Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rain of terror

Oh, such care people are taking not to offend. So fragile have we become. How thin our skins are. How easy it is to wound with a careless word or two. It must be so, or we wouldn’t be scolded for using what seem to be essentially harmless terms. A friend who runs seminars for a living tells me she was berated recently for asking the attendees to do some brain-storming. A fine phrase, I’d have thought, full of the electricity and imagery that suggests the zipping and zapping of lively debate. But... no.
Brainstorming is no longer allowed less it be deemed to refer to the electrical disturbances that are a part of epilepsy. The approved phrase to use now to describe a hectic exchange of ideas is ‘thought shower’. How pallid. How wet that sounds. Let’s not get excited, folks. Let’s just sit and hear the drip, drip, drip of opinions wafting down from above.
Not long after hearing that, I noticed a couple of terms that are supposed to be now out of bounds in business circles, lest women be outraged. Surely, I thought, surely, after something like 40 years of feminism, there can’t be any ways left to get it wrong? But yes.
Be advised that it’s possibly offensive today refer to anyone as your ‘right-hand man’ (even, or maybe especially, if she’s a girl). And that something personally affirmed by two parties should not now be called a ‘gentleman’s agreement’.
Of course, because we get so much news in mere sound bites and headlines, clever manipulation of words is now mandatory in politics and business. Some people make a good living out of telling people how to do it. Thus we hear about oil companies benignly ‘exploring for energy’, not wantonly ‘drilling for oil’. Some expressions have become famous in themselves – and not in a good way. When we hear, for instance, of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ the phrase is no more appealing than ‘torture’ ever was.
I just read an article by one of America’s most influential word wranglers, Frank Luntz, author of a book called Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, it’s What People Hear.
Frank says that if you’re a leader of a country or a business, there are five words you should be using. They are: consequences (because people think there should be consequences); impact (because we want to know what’s really happening); reliability (because we’re sick of things not working); mission (because we want to know our leaders care); and commitment (because we care that leaders are personally committed to things, and are not just making empty promises).
Being on a mission, says Frank, is different from dreaming up some cold corporate mission statement. I remember those from my corporate years. What a crock they all were.
There are a few more words I’d add to the good-words-for-leaders list that. Like truth, authenticity, and honesty. Though if someone in charge says they’re giving us the ‘honest truth’ it’s just the sort of statement to make me imagine every shade of dishonesty possible. It’s got to the point where I hardly believe anything I hear on the news.
These days, I’m more interested in real, everyday people and their rich, juicy, tender, amazing stories of real life.
Give yourself time out to write about your life. Do it for you and your family – for memories not kept are memories forgotten. I'm running workshops in Orewa and Auckland in October and November. All you need for an intriguing and uplifting day is a pen and your personal storehouse of experience. For info go to

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