Here’s a problem we see all the time in corporate reporting.

A company tells us that its market ‘saw negative growth’. It didn’t shrink. Demand didn’t fall. It didn’t even grow negatively. It saw negative growth, as if it were happening to somebody else, far off in the distance.

Euphemisms like this are born of fear. Companies – like politicians – are terrified of admitting that life is messy. They think investors, customers and employees only want to hear about success, so they use words associated with it even when their real message is the opposite.

Does this matter? We can understand the meaning. Isn’t that job done, as far as the company’s concerned?

Not quite. Because ‘negative growth’ tells us more than what happened to the market last year. This jarring, oxymoronic construction reveals that the company we’re dealing with doesn’t want to tell it to us straight.

Now we’re looking out for all the subtle and not-so-subtle hedges and qualifications in everything else it says. We’re not taking anything on trust. The sheen of credibility, so essential for good communication, is gone.

There is a better way

What fearful companies don’t realise is that plain talking is powerful. If you acknowledge the problem and show that you understand it, your audience is far more likely to trust you to overcome it.

So be clear about your issues. Explain what causes them. Set out your response. Then, next time you report, be honest about how you got on. And never forget that your words can convey more than you intend, so choose them wisely.

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