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Managing Marketing: The Use Of Weasel Words In Business And Marketing

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Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by TrinityP3 Founder and Global CEO, Darren Woolley. Each podcast is a conversation with a thought-leader, professional or practitioner of marketing and communications on the issues, insights and opportunities in the marketing management category. Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals.

John Boyle is the Director of Mojo Logic and here he discusses with Darren some of the weasel words that have infiltrated business and marketing and how their use decreases the clarity and purpose of the communication. Collaboration, authenticity and more are all discussed and he shares the steps we need to take to make our communications more focused and powerful.

You can listen to the podcast here:

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Transcription:

Darren:

Welcome to Managing Marketing and today I get an opportunity to sit down with John Boyle who’s a Director at Mojologic, so welcome John.

John: 

Hello, Darren.

Darren: 

Look, one of the things that is always fascinating for me and I was a copywriter for fifteen years, and that’s the use of language and I think the term weasel word was from Paul Keating’s script writer, wasn’t it? What was his name?

John: 

Don Watson.

Darren: 

Don Watson, that’s it!

John: 

He was the man that made it popular but it actually, you can trace it back to Roman mythology.

Darren: 

Oh okay.

John: 

If you really want to get into it, I mean, whilst Hercules was being born apparently, the Goddess of childbirth was wanting to stop him from being born. No idea why. And the maid somehow tricked his mother to give birth so the Goddess of childbirth turned her into a weasel through the words from her mouth. So we think that that’s the case. And also attributed to Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth. So there’s…

Darren: 

So there’s historical precedent, it wasn’t Don’s invention.

John: 

It wasn’t his invention but he certainly popularised it and it was in the midst of time until he brought it alive and I think he’s done us a great service. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough people in the corporate world you know, pay heed.

Darren: 

Well and look, the reason I want to discuss language with you is I think the marketing and advertising industry is probably most creative when they come up with either new words or new interpretations and new uses for existing words that often largely become misleading or deceptive in their own right.

John: 

Yes.

Darren: 

Do you have a favourite that stands out for you?

John:

Oh look, I really don’t know where we’d start. I’ve got a number of examples that I’ll certainly come up with however I think it’s worthwhile looking at not so much the definition of weasel words but weasel words that are intentionally designed to deceive or obscure the truth and I think a lot of people use weasel words for buzz words. So I think it’s important to…

Darren:

Separate the two.

John:

Look and again, from Watson’s view it’s the corporate world that’s done that and he blames it on politicians and marketers. He thinks that they’re solely responsible for the death of public language in the insidious nature of weasel words.

Darren: 

Now I think one of this examples, and it’s quite graphic, is the term that the military use for collateral damage, you know, which is basically, “We killed innocent people” but just beautiful papers over that by saying, “Oh it’s just collateral damage”.

John: 

And the other euphemism that you might use for sacking someone, it’s become notorious hasn’t it where I am downsizing, rightsizing, I mean, they’re all horrendous sort of weasel words to make it sound as if it’s not such a horrendous thing to have to do.

Darren: 

To paper over the truth which is deceptive or misleading in its terms.

John: 

It is.

Darren: 

Look, one of the things that I’m particularly passionate about is the word, “collaboration”.

John: 

Ah yes.

Darren: 

And I think collaboration has actually completely lost all meaning in, especially marketing, because people talk about collaboration as yes, we work together, but often it means you’ll do what I tell you to.

John: 

Yes.

Darren: 

Which is not collaboration at all, is it?

John:

Look, exactly that and yes, if you speak to someone, they’ll believe that they’re collaborating as long as you’re complying with their request. So I think in leadership, many leaders will say to me, “Look, I don’t use my position of power. What I like to do is I like to use influence.” And I say, “Well that’s all very well but you’re still their boss and you still have the power to sack them.

So when you think they’re collaborating with you, just really look at the language and force yourself to think about the specifics and the semantics and often you find that we’re not as collaborative as we think we are”. The other word that I think is one of the most often used in business is win-win. You know, I mean, rarely do you see a true win. People were so competitive and particularly in the marketing field. I mean, what a great one, win-win, which means I win and you’re happy.

Darren: 

Yeah. You’ll put up with it because I’m in the position of power.

John:

That’s precisely it.

Darren: 

In fact, collaboration, there was a terrific white paper from The Economist Business Intelligence Unit which defined the difference between collaboration, cooperation and coordination.

John: 

Oh okay.

Darren: 

And I loved that because they actually defined what was required for each of those. But they’re not interchangeable. The collaboration only occurs where both parties make a contribution that both will receive a benefit from.

John: 

Yes.

Darren: 

That’s collaboration. Cooperation is where one party, both parties work together, but one will get the benefit and the other is providing input to the benefit. And coordination is where one or more parties will coordinate efforts to deliver a benefit to either one party or someone else.

John: 

Yep.

Darren: 

So it was a really good distinction and I think sometimes what we need with any of these words we’re going to talk about, is to get back to actually defining or distinguishing the words that we’re trying to use.

John: 

Look and that’s the challenge because we’re under more pressure than we’ve ever been. We’ve got less time than we’ve ever had and we don’t typically have the time to use the old weasel word, deep dive, to actually determine what we mean by that. And I was just thinking about what you were saying there about collaboration because that’s the only time that you can have a true win-win outcome.

With everything else you’re deluding yourself that you’ve got a true win where both parties get something from it. It doesn’t have to be an equal spread. People think that win-win is about sharing and touchy, feely. It’s not like that at all. It’s about both being realistic about what we can take from this communication whether it’s a deal, whether it’s about divvying up the pie, whatever it may be.

Darren: 

Well they used a particularly good example which is two automotive manufactures working on an engine technology that they would both use, that either one of them alone couldn’t actually crack the problem but together they could but both would then benefit from this technology.

John: 

Yes.

Darren: 

When you use it in marketing and you’re talking about a marketer collaborating in quotes, with their suppliers, in actual fact, the supplier is just providing the service and any benefit would be, they get paid to do it.

John: 

Yes.

Darren:

There is no actual benefit from the collaboration that they directly benefit from other than being paid the service.

John: 

Look and it requires trust.

Darren: 

Absolutely.

John: 

And there is some talk about collaborative competition. Can you have that? Perhaps you can.

Darren: 

I doubt it. Well, because the nature of the competition means that trust is often undermined.

John: 

Look, it can be, it can be. I suppose when you look at Apple and Microsoft eventually deciding to collaborate in various areas. Don’t know about the trust though.

Darren: 

Yeah. So leadership I know is a particular focus of the work that you do, John.

John: 

It is.

Darren:

But leadership itself has become a misleading and deceptive word.

John: 

It has. The term and the language of leadership can be a bit confusing. Common day language, it’s not really used every day. It’s not something we experience. We see it, we ascribe leadership to military leaders to political leaders, maybe even community leaders. But in the boardroom, we use that language but that’s not what we experience.

Darren: 

No.

John: 

I’ve introduced myself as your leader.

Darren: 

Take me to your leader.

John: 

Take me to the leader, exactly.

Darren: 

Or in politics it’s, “Lead me to your taker”.

John: 

Lead me to, yeah, probably. Yeah, more true. It started in the seventies and then moved into the eighties and then developed in the nineties, this whole concept of leadership, it’s a big beast now and whole HR departments and divisions have grown on the back of attracting leaders that are into talent management now and everything is about the leader of the future pathway to leadership.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not being cynical about the idea of leadership, it just, it gives a degree of complexity and difficulty because there is so much to get through when we’ve got a universal language that we don’t use every day.

Darren:

Because at a very simplistic view, a leader requires people to follow them, right? But it’s been redefined and reframed so that means things like a leader is someone that gets the best out of the people that are following them and so it becomes quite confusing, doesn’t it?

John: 

Well there’s different models and you get some companies subscribing to different models so the old-style heroic leader like Jack Welsh and some of the greats, Lee Iacocca, they were great heroic leaders so when they left it was really hard to replace them because they were such powerful individuals.

Darren: 

It leaves a vacuum.

John: 

It does leave a vacuum and even with great processes like six sigma which is probably a weasel word in its own right. And it becomes a challenge. So then at the other end of that we have servant leadership often associated with the Christian model. You know, apparently Christ was the greatest servant leader but servant leadership is something that’s very popular across the boardrooms at the moment.

You drive the idea that you’re in it together. So you become a servant leader and that requires a whole different language, a whole different philosophy.

Darren: 

So I think the fact that leadership has become such a big topic, you mentioned before that you Googled leadership, what was the result?

John: 

Well look again, Google gave forty-three billion hits on leadership.

Darren: 

Wow.

John: 

That goes from everything ranging from the great academic institutions where you can go and study leadership at the academic level and I think there’s a value to that, right the way through to organisations that can be set up by the ex-sales manager of a certain company as a leadership consultant and is now advising people on how to be a leader.

Now I’m not saying that person doesn’t have any value, but because of the restriction, the limited barriers to entry, wonderful digital technology, you know, somebody can set up today and be a leadership consultant with a wonderful website tomorrow.

Darren: 

Of course, the other area that leadership has become let’s say, debased is the term, “thought leader”.

John: 

Yes.

Darren: 

You know. And I love self-appointed thought leaders.

John: 

Yes.

Darren: 

You know, I’m a thought leader! It’s a bit like you said before “I’m your leader”, that sounds a bit pompous or that you’re a bit up yourself.

John: 

Yeah.

Darren: 

But you see this on LinkedIn and the like, people going, “I’m a thought leader”.

John: 

Yeah.

Darren: 

What do you think about that?

John: 

I think it’s a weasel word. I think it’s a classic weasel word and do I know what that means? I think we would agree that it is a thought leader in the technical field that you’re in? Are you a thought leader in processes and systems? Are you a thought leader, so, is a thought leader an expert? I don’t know. I mean, to me, why not use words that define what you do?

Darren: 

I think that it needs to be something that’s bestowed on someone from others but self-proclaimed is where you really are out there on the edge, lacking credibility.

John: 

Look I agree and I don’t know why I had a flashback, I don’t often remember too much about politicians but I think, well it was Julia Gillard who once she had taken the leadership said, “You will see a different Julia” and I think she regretted that and I think she looked back on that. So that’s a leader saying, “You will see something different in me”. And you’re right, those proclamations don’t bode well. I think what needs to happen is you demonstrate the behaviours of a leader and as a result, that’s then bestowed upon you. People will then see you as their leader.

Darren: 

What about another term that I love, when people talk about authentic brands.

John: 

Yes.

Darren: 

Or authenticity as an attribute. What’s your feeling about authenticity or perhaps we should start with a definition? Do you have a working definition for yourself?

John: 

Well look, my working definition of a person who’s being authentic is somebody who behaves in a way that they have said that they will behave.

Darren: 

Yeah.

John: 

So in accordance with their values. So these are my espoused values; honesty, fairness, integrity. A whole lot of really good potential weasel words, and then I behave in that way. And that is the authentic you. You go to pop culture and be yourself, be yourself girl, you know, all those clichés that come down and that’s what authentic means.

Darren: 

Yeah, my go-to definition is you are your word.

John: 

Yeah, that’s a nice way to put it.

Darren: 

You know, the things you say are the things you do. And that if at any point you are not authentic, then you have to re-establish your authenticity. It’s not something you have or don’t have, it’s a state that you know, everyone drifts in and out of at any particular time.

John: 

Look and it’s a challenge to be authentic because you as a leader will have pressures to deliver. If you’re in big organisations you’ve got shareholders, you’ve got share prices and if you’ve got a whole host of values that are stacked up there and that’s where I think the cynicism comes in, honesty and integrity, openness, the minute that you don’t behave in a way that represents some of those values, you are then immediately not authentic.

Darren: 

It’s funny how it has lost its meaning because I had a conversation once with a CEO of a very large company and he defined authenticity, because I asked what his go-to definition was, he said, “That’s making the tough decisions.”

John: 

Oh okay.

Darren: 

And I went, “No, that’s making the tough decisions. How do you see that as authenticity?”, “Because you’re being authentic to yourself making the touch decisions”. And I’m going, “I think you’ve conflated a number of different things there and ended up with that because it’s convenient. But it’s actually being your word.” I shared my definition which quite confused him.

John: 

Hmm, interesting. Because you exercised a skill that I think is valid where you listened and that’s what I think a lot of people don’t do, you know. You listened to his definition and you were able to reflect on that and that’s really one of the skills of leaders that they really under utilise.

Darren: 

What’s another term for you that really jumps out?

John: 

Well there’s a number of things that we’ve been looking at but the whole concept of ethics.

Darren: 

Oh yes! Well I’ll have to declare here that myself personally and TrinityP3 are members of the Ethics Alliance, part of the Ethics Centre here in Sydney.

John: 

Impressive. That’s Simon Longstaff.

Darren: 

Simon Longstaff is the CEO.

John: 

Isn’t it the only free hotline in the world where an individual can ring up with an ethical dilemma and get some advice?

Darren: 

It is.

John: 

What a marvelous opportunity to be able to do that.

Darren: 

Yeah. It’s a terrific organisation to belong to and have terrific discussions around the whole area of ethics. But it’s interesting how even ethics, the term itself, has become conflated with a whole lot of other things, or even bastardised to mean something completely different.

John: 

Yeah and look it’s not just for philosophers but you do need time. And what I tend to like about the Ethics Centre approach is that, from my understanding and you should know more than me about this seeing that you’re involved with them, is that they commit to needing a framework to be able to make ethical decisions and the framework that they offer is not a moral framework.

So even if you look at what happened over the previous years within schools, the idea that they were teaching ethics classes in the schools, somehow that became anti-religious and they were having ethics classes in replace of religion classes. Now that’s a conversation that’s just, I just find it almost impossible to believe how that was allowed to happen.

Should it be in replacing religion? Absolutely not. Should it be alongside religion? Absolutely yes!

Darren: 

Well because religion is a belief system whereas ethics is about considerations of the decisions and actions that you take and the impact that that has on others. And you’re right, in fact they’ve launched an ethical decision-making framework which allows people to go through a series of discussions and conversations to really consider an ethical problem or dilemma or decision from a multitude of different frameworks or perspectives to be able to make that decision. But where have you seen ethics used in a way that’s particularly misleading?

John: 

Just look what’s been happening with the banks recently. I wrote a couple of quotes and I kept them all to quote so here’s an example, here’s an example of weasel words infiltrating banking or any other business.

So, this was 2016, so maybe it’s pressing, “So clearly there’ve been some negative stories about various players in the industry and that’s really unfortunate because it does damage people’s trust in the community”. Now that’s from the CEO of one of the biggest, big four, “some negative stories”.

Now this is when the Australian Bankers Association Chief talks about “Legitimate concerns and inappropriate behaviour”. So this is how it transpired, “The industry knows that ensuring the integrity of the banking system is vital for all participants including customers and banks themselves. Banks support the core of the economy and highly value their social licence to operate. Banks will continue to work with regulators to address any legitimate concerns with inappropriate behaviour or misconduct.”

You know, so banks have shown in the past that they will act when they’re made aware of behaviour contrary to their values and codes of conduct. I mean, Don Watson would say that is just full of absolute weasel words. The whole thing.

Darren: 

Absolutely.

John: 

You know and again, look, it’s one of those ones you just rest your case but every walk of life, even in the less insidious areas, how many vision statements and mission statements do you read that are full of weasel words? Marketing statements. I mean, marketing briefs.

Darren: 

Yeah.

John: 

There was a movement a few years ago that I called the “Plain English Movement” and I know legal firms tried and that’s a little bit of an irony in its own right and I’ve consistently tried and people I work with, just sometimes find it nauseatingly painful that I can’t help reading something.

Now I’m not a writer, but what I’m able to do is to say, “There’s forty words there, twenty of them are just padding. What are you saying?” And so I’m constantly pushing people and my kids actually like me for it now that they’ve grown up but it’s one of those areas. It’s not grammar, it’s not punctuation which I do have a penchant for as well but I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of that. But weasel words, I find myself using them. It’s just part of everyday life. It’s corporate speak and you’ve got to be vigilant.

Darren:

Do you think part of it is in some ways, the whole move towards political correctness can have people avoiding what they truly want to say, because of the fear of upsetting or offending someone so they rely on weasel words as a way of softening the blow? As well as the use of them to actually just purely mislead people?

John: 

Yeah look, even the term, ‘political correctness’, that’s a semantically loaded term so the fact that we’ve even used that term, we’re immediately into a discussion around…

Darren:

Yeah, because what’s the opposite? Politically incorrectness.

John: 

Exactly! And people jump on the bandwagon so what terminology do we talk about? They love getting on there and they talk about political correctness. I think Jordan Peterson at the moment, he’s got a lot of fans that he doesn’t want and I think when you actually look at his theories at the most basic level and don’t make any judgements, he’s talking about the language of the left, he’s talking about not wanting language and public language imposed upon him.

And of course he now becomes a flag carrier for anti-political correctness so, so it’s hard not to digress. So you come back from that political correctness and I think you’re absolutely right. For whatever reason, I think we’re concerned about offending people and if we’re concerned about offending people, we use passive language.

Passive language is what weasel words are all about and you’re a writer and even I’m amazed that I’ve worked with quite well-educated people and I’ll often say to them, “Look, that’s a really nice piece of script there or whatever, just make the language a bit more active and less passive”. And they typically don’t know what you mean. You have to explain what active language is as opposed to passive language.

Darren: 

Because I know Stephen Fry is a big anti-political correctness advocate.

John: 

He is.

Darren: 

He believes that public discourse has suffered because people are so worried about offending that they actually stop communicating because they obscure the true meaning that we cannot have the conversations that we need to have because these words get in the way of truly communicating.

John: 

Agreed. And look, I don’t think you could get anybody smarter, he’s got a brain the size of a planet, he’s an incredibly inclusive human being and I think it’s positive that you get somebody like Stephen Fry you know, waving that banner to talk about the downside of that.

Another great one, sadly he’s passed now, is Christopher Hitchens. And he was a great provocateur and had many, many discussions on religion, on political correctness. Sometimes you could see he was just really getting in there to play devil’s advocate but I think we need to have this discussion around it. And I think that’s what weasel words do infiltrate.

Darren: 

Do you think it’s particularly evident in marketing because there is a need of not just marketing, but advertising, when you’re selling or positioning your product to the consumer, there’s a certain level of, I know legally they call it puffery.

John: 

Yes, yes.

Darren: 

There’s some hyperbole, there’s some you know, fluff, that comes with the way you communicate that beyond the advertising itself has become part of the industry as well.

John: 

Well look, I think you’ve got that there’s more than two elements to that. But what the outcome or the product is one thing and you’re absolutely right, there’s a challenge. But you go to the inner workings of a marketing department and everything that is displayed in the communication is displayed in the everyday life. We need to be innovative. What does innovative mean? And there’s all sorts of weasel words around innovation. So it’s with us every single day and we just need to be mindful.

Darren: 

Creativity.

John: 

Look exactly, exactly the same. So how would you define innovation? To me, innovation is applied creativity so I think there’s lots of creative people who have wonderful ideas and that’s great, artists etcetera, they’re not really looking at applying that but it’s not innovative unless it’s found a purpose and that purpose is productive.

So again, you sit down and there is no agreed definition of all the language around innovation and marketing so you can go from one division to another. From one company to another and you are consistently revisiting and consistently putting out mixed messages.

Darren: 

I was a copywriter, creative director for fifteen years and I look back on that and the audacity of actually working in the creative department because you would say from an industrial point of view, that means that that’s where creativity exists. Does that mean that nowhere else within the organisation that creativity occurs?

John: 

I know, it’s interesting. There was, it may have been Bryce Courtenay or one of his genre because he was an ex copywriter and turned up to work one day and it said, “Creative Department”, and he thought that was really interesting because he thought everybody was meant to be creative.

Does that mean that nobody else, that anybody that doesn’t go through that door can’t be creative? But I think that the challenge is, and there was a Harvard Business Review article not too long ago that looked at the challenge of innovation in creativity and usually there’s a lack of analysis and statistical data. And these great researchers found that if there’s a lack of it, we will resort to three linguistic modes; one is we use metaphor, hyperbole, and revision as rhetoric which I love that word.

Darren: 

Revision as rhetoric.

John: 

I mean I think that could be a weasel words in its own right. But I mean, an example of that, the product was part of a natural evolution or an intriguing concept but failed to create a true revolution in consumer behaviour.

Darren: 

It failed.

John: 

It failed. It, exactly that. So and again…

Darren:

Was that revision as rhetoric?

John: 

That was revision as rhetoric.

Darren: 

I love it.

John: 

You know and metaphors I think can be valuable, but they’re hackneyed and the trouble with metaphors is we rely on really old metaphors. Metaphors are at their best when we choose a metaphor that is relevant, it doesn’t have to be brand new but it’s relevant and so many metaphors just aren’t relevant and they get mixed. No more so than when you see our sporting heroes interviewed but we won’t come into that.

Darren:

Well a sport obviously is big for metaphors but do you have a metaphor that gets used a lot?

John: 

Oh god.

Darren: 

But particularly, because I’ll share with you, it’s the burning platform.

John: 

Yes of course.

Darren: 

You know, for me, the burning platform, there it is, there’s the platform burning. Are you going to jump or are you all going to burn to death?

John: 

I never metaphor I didn’t like, you know. And there’s actually a book titled that and I found it in the second-hand bookshop in Adelaide.I think it’s the hackneyed ones, the metaphors around sport I think can be a bit destructive. Look, I’m an ex rugby player so I love being in the heated battle and in my younger days, I loved that. But unfortunately those metaphors are all about win/lose outcomes so if I win a game, you know you’ve lost and vice versa. So when we bring those metaphors into business, the challenge, is…

Darren: 

It becomes win/lose.

John: 

And we don’t collaborate. So you don’t collaborate on a pitch and that’s good. I love the idea of sport whether it’s tennis, hockey, it doesn’t matter.

Darren: 

Well marketing is full of war and military metaphors; target audiences, campaigns, mounting campaigns.

John: 

Exactly that.

Darren:

If you took it literally, the role of marketing is to declare war against your customers and mount a campaign having targeted the ones that you’re going to take out and basically conquer them.

John: 

Well exactly that and that flies in the face of customer centricity.

Darren: 

Oh no, they know who they are and they’re going to get them.

John: 

Well maybe we are digressing but I often ask particularly when I’m dealing with companies that I would call marketing driven companies rather than sales driven businesses. And marketing driven companies, a company like Sony probably, but I ask them and I consciously don’t interrupt and sometimes a very senior player, not necessarily a marketer, they’ll talk for ten minutes or so and I’ll hear about the product or hear about the supply chain and then after a while I’ll say, “Well what about your customer?” And they’ll go, “Oh yeah, of course, we’ve got our customer”.

And these are companies that espouse being customer centric. And when you talk to them, they don’t mention their customer unless you probe them. That’s interesting.

Darren: 

Well look, that’s great because it leads me to my next particular bug bear and that’s the word, “Strategy”.

John: 

Oh strategy.

Darren: 

Everything is a strategy you know? You’ve got a social media strategy; you’ve got your activation strategy. Your media strategy, your channel strategy, your comms strategy, your marketing strategy, your digital strategy. Everything’s a strategy.

John: 

Look it is and again, going back to days in the agency world, I can remember having full on discussions about, “Let’s define strategy”, and often it would be Winston Churchill’s definition, you know, the strategy is to have an impact upon the masses to make them feel downtrodden and depressed, etcetera. So that’s a strategy.

And what’s the tactic? Well your bomb. Your broad bomb. Now again, that’s another example, it’s a war metaphor and that was the one that people seemed to get. So constantly, you’re absolutely right that the word ‘strategy’ potentially is a weasel word because people will say even when you’re talking, “What’s our strategy?” What they’re asking for is a plan.

Darren: 

Well the book, “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy”, I think for me has given me my working definition which is coming up with a solution that best deploys the resources available to me; money, time, whatever that is, to deliver the solution by telling me also, or informing me of all the things that I shouldn’t do.

John: 

Yes.

Darren: 

So good strategy doesn’t just say, “Here’s the plan”, or “Here’s the solution”, it also tells me, “Don’t waste my valuable resources on doing all these other things”. The thing that bugs me is that as soon as you put the word strategy with a particular focus. So you know, like social media strategy. I say to clients all the time, “If you’re talking to a social media strategist, tell me the one that is not recommending social media.”

John: 

Yes.

Darren: 

Right? Because really, it should be social media salesperson. Because by calling themselves a strategist, they’re really not giving you a strategy, they’ve got a particular channel that they’re going to advise you to use.

John: 

Yes.

Darren: 

Whereas great strategy would actually say, “Don’t use this”, and I’ve yet to meet a specialist strategist that is not recommending their channel.

John:

Yeah, well they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Darren: 

But I also think there’s something about strategy that makes people feel that they’re more important.

John: 

Oh look, it’s one of those words that you do feel more important and you do feel more intelligent and that’s where the area of strategy probably has as many weasel words as you can find. I mean, you think of things like global reach, changing paradigms, paradigm shift, you know, all of those words that we use every day which may or may not mean the same thing.

So it’s full of it and what was it somebody said to me? “We’ve got a statement of strategic intent”. And I said, “Well that sounds good. What is that? Is that your strategy?” “Yeah, that’s our strategy”. But to say it’s a statement of strategic intent, that sounds a bit smarter.

Darren: 

Yeah. Yeah, it’s actually, well, no, we’ve got an intention to do something.

John: 

Exactly.

Darren: 

And that is to get a strategy.

John: 

We haven’t got it agreed yet. And look, and that’s the problem, isn’t it? I won’t go into the strategy because it would be too obvious but it was full of it. It was full of it.

Darren: 

Exactly. In fact, the other thing about great strategy is that it is incredibly simple to articulate because it is quite focused in the way that it points to the solution and so when I hear about strategy decks that are you know, two hundred pages of analysis, that may be the inputs into the strategy, but the strategy should be articulated in one page.

John: 

Look and the challenge as well is that some of the best operators I’ve worked with have really taken that one page to one sentence. And can you almost take that to a couple of words? And that doesn’t mean to say that will be your communication, but if you can distill that in its simplest form, that’s when you have the essence. That’s when you have focus. And that’s when it’s easier to lead.

Darren: 

John, we’ve just scratched the surface.

John: 

We have.

Darren: 

And yet I’ve noticed we’re running out of time so, look, you know, is there something that you would, some advice that you could give people about how to avoid the weasel words and really focus on how we become more effective communicators?

John: 

Well look, first of all, it’s awareness, so if somebody asks you a question, and you say, “I haven’t had any visibility on that”, you know, what you’re saying is, “I don’t know”, right?

Darren: 

Yeah.

John: 

Or, “It’s a principle we’ll be cascading throughout the company”. So again, just be mindful, be aware of when passive language is being used, when you feel that people are deliberately avoiding an answer and you’ve got to watch the politicians every night. And in an appropriate way, challenge them on that and go back and say, “Look, what do you mean by that? What’s behind that?”

So often people that make a statement and if you can build rapport and trust and start to ask challenging questions, “You’ve said that, but what’s behind that statement?” So first of all, it’s awareness. Look, and also, I think it takes time and people I think need to be spending a bit more time thinking about how they can write more effectively. And you know, to make things more simple.

And I would suggest that, and you can do this now, you can go online, more and more people are doing that, a writing course will help you but at the same time, that might translate perhaps into the way that you speak.

Darren: 

Yeah.

John: 

So it’s tough and it’s a leader’s role to do this. It’s hard for you to do this from the bottom or even the middle, but I would put the challenge out there to leaders to make a commitment to try and get rid of weasel words. Be authentic.

Darren:

Yes.

John: 

Be yourself.

Darren: 

Have integrity.

John: 

Have integrity. And everything that we’ve spoken about.

Darren:

Live your value statement.

John: 

All of those and the danger is, you find yourself getting into those cliché weasel words statements. So everything we’ve spoken about on the surface is fairly straight forward. But when you drill down, there’s a real complexity and mine field of semantically loaded words and it, I think it can take a commitment. I mean, it’s taken us maybe forty years to develop this and the challenge is…

Darren: 

Weaning ourselves off it.

John: 

We’re weaning ourselves off it but I mean, a creative director that I worked with for many years who shall remain nameless said that, “If a problem continues to exist, it’s suiting somebody somewhere”.

Darren: 

Yes.

John: 

You know.

Darren: 

True.

John: 

And that was always the case and I think people don’t even see it as a problem. Maybe to finish, I heard somebody say, “Oh, they’re drinking the Kool Aid”. So drinking the Kool Aid was meant to be a good thing and I said, “Well hang on a minute, didn’t the people that…

Darren:

Jonestown.

John: 

Jonestown, didn’t the people that drink the Kool Aid…

Darren:

They drank the Kool Aid.

John: 

They died. So you’ve gone from be wary of drinking the Kool Aid which is why I think it first came in and now there’s a whole generation of people who think, “Oh yeah, we were there, we drank the Kool Aid so we’re now imbibed with the brand”.

Darren: 

That’s interesting because I actually always took drinking the Kool Aid meaning you believed this so much, you’re willing to drink the Kool Aid, even if it kills you.

John: 

Oh look, it could be. There you go. So there’s another.

Darren: 

So that was my interpretation of that.

John: 

It could very well be it.

Darren: 

Look, before we finish up, I just want to thank everyone that responded on LinkedIn with weasel words that they wanted us to discuss but one last question and that is, of all of the active leaders and people in our society, which one do you think is the biggest weasel?

 

Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals, Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by Darren Woolley. Find all the episodes here

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Darren is considered a thought leader on all aspects of marketing management. A Problem Solver, Negotiator, Founder & Global CEO of TrinityP3 - Marketing Management Consultants, founding member of the Marketing FIRST Forum and Author. He is also a Past-Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute, Ex-Medical Scientist and Ex-Creative Director. And in his spare time he sleeps. Darren's Bio Here Email: darren@trinityp3.com

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