The language of money


In business, some language is quite good, and some language is very bad.

By this, I don’t mean the typical ‘bad’ (ie. because the words are ugly or offensive). In business a word is bad when it doesn’t describe something specific and doesn’t affect anything tangible.

For an example of what I mean, you don’t have to look far – any HR manager will tell you how much they despise vague terminology like ‘passionate’ or ‘people person’ when they are reviewing a CV. This is because ‘passion’ doesn’t describe something real, and being a ‘people person’ doesn’t mean you will do your job better (in fact it probably means you will waste time talking). Essentially these words are intended to sound meaningful, but instead they detract from the core ideas the person is trying to express. They are employing what is commonly known as ‘business-speak’.

Interestingly, much like the vast majority of people have the word ‘passionate’ on their CV, so too do many businesses try and win the confidence of their customers by employing jargon like there is no tomorrow. I say ‘interestingly’ because this is actually one of most common reason customers walk away from a sale – a lack of relevant ‘real-world’ benefits, exaggeration of potential outcomes and the over complication of simple processes. Ironically then, businesses are too often their own worst enemy.

Things business people say

Language is a tool which changes to meet a demand – it was not always like this.

With a steep rise in the service industry, mass decline in the manufacturing sector (since the 1980s) and the adoption of standardised economic models in business, it was almost inevitable that language (or terminology) with the explicit aim of promoting new business practices would emerge.

And so it did. Today, managers within the service industry have an expansive set of ways to explain various functions in business and the rationale behind certain ways of thinking. I’m sure you have your own examples of these kinds of phrases, but some of my favourites include:

Mission critical; think outside the box; blue-sky thinking; pushing the envelope; knowledge base; core competencies; win-win situation; client focus; deliverables; incentivise; take it to the next level.

Unfortunately, as you may have already realised, this language is often crude, driven by fashion and often does not solve the intended problem – in other words, it often makes life harder and explains less, especially when considering the person who matters – the customer.

A game that goes too far

This post is not about bad language in general. This post is about one word, or specifically about the trouble that putting too much faith in this one little word can cause. The word, my friends, is one we all know well – strategy.

A strategy is a shortcut – an efficiency-focused heuristic used to achieve an outcome with optimal results. Or… in real words – a set of actions someone else has used (or you can imagine using) to successfully get what you want.

The variances on this term are only as limited as one’s vocabulary. Growth strategy; differentiation strategy; price-skimming strategy; operational strategy; transformational strategy; marketing strategy; cost-leadership strategy; focus strategy; emergent strategy; reactionary strategy; exit strategy; structuralist strategy; reconstructionist strategy; consolidation strategy.

The list goes on and on and on…..

As a digital media agency who supply the tools to help businesses get from point A to point B, our job (just like every other agency in the world) is to manage the processes in-between. This means we often have to promote particular goods and services and our clients often look to us for their strategy.

In an effort to steer ourselves away from the trappings of other agencies, we purposefully consider the range of factors that are key to success and present recommendations based on these findings. In short, we try to be as clear as possible in everything we do and develop plans for our clients that are based on their business specifically.

When a client seeks a bulletproof strategy, however, this can often be an uphill struggle.

Struggling uphill

You see, the problem with the word strategy is that it tries to explain too much in one go.

A strategy is a collective term for the steps required in sequence to assure a particular long-term outcome. As with an electrical circuit though, a break along the way often means that the whole thing doesn’t work – a strategy is the sum of parts, not a complete thing by itself. Depending on the long-term goal, even two similar strategies can be vastly different in scope, probability of success and actual ROI.

In terms of providing greater meaning, having a single word to describe a diverse set of actions sounds good, but doesn’t actually explain much in real terms. Much like the word  ‘human’ describes all people on the planet, by limiting ourselves to a single word we are forced to ignore circumstance, understanding and, importantly, timing. In essence – we blind ourselves to nuance when we employ broad terminology.

I suppose you could say that, much like any two humans, no two strategies are born equal – all require the right circumstances, understandings and sense of ‘right’ to be successful.

Words with history

The main problem is not actually the word – it’s the concept, ideas and values that the word represents.

The etymology of the word is the history of our culture – from Sun Tzu and his Art of War, through Machiavelli who developed unchallengeable arguments, Napoleon who used stratagems to crush entire armies and more recently business leaders who deploy ‘business strategy’ to reach the top-selling their own branded methods of increasing sales or (more optimistically) taking over the world.

Being such a big, important phrase, it seems to demonstrate that there are objectively ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ decisions. Unfortunately, this labelling of good vs bad (or ROI to use its name in business) is often to the detriment of considering how to optimise the steps to ensure success and is widely considered to be a deathblow to creativity.

The term can sometimes be a bit of a trap in this regard – enticing business owners to focus on the notion of perfect strategy, rather than appreciating context, timing and small alterations have a huge role to play by themselves (as do a range of factors along the way).

Solving a problem

Aristotle was a clever guy. He once said, “The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.”

He was talking about exactly this subject – that if you let go of attachments to words which don’t mean anything (such as buzzwords or business-speak) then you realise the true challenges you face.

From here, the aim for us is to help our clients create their own unique path to success. The idea is to cultivate a set of regular distinct actions which have proven benefits, tailored to fulfil targets, altered by incoming information about market and competition.

If this idea sounds appealing – getting rid of jargon and enjoying the peace of mind that comes with real understanding, then please come and see us soon. We don’t talk over people’s heads, and we don’t sell our clients things they don’t want or need.

Better by design

We are proud to say what every other agency wouldn’t dare: We don’t offer ‘so-called’ invincible strategies – we understand client visions, make clear recommendations based on research and evidence, and use the right tools to make sure everything they do is working in their favour.

Not luck and bluster!

Speak to us today on 01702 619 139


  • In business, language is bad when it makes a customer walk away.
  • Good business language explains things clearly to the customer.
  • Success is driven by a range of factors, all reliant on one another. A strategy is the sum of these parts, not a complete thing by itself.
  • There is no perfect strategy – context and timing always have a huge role to play.
  • The best strategy is not to have a set strategy. Instead, companies should employ effective core actions and regularly introduce new methods of operating which have proven benefits, tailored to fulfil specific targets, altered by incoming information about market and competition.

A final note

Strategy is often about the quality of being victorious. A successful business recognises what happened and copies it, but market leaders understand why something happened and work to make it happen again.

All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved. – Sun Tzu