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Watch What You Say!

They will never accept this in accounting, but numbers do not define companies. The wise heads in university organizational-studies departments insist instead that the corporation is a “narrative space” shaped by the stories told by the people in it, especially its leaders. An executive’s words, as expressed in every medium from meetings and memos to annual reports and face-to-faces in the elevator, define the company in terms of mission and method, set an ethical tone, establish and defend the rationale for the CEO’s regime, and secure the consent (or at least the compliance) of the managed. In plainer English, the CEO must talk the talk to persuade everyone else to walk the walk. But such talk! Organizations may be ever striving to streamline and boost operational efficiency, but corporate English grows increasingly less effective as an everyday medium for doing what people need it to do, which is to inform, motivate, explain. What should be clear, concrete, and concise is vague, abstract, and wordy. The English that has evolved in the American management corps shares family traits with the mumbling of the politician, the blathering of the how-to author, and the sweaty homilies of the coach.

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