Weasel words -- aka gobbledygook, jargon, buzzwords, corporate-speak, double-talk -- are everywhere. Listen carefully the next time you're at a presentation and you'll hear that we are going to cascade down information to staff concerning the headcount reduction. Or that, going forward, we're confident that we have the bandwidth to really add value for our stakeholders. Or that it's necessary to drill down to that level of granularity because this initiative is mission critical for our organization.
This is not a new phenomenon. Weasel words have been blurring our messages and confounding our audiences for some time. Ten years ago President Bill Clinton issued a memorandum to all federal agencies requiring plain English in government writing in an effort to make the government more understandable in its communications with the public. But even a presidential decree hasn't really made much of an impact.
NAMED FOR A WEASEL'S EATING HABITS
According to Wikipedia, weasel words are ambiguous words used to create the illusion of clear, direct communication. Taking their name from the weasel's habit of sucking out the contents of an egg while leaving the egg looking intact when it is actually hollow, these imprecise or euphemistic words suck the meaning out of your communication. They leave your words open to misinterpretation, they make you sound like you don't know what you're talking about [or worse, that you're hiding something] and they confuse your audience.
ARE WEASEL WORDS EVER APPROPRIATE?
Now I must admit, I use weasel words too. They've become a part of our business lexicon. But that doesn't mean I should use them. The key is to be aware that you're including weasel words in your communication and then ask yourself whether or not the audience will understand them. If there is any doubt, opt for delivering your message in plain English.
My colleague, author and executive coach Scott Eblin, cites an interesting article in his post Good Jargon, Bad Jargon which suggests that there may be some circumstances where it is appropriate to use jargon -- for example, within the same company, team or industry where certain words or phrases can become a sort of shorthand to create a deeper understanding of an issue. But as Scott emphasizes, it's not a one-size-fits-all approach. Watch for non-verbal clues [like eyes glazing over] from your audience to determine if your message is getting lost.
So the bottom line [oops, is that a weasel word?] is to stand in your audience's shoes and consider whether they will understand your weasel words. Or would a little more plain-speak be in order?
What are your favorite [or most dreaded] weasel words?
For more amusing and illuminating comments on weasel words, check out:
Weasel Words: The Dictionary of American Doublespeak -- a collection of weasel words, many with humorous definitions, from politics, the media and corporate America.
Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language -- the author makes a passionate case for taking back the language from those who would strip it of all color and emotion and therefore, of all meaning. To support his argument, Watson recasts the Gettysburg Address and Shakespearean dialogue in corporate business-speak.