Stock Language: How You’re Lying Without Realizing It

When you speak too close
To what they heard before,
You have said nothing

“We must all efficiently
Operationalize our strategies
Invest in world-class technology
And leverage our core competencies
In order to holistically administrate
Exceptional synergy”

–Weird Al Yankovic “Mission Statement”

This is what I call stock language.

It means something, and it doesn’t mean anything.

It could literally be the cause of all of your problems.

It is also called “symbolic language” or “business cliché.” Like stock photography, it’s so familiar it doesn’t move you. As Weird Al shows us, it truly is an art. Most stock language artists don’t use it intentionally, however. It’s a product of years of cultural conditioning and exposure to our government leaders, who swim in it like fish do water.

Sometimes, it’s useful and appropriate to talk around something. In diplomacy, in delicate situations, to preserve confidentiality, etc. That’s the light side of stock language. It’s a powerful tool, when used for the right reasons. The shadow side is when it’s used to hide.

The alternative to stock language is what I call granularity. Words like “successful,” “quality,” “customer-centric” and so many others are overused to the point that they no longer communicate meaning without pairing them with many more specific words to support and clarify.

What’s So Wrong with Stock Language?

The risk of stock language is that people put their own meaning into the hollow words, leading to unintended results. Any time I hear a manager say, “My people don’t listen” they’re usually revealing they speak largely in stock language. (Did it occur to you that “my people don’t listen” is stock language!?)

See how insidious it is? So, think about this the next time you catch yourself telling your people, “Let’s hit this one out of the park.”

Oops, you told them nothing. But it’s not too late! Go on to say what you mean by that. Be as specific as you can. Give examples. Make it viewable, actionable. Go granular.

“The new admin isn’t working out.”

What do you picture when you hear this? And is it possible that what was meant is different than what you see? It inevitably is. You just made something up. You actually have no idea what’s happening. This is reality, and it’s the place to ask questions to find out what’s really true:

“What does that mean?”

“Who says?”

“What are the metrics?”

“What’s being done about it?

“What were the expectations?”

“What’s the impact?”

“Does she agree?”

And many more…

When people use stock language, it’s often because they don’t want to go deeper. That’s your cue to get hungry. When you realize how often you actually have no idea what people are talking about, you’ll get curious (after the disorientation, which is completely normal). You’ll inevitably discover how often people are bullshitting you and you’re bullshitting others.

To put a finer point on this for the sake of training, when someone uses stock language, assume they are lying until they prove otherwise. That will help your hunger. A moment later you may let them off the hook, but stock language is truly this insidious, dangerous, and sometimes malicious. Just watch a few minutes of CSPAN. Politicians speak fluently, and more or less constantly in stock language. It’s the primary way corruption hides in plain sight.

However, if you’re suffering from chronic overwhelm, your curiosity has no room. You’re too busy. You’ve got unanswered emails on your mind. Back to back meetings. You’re “behind the eight ball” (whatever that means).

This is why I start all of my clients with Clear Workspace, Open Mind. It uncovers bandwidth and energy in you so you can become the leader you’re destined to be. It’s free with a Clear and Open Membership. Or maybe you’d like to wait a bit longer before you become a better communicator? Maybe you want to cross that bridge when you come to it?

ABOUT JOSEF SHAPIRO

Josef Shapiro is a voice for excellence and the end of business problems in the coaching industry, and the end of needless business trouble.

Trained first at EMyth in 2002, one of the pioneers of business coaching in the 1970s, he later joined its management team and led EMyth’s program development. He created their coach training program and trained coaches worldwide for several years.

Clear and Open is a collection of powerful online courses and real-time mentoring for professionals passionate about productivity, culture change, and business growth. Josef is a coach, mentor, and trainer for serious, driven leaders and managers who hold learning as a way of life and excellence as an intrinsic value. To learn more, and to sign up for a free, time-saving mini-course, please visit clearandopen.com.

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