Why using “management speak” generally makes you look like an idiot

! Warning: this post hasn't been updated in over three years and so may contain out of date information.

Have you ever claimed something has a “steep learning curve” rather than saying it is difficult to learn? If so, I’m guessing you have never stopped to think about the term and what it actually means. Take a look at the graph below:

The x-axis is the number of days spent learning a topic. The y-axis is percentage knowledge. The three grey lines show how many days it takes to achieve some arbitrary 90% knowledge. If you are fond of using the phrase “steep learning curve”, you are hopefully feeling rather silly at this point. The steepest learning curve (the red one) results in the person hitting that 90% mark after just three days. The shallowest curve (at least at the start) results in the person taking 9 1/2 days to reach 90%. In other words, the steepest learning curve represents the easiest and quickest way to learn something.

People tend to hear words and repeat them in the same context as they hear them used. Whilst this is fine for children, this is a poor way to learn as an adult. If you hear a new word, look up it’s meaning and use it in the right context. If you don’t you’ll risk ending up using “Management speak”. You might think it makes you look clever, but you can be sure your colleagues are laughing at your stupidity behind your back. If you are really unlucky, one might even yell “Bingo” at you!

There is an alternative: use plain English (or French, Japanese or whatever.) Not only will you be able to communicate your ideas better, you’ll look less of an idiot. So please, let’s make 2011 the year we stamp out “steep learning curve” and other idiotic phrases.

8 thoughts on “Why using “management speak” generally makes you look like an idiot

  1. I always thought it was difficulty on the y axis, so a steep curve means it gets difficult very quickly. Agree with the idiocy of management speak though!

  2. @SFBTom,

    I can neither speak nor read Arabic. Now imagine you gave me a book written in Arabic and asked me to learn to speak the language from it. If the Y-axis were difficulty, it wouldn’t be a steep learning curve; it would be flat. It would start at 100% difficult (ie effectively impossible) and stay there. So even if the Y-axis were difficulty, it still doesn’t make sense to use the phase “steep learning curve” to describe something that is difficult to learn.

  3. Ah, but before time=0, difficulty is at 0, since you haven’t started yet. So a jump from 0 to 100 in the instant I hand you the book is the steepest curve you can get!

    I’d say it’s all just semantics, but that’s pretty managementy too…

  4. I glad the 2 of you were able to effectively take a view on this and work towards a resolution. We should facilitate an Arabic communications course and touch base after.

  5. You really should get out more, David.

    Let’s do some blue-sky thinking about possible pro-active strategies to facilitate that goal when we next touch base…

  6. your curves are too linear (although to be pedantic they’re not as they are not straight lines, no doubt you’ll pull me up on that one).

    Consider the act of learning to play chess, learning the moves from knowing nothing of the game poses the steepest learning curve, however this will drop off rapidly as knowledge of the game rules draws to a close only to steeply rise again once the acquisition of knowledge on openings gambits e.t.c. is required.

    Now it depends on whether you consider the “end game” (had to throw in some bullshit bingo) to be ultimate knowledge gathering on the game or actually using the skills gained. To use the knowledge i.e. to “learn” the game could involve such areas as psychology, mathematics not to mention luck.

    All this brings us to the point that thinking along such a 1-dimensional line as the “knowledge” being the only thing that is “learnt” means that you would quite rightly (as shown with the pretty charts) assume that chess has a steep learning curve so therefore must be the easiest to learn. However after acquiring the original knowledge of the rule, the start of the curve, we are then faced with a lifetime of learning and “cross pollination of disparate subject matter” (more bullshit bingo).

    Now the clever bit concentrate 🙂 you can apply exactly the same reasoning to programming languages. Learning java, or at least the syntax and usage, is a steep learning curve, and once again after the knowledge gathering slows down the knowledge gained through experience is another steep learning curve.

    If for example you take an adjusted cube root chart (chosen for the ‘s’ shape to demonstrate a double curve) and draw an average through the lot you discover that the curve is a rather steep one 🙂

  7. I meant cube chart not cube root, too much rum 😉

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