The corporate guff award goes to...

  • 13 January 2014
  • From the section Business
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Man being sacked Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Sorry, your job has been disestablished

Each January I have handed out prizes to the finest, freshest examples of corporate guff spoken or written in the preceding 12 months, writes author and Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway.

Every year they just get better, the 2013 crop being the best of the lot.

To make them more manageable, I break them down into categories, the first of which is the "best euphemism for firing people".

Companies did a lot of firing last year and were more imaginative than ever in telling it like it is not.

Reuters caused staff to be "transitioned out of the company", while other businesses "disestablished" or even "completed" roles.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption An affordable, portable lifestyle beverage?

But the winner is HSBC, which "demised" about 900 of its managers. In doing this it has invented a euphemism that is harsher than the real thing. It made it sound as if it was not merely sacking staff but exterminating them.

'Nerbs and vouns'

The next prize is for the worst way of meeting/talking to/emailing someone.

"To reach out", a previous winner, almost won again as the loathsome phrase has spread into "reaching down" (talking to underlings) and "reaching around" (talking to a group).

But in the end, the prize goes to a new verb: "to inbox". The genius of this new verb lies in its unintentional accuracy. To say "I'll inbox you" implicitly acknowledges that though the message will arrive in your inbox, you will never actually read it.

"To inbox" is also a strong contender for the "Nerbs and vouns" prize - for nouns moonlighting as verbs and vice versa.

"To solution" and "to road-map" were both hot contenders but lost out to the voun seen attached to a sofa in a shop in London declaring it to be "a medium sit". For me, "sit" is standout.

Sticking with nouns, the next category is for "rebranded common object", awarded to a household item with an extravagant new name.

The two hottest contenders were a bottle of water, recently described as an "affordable, portable lifestyle beverage", and a swimming cap, rebranded by Speedo as a "hair management system". Both are equally bad, though the water surely wins.

Wheelhouses and sweetspots

Easier was deciding on the winner of this year's "chief obfuscation champion", given to the CEO who never opens his or her mouth without a blue streak of guff pouring out.

My winner is Rob Stone, CEO of Cornerstone, who wrote about his ad agency's expansion: "As brands build out a world footprint, they look for the no-holds-barred global POV that's always been part of our wheelhouse."

Thus he came up with a four-way mixed metaphor that managed to say nothing whatsoever.

He also managed to use the word "wheelhouse", which was on the longlist for the "guff word of 2013".

Other candidates included "sweetspot" and "experience", both narrowly beaten by "curate" - referring not to something that happens in art galleries, but to the activity that every company, no matter how basic, claims to be doing. Even a vendor of T-shirts in New York boasts that it "curates iconic street culture".

My final category is a new one. The "flannel-free award" goes to a person who eschewed jargon for a few seconds to say something straight.

The runaway winner is Wan Long, founder of Shuanghui International and a global leader in the pork chop space: "What I do is kill pigs and sell meat."

With joy, I award him the prize.

Lucy Kellaway is an author and Financial Times columnist. Listen to her on Business Daily and World Business Report on BBC World Service every Monday.

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