Office Speak: "Sharpen Your Pencil"

I’ve decided that it’s time to call out some of the Office Speak that I hear every day, and thought I would start with this one:

You need to sharpen your pencil

The context for this phrase is almost exclusively negotiations. It’s normally used as a way of saying that the cost of something needs to be reduced.

I suspect that the history of the phrase has got something to do with people going back to look at a set of costs trying to decide which ones are reduced or removed. Traditionally you’d do that with a pencil, or pen and a pencil.

In these days of spreadsheets the phrase seems a bit outdated and increasingly irrelevant, yet it’s use seems to be blossoming. This phrase is not unique in Office Speak in this regard – does anyone know why it’s a benchmark?

The use of phrases like this fascinate me. It’s clearly just as easy to say “reduce your price” as it is to say “sharpen your pencil” so it’s use has got nothing to do with creating a shorthand. I suspect that continued use has more to do with the emotional response of painting a picture; “Sharpen your pencil” sounds more dramatic than “reduce your price”.

What’s your emotional response to this phrase?

Office Speak and Buzzword Density

A few things came together the other day:

I was looking at some of the statistics on this site and found that a post I created back in 2009 on Buzzword Density had recently become popular again. This post contains a cartoon that goes like this: “Mashups are SOA in the Cloud” – “3 out of 6 not bad”. It made me smile to realise that two of the buzzwords in this illustration had lived there life and were now mostly superseded by other terms.

This was followed by an email in which there was a sentence that had 32 words in it which is a problem in its own right but 13 of the words were buzzword. In a Gunning Fog Index this sentence scores 23 (for reading by a wide audience you’d normally aim for an index of less than 12, and less than 8 for universal reading).

In my normal reading I came across this article in the Atlantic: The Origins of Office Speak subtitled What corporate buzzwords reveal about the history of work (and what a corporate-buzzword quiz reveals about you).

The article starts by highlighting the famous Dilbert Buzzword Bingo cartoon from 1994.

According to this article there are a number of classification of buzzwords that have grown up through our history since the war and the influence of different groups:

  • The Self Actualizers
  • The Optimisers
  • The Financiers
  • The Marketers
  • The Disruptors
  • The Creatives
  • The Life Hackers

It’s interesting to see the history behind some of the phrases that we take as axiomatic.

Like most people I know I have had a love-hate relationship with buzzwords and office speak for most of my working life. The Atlantic article concludes like this:

But this seems to be the irony of office speak: Everyone makes fun of it, but managers love it, companies depend on it, and regular people willingly absorb it. As Nunberg said, “You can get people to think it’s nonsense at the same time that you buy into it.” In a workplace that’s fundamentally indifferent to your life and its meaning, office speak can help you figure out how you relate to your work—and how your work defines who you are.

I’m off now to sync-up in a disruptively agile way as part of a scrum of innovative thought leading passionate entrepreneurs, circling back and downloading so we can drill down and mind-meld about an ideation event looking for low-hanging-fruit (Gunning Fog index = 22).

It’s not just in offices where cliché becomes a problem though: