

     I believe that this sort of language is very often used, like the ubiquitous suit, as a coin that signals an understanding of the business world and a willingness to play by its rules.  It says "I am one of you. I am part of the club" as clearly as a golf reference or a pair of dress socks.  Many businesses run by white, middle class Western men play by these rules even if the individuals themselves do not outside of their work environment.

    Bob makes a good point when he says "It also telegraphs a message that the consultant has had little or no contact with literature, drama, or poetry." This is, indeed, part of the message.  This particular social group must give the impression that it is manly, goal oriented and discerning, without the indulgent ‘frippery’ of those who would spend time on more artistic pursuits.

    In the United States, this issue is compounded by the cliche successful businessman. He (yes, he) is a self made man who succeeds by grit, determination and brains. Probably in that order.  Receiving a leg up from one’s family, education or superior intellectual prowess is seen as somewhat old world.  Our heroes in this arena are self made men through and through.  (Hence the laughably botched ploy of "Joe the Plumber".)  

    The kind of fresh language we perhaps want to hear is simple, which might signal a simple mind. That wouldn’t do.  Or perhaps it is original, which signals that the speaker is not playing exactly by the rules. 


  3. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    Well, not sure what happened with the last post.  I had a more intelligent comment than that, I think.  🙂

    Oh well, the basics of the comment was understand your audience and be authentic.  Work to help your clients solve their problems instead of just trying to finalize the sale.

    Good post.  Thank you.


    Refocusing Technology

  4. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    I have been delighted to read several thoughtful comments on this post – thank you Bob, Jeremy, and Alexandra.  And I have been chuckling to myself because when Charlie let me know he was publishing this particular one this week, I almost tried to talk him out of it, thinking it wouldn’ t really be of much interest.  Shows you what *I* know LOL.

    Bob’s comments on literature, drama, and poetry brought back memories of my father — a self-described "itinerant entepreneur" who firmly believed that the best business education was a Liberal Arts education. The case against B-school as the best foundation for those in professional services appears to be mounting.

    Jeremy and Alexandra’s posts call for communication that is fresh, simple, original, and authentic — hear, hear!

  5. Jerome Fishkin
    Jerome Fishkin says:

    For excellent advice on how to view and deal with consultants, I recommend the out of print book, Art of Advice, written by Jeswald Salacuse.  It is still available from used book sellers online.  He takes a systematic look on what the relationship should be between advice giver and receiver, from the beginning agreement on what they aiming to do, to ending the relationship.

  6. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hello, Charlie. Good stuff.

    You write, "Listen to yourself. What do you hear? What are you really trying to say?"

    If one listens deep enough and inquires into the question, usually there are two responses: (1) I’m trying to say that I don’t know how to speak as a human being, at work (rarer) (2) I know how to speak as a human being at work but I’m afraid to do so (more common).

    These folks generaly are not evil. Just little children in adult bodies wearing adult clothes who don’t know how to act as mature adults. Not "mature" as the opposite of "immature", but mature as emotionally grounded in such as way that they know how to be vulnerable and show up authentically as themselves without needing the protective armour of jargon.

    Listening to one’s self won’t help if this type of defensive behavior is a blind spot. However, when one can honestly, sincerely and compassionately discern why they are doing it, really, really, why, the defense melts and one can slowly move to being one’s True and Real self and be authentic without the pretense. 

  7. Jeswald Salacuse
    Jeswald Salacuse says:

    Thanks to Jerome Fishkin for his kind comment on my book The Art of Advice. Although that book is out of print, I brought out a revised edition under the title The Wise Advisor: What Every Professional Should Know About Counseling and Consulting (Praeger 2000)It is still in print.

  8. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Indeed, I stand corrected! Maybe we can operatioanalize the use of the transitive verb more fully now. 😉 In all seriousness, thanks for the correction.


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