Master Your Message Blog

The Queen of Presentation Gobbledygook

Janet Yellen PresentationJanet Yellen, the current Chair of the US Federal Reserve, is a great example of the rot that has infected today’s communication. It’s unfortunate that a woman who holds arguably the highest financial office in the United States, a role that serves as a role model for ambitious women in the workforce, does such an atrocious job of communicating on just about any level.

She is just the sort of role model you do NOT want to have in a high visibility position.

In fact, her presentations are so indecipherable that one wonders if they’re created solely for the purpose of hiding the fact that she (or the US Federal Reserve) has absolutely no idea of what’s going on with the economy or how to begin to take steps to change course. This is most likely the truth. The question is whether they’re aware how much trouble they’re in, or not (and are maliciously trying to hide the fact).

The message I get as a result is that she’s incompetent. As in advertising, “Perception is reality.”

A Prime Example

In any event, let’s get back to her latest offering on the subject, Here is a paragraph from one of her latest speeches:

“… wage developments reflect not only cyclical but also secular trends that have likely affected the evolution of labor’s share of income in recent years. As I noted, real wages have been rising less rapidly than productivity, implying that real unit labor costs have been declining, a pattern suggesting that there is scope for nominal wages to accelerate from their recent pace without creating meaningful inflationary pressure. However, research suggests that the decline in real unit labor costs may partly reflect secular factors that predate the recession, including changing patterns of production and international trade, as well as measurement issues. If so, productivity growth could continue to outpace real wage gains even when the economy is again operating at its potential.”

You probably didn’t get all the way through. Me either—the first time.

Usually, I can spend a few minutes with a paragraph of complete gibberish and get a sense of what the intended message was. This took much, much longer. Here’s my attempt:

“Wages are decreasing. This might be a long-term trend. However, we’re not sure the data is sound. If this trend is correct, it is likely to continue.”

So, it really means nothing (if the facts are correct, and wages are decreasing, they’re likely to continue. If not,  …. ) Your guess is as good as mine.

The original paragraph is what we call ‘gobbledygook.’ Yes, it’s a real word—you can look it up. But to save you the time, here’s my favorite definition from the Franklin Covey Style Guide.

“Gobbledygook is language that is so pompous, long-winded, and abstract that it is unintelligible.”

It’s a favorite technique of the government, lawyers, and anyone who thinks that for their writing to gain credibility, they need to use big words nobody can understand. Or they have something to hide.

It Gets Worse!

Which is likely why she says things like:

“More jobs have now been created in the recovery than were lost in the downturn.”

And follows up with:

“… it speaks to the depth of the damage that, five years after the end of the recession, the labor market has yet to fully recover.”

What’s that supposed to mean? “We created more jobs than we lost, but we’re not back to where we started.” Somebody do the math … oh, right … we don’t know if the data is correct …

So much is wrong in the world today as a result of poor (or the lack of) effective communication. On second though, that’s not quite correct. Let me put this another way: What is wrong today could be addressed through attention to the language we use, using it effectively, and concentrating on the meaning of our words.

There is a conscious effort by so many in power to obfuscate the true situation. You just have to follow the news. For example, it seems that nobody really knows whether there are Russian troops in Ukraine. Each side issues a variety of statements to dispute the other’s claims, none of them designed to clarify the situation.

The world is adrift. There doesn’t seem to be anybody in charge. Nobody is willing to take responsibility for the mess that’s been created. Our communication on a grand scale reflects this fact. But I digress.

Steer Clear of Gobbledygook!

It’s important NOT to follow the trend of those in power today. Don’t let these bad examples cloud your communication. Leaders create clarity. They mount presentations with succinct, simple, and compelling messages that are designed to elicit action. This is your goal.
How to get there: Make sentences short, direct, and clear. In fact, what I tell people is to write in language you would use in explaining the situation to someone in your office.

Business writing (and presentations), in order to be effective, means writing to be understood. Language was created to make our thoughts and wishes much clearer than they would have been without it. A series of grunts accompanied by gestures won’t get you very far very quickly (you just have to watch a game of charades to understand that). Yellen might do better with grunts and gestures, actually.

The bottom line: Your primary goal in writing should be to create clarity.

It’s the true sign of a leader.

Now, if you have other great examples of gobbledygook you’d like to get out in the open (if you’re like me, they make you crazy-mad), drop me a comment!

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