I was in the middle of a phone interview the other day, the second of the morning, when the candidate said something that pretty much made me stop taking notes and look at the clock to see how much time was left before I could safely say something polite like, “Well, I don’t want to keep you any longer.” In response to a question about tactics, he answered:
“Communication is key.”
He followed up this pronouncement with a longish pause, as though the weightiness of his comment demanded that we pause for a few moments to let it settle. It was 11:23 AM. I know because I looked at the clock immediately. He chattered a bit more about how communication is really key, and how he really, really meant that.
Maybe I’m being a bit hard on the guy (though there were some other shortcomings that already had him behind the eight ball), but that kind of throwaway language drives me crazy, particular coming from someone who aspires to take on a role as a key communicator.
Language is a pretty powerful tool, but not if you’re lazy in the way you use it. And while private, casual conversation is one thing, I think formal settings demand a bit more precision.
Of course, we all have pet phrases that we fall back on when the moment doesn’t lend itself to careful speech. My wife rolls her eyes (with good reason) whenever I say “The fact of the matter is…” and my whole life I’ve been perplexed by people who begin sentences with “Needless to say …” and then go on to say the thing that has no need to be said.
Business settings seem to be particularly fertile ground for this kind of thing. Marketing guru Seth Godin has compiled a list of business cliches if you want to start striking them from your lexicon.
At the end of the day as we’re going forward, are we really committed to adapting a mission critical attitude to our language? Are we really looking for a robust, scalable turn-key solution to a more impactful dialogue? How many times must we shift our paradigm, or think outside the box? (A former colleague of mine once managed to singlehandedly bring an entire meeting to a halt when he suggested – very earnestly – that we unpack our paradigm.)
Alarm bells start ringing in my head when I hear this kind of stuff, especially when it’s coming out of my own mouth. My fear is that these phrases aren’t getting to what really needs to be said or, worse, that they are deliberately obscuring what needs to be said. Maybe if we all agreed to be a little more careful when we speak, to tolerate a moment or two of thoughtful silence in the midst of our conversations, we’d all be better off.
I know I’d be gavel down with that.