The unbearable lightness of lying

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Business presentations have come a long way from the dry recitation of quarterly results, the predictable analysis of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, and the proposed strategic plan ‘going forward’.

These days it’s pretty much de rigeur to liven up your presentation with a slide containing an inspirational quotation from Gandhi, Churchill, Einstein, or some other admirable historical figure. The further they are removed from the world of business the better – it makes them sound more authentic.

But in the absence of one of these global gurus, many coaches and public speakers are happy to plump for any canny definition from a contemporary business leader or (preferably) ‘influencer’. Take this for example: “Business has two — and only two — basic functions: marketing and innovation.”

Set against a landscape of rolling hills, this snappy blue-sky quotation is the perfect opener, instantly clearing away the clutter and causing us to look at the world of business afresh, through the eyes of …. who? Now who did say that? Seth Godin? Bill Gates? Donald Trump? Alan Sugar?

Try again. According to the internet, these are the sententious words of none other than Milan Kundera, the Czech-born, Paris-dwelling author of the darkly ironic The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and The Joke.

Now to anyone who has read him, the attribution to Kundera really seems somewhat unlikely. After all, this author, whose works combine political satire and philosophical musings on humanity and fate, is not known for his pronouncements on the business world. Yet here they are, slide after slide (I have shown only two on this page), showing the brooding Kundera now re-cast as business guru, the rebellious author as social media influencer.

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So widespread is the error that even the hallowed Economist has included the ‘Milan Kundera’ line in its 2012 Book of Business Quotations. In fact, it may well be its inclusion in that weighty tome that has convinced many internet users that the quotation must be authentic.

But if not Kundera, who exactly did come out with this (after all fairly platitudinous) bit of business-speak? Well, it will hardly surprise many readers from the world of corporate management to learn that the actual author was Peter Drucker, the highly prolific ‘father of management thinking’. In Drucker’s 1954 book The Practice of Management, we find the following: “Any business enterprise has two — and only two — basic functions: marketing and innovation.” Bingo.

Yet a number of websites — including one called Marketing Insider Group — still defend the attribution to Kundera, with sentences like these:

(Knowledge drop: Most people attribute the above quote to Peter Drucker who clearly borrowed from the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being when he said:  “Because it is its purpose to create a customer, any business enterprise has two – and only these two – basic functions: marketing and innovation.” But Milan said it first.)

What? When he was only 15 years old?

Now my real problem with all this is that if the opening slide of the presentation gets the quote wrong, or happily goes ahead and attributes it to the wrong person (and the example of Milan Kundera is — believe me — just the tip of the iceberg), then why on earth should we trust the slides that come next?

Why might the graphs showing growth over the last quarter not also be riddled with mistakes, accidental or otherwise? Why might the strategic plan not be copied from another company’s website? (after all, plagiarism is not unknown, even in the world of business). And why might not some of those great corporate strengths actually be weaknesses?

I imagine some readers find my objection to those using ‘fake news’ somewhat flippant. Just ask then, was the chart showing diesel emissions to Volkswagen shareholders accurate? Do documents listing workplace policies on pay and conditions always resemble the truth? Or are they, too, examples of ‘sliding truths’?

So much of what we see at first sight in a presentation is superficial, and sadly is too easily accepted by the audience.

It is our job to question it. That’s hard, but it has to be done. Or, as Milan Kundera noted: ‘On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.’

Please, don’t critique me!

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The word ‘critic’ originally denoted a judge, whose job was to draw the (often fine) distinction between a good or bad action, a defendant’s guilt or innocence, or the positive or negative outcome of a disease. Life is full of such ‘crisis’ points; the outcome either way could, after all, turn out to be ‘critical’. The essential point was that the critic was impartial, and the decision could go either way.

But by the time this Greek word entered the English language (like so many other words, it first appeared in the works of Shakespeare, in 1598), ‘critic’ had already taken on the negative connotation it has today. Appropriately enough, the critics who attracted the greatest opprobrium were those in the theatre, whose reviews could make or break a reputation, but more frequently the latter.

Amid all this negativity, a new expression was needed. Only a hundred years later, the French ‘critique’ became popular in England to refer not to the critic but to the work of the critic – be it an essay, a review, or a printed article. By 1751, ‘critique’ was being used as a verb, but one which was blissfully free of the reputation of ‘criticize’.

So now a person could write a critique, which might or might not be critical in a negative sense. Equally, one could ‘critique’ a performance, or a piece of writing, again without necessarily condemning it to the limbo of one-star reviews.

But language is a living thing. Words, and their meanings, are constantly shifting under the pressure of popular usage. Roll on to 2019, and we have a problem.

Partly as a result of the popularity of TV talent shows presided over by experts from the music industry, ‘critique’ itself has now been infected with the same sense of disparagement as ‘criticize’. So we have ended up with two verbs, ‘criticize‘ and ‘critique’, used pretty much interchangeably, and both of them negative in tone. “I don’t mean to critique you,” says the 21st-century critic, “but that was terrible.” Actually, critiquing is their job – but that’s not what they mean.

In the story of language, it’s quite normal for speakers to adopt new expressions when a word has become so ambiguous that it requires some special distinction to be made. And it’s true that over time, such distinctions can in turn be eroded. Perhaps ‘critique’ is too close to ‘critic’ to imply something different or opposite. In which case we need to start all over again. Which word would you recommend as the new ‘critique’?

A question of style

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Because everyone uses language differently, style guides exist to provide some degree of consistency. They are like rule-books, providing a ‘correct’ approach to punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, disputed spellings and so on. They also cover areas such as layout of dates and numbers, use of abbreviations, capitalization, and how to refer to cited articles, essays and publications.

Of course, it would be wonderful if there were one compendium to cover all possible eventualities. But the fact is that different professions require particular rules and ways of laying out information.

Journalists, for example, may use ‘AP’ style, and academics ‘Chicago’ or ‘MLA’ style, whereas lawyers may refer either to the ‘Bluebook’ or else ‘ALWD’ style. (Incidentally, ‘Harvard style’ – which actually has no official connection with Harvard University – is technically a system for referencing cited works, rather than a complete style guide.)

To complicate matters still further, individual institutions and publications, for example The Guardian, The Washington Post or the BBC, have their own ‘house styles’, which may change over time.

For instance, in the case of the oft-disputed spelling of verbs in ‘-ize’, The Times newspaper has plumped for ‘-ise’ – but only since 1992. And in what they see as a reflection of today’s less hierarchical society, editors at The Guardian have drastically reduced the use of capital letters. Among their controversial recommendations are ‘St Nicolas church’, ‘Great Ormond Street children’s hospital’ and ‘Ripon grammar school’.

Our blogger, George, recommends one of three usage and style guides for general use: New Hart’s Rules (formerly The Oxford Guide to Style), the MLA Manual of Style, and the MHRA Style Guide.

The last of these, published by the Modern Humanities Research Association, is particularly good for those writers who are new to style guides. It’s compact, up-to-date, and best of all completely free online at this link.  It’s also the style guide which we use at English Wanted. Take a look, and see if your own writing comes close to their rules and recommendations!