A message to corporate Australia: stop talking sh*t

Like many companies, Scentre Group has a good story to tell but doesn't know how to tell it. 

Scentre Group released its full-year results this morning. Oh boy, what a read. I'd give a still-living George Orwell two minutes between scanning it and mumbling "wrist, meet knife."

Reporting season is a tough slog for any analyst but the dead language of Australia's corporate elites can push one over the edge.

It doesn't have to be this way. In 1946 Orwell wrote an essay titled "Politics and the English Language". Senior Scentre managers would do well to read it. They have a good story to tell but lack the skills to tell it. Orwell points the way.

"The great enemy of clear language," said Orwell, "is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

Scentre management aren't trying to cover anything up but wasted ink is everywhere.

The reason is that big corporates have become so accustomed to communicating with long words and exhausted idioms they've forgotten how to do anything else. And because every CEO talks in the same way in a kind of linguistic herding, even those that want to sound sincere simply can't find the words.

Today's Scentre announcement was a good example.

"We are very pleased to deliver these strong results, in line with our forecast," said CEO Peter Allen. "Our results demonstrate the quality of our platform and the implementation of our strategy, which continues to generate long-term earnings growth and value for our securityholders."

All the corporate buzzwords are there. A result is always "strong", every business has a "platform" and every company generates "long term earnings growth", which is why they're always "pleased" to deliver a "strong result". Blah blah blah blah blah. At least he didn't say, "going forward."

Orwell argues that such blather is defined by its use of "dying metaphors", "operators or verbal false limbs", "pretentious diction" and "meaningless words". That's not a critique of contemporary corporate communication but a prescription for it.

What sets the Scentre announcement apart is the implausible mental repositioning attempted in the headline.

You may not be aware of it but your local Westfield is no longer a shopping centre but an "extraordinary living centre platform". Remember that next time you're lugging toilet rolls to the car park.

Politicians have long known that changing how people think about an issue begins with the language used to describe it. Swap "asylum seekers" for "queue jumpers", "terrorists" for "freedom fighters" and "global warming" for "climate change" and you're a chance of reframing the debate.

The problem for Australia's corporate leaders is that they're terrible at language. Shopping centres are becoming more vibrant, interesting places in which to hang out. But calling them "living centre platforms" as a way of changing how people think about them isn't going to wash. The result is something that sounds insincere even when it isn't. 

So bad is the problem that applying Orwell's prescriptions to an announcement like Scentre's would result in a document that looks like a corrupted Excel spreadsheet, numbers and symbols free-floating in space, devoid of explanation or context.

But even that would be an improvement on the turgid dross companies tip on their investors, customers and employees each day.

My message to corporate Australia is this: If you can't muster original language that connects with the reader, please, just remove the jargon, clichés and (endless) adverbs. If you're going to bore people at least have the decency to do it quickly.

But above all, read Orwell and stop talking sh*t.

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