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The cringeworthy vocabulary of Biznese

How words are over-used and abused in corporate communications

'I've spotted the challenges and believe I have a holistic solution that is both inclusive and competitive' Pexels/ThisIsEngineering
'I've spotted the challenges and believe I have a holistic solution that is both inclusive and competitive'. What?!

“The creation of a holistic ecosystem would facilitate a result solution to the challenge of inclusive competitiveness in the Middle East.”

The above sentence was entirely made up by yours truly, but could come, I believe, from virtually any corporate or government comms department or PR agency in the Middle East.

It contains no less than six of the words that are regularly over-used, or used inappropriately, in Biznese: the language of the commercial world from the cafés of the Dubai International Financial Centre to the business parks of Abu Dhabi, and beyond.

So common is the phenomenon of business language misuse in the region that I can only conclude there must be a module in MBA courses in the UAE that teaches aspiring executives how to strangle words and meanings in official communications.

Why are these words so inappropriate?

Holistic: Merriam Webster tells me this was originally a medical term denoting a treatment that encompassed the whole mind and body, rather than a specific symptom. In Biznese, it becomes just one of those descriptors to throw in to show the author (a) has a wide vocabulary and (b) has thought long and hard about the issue to come up with a really smart response. For example, “X company adopts a holistic approach to energy technology.” Totally meaningless.

Ecosystem: The complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit, according to MW. But it has moved from its original biological meaning to become virtually any network of infrastructure, as in “the largest financial innovation ecosystem in the world.” It is difficult to open any press release these days, especially in the run up to Cop28, that does not feature “ecosystem.”

Solution: We all know what that means – a result, a fix, the answer to your needs. Instead, it has become a meaningless add-on to show that the firm, company or service provider is focusing very hard on finding exactly what the client needs. As in, “Y company expands its air conditioning maintenance solutions”, meaning it has added a few more workers to the team that messes up your living room while blowing through the ducts. This is a personal bug-bear of mine prompting an inward cringe on each occasion, and closely related in semantics to …

Challenge: “A stimulating task or problem,” says MW. But therein lies the problem. Professional communicators, especially in this part of the world where there is a fundamental desire to avoid the appearance of “problems” and paint a positive image of any potentially negative situation, want to avoid words like problem, crisis or anything that might hint at distress or vexation. Hence, any possibly serious situation becomes something that will be overcome with just a little bit of rewarding effort. It’s OK to remain positive in the face of adversity, but sometimes it’s better to just call a spade a spade.

Inclusive: This is becoming a dangerous one in these days of identity politics. “All-embracing, complete, thorough,” are among the meanings ascribed by MW, but we all know it has connotations that go far beyond that. In Biznese, much of the blame goes to the ESG lobby, who throw in the word “inclusive” to pretty much any statement about the social part of their agenda. For example, “creating a more sustainable, inclusive and growing future for all”. Utter gobbledygook.

Competitiveness. This might not seem an obvious candidate for the cringe-list, but bear with me. “The quality of being as good as or better than others of a comparable nature”, says the Oxford dictionary. But the word has been adopted by management consultants, international organisations and corporate thought-leaders to mean, simply, better. The many global surveys of “global competitiveness” are really just a means of justifying a league table of countries or companies where it is better and easier to do business. And it is an inherently ugly word, with a tongue-twisting couple of syllables in the middle that makes you slow down each time you use it. Avoid like the plague.

I’m sure there are many other examples of cringeworthy Biznese out there, and would be interested to hear others.

Maybe the advent of generative AI will fix these challenges and lead to a language solution better suited to the holistic ecosystem, enhancing inclusivity and competitiveness in corporate communications?

I doubt it.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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