Sometimes you find things you weren’t looking for, and aren’t what you expected. In this instance, it was a YouTube video that its posters, Big Think, had given a title you could parse as either intriguing or flamebait: Laura Rittenhouse: A Modern Day Orwell on the FOG of Words. YouTube and modern life being what they are, the haterz – as I believe we’re now spelling them – were in there swiftly. If trust requires not just communication, but candour, and YouTube commentors can offer that in spades. Comparing an investor-relations analyst to Orwell had been simply too much for some people:
Orwell? Really? He wouldn’t participate in a system of financial tyranny. She seems to be using her observations for commercial gain, not for critiquing the system.”
said one of them, while another one quoted, slightly off-beam, from The Devil’s Dictionary, a long time personal favourite:
I give you the late, great Ambrose Bierce, “Corporation; noun. An ingenious devise for obtaining individual profit without personal risk.”
Rittenhouse’s argument is interesting, however. The eponymous Rittenhouse Rankings (their website is here) evaluates corporate rankings for ‘candour’ – an approach described in a strategy-business.com blog:
Adapting techniques used by forensic investigators and SEC analysts to determine whether someone is telling the truth, the system awards points for words, phrases, and linguistic patterns that indicate transparency.”
The FOG in the YouTube video title should not be confused with the Gunning Fog index, a readability matrix designed to measure ease or difficulty that calculates the years of education required to comprehend a text. (One assumes most authors of CEO’s annual letters and the like have paid attention in class.) To quote Rittenhouse’s own definition:
“fact-deficient, obfuscating generalities”––clichés, jargon, incomplete explanations, euphemisms, platitudes, and contradictory statements.”
It is, of course, the kind of thing it’s hard to disapprove of. Many corporate communications may pass the Gunning Fog test with flying colours, but remain ‘difficult to read’ in a very different sense: the sentences make grammatical sense, but their meaning is either hard to swallow (as it’s difficult to believe) or absent (as it’s surprisingly easy to use 1000 words or more to say almost nothing).
The strategy-business blog also explains her reasoning as well as her methodology: investors – and they are not the only ‘sinners’ in this context – are prone to placing huge value (literally, in the case of investors) on ‘the numbers’. They typically argue that the numbers cannot lie, a stance Rittenhouse contests on the grounds that numbers may be precise but precision is not the same as accuracy or truth. Numbers, just as words, are interpreted as much as they are read. Books are easily cooked. Where this happens, the investors’ geese are metaphorically served as the second course, and there are swift complaints about the sour taste. Although FOG can be malignant in intent – obscuring reality through a lack of clear content – it can sometimes be benign, hackneyed phrases or ‘business speak’ seeking to explain much but conveying little. Neither deliver much by way of charm or engagement, although the latter ‘fails’ early and in a minor way while the former ‘fails’ on a much more significant level but only when the ‘truth’ is revealed to the audience by other channels.
Rittenhouse’s charts and blog posts, tracking the candor analysis rankings of top companies against their performance, makes for interesting reading and is often persuasive. It’s also interesting to see recent moves in the rankings: Google are plummeting in recent times, while 3M are travelling in a more positive direction.
And yet, and yet … while Rittenhouse sees an important link between language and culture, to quote from the Strategy + Business blog again:
As Rittenhouse notes, analyzing the conversation in a company is the best way to understand its culture and assess its capacity to inspire trust –– among investors, the public, customers, clients, and employees.”
Wherein lies my first objection. After Enron, and especially after 2008 – and the way that ‘no-one saw it coming’ (see an earlier post about HRH Elizabeth II’s astute response to this) – I think we’re all aware that numbers can be spun. But surely the idea that words might be immune to a little garnishing and titivation hasn’t escaped us? In a world awash with advertising, it would be bizarre, surely? (If you’d like to imagine it, try watching The Invention of Lying.) Any analytic approach that ventures beyond the merely qualitative is worth applauding: language adds a nuance that numbers fundamentally can’t support. But we need to be alert to the effect that the words offer their own interpretation of the numbers, and are an attempt to persuade a particular reading. That’s not necessarily evil – it’s just why the words get written.
The bigger objection was also raised – at least in one context – by another YouTube commentor.
But Rittenhouse, you haven’t shown that straight-talk causes business success.
Success and candor correlating might as well mean that businesses that do well will use candor and ones that don’t will try to obfuscate the fact that they don’t. Or it might mean both are caused by a third factor.
To take correlation as straight-up causation without even so much as considering which way the causation goes is to make an elementary logical error. Is this big thinking?”
While this doesn’t translate as ‘you might as well waffle and lie, because it doesn’t matter’, there’s another ‘cause and effect’ issue here too, and it’s the relationship between language and culture. There’s more to disinfecting a toxic culture than avoiding clichés and adjectives, and the route from one to the other is often nebulous and hard to prove. But there is an important factor that is raised in the article’s final paragraph: trust.
Because culture change always challenges trust, using boilerplate or jargon to try to effect it will inevitably undermine the effort. Candid language offers a better path.”
As a writer/communicator, I am wondering if I am looking at the obverse of a poet reading a spreadsheet – an investor analyst analysing language. Lies can – and have – been told down the years in clear, plain prose: beyond a grasp of syntax, all that is required is a cold heart and matching intent. Candid language is something we can all cheer on, but is truthful language actually what we’re after?