Vapor-speak and Vaporware

vaporDoes anyone remember Vaporware?

The nineteen-eighties were like the Wild West in software development. Small companies sprouted like crabgrass, each promising an amazing new product. Many of these startups didn’t last long. Maybe it was because they sold Vaporware.

Vaporware was an idea or a half-developed program that didn’t exist yet. Some entrepreneur scraped together a little capital, formed a software company, and hired a few sales reps. They created ads with pictures of (empty)  5-1/4-inch floppy disks bearing the company logo, next to a computer.

The programmer, often the business owner’s kid, was still trying to figure out how to make the program work. It was not a scam … they just overestimated their own skill and underestimated the development time. But the company boldly sold the product with a promise of “thirty to sixty days” to delivery. Usually, after about ninety days of the same story, the customers wised up, the sales evaporated, and so did the company.

Why would anyone fall for that? It was an unsophisticated time. Interactive processing was new, no one had personal computers yet, and there was no such thing as the Internet. No Microsoft, not even graphical user interfaces. This new thing called software promised small businesses a way to be more modern and efficient. They couldn’t see it, they didn’t understand it, but they wanted it. Sellers learned to talk about their phantom products without committing to specific features or delivery dates.

People today are more savvy and they don’t buy Vaporware anymore, but the techniques we used to sell it are still around. They have just morphed into Sales and Marketing Vapor-speak. It sounds trendy, but if you use Vapor-speak, it can suggest that you’re being dishonest or trying to hide something. Here are some of the major offenders:

It’s all about

With X product, it’s all about delivering customer service and improving your return on investment.

What, exactly, is it? Are we referring to promised benefits here? Are you saying the product delivers them? All about doesn’t promise anything. If I were a potential customer, I’d be all about shopping elsewhere.

Around

Product X addresses issues around security, audit trails, and data storage.

Issues around these items? Does that mean problems inherent in them? Directly concerning them? Peripherally related to them? If you can’t be clearer than that, I wonder if you understand your product.

Ecosystem

Our goal for the coming year is to improve the business process ecosystem.

Unless you’re talking about all the water, air, soil, plants, and living organisms in a defined physical space, you’re hijacking a word and using it where it doesn’t belong. Is it a department, a market, an industry? In a business sense, ecosystem is so vague it means nothing at all.

Retail businesses could not get away with Vapor-speak. Just imagine you were buying tires for your car. You ask the dealer, “Are they safe and do they come with a guarantee?” How would you feel about this response:

In our business, we’re all about the tires. Our tires focus on questions around tread wear and traction, and we guarantee that we’re part of the automobile safety ecosystem.

You might ask if they accept Vapor-cash …

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗  Dear readers  ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

amazon coverThe spirit of this blog is now captured in a book: From the Errors of Others, available online at these links:

Amazon.com

Barnes and Noble

Archway Bookstore

Richard Nordquist, Grammar and Composition expert for About.com, says:

From the Errors of Others is a refreshing alternative to those heavy handbooks we never opened in school…. Imagine that: a smart book about writing and speaking effectively that people will actually enjoy reading.”

Because or despite?

long scary nails2Ah, the power of ego. It can make people do (and think) outrageous things in business.

Consider the blowhard who brags about his success, attributing it to some off-the-wall notion that runs contrary to conventional wisdom … precisely because it runs contrary to conventional wisdom. It’s not an expression of creativity, but rather a misguided assignment of cause and effect. The idea that the presence of two factors assumes one to be the result of the other.

For example:

“I’m CEO of a bussiness. I’m richer than you cuz I don’t waist time on writing and that kind of nonsence.”

The CEO’s success might be well earned, a result of good business instincts, wise decisions, great support staff, favorable economic conditions, a niche product, or inherited wealth—despite the poor communication skills. If success were the result of ignorant writing and speech, we would be a country of zillionaires. Just in case, I recommend being aware of (and always trying to improve) your communication skills. It might not be a guarantee of success, but it won’t hurt.

Remember an NBA player, back in the eighties and nineties, named Spud Webb? At five feet seven (that’s right – five, not six), he had a staggering 42-inch vertical leap. In 1986 he won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Webb’s accomplishments were impressive despite his height, not because of it. Coaches did not immediately start to recruit the shortest players they could find, because no one else was Spud Webb.

My favorite real-life example of because vs. despite confusion comes from a small company where I once worked. We needed a new receptionist/typist. Our know-it-all business owner had previously worked with a secretary who had long fingernails. They extended perhaps a quarter-inch beyond her fingertips. She was also professional, personable, intelligent, and she somehow typed accurately despite the long-ish nails. But she was so good at her job that Mr. Big inexplicably equated her success with having long fingernails. Apparently the longer, the better—like Samson’s hair. And how clever of him to discover it!

When the interviews for our receptionist/typist position began, one candidate stood out from the rest. Not because of her skills, but because of her nails. They were at least two inches beyond her fingertips. They curved downward and were painted in neon colors. One nail sported multicolored stripes, two glued-on googly eyes, and a tuft of fur. It was, she explained, “Toucan Sam from the cereal commercial.” The office was abuzz with whispered questions: How does she button a coat? Eat French fries? Brush her teeth? How does she … oh dear.

But The Boss was so enchanted that he hired her – on the spot – without a typing test, a spelling test, or any other objective measure of her suitability for the job. Because he alone knew the secret to finding a good receptionist/typist.

Guess how that worked out.

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English-to-English translation

translate2Let’s pretend for a minute that everyone in your company speaks the same kind of flawless English.

No one is from a different part of the country, no one is from England or Canada or Australia. You take great care to write clearly, in a way that everyone understands.

News flash: Someone is going to misunderstand.

American business is infected, not only with strange idioms, but also with the idiomatic use of common words. As a result, even native English speakers interpret them differently. Now add the complexity (and reality) of regional idioms and cultural references, second- and third-language English speakers, and it’s no wonder we don’t understand each other.

In this example, the italicized words (many of which you probably use all the time) are potentially ambiguous:

While our budgets are set, we may not count this spend until next quarter, as all factors have not been considered. Since policy review has begun, leverage existing guidelines until further notice. Should you have any questions, contact your manager.

Here’s why they are problematic, and what you can say instead:

  • While can imply a time relationship – during or simultaneously. In this sentence, it means although.
  • May can imply permission. In this sentence, it means a condition or possibility. Use might.
  • Spend is a verb. This trendy biz-speak use of it as a noun is tiresome. Say cost or expenditure.
  • As can imply a comparison or time relationship – like, or at the same time. In this sentence it means because.
  • Since can imply in the intervening time. In this sentence it means because.
  • Leverage means to use borrowed capital for an investment, expecting profits made to be greater than the interest. Another trendy idiom that simply means use.
  • Should implies obligation or correctness. In this case, it means if.

Most of these are not grammatical mistakes. Some of them are listed in dictionaries as acceptable, though not preferred. The problem is the connotations they carry and how people interpret them.

So, even if your company is not multi-national and all of your customers or employees have lived their entire lives within a fifty-mile radius, remember how easy it is to confuse each other.

Maybe translation software needs a category called Business English to Real English.

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Hear it spoken

hearitspokenTelevision reporters probably don’t get the luxury of rehearsing what they read on the teleprompter, and I suppose it’s inevitable that an unfamiliar word will pop up. Still, one has to wonder where some reporters went to school and how they’ve avoided learning to pronounce relatively common words.

Here are three on-air missteps I’ve seen in just the past month:

Police found a “cash-AY” of weapons in the apartment…

The word on the screen was most likely cache, (pronounced CASH, with no accent mark), which means a hidden supply or reserve. If the reporter read cache and thought cachet, meaning stature or prestige, she should have known the word did not fit the story.

It’s hard to imagine that a communications professional would not know this one, but I also heard a young reporter read:

The effects are “SUB-tull” but researchers are hopeful that…

Subtle? I know there is a Slippery Rock University, but this one must have graduated from Under a Rock University. How can you grow to adulthood and think the “b” in subtle is pronounced? And, no, the reporter was not from another culture or language background.

But the worst, and—I must admit—funniest blunder was committed by the reporter who stared at the prompter and announced:

This might go down in the “AY-nulls” of history as the worst prank ever…

That’s right, anals. Not annals, records of events, but anals. It was the best laugh I’d had all day. Even if the error was in the teleprompter text, how can your brain lag so far behind your mouth that you don’t see that coming in time to self-correct?

Most of us are not expected to do cold reads on camera, under studio lights, intense pressure, and public scrutiny. But we might be asked to read copy that someone else wrote in a business or organizational setting. My advice? Scan through it quickly for land mines. If there’s a misspelled word that changes the meaning, be prepared to say the right word. If there’s word you’ve never heard spoken—and aren’t sure about—don’t guess in front of your audience. Ask the writer or look it up on your phone.

And go down in the annals of history.

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Backup slides

backup slides2I first noticed it a few years ago, while working for a huge multinational company. Now I see it in small-potatoes presentations for modest enterprises. Are they trying to imitate the big boys in all their corporate silliness? Or are they just now catching on to what seems like a lazy way to assemble a presentation?

“It,” of course, is the phenomenon called backup slides. You’re forced to sit through a meeting presentation, or maybe you’re responsible for watching it online. There’s a beginning, middle, end, summary, maybe even a quiz … and then (DUN-tun-tun!) the dreaded backup slides. Usually unreadable graphs or charts or screens full of tiny print, with no context, that might or might not have anything to do with the presentation you’ve just seen.

You might use backup slides to add length to a short presentation, to show some awesome graphics or snazzy material you found that doesn’t fit, or to impress the viewers with your research skills. But none of it supports the purpose of the presentation. Imagine the equivalent of backup slides in other forms:

Fashion Week in Paris: At the end of the show, someone throws a bag of laundry on the runway and says, “Here are some designs that didn’t make the show. Feel free to rummage through them.”

Opera at the Met: After the final curtain, random understudies wander onstage, performing their favorite vocal warmup exercises. All at once.

Super Bowl: After the final second ticks off the clock, third-string players who didn’t get into the game take the field for strength and agility drills.

Seriously, if the material is important, include it in the body of the presentation with some explanation and relevance. If it’s not important, leave it out. Simple as that.

Using backup slides is as silly as ending a movie with outtakes showing bloopers (mistakes the actors made during filming) … wait … that’s a thing. But it’s called the gag reel, and it’s intended to make you laugh.

If you have a serious job with a real company, or unless you’re Jackie Chan, just don’t.

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So what!

interviewAny speech teacher will tell you that vocalized pauses weaken your presentation. You could be a corporate bigwig, a PTA committee head, or an international political figure. If your speech is full of fillers (uuh, aah, err, mmm, like, you know) your message will be less effective.

Speakers who address their audiences without vocalized pauses sound more prepared, confident, and credible. Everyone knows that, and the standard fillers have become passé.

A new vocalized pause is all the rage in both business and politics. Often used in interviews, it’s a common response to a touchy question. It’s as if the utterance gives the interviewee time to think … or to pivot off into an evasive non-answer. The word is:

So.

As the first word in a sentence, So usually implies therefore, or as a result.

The event was sold out. So we went to a movie instead.

But it’s now the go-to response for any debate or interview question that might be awkward to answer. In fact, it often signals intent to avoid answering the question altogether. For example:

Q: How do you intend to balance the budget this year?
A: So, as you know, I’ve always been a champion of fiscal responsibility. Throughout my career as a public servant, I’ve sought the opinions of my constituents on this and related matters … [blah blah blah]

Q: Is this product going to be released on time?
A: So, quality is important to us – as I’m sure it is to all of you – and we’ve brought in several experts to guide our development process. Based on feedback from our customers, we’ve added several features we’re sure they will like …

Maybe the So response is just a bad habit and it doesn’t always indicate deception. But listen for it the next time you hear an interview or a business presentation.

Then judge for yourself whether the speaker’s verbal crime is being trendy (a misdemeanor) or lying (a felony).

So there.

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To whom it may concern

recommendationOne of life’s awkward situations: You’re asked to write a letter of recommendation, but you have little to say that’s good. It might be a former employee, a student, or even a family member.

If you agree to write a recommendation letter, you’ve already implicitly agreed to say something nice. If the person has done something illegal and you’re aware of it, you can’t just ignore it. Better to decline the request.

The first question to ask yourself is, “How important is the outcome?” The amount of positive blarney your conscience will allow is inversely proportional to the risk that your letter will affect the result. Let’s say your nephew is applying to an Ivy League college and you know he has no chance. You can exaggerate his virtues a little, no harm will come to humanity, and your family will still speak to you. If a college applicant is unworthy, it’s doubtful your recommendation alone is going to influence the admissions committee.

But if you manage a hospital emergency room staff and a bad apple (who was fired) applies at another hospital, you might understandably hesitate to foist him on another facility where lives are at stake. Some companies prohibit managers from giving recommendations, positive or negative, for former employees. Here’s why:

Scenario 1: Your letter is negative. The applicant doesn’t get the job. You (and your company) can be accused of defamation and blamed for the person’s inability to become re-employed.

Scenario 2: Your recommendation is positive. The person turns out to do a terrible job or steals from the new employer. You (and your company) can be accused of knowingly helping the new employer to hire a bad employee.

Assuming the consequences are neutral, recommendations can still be awkward. Imagine a former employee or co-worker is not particularly innovative, creative, or hard-working. Not awful, just not great. How do you handle it?

    • Keep it brief and say no more than is necessary. When people write to fill space, that’s when they get into trouble.
  • Focus on how much the person improved over time. (In three years, he grew increasingly responsible …)
  • Create a draft listing good points and bad points. Then eliminate the bad points or turn them into good qualities. (Instead of plodding and slow, say he was deliberate and careful …)
  • Above all, don’t resort to those double-meaning phrases we’ve all heard about:

    You’d be fortunate to get this person to work for you.
    She’s an unbelievable worker.
    No one would be better for this job.
    I would waste no time in hiring this person.

     People are wising up to those.

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    Be a sport

    skating managerSales employees are often treated like athletes. Managers’ pep talks inspire sports-like attitudes and focus on winning. Score the deal, win the quarter, beat the competition. Encouraging words—go, fight, win—could be lifted straight from the famous locker room speech delivered by Pat O’Brien in the 1940 movie Knute Rockne All American.

    Oddly, that film and the sports movies that followed have been used to inspire generations of young sales managers to talk as if they were stuck in the 1940s. Inspirational sales training is seldom without Lou Holtz, John Wooden, or Vince Lombardi quotations.

    The idea is to inspire your team players in the locker room … to carry that energy into their field performance. Right? But—just a suggestion—maybe the best way to relate to a culturally diverse customer base is not with business jargon based on male-dominated American sports.

    Despite the globalization of business, provincialism persists. Corporate mission statements, white papers, sales presentations, and employee communications still use language like this:

    • swing for the fences (baseball)
    • you have to punt (football)
    • hit into the rough (golf)
    • down for the count (boxing)
    • slam-dunk (basketball)
    • the ball is in your court (tennis)

    The point is not political correctness—a phrase some like to use as a pejorative—it’s communication. To persuade a potential customer to buy, you need to make a connection. Gain trust and credibility. If the prospect is a woman or anyone born outside the USA, American sports-talk might be fine. Women are into sports and some American sports are popular in other countries. But it also might reek of an exclusive little club that doesn’t include them. Why take the chance?

    Turn the situation around. Imagine you’re the potential customer and a sales rep keeps talking about beamers and googlies and wrong ‘uns. Unless you’re a cricket fan, it probably doesn’t make any sense. Even if you are a cricket fan, it still might not make any sense.

    Imagine a former figure skating champion pumping up her team of burly male sales reps to increase their numbers in the coming week:

    “Guys! Last week was a bailed axel and a wrappy credit card triple Sal with a three-turn.
    Now get out there and nail me a quad!”

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    Do I have to?

    waitinginlineIn all of Customer Service, one phrase should be stricken from every representative’s vocabulary:

    “You’ll have to …”

    It’s usually followed by something like this:

    • wait in line
    • hold for a technician
    • fill out a form
    • start over
    • call back later
    • provide a receipt
    • … and so on

    Childhood habits persist long into adulthood, often longer than we would like to admit. The first reaction most of us have to You’ll have to … is resistance. When we were children, authority figures (parents or teachers, for example) told us you’ll have to eat your vegetables, brush your teeth, do your homework, stay after school, or stop punching your sister. Most of us thought, even if we didn’t say it, Do I have to? or You gonna make me?

    Part of being a mature adult is learning that we do indeed have to do many things we don’t like. Obey speed limits, pay our income taxes, put our trash bins away after collection day, and—yes—wait in line. But we do many of them grudgingly, muttering complaints under our breath. The desire to protest or resist is a natural feeling.

    So why would you want to alienate anyone by saying, “You’ll have to …” anything? This advice is for DMV clerks, postal workers, IRS representatives, airport gate agents, receptionists, PTA committee chairmen, and virtually everyone else:

    You can rephrase most negative statements in a positive way.

    Try it. It makes all the difference.

    • We’ll serve you as soon as we can.
    • One of our technicians will help you in just a few minutes.
    • We need some information—here’s a form for you.
    • Let’s take this from the top.
    • The person you need to speak with will be in tomorrow.
    • Let’s see if we can verify your purchase.

    Authority figure language puts us on guard and engages the prepare-to-fight-back response. So I’m not going to tell you that you’ll have to follow my suggestion.

    You might ask me:

    Do I have to do it?
    No.

    Are you going to make me?
    No.

    What happens if I don’t?
    You’ll have to find out.

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    Metaphorical mixology

    walnutandwaterMetaphors figuratively (and indirectly) compare one person or thing to another—without using the word like. If you say My love is like a red, red rose, you’re using a simile, not a metaphor.

    Metaphors are a little more sneaky. They slip in the characteristics of one person or thing when no one is looking, and another person or thing takes on an implied comparison. The moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas.

    In The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes paints a picture in your mind. The moon looks like a sailing ship in your imagination, the sky looks like a turbulent ocean, and he never once used the word like.

    Similes are straightforward. When you say I feel like a zombie, there’s little doubt about what you mean. But metaphors, perhaps because of their subtler nature, are subject to mixing and mismatching. A mixed metaphor is a succession of incongruous or illogical comparisons. It takes two or more references to create one. They often result from smashing two different clichés together to generate a confusing or laughable mental picture.

    Legendary film producer Samuel Goldwyn is credited with this classic mixed metaphor:

    “That’s the way with these directors. They’re always biting the hand that lays the golden egg.”

    It combines the idea of biting the hand that feeds them (like an ungrateful dog) with killing the goose that lays the golden egg (destroying their source of livelihood).

    Politicians and political commentators love to mix metaphors, and some are so colorful (though nonsensical) that they go viral:

    “The alligators are in the swamp and it’s time to circle the wagons.”

    It’s true that early settlers arranged their covered wagons in a circle to fend off attackers, but they were on prairies. Alligators in a swamp several states away would have been the least of their worries.

    I recently saw a TV graphic for an upcoming news item. One of those teasers that entices you to stay tuned—because you don’t want to miss the story after the commercial!

    It simply said:

    “A tough nut to swallow”

    The story was about a US Senator who had vigorously opposed some legislation, but it was passed anyway. The TV graphics person confused bitter pill to swallow (a big disappointment), which would have made sense, with tough nut to crack (a difficult problem to solve), which did not. Again, it’s about the mental picture.

    Figurative language can be fun. Metaphors, mixed or otherwise, are often used in a tongue-in-cheek or humorous manner. But watch out for them if you’re trying to be serious or persuasive. If not used in accordance with package instructions, they can undermine your credibility and make you seem foolish.

    Want to swallow a tough nut? Chop it up, add some eggs, sugar, baking soda, flour, and chocolate chips. Bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned. Cool, and then chew thoroughly.

    Success is a marathon, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

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