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Wise Guide for Dummies

September 8, 2005 By:
Fred D. Snitzer
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How many times have you stumbled across sentences like this one and tried vainly to understand it on the first try:

"This year, our company leveraged our new open architecture platform to create compelling synergies across all our business units, creating a win-win cross pollination of ideas and a scalable value proposition that led to our best-of-breed products."

Uh-huh.

If you've ever found yourself reading an annual report, listening to a business Power Point presentation or trying to decipher any other form of communication by business participants suffering from the ability to make the simple complex and the clear obscure, then your salvation has arrived in the form of a new book by three consultants from Deloite and Touche.

Why Do Business People Speak Like Idiots? offers explanations for why so many in the business community speak and write the way they do, along with a demonstration as to how not to communicate with people, and a method for translating poor sentences, which somehow manage to be simultaneously vague and awful, into plain English.

These authors are blessed with both an insider's perspective on the disease of business-speak, and an outsider's ability to step back with fresh eyes and see this disease for what it is: the need to hide simple and common-sense ideas in a thicket of nonsense, deflecting attention away from a speaker's dearth of original ideas or from their lack of confidence in the eternal truth that a simple idea, clearly expressed, can be profound.

Tripping up these well-educated and successful people to speak and write this way are four traps, according to the authors: obscurity, anonymity, the hard sell and tedium. The obscurity trap results from the desire to sound smart; the anonymity trap from the desire to fit in; the hard sell from the desire to sound positive; and the last trap, tedium, is a consequence of the deadly sin of a person not realizing he's downright boring. All four traps produce jargon-filled language that's purposely obscure and exasperatingly bad.

So instead of "build on our strengths," we hear "leverage our core competencies"; instead of "tailor our products to local tastes," we suffer with "permit localized managerial discretion."

Boxed-In Thinking?
And for the mother of all business jargon, instead of "think creatively," we get "think out of the box." Let's face it: If someone goes around using that phrase in all seriousness, that person is so far in the box that he may never see the light of day.

Business ideas and strategies are not, as they say, rocket science. Nor are they brain surgery. An entire vocabulary of buzzwords is not needed.

The language of business should be simple, direct, clear and understandable on the first try. For an example of a business legend who has raised business writing to an art form, read the annual reports of Berkshire Hathaway, written by Warren Buffett, the greatest investor of all time.

His reports are deliberately folksy, chock full of wisdom, genuinely fun to read and 100-percent jargon-free. His writing reflects his investment philosophy: clear, simple, direct and profound. The same mind that has made him the second wealthiest person on Earth infuses his investing and his writing.

So, the next time you find yourself wondering why you simply cannot comprehend the person behind the slide show or business presentation, have the confidence to realize that the problem is not your lack of intelligence. It's much more likely that in the attempt to disguise the unremarkable nature of the speaker's ideas, he or she is trying hard to dress up nothing to sound like something, and in the process, is speaking like an idiot.

Fred D. Snitzer is chief operating officer in the investment-management firm of Prudent Management Associates, specializing in high-net-worth and tax-deferred asset management.

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