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The Ecosystem of Environmental Metaphors

February 26, 2018

The hot air produced by eco-babbling consultants, activists and corporate executives has likely depleted more carbon than all of Chinese industry.

Use of environmental metaphors does not make a company environmentally friendly, green or sustainable, but, as the Paris Accord demonstrated, talking about the environment without actually doing anything can boost your image.

Remember Enron? The company was talking green and fuzzy in a big way just before it imploded.

Among the most-abused environmental terms are “ecosystem,” “ecology” and the term “environment” itself. Blame these environmental metaphors on consultant James F. Moore, who won a McKinsey Award for his 1993 article in Harvard Business Review, “Predators and Prey: A New Ecology of Competition.”

If you consider the workplace to be part of an ecosystem of living organisms, formerly known as employees, you should find work as a consultant. Who else would consider your cubicle to be part of an ecosystem?

Environmentalism has also the latest generation of efficiency experts, as businesses have stopped trying to be efficient and are instead seeking to be “sustainable.”

“Sustainable” business practices may be beneficial, reducing both waste and environmental damage, but the only way for a business to be truly sustainable is to unplug every machine and prevent employees from breathing.

Let’s continue to make businesses more efficient while reducing their impact on the environment, but the environmental metaphors are no longer sustainable.

Abused Words of the Day: Change Agent

February 23, 2018

A change agent, unlike a real estate agent, insurance agent or secret agent, exists because nothing can ever stay the same. 

A “change agent” must have “vision” and be a “thought leader.” You wouldn’t want a blind change agent or one who is a thought follower. 

If your company needs a change agent, be certain to find one who doesn’t change whatever is working in your business, but who instead focuses on areas where change is needed. Be certain, too, that you have a change-for-the-better agent, not a change-for-the-sake-of-change agent.

If you hire the wrong change agent, you may have to change change agents.

Abused Word of the Day: Actionable.

July 23, 2019

In the action-packed world of business, the word “actionable” has become ubiquitous, but unnecessary. Can you think of anything that is “inactionable?”

“Action” is “the fact or process of doing something,” so anything is “actionable,” whether it’s advisable to take action or not. Among the synonyms for “actionable,” Merriam-Webster lists “practicable,” “serviceable,” “usable” and “workable,” each of which is almost as horrible as “actionable.”

Like many words that shouldn’t be used by people who want to communicate clearly, “actionable” also has a definition used by lawyers. If circumstances provide sufficient reason to take legal action, they are “actionable.”

The word also means “having practical value,” but the word itself has none.

Abused Word of the Day: Narrative

May 3, 2019

Back in the days when people used to read, journalists would use the “reverse pyramid” style of writing, in which the most important information went first. Who, what, why, when, where and how had to be in the lead (or lede, for some unknown reason).

Copywriters, likewise, would typically try to grab a reader’s attention with a catchy opening or headline.

Today, apparently no one wants news, facts or anything else that’s boring. They want a story. They want a “narrative.” At least that’s what people believe if they are in marketing or other corporate functions in which the use of clichés is a requirement.

Today, it’s the “narrative” that’s important. A narrative tells a story. As a reader, you’re obligated to read it all so you can catch the writer’s – or should we say narrator’s – deep meaning.

Public relations professionals and other morally challenged beings seek to “control” the narrative, skewing the plot toward their employer’s or client’s perspective.

It’s as if we’re all toddlers. You need a “narrative” today if you want to hold our interest. As the narrator, you need to tell us a good story. One with a narrative. A good narrative, because you shall be judged by your narrative.

Yet “narrative” implies a length and depth of discourse that’s beyond the attention span of the typical reader. Most people are not readers, anyway. If your narrative takes too long to unwind, good luck.

Stories that evolve out of narratives tend to be fiction. Often bad fiction.

Abused Word of the Day: Hack.

April 22, 2019

“Hack” used to be a simple word. As a verb, it was what your cat did when coughing up a fur ball. If you had a tree with dead branches, you might hack them off. As a noun, it was someone who was not especially good at a chosen profession. It especially applied to writers.

As the Internet developed, “hack” evolved into someone with proficient computing skills and exceptionally warped morals who would “hack” into your computer with malicious intent.

Today, though, a “hack” is something else. Writers and editors, who are in the business of writing for a living, have adopted the word and given it a new, more positive meaning. Today, a hack can be a clever tip.

Writers who favor this usage of “hack” come off as old people trying to sound like millennials. Remember that if caught “hacking,” imprisonment may result. Only a hack would use the word “hack” to describe clever tips; this new use for “hack” has already become hackneyed.

Abused Word of the Day: They

February 16, 2018

One person cannot be a “they.” A business or an organization cannot be a “they.” Yet they are regularly expanding the use of “they.”

We’ve all become squeamish about the pronoun “he,” but substituting “they” when you’re writing about one person is absurd. It beats he/she, but it’s best to make the subject plural whenever possible, so that “they” can be used.

He is not a “they,” she is not a “they” and your company or the organization you work for is not a “they.” It’s not even a person. It’s an “it.” Don’t write, “Banana Corporation announced that they are introducing a new version of the popular y-phone.” Write, “Banana Corporation announced that it is introducing a new version of the popular y-phone.”

There’s also “they say,” in which “they” is never defined. When someone says, “They say that salt is bad for you,” that person lacks credibility, because it’s not clear who “they” is. You know what they say: only use “they” when referring to more than one person and be sure to identify who they are first.