LAST year was a ripping one for flannel. I know I say that every year, but 2015 broke all records for obfuscation, euphemism and ugliness. Sifting through the drivel — much of it brought in via the FT’s new Guffipedia site — in search of worthy winners for my Golden Flannel Awards, what stood out was the number of entries that offend not only the eye and ear but make the flesh creep too.
So I have decided to add a new category — the Sick Bucket Gong, for which the short list is as strong as it is revolting. There was "sweat the footprint", leaving one fearing athlete’s foot. There was a banker who was "pregnant with the deal". There was "wet bench testing" and "merchant stickiness". But the soaraway winner was the Harvard Business Review’s "executive brownout".
One of the most eagerly awaited prizes is for the Chief Obfuscation Champion (COC). I’m uncomfortably aware that I promised this to guff veteran Tim Armstrong for the new verb "to game-change", but I hope the AOL boss will forgive me for changing my mind.
Last year, two successive CEOs of Twitter perverted the clarity and brevity that their site is meant to promote. Dick Costolo crammed into a single, interminable sentence the words "iterate", "logged out experience", "curate", "moments", "platform" and "deliver". He was subsequently sacked and replaced by Jack Dorsey, who promised straight-talking in an e-mail only to sprinkle it with "moving forwards", "roadmaps" and "reinvest in our most impactful priorities".
Yet even the Twitter duo’s efforts are feeble compared to the unnamed human resources head who warned managers attending an off-site meeting to "be cognizant of the optics of your personal brand", by which he meant: tuck your shirts in. He is this year’s COC.
Dorsey almost won a consolation prize for the best euphemism for firing people ("part ways"), but this goes to the head of human resources at a big oil group who announced plans "to ventilate" underperformers. This ingeniously suggests that people are stale air and, if you open the window, they will fly out.
The Nerb Prize — given to nouns pretending to be verbs — has had a bumper year, with six dazzling runners-up. To effort. To front-burnerize. To town hall. To potentiate. To future. To value add. Any would have been a worthy winner; yet all were swept aside by "to language". A reader overheard a colleague saying: "There must be a better way to language it."
The Communications Cup — given to the worst way of describing a meeting — has an impressive short list: diarising visitations; cocreating conversations; to caucus and (a favourite) to front-face.
Yet the winner is "bilateral telephonic meeting", which reveals the sad truth that the conference call is so much the norm that a conversation between two people needs a special term to describe it.
The Mixed Metaphor Award goes to Rick Hamada, CEO of Avnet, who said: "Drilling down one more click on services, we actually think of multiple swim lanes of opportunity around business." Although this is a modest three-way mix, quality makes up for quantity. Each one of these metaphors is bang on trend, and he has thrown in a gratuitous "actually" for nothing. He well deserves the prize.
There have been many fine job titles sent to me last year. I admired the chief manifesto catalyst who works at Danone. However, the winner is McKinsey, which calls some of its consultants "Master Experts", the tautology no doubt a ploy to soften up the client as a prelude to charging twice the normal rate.
Now comes the word that summed up 2015. At first I wanted to make this "journey". At the Financial Times we were on an "efficacy journey" until our old owners, Pearson, ended that journey by flogging us.
Meanwhile, at London’s Stansted Airport the customer complaints department said the "customer journey is a seamless intuitive transition throughout the passenger journey", adding "our customer service team now offers a team of ambassadors providing a human presence".
On reading this, I had a change of heart. The word of the year is not "journey". It’s "human". Howard Schultz, of Starbucks put it splendidly: "Innovation is the force that will continue to drive our business and enable us to expand and increase profits — always through the lens of humanity."
I’m going to make a prediction for the guff word of this year. I found it in Larry Page’s memo on Alphabet, in which he said: "We are also stoked about growing our investment arms."
I hope you are prepared for 2016. You’ll get stoked, whether you like it or not.