Word Salad

Posted on June 26, 2023.
Photo credit: me

What do you do at work? What’s the product strategy? How does your company make money?

Ever asked a colleague or friend any of these questions? If you have, odds are the response has been something like, “I manage the multi-channel distribution of the strategic partners’ sales priorities to our clients’ offshore resources.” This is what I call word salad.

Hiding behind the words

Word salad is the attempt to create a perception of competence, understanding and control of a situation the person has none of. It is an attempt to obfuscate the fact the person is equally as lost as everyone around them. By throwing around a bunch of big business words, the person is distracting the questioner from the reality that they really don’t know the answer.

Word salad is a phenomenon that is not limited to middle managers or individual contributors. It can come from anyone in the organization and, often, leaders are the biggest offenders. There’s a belief that if we reveal too much to the staff or the market we will give away competitive advantages to the competition. So when leaders communicate to their teams they’ll say things like, “Our strategic focus is to increase investments in underutilized services and grow our presence in underserved markets through tactical deployment of our competitive advantages.” Wtf does that mean? It means nothing to anyone who actually needs to hear a real answer.

You don’t make friends with salad

There’s an omnivore battle cry that says, “You don’t make friends with salad.” While I don’t necessarily agree with this in the food context, in business this is 100% true. If you are resorting to word salad to describe what you do or why you do it, you either don’t know what you’re doing or you lack the context to properly describe it. Confusing your audience — be it a colleague, stakeholder or client — isn’t going to win you any favors (or new business). If you don’t have clear answers for these questions, ask others around you. Listen to what they say. Distill their answers into a pithy, “elevator pitch” length response and share it back with them. See how they react, learn from their responses, and adjust your pitch.

This may take a bit of time. It may force you to rethink your job. It may even force you to rethink how you do your job or measure its success. These are all excellent outcomes. With a tight, direct and honest answers to these tough but basic elements of your job you will make friends — or rather win new customers and allies at the office — while ensuring you are on track to do a better job. Next time someone asks you what you do at work, skip the salad.