Keep It Simple: The First Rule

Once upon a time I had a boss who would always end his memos announcing some new Draconian policy with the phrase: "Thank you for your mandatory cooperation."

Of course, this became an oft-repeated office joke. Clearly, if something is "mandatory," then "cooperation" loses its meaning as, indeed, does "Thank you." His pet phrase made him look ridiculous and, in the immortal words of Jack Woltz, the movie mogul in The Godfather, "A man in my position can't afford to be made to look ridiculous." (And look what happened to Woltz. He ended up with a horse's severed head in his bed. I don't think my old boss got that treatment, but his tenure was relatively brief.)

No boss can afford to look ridiculous to his or her employees, but many do simply because they write so poorly. Why did my old boss feel compelled to insert the word "mandatory" into his sign-off? I believe there were two major reasons, and each one contains a lesson bosses, or anyone communicating in writing, would do well to heed.

  1. By using the word "mandatory," my boss unconsciously revealed his fear that his employees would ignore his orders even as he felt compelled to thank them in advance for their hoped for cooperation. Fear reveals insecurity. No employee wants an insecure boss; no employee respects an insecure boss; no employee will follow an insecure boss. Insecurity in a boss makes all his employees feel insecure, even as they snigger at him. If, as a boss, you're not sure that your orders will be followed, you've got a bigger problem than bad prose. But if you do feel insecure, be sure to keep it to yourself and try to avoid parading it around in your writing. This is another example of why anyone who writes anything--be it a mission statement or an email--needs another pair of eyes to look it over. In less pecunious times, those eyes belonged to an editor. Of course, my old boss didn't think he needed an editor. More the fool he.
  2. My guess is that my old boss liked the chunky, virile sound of the word "mandatory," and threw it in because he thought it made him sound large and in charge (another example of his insecurity). The root of almost all bad writing--and bad communicating--is excess. The more words you use, especially fancy ones, the greater the chance that you will misuse one of them and look the fool. The lesson here is to keep it simple. Besides making more sense, "Thank you for your cooperation" is better writing than "Thank you for your mandatory cooperation" simply because it uses fewer words. Even better--more direct and more respectful--would have been a simple "Thank you." Period. Eschew excess verbiage is the first rule for good writing and good communication, a rule regularly violated in the corporate world where prolixity is often mistaken for profundity.

Would my old boss have been more successful if he had followed these rules? Probably not. He was challenged in many ways. Would he have been less of a joke around the office? I believe so.

I collect this stuff. If you've got an example of boss-speak or corporate speak that misleads more than informs, or says the opposite of what's intended, let me know.   

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