How to speak normally in a world of cliches

There’s an intriguing discrepancy between how many executives speak to their friends over drinks and how they make a presentation
Don’t talk in the way you think you should, says Elena Shalneva. Clear facts and your own voice are far more powerful.
Having spent my career reading and listening to corporate presentations, I do not cease to be amused by how little genuine thought many of them contain. I am also intrigued by the discrepancy between how clearly and succinctly people in business write and speak in normal circumstances – and how they feel compelled to communicate in buzzwords and elaborate clichés the moment they switch to corporate mode.
In a management meeting, a chief executive would talk about the need to develop a new employee share scheme. Presenting the same idea to investors, he or she would argue that the business needs to “ensure the linkage and connectivity of executive performance and remuneration strategy and structure”. With colleagues, one would discuss selling non-core businesses and integrating acquisitions. In a formal presentation, this message turns into “re-aligning and synthesising the business’s portfolio”. A strategy to sell more products to existing customers and attract new ones is officially articulated as “enhancing customer acquisition and penetration capabilities”, whereas the need to reduce costs and improve decision-making is expressed as “enhancing efficiencies and value creation”.

WHO ARE WE?

This problem goes much further. Looking at the “About us” sections on professional services firms’ websites, it is often impossible to say what kind of business these companies are in. Management consultancies, PR firms, recruitment agencies, law firms, they all declare that they are “market leaders”, “have extensive experience and expertise”, “understand their clients’ needs”, “execute seamlessly”, “create value”, are often “unrivalled”, sometimes “unique” and, naturally, employ “the best professionals in the business”.
Those few companies that step away from clichés and try to convey the same messages in a factual way achieve a far more powerful effect. Describing its partners, a top executive search firm writes that all of them have a post-graduate degree, at least ten years’ industry experience, proficiency in several foreign languages, and experience of working abroad. To me, they sound like the best professionals indeed.
A management consultancy says that most of its consultants spend their entire careers with the firm – a credible way of demonstrating the calibre of its working environment. And to claim its place at the top, a law firm offers an impressive list of its rankings in legal directories and the awards it has won, without once resorting to calling itself “leading” or “pre-eminent”.

DELIGHTFULLY CLEAR

Many financial press releases bear a remarkable resemblance to each other. “Company X is delighted to acquire company Y and looks forward to working together for the benefit of everyone concerned” is a typical chief executive quote in an acquisition press release. Chief executives seem to be delighted with many things these days: financial results, new products, new hires, buying firms, selling firms, entering a market, leaving a market. Most chief executives I have met, however, are not of a type to be easily delighted. Rather, they would have a clear idea of why they are doing a deal or making a new hire, and could explain it clearly and succinctly, as if talking to a friend over drinks. Why not write their press statements in the same way?
While writing corporate banalities is fairly easy, presenting them is excruciatingly difficult and, unless you are a trained actor, you will appear nervous or bored. If you don’t believe me, try saying “synthesise strategic direction and align operating efficiencies” and look engaged.
A chief executive preparing for an investor presentation once told me that his biggest issue – among all the advice he had received about how to describe his business – was how to find his own voice. I believe that this is the key to writing and speaking well: not presenting in the way that you think you should, but deciding what you want to say, saying it in your own way, and being comfortable with every sentence. The chances are that the resulting presentation will be convincing, powerful and inspired.
Elena Shalneva is a communications consultant and non-executive director.

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