Say What You Mean Part 2

8th February, 2010 - Posted from jeffdavis

Somewhere in the mid-1990’s, business speakers began to get smart about spin. That’s when “problems “were transformed into “opportunities,” and “near disasters” became, “challenges.”

There is something to be said for the detached, objective description of a situation. For example, flight attendants tell us, “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend from overhead.” We know that what they are talking about is catastrophe – the plane is going down, or a window has blown out. Their detached, professional language is meant to keep us from picturing our hands gripping the chair arms to avoid following the guy who just got sucked out the tear in the fuselage.

For a while, the spin worked to make everyone see the positive in even the most difficult situations, and that’s a good thing. Study after study demonstrates that the lens through which you see your world can have profound influence on what you achieve, both personally and professionally.

So we believe in the power of positive thought and positive words.

But we’ve sat through enough business presentations to know that these two words, in particular – opportunity and challenge – have been spun so much that they no longer mean what speakers want them to mean. We’re so used to hearing the verbal equivalent of “suck it up and make lemonade out this lemon of a situation,” that the spin doesn’t work anymore. In fact, it has the opposite effect to the point where these “positive” words can make the situation feel worse than it really is.

Time for new words.

Following the axiom that audiences like for speakers to say what they mean and mean what they say, we urge speakers to say what’s true.
– Tell us what the situation really is, without characterizing it for us. We recently heard a speaker say, “Our challenges with the FDA continue, but we have the opportunity to refine our sales strategy…” That left the audience to picture a myriad of problems with the FDA when, in fact, there were none. We nudged the speaker to find words that more accurately described the situation. So his audience heard, “We hoped we’d have FDA approval by now, and we don’t. In the meantime, we’re moving ahead with…”
– Take responsibility for what’s really going on, rather than trying to deflect it. A few days ago, we heard a speaker say, “It’s been a challenge to get all the stakeholders to agree…” That leaves us to imagine squabbling colleagues, fighting over territory or strategy. What really was going on, though, was that this speaker was so overwhelmed by other priorities that she had not been able to schedule consensus-building meetings. NOT saying so, and leaving her colleagues to take the unstated blame, was spin that may have felt good in the moment. But it would have antagonized the people she was depending on to make things happen. Instead, she explained the situation and made a pledge to deliver consensus on a new schedule.

If you have the disadvantage of working for a boss who prefers cloaked speech to transparent messages, you may be forced to stay the “challenge/opportunity” course. Even at that, we urge you to think about how trying to put the best face on things may actually make us picture something worse.

“Your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.”

See what we mean?