Vapour Speak – how verbal hot air can make organizations sweat

Diversity, Sustainability, Narrative, Value Proposition, Value Add, Talent, Greenwashing, Purpose, Culture, Momentum, Impact, to align, to map, to leverage, to mobilize, to champion, to drive, to disrupt, efficient, innovative, agile, equitable, inclusive, mindful…

The list is not exhaustive, and I am fairly certain that many of you have your own favourite buzzwords that are used so randomly that they can feature nicely in a good round of BS-Bingo.

Vapour Speak – a verbal fog around our brains

Don’t get me wrong: all, or at least many, of these words can have meaning, and some concepts are very close to my heart. The problem  is, when they feature in something for which I have coined the term „Vapour Speak“, i. e. a way of expressing oneself that produces a lot of hot air which befuddles our poor brains into believing that we are communicating effectively and getting things done. It’s a bit like verbal junk food – easily gobbled up, but with hardly any nutritional value. And if you consume too much of it, it might clog your vessels and sap your energy .

Here is the basic recipe: you take a handful of buzzwords of our times or your bubble, connect them with rather non-descript verbs, and garnish it with a few fluffy adjectives. Let’s take THE buzzword of our times: Sustainability! Making copious and determined use of the „S-word“ and associated buzzwords in your corporate communication gives you a lot of mileage with the general public.

Consider this quote: „Sustainable Corporate Management, which alongside strategic development, pays particular attention to the Group’s social responsibility as well as the needs of its employees, customers, investors and suppliers, and all those groups associated with the company, consequently plays an increasingly significant role in upholding stakeholder value, as well as the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR).“

All the right buzzwords in all the right places. Would you buy shares of that company? Many did. It’s from the Wirecard Annual Report for 2018 (page 43).

Nothing to see here – buzzwords as signals

Apart from Mr. Braun’s Steve-Jobs-lookalike-black-turtleneck, gobbledygook wrapped in Vapour Speak is a factor that, in my humble opinion, contributed in no small measure to people believing that everything was hunky-dory in the state of Denmark (or rather Aschheim). So much so, that many did not even start asking questions after the Financial Times put it right in front of their eyes black on white. Such is the power of the buzzword.

Why? Because these buzzwords become signals – just like the black turtleneck. Or expensive shoes,  a prestigious watch, a degree from a certain university, a corporate title, or whatever inspires trust in your world. If a message is filled with the right buzzwords, the recipients of the message are more inclined to believe that there is nothing to worry about. You find the Wirecard buzzwords in just about any Annual Financial Statements or other corporate communication of respectable companies. They signal reliability, integrity, etc..  So reading them is a bit like a ticking-the-box-exercise: once we have nodded in approval often enough before our mind’s eye, we nod off. We stop listening or reading deeply or asking questions. Complexity has been seemingly reduced, and our brains go to rest.

Let’s leave the realm of criminal relevance and look at the more mundane daily production of verbal hot air and its effects .

What’s the damage?

Uniform minds
Vapour Speak is at least conducive to if not instrumental in creating a uniformity of thinking. We do not only use language to express our thoughts and feelings, we also use it to form them.  Truly “agile” minds need a vast vocabulary of terms and concepts to be able to deal with the complexity of life, to think the hitherto unthinkable, the radically new. Vapour Speak does the exact opposite – it limits linguistic versatility and thus the humus of creative, unusual thought. Uniform minds don’t give you a competitive edge.

Numbed minds
Vapour speak also numbs minds. If you go back to the beginning of this piece, you will find that all these words are abstract concepts. There is no life force in abstract, strangely „disembodied“ terms that carry no emotional energy .  If you asked a child to draw “sustainability”, it would be lost. Things we cannot picture are things we cannot grasp. And things our hearts and brains cannot grasp will hardly energize us into decisive action.

Puzzled minds
Abstract concepts are a wide open invitation to something that is called „inference“. Bascially, it means that every recipient of a message comes up with her own interpretation and assumptions. This interpretation will then form the basis of her actions or inactions. Just think about team members who receive the same message but interpret it differently, act differently, and are then mightily suprised that they „were not on the same page“ and the project is running way behind schedule. Or imagine a Board member who is told by management that the problem of corruption/pollution/human rights violations etc. is being “addressed”. If she interprets the word „addressed“ as „will be solved and not happen again”and thus assumes – reasonably or unreasonably so – that she was appropriately informed, she will certainly see no necessity for any further action. If the speaker actually meant “we are buying bigger brooms and bigger carpets so we can sweep matters out of sight”, the company might end up in a pickle. Now, this can happen with all types of message, but it is less likely if people express themselves in such concrete terms that there is less room for interpretation.

All in all, these factors do not bode well for a happy and prosperous corporate future. Because in the long term, fogginess drains people of their energy. People wandering in a fog will not take courageous steps. Also, things that are not put in concrete terms hardly trigger any concrete responsibility.

Why do people use this lingo?

If Vapour Speak can have these effects, why do people use it? Let’s look at some of the reasons, though I doubt that most of this really happens consciously:

First and foremost, because everybody else does it. It’s a phenomenon that I have been observing for at least 10 years, if not more. In the meantime, it has become omnipresent – especially in the corporate world. Perhaps one of the strongest motivations of human beings is to belong. Vapour Speak helps you to do exactly that.  When you use that lingo, you immediately signal that you are part of the tribe. Also, you certainly gain popularity by not overusing the time and attention span of your colleagues and managers.  By using the known signal words in conversations, presentations or reports you make it easy for them to tick the boxes, nod, and carry on with their lives – or the next item on their overflowing “to do” list.

Also, Vapour Speak is easy to produce. In a complex world, it is a temporary tonic for our overloaded brains (even though it drains us in the long term). It’s basically a „no-brainer“ in every possible respect.  After a while, you can produce and internalize it like on auto-pilot. Have you noticed as well that people have come to speak incredibly fast? There have always been supersonic speakers. Nowadays though, presenting at speeds that are above the processing capacity of most mortals, seems to have become the norm rather than the exception. Unless you are one of the superbrains, who really can think and speak that fast, this is only possible if you use some sort of pre-fabricated macros you have repeated so often that you no longer need to think before spitting out sentences like: „the value proposition of our agile, valued-add plattform leverages our inclusive, purpose-driven transformation agenda that will mobilize a sustainable and diverse culture“. It’s a bit like an NLP-algorithm that plays dice with words.

Furthermore, you will not stand out and are on the safe side. If you push out the right signals with conviction at 180 beats per minute, it is unlikely that anyone will ask you what your „value proposition“ is about, what “mobilize” and “align” mean exactly, or what is actually diverse about a workforce, that uses the same approx. 1197.57 words to express itself. This is especially true in companies where the lingo of choice (usually English) is not your native language. In this case, you can take refuge in these buzzwords. Even if they do not allow you to express what you actually want to say, they are a safe haven. A necessary mechanism of self protection, if the company does not provided proper support for multilingualism.

What to do?

If you want to live in a company of independent minds that are wide awake, communicate clearly, and act with prudence and courage in order to keep the company buzzing with vitality, you might want to watch out for Vapour Speak. 

If it has already become widespread, the veil of Vapour Speak is difficult to pierce, because people have become so used to it. Still, let’s just look at a few general measures that could disperse the fog and keep it at bay:

Do something about the root causes
If people use Vapour Speak to be part of the tribe, feel safe or “reduce” complexity for their overburdened minds, you might want to find different ways to create a sense of belonging and security and to help them deal with complexity.

Make yourself and others aware of it
Firstly, if you are in a leadership position, try to avoid Vapour Speak yourself.  Not being immune to that lingo myself, I know that this requires a bit of effort. But it’s worth it. Because often, the buzzwords that the top brass feeds into the corporate stream of consciousness are the most widespread and sticky – because, who does not want to sound like the C-Suite? Then make your people aware  of it using the information channels and formats that best suit your firm.

Ask questions
No matter where you are in your company, make it a habit to let that hot air out of Vapour Speak by asking questions. Kindly, but persistently. Ask about the concrete substance of lofty terms or for real life examples, so that you can understand fully and do your job properly. Rest assured, you are usually not the only one who is puzzled, and others will be grateful for the intrepid mind that dares to ask the question.

Take your time
Whenever you are confronted with a suspicious accumulation of buzzwords and their accessories, slow down and take your time to try and really understand the meaning. But beware: working out your brain in all this hot air can be a sweaty and nerve-racking exercise. It might be helpful, though,  if you try translating a foggy sentence into your own words (i. e. the way you speak outside of the office) and/or into your native language. Go about it like a professional human translator – read the sentence, try to understand  what it really means, and then render it in your own words. If it still does not make sense – start asking questions.

And here’s a promise: Whatever you do to rediscover the beauty of meaningful language – the experience will be as enjoyable and nourishing as a beautiful, home-cooked meal.

© Sabine Breit

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