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Hanover - Uncertain Times Require Uncommon Sense

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17 Jan 2018

Passion. You know it when you feel it. So when did you last feel passionate about a bank or a pension policy?

The answer, surely, is a big fat “never”.  This ought not to be a controversial assertion, but the common sense that underlies it is absent in the marketing and HR departments of too many big companies.

At lunch recently, the corporate affairs director of a giant pensions provider couldn’t down his first glass of Sancerre fast enough. He needed respite, having spent the morning with senior colleagues discussing brand and brand values.

“They wanted to say the aim should be getting everyone to feel passionately about us,” he moaned. “I did need to inject an air of reality.”

Quite. The dictionary definition of passion is “a strong and barely contained emotion” or “the suffering and death of Jesus.”

Yet two clicks into a Google search you will find the Health Service Executive, drinks producers and a spa centre each claiming all their people feel passionate about their work.

Successful food company Keeling’s even claim that “if you’re not passionate about something, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

That’s the car wash cancelled then. And I really have to reassess that stint I had earning holiday money on the till at my local supermarket age 17.

Of course, we all hope people find work that they love. And we understand that sometimes people can feel a strong attachment to and take pride in – say – a car or a top-of-the range smartphone.

Yet these truths lead too many corporate dunderheads to try to appropriate and then overuse vocabulary they really have no business in using.

Abuse and over-exposure of the word “passionate” tops my personal list of annoyances in this context.

Where do corporates get off, trying to tell us that their staff feel passionately about everything from burgers to bunloaf, from lentils to lemonade?

Hyped-up portentous language will achieve the opposite of communication. It leads to a kind of sensory overload on the part of those you’re trying to influence. That, and downright scepticism.

My guess is the fashion for speaking of “passion” for work and its produce originated because those who adapted the language thought it would reassure customers and new recruits: “We all LOVE it here! Our stuff’s made with real heart…”

In fact, few of us wish to hear about the emotions of those working at organisations that serve us. We just want the job done.

Yes, it may be done better by people who enjoy the tasks at hand and the culture of their chosen place of work – although even that is not a given. Amazon draws criticism over its warehouse conditions and corporate culture, fairly or not, yet delivers for customers, invests its profits and focuses on the long-term.

Language is a tool of communication and – in the commercial sphere – of sales. One reason that brands like Virgin Atlantic and Tesco succeed is because of the friendly and concise way they have of explaining themselves in terms a million miles away from the corporate jargon prevalent at too many HQs.

Those of us in the communications industry need to regard ourselves as in a relentless Campaign for Plain Language, an endless War on Hype.

Let’s recommit to it as a resolution for 2018. As an ex journo and the son of immigrants with less than perfect English, that really is something I can feel passionate about.