Business English 101: How to sound like you know what the hell you're talking about

So you got your MBA, put a down payment on that shiny new BMW, and learned how to pronounce EBITDA. You might even know what all those acronyms actually mean. Think you've got what it takes to succeed in business?

Think again.

In the real world, the path to success is not paved with degrees, status symbols, or designer suits. It's all about making a positive impression, and nothing screams "SUCCESS" more loudly than knowing how to sound like you know what the hell you're talking about.

You and I both know that you haven't got a clue. But don't worry, I'm here to help you learn.

Let's start by taking a closer look at that BMW you bought with your signing bonus instead of paying off your student loans. (You did negotiate a signing bonus, didn't you? I didn't think so.) So far, it's just a painted hunk of metal sitting on four round pieces of rubber. It's worthless unless you use it to earn the respect and admiration of your colleagues. And doing that effectively is all in the positioning. There's a right way and a wrong way to say everything.

WRONG: "It cost a bundle all right. I'm practically broke!"
RIGHT: "In life, as in business, everything is negotiable. I walked into that dealership and before they knew what hit them, I had talked them down 14K and got all the scheduled maintenance thrown in."
REALITY: You paid MSRP (plus $800 for rustproofing) and the only way you were able to afford this car was to sign an 84-month lease.

WRONG: "It's a nice car. You know, something to get you from Point A to Point B in style."
RIGHT: "I admire the fine engineering that went into designing and building this machine. I bought one because I believe the auto makers should be rewarded for putting quality first."
REALITY: Now that you actually have one, you have no clue what the big deal is, and every time you drive it all you can think about is how scared you are of getting a scratch on it.

WRONG: "It's all I could do to afford the base model, but I might upgrade in a few years."
RIGHT: "At first I had my eye on the Mercedes SL 600, but I had some other financial priorities. Besides, I don't like to attract too much attention."
REALITY: The only time in your life you ever saw an SL 600 was at the auto show last year, and you initially mistook it for a 1987 Dodge Daytona. You actually gasped when you saw the price. Also, you're an attention whore; you just can't admit it.

In business, what you say is not as important as how you say it. Mastering the art of communication is a key step in inspiring others to have confidence in your abilities. Once you can fake sincerity, you have it made.

Never use just one word when you could use two or three. You want to impress others with your commodious vocabulary. Don't simply use the word "how" when you can list the "implementation details" instead. It's not a hassle, it's a "logistical nightmare." It's not advertising, it's "awareness creation." And you never just make a good point, you "hit the nail on the head."

Use sports analogies. Instead of questioning a decision, why don't you "Monday morning quarterback" it? How about describing a productive sales call as "hitting it out of the ballpark"? Wasn't that guy just "playing hardball" when he made that "off-side" comment "right off the bat" about your "game plan"? Even if you don't know a hockey puck from a soccer ball, using sports analogies make you sound like you play team sports in your personal time, and everybody loves a good team player. Learn your sports analogies and run with it.

Another good idea is to use business jargon. This makes you sound like a well-read individual, and therefore a capable player in the business arena. Memorize and use the following words: utilize (use), leverage (reuse), bandwidth (time), strategize (think), reiterate (repeat), non-allocated (unused) engage (meet), synergistic (useful), tactic (idea), prioritize (do), optimize (improve), competencies (skills), functionality (features), resources (people), iterative (trial-and-error), mission-critical (important), monetize (sell), penetrate (sell more), drive depth (sell even more).

Here is an example:

WRONG: "I decided to tell those lazy engineers to get off their asses and fix the bugs."
RIGHT: "My tactic was to leverage our resources' non-allocated bandwidth to optimize product functionality."

When words fail you, just make one up. If asked whether something is transient or persistent, reply that it is transistent. You'll be okay as long as nobody pulls out a dictionary and points out that transistent is not a real word.

It is also important to use foul language only when appropriate. Never swear in front of your superiors, your direct reports, or a customer. However, as you ascend the management ladder, swearing is actually encouraged, because it is a show of confidence. Employees, particularly new hires, admire the CEO who has the guts to drop the F bomb. But these same employees get secretly irritated by their manager's use of the same word. Don't overdo it though, or you risk devaluing the word's impact. In everyday situations, consider saying "fricking" instead, and watch your popularity soar.

Stand up for yourself and don't take crap from anybody. If a more junior employee suggests that you made a mistake, never apologize, even if the accusation is true. Send them a sternly worded denial by email, and make sure to CC their boss's boss. Close the email with "I shall await your apology."

Never admit to not knowing the answer. Some business leaders suggest that "I don't know" is an appropriate response to a question, as long as you promise to research the answer and follow up with a response. These managers are misleading you so that you are not a threat to their position. The reality is that admitting you don't know something makes you appear weak and foolish. If you don't know the answer, make something up and immediately follow it with a true but unrelated fact that makes you sound like you know what you're talking about. (If your answer later turns out to be wrong, blame it on bad research by a former employee.)

QUESTION: How many people does our market research estimate would actually buy this product?
WRONG ANSWER: "I don't know, but let me find out and get back to you."
RIGHT ANSWER: "300 million Americans in the first quarter, then we tap into China. It's the world's fastest-growing economy, you know."
THREE MONTHS LATER: "I was basing my numbers on research by that guy who used to run the other department. What an ignorant twit he turned out to be. Good thing he's no longer with the company. I'm still cleaning up his mess."

Finally, make sure to drop the names of senior management into everyday conversations. Even if you have never met them, this tactic will identify you as a person who is plugged in and in the know. This is particularly effective in a large company, because your claim is essentially unverifiable.

EXAMPLE: "In his year-end conference call with the analysts, Emerson identified my project as a strategic initiative. He's the CEO, so I guess he knows what he's talking about!"
REALITY: He has never heard of you or your project. Fortunately for you, nobody pays any attention on those calls, and they will believe you.

EXAMPLE: "That's not what Emerson wants."
REALITY: You have no clue what Emerson wants, but nobody will call you on it because they have no clue either.

EXAMPLE: "I ran into the director of finance outside his office last week. He's really pumped about our re-alignment strategy. He said it was crucial to our survival."
REALITY: You did run into him - with your car, in the parking lot. Lucky for you he had no idea who you are. The doctors pumped him full of painkillers after re-aligning his broken bones. He is expected to survive.

EXAMPLE: "I wish I could help you out, but our VP asked me just this morning to focus on this other high-priority project I'm busy working on."
REALITY: She was walking past your desk and saw you playing Solitaire, and told you to get back to work.

That's all the advice I have. The rest is up to you, grasshopper. Now go sell some widgets!


Deb said…
I am in fricking awe, and I also wonder how many resources will be devalued by following this sage advice. hehe

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