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Embracing Authentic Communication and Nixing Corporate Speak

Like most people, I’m constantly looking to improve my written and oral communication skills. As such, over the years I’ve made a number of changes in the way I communicate. One of the habits I’ve worked on over the last decade or so is getting rid of, what I call, passive-aggressive corporate speak. Introductions like, “I’m just following up here. Were you going to <do that thing>?” or Satan’s favorite, “Please advise”. I believe that passive-aggressive corporate speak is ineffective, inauthentic, and irritates the reader or listener. To communicate in an open, honest, and effective manner, lose the passive-aggressive corporate speak. I recommend we all speak or write clearly, directly, and with respect for our reader or listener. Be authentic.

A few years ago, I read Joseph M. Williams’ “Style. Toward Clarity and Grace.” It had a really profound impact on me and impressed upon me the importance is simple, clear, and precise communications. What it also did was make me feel a fair amount of shame for the way I had been communicating to that point. I was using corporate speak and using overblown, polysyllabic words, way too many commas and parentheticals, peppering in Latin like per se, eg, ie, post facto, and just generally being read and heard as a pompous blow-hard. I suppose the thinking was, by making the sentence longer, more corporate-sounding, and more complex, I must be earning my money! Ugh... Bottom line: I was writing and speaking a lot but communicating very little. And I looked and sounded bad in the process.

But this post isn’t a therapy session about my past communication missteps. This post is laser-focused on specific types of passive-aggressive corporate speak which I believe to be a part of what Williams covers in his book.

Let’s take a few minutes to cover a sample of phrases one hears too much.

The email - or worse, the text or IM - that ends with “Please advise”. The first line of an email that starts with “I’m just checking in to…”. Or “I just want to…” Maybe you’ve seen “Were you going to…..?” in a message or discussion in which both the sender and the receiver know perfectly well what the situation is or was. Rather than asking you about the thing or the status or simply requesting that you or your team do it, they ask an incredibly passive-aggressive, totally loaded, and completely obnoxious question. Sub-optimal!

Now, one can be excused for thinking or saying, “Oh, come on. This is just nitpicking. Everyone knows what people mean.” Maybe that’s true. What I’d argue is that first, some of these phrases require some reading between the lines and thus, can be misconstrued. We don't want that, do we? Second, and to the larger and more important point, there is more than a hint of passive-aggressive tone in almost all of them. They exhibit insincere and inauthentic communication. They're irritating! This type of corporate speak is exactly what we want to avoid.

Allow me to humbly offer some suggestions for three of my least favorite:

No Bueno: “Were you going to…..?” or “Did you….?”

More Bueno: “Hi Tanisha, can you please let me know when <the thing> will be done? Or maybe <the thing> has been done and I didn’t catch it in the mess that is my inbox!” Thanks.

No Bueno: “Please Advise”

More Bueno: “Jean, can you give me some help with <situation>? As you may know, <situation synopsis, if needed>. I need your <input/thoughts/direction/status>. Thanks.

No Bueno: “I just wanted to…” or “I’m just checking in to….”

More Bueno: “Hi Amit, last time we talked it looked like that new feature was going to be do-able and maybe even by February. What do you think now? Are you still tracking to that and is there anything I can do to help with that (including leaving you and your team alone!)?

There are many other foibles in the way we communicate in organizations. Quite a few of them don’t sit well with me in large part because they’re inauthentic (and again, most are passive-aggressive). But for starters, I recommend working on direct, polite, and precise communications and nixing the passive-aggressive corporate speak. Start with the three examples I highlight above.

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