Beware the weasel words

Beware the weasel words

What’s in a word you ask? Turns out, a lot!

The power and potential volatility associated with the written and spoken word is enormous, wielding enough power to compromise the integrity of an individual, organisation, government body or country to the long or short-term detriment of personal, professional even national interests – #trumpisms!

Just ask Don Watson, author of Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Clichés, Cant and Management Jargon, who highlights a rampant trend amongst politicians, government and other officials to shower their audience with clichés and jargon at any or every opportunity – a seemingly inexhaustible supply of “expanding the packages”, “exiting the industry”, and my personal favourite, “…moving forward”.

Feeling confused? So is former US President Bill Clinton, who once refused to answer a question until the meaning of “is” was defined.

Here’s another one for you; Watson’s reference to a radio interview where a political minister applies the term “structural adjustment”, to describe payment to those affected by the “historic rezoning” of the Great Barrier Reef.

Watson’s no-nonsense interpretation? “Say compensation and the whole country will want some. So stick to structural adjustment and assistance and don’t forget historic rezoning – historic rezoning is very good, it makes it sort of…historic.”

Ask yourselves – have you endured such weasel-wordage? An encounter that’s left you feeling dis-empowered, confused and questioning your own cognitive capacity?

It was while tossing around ideas for this blog that a government sector employee and friend of mine pleaded that in pursuing the topic, I search for meaning behind the weasel word that winds him up – ‘in and of itself’… sorry friend, beats me!

For the conscientious communicators out there, fear not, as “realistically speaking” you’re probably not going to lose friends over a few inadvertent weasel-warranting words such as “realistically speaking”, or “the bottom line is”; rather it’s those in positions of power, influence and leadership where public perception and well-chosen words really matter.

Never has this been more pertinent than in recent years where research has identified a link between the effects of communication on individual self-esteem, identity, motivation in the workplace and organisational performance.

John Hamm, author of The Five Messages Leaders Must Manage, and advocate for communicating effectively believes it’s a leader’s role to clearly define the organisation’s vision, values and objectives or strategy. While it’s all well and good for an organisation to have an overarching ‘strategic framework’, if it hasn’t been explicitly communicated and implicitly backed-up by leadership behaviours, then the message can get lost – distorted through misinterpretation.

Cue vagaries of “expanding the packages”, and widespread understanding unravels to the point where words lose all meaning, leaders are seen to lack trust, workforce motivation decreases following misaligned individual and organisational identities, and hey presto, performance declines!

The solution? Hamm suggests in The Five Messages Leaders Must Manage, that leaders work to become effective communicators, starting with:

Explain organisational change

Crucial to ensuring understanding from team members about where they sit in the context of the organisation relative to others; particularly important following a re-structure, merger or acquisition. Articulate and disseminate the new vision, explaining the ‘whys’ of change and how individuals will be affected. Removing ambiguity will help to restore calm, remove threats to self and feelings of dis-empowerment, generate acceptance and reduce resistance to change.

Benchmark results for future improvements

Encourage critical thinking/analysis of organisational outcomes, inspiring the workforce to look to continually improve or contribute to adjusting the strategy. This builds trust, transparency and a positive culture through inclusion and empowerment.

Collaborate, contribute and challenge ideas

Avoid transmitting messages of own ideas/ideals – conversion should be a two-way phenomenon. Draw on the knowledge and expertise of the team and subject matter experts to incite robust and diverse conversation. Failing to do so will lead to people feeling ignored, dis-empowered, under-valued and looking to jump ship.

Slow and deliberate over fast and frantic

Convey the need to be strategic with time and prioritise accordingly based on available resources – avoid trying to achieve everything only to achieve nothing! Using deadlines as a threat will promote a negative culture, encourage burnout and missed opportunities.

Cultivate positive corporate culture

Publicly define and articulate organisational vision and goals, referring back to these to inspire motivation and foster collaboration, inclusiveness, transparency and trust amongst the workforce. A sense of alignment between individual and organisational identity is paramount to commitment and achieving positive organisational outcomes.

Hamm believes behaving in such a way will prove to be “…a game changer of leverage. A CEO who communicates precisely to ten direct reports, each of whom communicates with equal precision to 40 other talented employees, effectively aligns the organisation’s commitment and energy around a clear, well-understood, shared vision of the company’s real goals, priorities, and opportunities. He or she saves the company time, money, and resources and allows extraordinary things to happen.”

So, to all you communicators out there hoping to convey a message, build rapport, inspire commitment or improve organisational performance, I say to you; I’ll take your ‘in and of itself’, “structural adjustments” and “output management focuses, and raise you with this – Keep It Simple Simon (KISS).

User-friendly, accountable and credible terminology, that’s what we like.

Your audience will certainly thank you, and probably appreciate more what you are trying to say, – as will Mr Watson!

Geography isn’t one of Chloe’s strong points which, thankfully due to her occupation as Senior Communication Strategist, isn’t something she’s had to master. Navigating her career to this point has, however, taken a few twists and turns along the way, with degree-long stopovers in the Psychology precinct before transitioning to Communication. Like peas and carrots, she believes the two have a natural synergy – one which creates the perfect platform for mindful content creation.


  1. Obfuscation through complex phrases finds me shouting at the radio when I wake up to the 6am news. At the moment my biggest bug-bear is the phrase ‘ex-Cyclone Debbie’. Cyclone Debbie is, among other things a cyclone. It’s not an ex-cyclone any more than any other cyclone. Who determined that this was the description that should be used by all news readers. Another small but irritating example of the bad use of words. And, as a corporate storyteller (aka historian) it’s my job to capture companies stories in the most accessible way possible. There’s no ‘leading from the front, business re-engineering, structural adjustments, game-changing in what I write.

  2. Annoying Pedant : April 4, 2017 at 2:09 pm

    It’s DON Watson.

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