The 8 rules of Corporate Bullsh*t: now for the aidspeak version

I recently tweeted a link to a truly wonderful piece by the FT’s Lucy Kellaway, How I lost my 25-year battle against corporate claptrap,corporate-bs and a couple of people demanded an aidspeak version. Where better to turn than the FP2P hivemind?

Her 8 rules are:

  1. Never use a short word when a long one will do
  2. Everyday euphemisms are the way forward
  3. Disregard the grammar you learnt at school
  4. There is no such thing as too much emotion
  5. If you produce something simple, rebrand it so no one will know what it is
  6. Do not limit yourself to words that are in the dictionary
  7. There is no such thing as too much metaphor and cliché in one sentence
  8. Ignore Rule 1 (use short, well-known words, but the catch is you use them to mean something different. The word of the moment is “play”.)

Recognize any of these? Yup, me too (especially rule 5). So it’s time for a spot of crowdsourcing: what are your top candidates for an aidspeak collection of all-time worst claptrap?

But be warned, corporates set the bar very very high. Here are the three all time winners (in reverse order) from Lucy’s doomed 25 year crusade against corporate BS:

‘Bronze goes to Rob Stone, co-CEO of advertising agency Cornerstone, for heroically mixing cliché, metaphor and hot air to say nothing: “As brands build out a world footprint, they look for the no-holds-barred global POV that’s always been part of our wheelhouse.”

dilbert-bingo[1]Silver belongs to Angela Ahrendts who, in a Burberry annual report, wrote the most mysterious sentence ever composed in the English language: “In the wholesale channel, Burberry exited doors not aligned with brand status and invested in presentation through both enhanced assortments and dedicated, customised real estate in key doors.” I have showed it to many business experts over the years, but no one has ever been able to say what it means or explain why a raincoat maker could be talking so intently about doors.

The runaway winner and deserved gold medallist is John Chambers who, while CEO of Cisco, fired off an email to underlings beginning “Team”, and ending: “We’ll wake the world up and move the planet a little closer to the future.”

He has used plain words and simple syntax to produce the most terrifying piece of bullshit ever.’

So, the gauntlet has been thrown down: send me your worst examples of aid industry BS, and if they are good enough, I will publish them in collected form. And yes, submissions from FP2P are eligible……

Update: lots of traffic, but v few actual suggestions. Frightened of losing your jobs? Anonymise if you have to but just to be clear, I’m looking for examples from aid documents and emails, not just words and phrases you dislike. Come on, you must have some that you haven’t deleted!

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22 Responses to “The 8 rules of Corporate Bullsh*t: now for the aidspeak version”
  1. NGO worker ant

    Looking forward to seeing these. Here is one to start; have taken out some of the specifics (as it refers to ending a role in the organization).

    “We…are now at a point where we need to adjust our capacities to advance the multi-dimensional pathways to diversify the [YYY] network…One of these changes includes rolling-off the [XXX] position, and embedding capacities to support our diversifying [YYY] aspirations under the [ZZZ position]…We will leverage our existing capacities for greater reach and greater coherence of our ongoing governance, membership, and broader diversifying ambitions, with no additional cost to these priorities.”

    Describing eliminating a position as “rolling-off” was new to me – and seemed a good example of rule 2.

  2. anon

    The field of impact measurement in itself is undergoing a period of dramatic change, as others grapple with similar questions—how do we become astronomers of systems change able to study and understand far away movements and bodies that have a direct effect on what is near to us?; when we let go of the role of puppet master of change, how do we measure our contributions as servants of broader change processes, powerful as catalysts, yet humble in our awareness that it takes more than a village to change societies? – metaphor overload alert (astronomy, puppets, servants and villages)

    Impacting Poor People Around the World – with what, an asteroid?

    We were very much “building the plane while flying it” as we reimagined our planning process this year – understandable metaphor, until you really think through the implications of getting an unbuilt plane off the ground, or being in one!

  3. Rasmus

    DFAT’s governance programme in Indonesia aims to: ‘For its first phase, KOMPAK supports the GoI to put in place improved systems, processes and procedures focusing on specific issues within its results areas towards achieving very specific high-level End of Facility Objectives (EOFOs) to which all its activities and projects contribute to.’ One of the projects under the programme is called: ‘Innovations for Service Delivery and Economic Empowerments’. I once read their ToC without becoming any wiser as to what the programme is actually about.

    Also have a look at how some of the big development consultancies describe themselves. Good luck figuring out what they actually do from looking at their websites! Here is Maxwell Stamp’s attempt to describe ‘what we do’:
    ‘Flexibility is essential to success, so we are always accommodating and responsive. But without ever allowing ourselves to compromise the integrity of the services we provide. All those services are customised, not commoditised, and include: Each of those sectors has a number of subsectors, each with its own disciplines and expertise. But even that is by no means the totality of the areas in which we have delivered impressive results. Because we rely on our grey cells rather than on black box solutions. So our skills are readily transferable.’

  4. Peter

    Bretton Woods Project has a nearly annual catalogue of such efforts from the World Bank and IMF:

    One of my favourites: “negative fiscal stimulus”

  5. Alice

    This is all very quaint. I appreciate your efforts, but let’s get real here, this is child’s play.

    I raise you: academia.

    Someone with a PhD once read my paper and replied:

    “Is change ‘caused’ at the level of ideas or agents? You say interests are not a priori but then claim they are shaped by material circumstances? If it’s about ideas then is the relationship to agents dialectical or co-constituted? If it’s about material interests then where do our ideas about them come from?… I guess a simper way to phrase the question is whether you think ontology is a priori to epistemology?”

    To which I replied, “I’d really appreciate it if you could kindly clarify the [above] paragraph. I know what all of those words mean, but do not understand any of the sentences. Nor do I see the contradiction in suggesting that interests are not a priori but may be influenced by changing material circumstances”.

    I guess the moral of the story is that whether you work in commerce, aidland or academia, you have to put him with a hellava lot of bullsh*t.

  6. Liz

    “We will empower XXX”

    Apparently everyone is empowering someone else these days, except that they aren’t because empowerment is an individual process which comes from within. The constant, and increasingly ubiquitous, misuse of the word ’empowerment’ makes my gender specialist head explode.

  7. Kate

    I can’t put my hands on a good example of the kind of overly complex obfuscating stuff you are after right now, Duncan. However, an auto-reply just popped into my inbox reminding me of a pet peeve… can you guess?

    ‘Thank you for your email. I am on mission the week 24-28 July, with limited access to emails.’

    ON MISSION. FFS. You are simply AWAY. Just be ‘away’, or on a ‘business trip’ if you must. But spare us this self-aggrandizing, messianic ‘on mission’ bullsh*t, please I BEG OF YOU. I know you probably once worked for the UN, and that’s what people did there, but in the normal world, people don’t go ‘on mission’ just because they have to attend a meeting in Geneva/Nairobi/Bangkok/Wherever.

    Also, being on a ‘field trip’ – no better…

  8. Michelle Abel

    The resilience of the target communities is low due and the coping mechanisms in dealing
    with harsh environmental realities being absent. This project will increase resilience through the organisation and mobilisation of cooperatives and building of confidence and skills. This will make communities better able to address environmental risks and put in place coping mechanisms. With good environmental planning, the rights skills, confidence and good
    technology, the environmental risks can be managed.

  9. Gareth Price-Jones

    Delighted to see the immediate example I thought of already posted by an anonymous colleague! I shan’t mention which one it is…

      • Gareth Price-Jones

        Actually, several of the comments apply. The ’empowerment’ one in particular. Working in both programmes and policy you get (and I confess probably author) a lot of this stuff. It’s easy to ridicule, but its not ALL rubbish – some jargon has specific meanings in specific contexts where it really adds value, but looks nonsensical to a wider audience. That’s probably only 5% though…

  10. At the beginning of this year, I shared this link with colleagues at IDS : “17 Development Cliches I’ll be Avoiding in 2017”és-ill-be-avoiding-in-2017-46c2345a507f and then followed up with some reflections on the use of jargon in development, or perhaps, more specific to my field academic research on/in development (more “in” than “on” these days).

    I’m taking the liberty to re-post these reflections here, since I think (or hope!) they might be of wider interest…

    “Revisiting and slating development jargon may be a cliche in itself, but this blog raises an interesting point (in my view at least), and ​Includes many terms we frequently use at IDS such as “capacity building”, “voices” and “empowerment”…

    Working in communications, for me one of the key challenges with “jargon” is that – on the one hand it’s dry, exclusive/elitist/obfuscating and often feels like people and problems have been transformed into abstract, intellectual chess pieces. On the other hand – it’s a handy short-cut behind which sits stacks of research, complicated concepts, collaborative (and frequently painful) deliberations. And while the blogger calls for “writers to spell out what they are talking about”, there isn’t always the time or the word count to fully unpack the jargon…(try describing “empowerment” in a tweet rather than just using #empowerment)

    Sometimes the “jargon” encapsulates a history, a process, an apotheosis of sorts… e.g. for some, a term like “empowerment” is loaded… loaded with decades of debates and disputes, of marching in the streets, of campaigning in court rooms, of personal and domestic confrontations… and they may feel exasperated at seeing these terms, this jargon either bandied about flippantly (or cynically – viz “women’s economic empowerment” or “cheap labour”??) or taken down cleverly by a trendy blogger wanting to stir up debate, make a name for themselves (and/or grow their page view statistics)…

    In research comms, such short-cuts are essentially what branding is all about – a symbol or set of words behind which sits a whole load of experiences, relationships, meanings and values. Good branding should be able to call all these things up simply and effectively, and inspire a collective nod of recognition. But it needs to remain alive to the human experience and live the values it claims to embody. And not bring about a collective groan or yawn or wry smile.

    To the blogger’s credit, in her response to comments, she does acquiesce a banned list of words should not lead to another set of words and jargon being used to replace them. Instead, she urges us not to be complacent and lazy with our language. We should remember to take the jargon off the shelf, dust it down, open it up and see the people and remind ourselves of the core values and experiences that sit behind it (if they do, or perhaps bin it, if they don’t!).

    The clever thing is to then re-energise the jargon, and light up enthusiasm for it (assuming we want people to be enthusiastic about “empowerment” or “local stakeholders”) – so that people re-embrace it (and everything it stands for) – that’s where marketing comes in, or “engagement” is we call it here… “

  11. Andrew Horton

    Hi Duncan,
    At last my chance to contribute to FP2P, by translating the Burberry quote:
    In US wholesale distribution, “doors” = a department store concession or shop in shop, so in the fashion world its an easy sentence: they stopped supplying crappy department stores that were not representing the Burberry brand very well and invested in improved shopfits and displays in premium department stores.
    Is there a prize?
    Your smug Trading guru.