Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mantra overload (5)

David J. Brailer, chairman of Health Evolution Partners, is a former politician. Like most politicians, he speaks in mantras. Here are a few examples from an interview that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on March 23, 2009.

(Boldface added.)

“The reason we avoided federal spending on this is once the federal government weighs in…”

What does he mean by “weigh in”? We assume he means it metaphorically, not literally, because the federal government is not a boxer, a jockey, or a greyhound. By the metaphorical “weigh in,” does Mr. Brailer mean “to announce an intention”? Or “to enter a contest”? Or something else? Why doesn’t he just say what he means, instead of forcing his listeners and readers to guess?

“… make it almost impossible for investors to make money in the long run in this space.”

What does he mean by “space”? For example, does he mean a market, a market segment, an industry, or an industry segment? Or something else?

“I think it completely changes the health IT market to much more of a government-driven marketplace…. We’re investing in an alternative economy in health care… and the financial crisis, the stimulus bill and the health reform language are incredibly powerful drivers of that alternative health care economy, just like high oil prices drove wind and solar… I think health care cost pressure is so bad that it only goes one way, which is really towards driving new solutions.”

What does he mean by “drive?” For example, does he mean attract, control, create, cue, decrease, determine, elicit, enable, encourage, engender, expand, generate, govern, guide, incite, increase, limit, manage, occasion, operate, produce, promote, prompt, run, steer or stimulate? Or something else? Other mantra-fanciers have used “drive” in all these senses. They chose the vague “drive” because they were too lazy, ignorant or evasive to say precisely what they meant.

Mr. Brailer is also fond of the mantra “kind of” – a hedging phrase that can make a senior manager sound uncertain, flippant or evasive:

“We kind of set the overall price tag as $100 billion…”

Using the phrase “kind of” while talking about 100 billion dollars sounds childishly flippant. It has an adolescent tone of “whatever” about it.

A senior manager should be deliberate. If he intends to hedge, he should hedge. And he should do it conspicuously, like a grown-up: “We set the overall price at, approximately, $100 billion…”

And if a senior manager doesn’t intend to hedge, he should avoid using childish, timid hedges such as “kind of,” “sort of” and “pretty much.”

Am I being too critical?

If you think I am being too critical of Mr. Brailer, consider this: Mr. Brailer earned an M.D. and a Wharton Ph.D. – he’s not an uneducated laborer or a used-car salesman.*

Also consider this: Senior managers of prominent companies usually undergo intensive “media training” to cure them of sloppy diction. Why do senior managers endure this tedious (and sometimes humiliating) training? Because they know, or at least suspect, that the world outside the company’s walls is more judgmental than the cozy inside world of callow underlings.

Senior managers know that the dreaded outside world is populated by serious adults: investors, bankers, analysts, reporters and customers. These people want information, and they want it straight. Many of these people are astute and skeptical; they will ruthlessly dissect a senior manager’s diction, word by word, looking for exaggerations, evasions and lies.

In other words, senior managers who need to venture outside the company walls and speak to serious adults need to learn how to speak like serious adults. That’s why they endure the tedium of media training.

And I can tell you this, having been both a media trainer and a reporter: Reporters generally assume that senior managers have been media-trained. So, when an intelligent reporter hears sloppy diction, he does not assume that the speaker is ill-trained or careless. He assumes that the speaker is being (at best) intentionally rude or (at worst) evasive or dishonest. That’s when – and why – the reporter begins to dig deeper.

When it comes to diction, every senior manager is free to choose: He can present himself as a child or as a serious adult. But he can’t do both at once.

The Takeaway: Think consciously about the words you utter and write. Especially when editing, keep asking yourself, “What do I really mean?” Over time, this diligent habit will make your writing increasingly precise and accurate. It never fails to do so.

*I am not picking on Mr. Brailer; I am merely using his interview as an illustrative example of a widespread behavior. Mr. Brailer is one among hundreds of senior executives who are acquiring similar sloppy habits. The purpose of this educational blog is to show and explain examples of clear and unclear writing and speech.


  1. Hi Joe

    I appreciate the call to more concise communication among business professionals. What time we could save if more effort went into conveying clear messages rather than all the posturing and double speak that pervades our culture today.

    I will grant that this becomes more difficult with the written word because we don't have the benefit of gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, etc to help us clarify meaning. When writing we won't always know our audience either, nor how extensive their vocabulary. Nonetheless, I agree with you that business professionals should know their audience well and choose their words much more carefully if they expect to be taken seriously and if their desire is for real and lasting impact. In a world of global commerce and a limping educational system, one would be wise not to assume a thing about anybody when forming a message of importance.


    Don F Perkins

  2. The business lexicon is created by men and women -- in other words, by the same people who create and respond to the current social gestalt. Every item you pointed out is about Mr. Brailer showing that he's aware that he participates in society and business. He's using of-the moment terms that are widely understood in business.

    For example, "kind of" is a humility qualifier that's borrowed from casual language. It signals to the reader that Mr. Brailer is socially-aware enough to avoid presenting himself as arrogant. It's also accurate, in the example you cited: it's impossible for a number of $100 billion to be an accurate projection when there are so many unknowns feeding the situation he's discussing. To say approximately $100 billion, or roughly $100 billion, signals a level of exactness that Mr. Bailer is unwilling to offer to his audience.

    "Drive" isn't a mantra word. It's an expressive borrowing of a verb that conveys, to those involved in the situations in which it's used, a real dynamic that has a particular flavor and force.

    "Weighs in" is also an expressive borrowing. The government is multi-ton gorilla that can't help but throw its weight around and tip boats, to mix metaphors, in any situation it becomes consistently involved in.

    Where you see sloppiness, I see sprinklings of socially-driven (yup) expressive language, which adds color and meaning to the speaker's or writer's presentation.

    Brailer was writing for people who are knowledgeable about the situation he was discussing. No one familiar with the healthcare industry and government's present role in it would be confused by the texts you quoted.

    Business in general is a huge complexity with tall, narrow vertical channels that are laterally partially-interconnected. Every business segment has its own issues and develops its own lexicon.

    Business lexicons change over time. Outdated lexical terms cause greater losses of credibility and clarity than new terms. Outdated terms signal that the speaker / writer is out of touch. Outdated terms convey too little about the real present forces that affect a business modality.

    New terms almost always arise as borrowings from the general social lexicon, and have a present validity that ties business to its roots -- society.

    Since email, chat and texting became widely accepted, social media communication has been affecting all styles of communication. Not only is casual language more acceptable than it used to be in business situations -- right now, it's preferable, to many listeners and readers.

    Brailer is not a senior manager. He was a senior executive. There is a difference. Managers are expected to produce results in response to directives that issue from the executive decision-making process. The executive decision-making process involves leadership, theories and projections, and a good awareness of (and often an involvement with) the political processes that are affecting, or will affect, a business. Executives must handle many more intangibles and evolving forces than managers are required to. Brailer's style is an executive style, and honestly expresses the presence of the intangibles that executives must ride, like wild horses, to try to lead businesses to acceptable results.

    Through my work in IT, I've been exposed to a number of different business modalities. One of the businesses I have some familiarity with is healthcare. Mr. Brailer's text snippets are clear to me, because I have some knowledge of the business he's speaking about and to, and I understand the forces in play right now. To someone familiar with the healthcare industry's current situation, Brailer's lexical choices are apt and informative about his state of mind, his knowledge of the industry, and his sense of what's going on now that shape the future of the healthcare industry.