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Watch Your Language

30 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 12 May 2011

There is no reason why the words used in corporate communications should be pompous and jargon-ridden but that is how it often turns out to be. Peter Day goes into a huddle with a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the way business language works.
Producer: Sandra Kanthal.

  • Contributors to this programme

    John Simmons, Stuart Delves, Jamie Jauncey,
    Founders, The Dark Angels

    Julian Stubbs, Founder
    Up There Everywhere

    John Mitchinson
    Head of Research, QI

    John Allert
    Head of Brand, McLaren Formula 1

    Phillip Pullman
    Author of the Dark Materials trilogy

    Ellen Lewis
    Business writer

  • Peter Day's Webcomment

    There is something remarkable on the side of London buses at the moment. Big signs exalting in the art of cooking the midday lunch. Other ads take a similar slightly eccentric approach to the humble art of everyday cooking.
    “I am the Egg Lord”, says one. “Hear me whisk (say loudly with pride)”. Another is even curioser. “Wonky is good,” it proclaims. “Never trust a symmetrical loaf.”
    Or there’s a picture of a succulent baked potato with a slogan bannered across it: “Best when the oven doesn’t go ping“.
    On the edge of each ad is a packet of the product in question: Lurpak Danish butter.
    This clever celebration of the choices to be made in daily life (between prepared food and cooking your own dishes) has a tone of voice that is quite different from almost every other advertisement currently on display.
    It is made by an independent American agency chain called Wieden and Kennedy. They are based, I notice, in Portland, Oregon, itself a quirky city with a strong tradition of advertising and design.

    W and K is not a newcomer: it was started almost 29 years ago, but it has kept up a stream of much-noticed campaigns for big clients, distinguished, I would say, by their individuality, in a world swamped with corporate messages that have no individuality at all.
    The tone of voice that conventional business uses relentlessly is what this week’s In Business is all about. Or rather getting away from that tone of voice into something rather more genuine or authentic.
    Why have companies lost the art of talking to people as though they mattered as individuals?
    Why do they hire personality presenters as bolted on front men and women rather than cultivate their own personalities?

    Why is corporate language so awful? Why are companies so pompous when they address an audience?
    Why do they seek to differentiate their not very different products in jokey mateyness or personality endorsement?
    Why are they so afraid of straight speaking and an individual human voice?
    Why do they seek to give their brands and products personality? Why can’t they let their products speak for themselves?
    And why oh why when somebody new takes over at the top - of a company, an organisation or a ministerial department - why do they always proclaim that they are “passionate” about the place, subject or issue in question?
    Who do they think they are fooling with this bolt on response, this reach-me-down language? Why do they so readily devalue the true and rare idea of passion with this mumbo-jumbo?
    This string of irritable questions is occasioned by an encounter amid the dreaming spires (and sounding bells) of Oxford a month or so ago, just as spring was beginning to burst out all over the university.
    It was out of term, and a little group of angels had fluttered down to settle for a few days in one of the most venerable colleges, Merton … a few hundred yards from Christchurch, the spiritual home of Alice in Wonderland.
    The Angels were in fact Dark Angels: a group of business people interested in thinking about writing and the way businesses communicate with their employees and the outside world.
    Dark Angels is a trio of professional writers with much experience of business writing which runs these residential courses in tucked away, distinctive places such as Merton, Scotland or Spain.

    The odd name comes from the great epic poet John Milton, and it is testimony to how serious this business writing business is.
    The flawed, fallen dark angels who follow Satan when he is chucked out of heaven by Milton’s god engage our sympathy (and that of the writer Philip Pullman, author of the Dark Materials trilogy). He came to talk to the group at Merton and had a few words with In Business as well.
    In his huge poem Paradise Lost Milton prayed: “What in me is dark, illumine. What is low raise and support.”
    … and that is the great purpose that these Dark Angels whose writing course I eavesdropped on in Oxford think they are embarked upon.
    Something has gone deeply wrong with the tone of voice that most corporations adopt when talking to the outside world. They have lost touch with the imagination.
    The Dark Angels and business writers who pay good money to spend three or four days on writing assignments to improve their communications skills are not merely seeking to embellish their company’s image in the world.
    They are seeking to make business more human. Like the Egg Lord and his whisk, it is a worthy cause.



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    Peter Day's World of Business

    Insights into the business world with Peter Day - featuring content from his Radio 4 In Business…

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