Do You Communicate to Lead or Mislead?

Organisations that must communicate with stakeholders around thorny issues invariably face the same recurring question: how much of the truth should they tell? The professional communicators who serve them face it also.

In business, the naked truth can be embarrassing and even painful. But so is getting caught telling outright lies. So what to do?
Some companies and their paid communicators are resolving this dilemma by employing a kind of euphemistic language that varnishes the truth with a thick layer of jargon and “corporate-speak”. You probably know it as “spin”.

A euphemism is the act of substituting a mild, vague or less offensive term for one that might be considered too blunt or even vulgar. We all do it from time to time.

For example, rather than tell a child that someone is dead, we say that “he is asleep with Jesus”. Rather than ask our hostess where the toilet is, we ask for the “little girl’s room”. Today, in a similar vein, companies do not fire people; they don’t even lay-off anymore. Instead, they de-hire, downsize and even “right-size”. (Obviously, the previous size was wrong.)

Pick up an annual report or a press release and you will find more work from the corporate euphemist. For example, you find that that a 20 per cent drop in sales is described as “regrettable negative growth”. You will also discover that “this, unfortunately, has had a knock-on effect in respect to profitability”. What is more, this it is all due to the “unanticipated effects of exogenous shocks”.

In essence, sales have plummeted, the company has lost money and it’s no one’s fault. But you will have to figure that out for yourself.

Imagine if just once a chairman in his report would say it this way: “Our sales revenue sucked and we lost money. I’m not happy about this, but we have figured out what we did wrong and we are going to fix it.”

Wouldn’t you find that kind of candour refreshing? Wouldn’t you be more inclined to trust its source?

In business, as in government, the constant use of euphemistic language borders on the unethical when its purpose is to muddy rather than clarify; when it sets out to prevent our minds from easily processing information by using unfamiliar words and abstract images.

This is the language of people who will not call a spade a spade. In the hands of these linguistic acrobats it becomes a “horticultural implement for the manual movement of soil”.

It is alarming how easily this euphemistic corporate-speak has wormed its way into our corporate communication. It is becoming the “new norm” as they say.

Designed not to lead but to mislead, it is highly corrosive. It eats away at credibility and trust, and eventually it devalues reputations.

Over time, most of us learn to decipher the language of euphemists (We get a lot of practice listening to politicians); and so we arrive at the truth anyway. Imagine: all that effort for nothing.

Originally published on