December 5, 2023

Beware of Corporatespeak

Posted By Sheila Gibbons Hiebert
Communication Research Associates, Inc.
Choose Local – Business to Business

‘Tis the season of annual reports, when businesses roll out reviews of their fourth-quarter and full-year performances. For publicly held companies, a lot of information must be disclosed. Privately held firms can be much more selective in what and how much they wish to reveal. Either way, many will fall into the trap of using cliches and jargon they understand, but few others do, confusing investors and customers and obscuring their operational results.

You’ve probably seen and heard many of these terms:

  • Ten-dollar words for five-dollar concepts, such as “cost discipline” when talking about reducing spending, or “rightsizing” when referring to layoffs.
  • Sports analogies, such as “executing our game plan” or “leveling the playing field.” Here’s Gracia Martore, CEO of media giant Gannett Co., Inc., in a recent company statement: “Gannett is once again playing offense, poised for growth and value creation.”
  •  Complicated explanations about business strategy, such as this gem that is saying only that the company will buy some businesses and sell others: “We are giving priority to investing in the considerable organic growth potential of our existing portfolio of businesses, supplemented by bolt-on acquisitions offset by a few minor disposals,” said the Daily Mail and General Trust PLC 2010 annual report.
  • The pioneering adventurer analogy with mixed metaphor: “With our unique position in the industry, it’s not enough just to ride this great wave – we intend to grow it and shape it,” from Microsoft’s 2010 annual report.

Why make this so hard for shareholders and customers? This type of language forces readers to try to figure out what an organization is trying to tell them or trying to hide from them. Organizations would be better off keeping just two things in mind: Bad news is best delivered quickly with clear, concise explanations – ask the executives at Penn State who failed to do so. Good news can be shouted from the rooftops – consider the way the late Steve Jobs of Apple personally introduced new products at events, creating excitement that propelled enthusiastic consumers into stores to purchase them. Written communication should be approached with the same care.

General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt’s letter to shareholders in GE’s 2010 annual report is a model of clarity, written with conviction and warmth. No gobbledygook, no beating around the bush. In one passage, Immelt says, “There are very few companies on earth who do what we do.” By itself, this might seem like corporate hype, but in the context of the case Immelt makes for GE’s performance, it’s utterly believable. You can read the shareholder letter.

As an author/editor of corporate annual reports, I’ve worked hard to suppress the MEGO (“mine eyes glaze over”) factor.  This means supporting professionals who are accomplished in finance, sales development and mergers and acquisitions, but less skilled in communication. For everyone involved, it’s worth the effort, because when your corporate reputation is on the line, words matter.

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