Learn the language strategy-wise and you'll make a bomb

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The Independent Online
I WONDER if you can help me?

What's the problem?

I want to become a modern, up-to-date businessman . . .

That's certainly a problem.

. . . and I don't know if I can sound like one.

I'm sorry?

When I am surrounded by other businessmen, I find they are all talking a sort of language I hardly recognise as English. They use words over and over again which are important to them, I want to sound like them, so I try to use these words, too, but it doesn't sound right when I use their kind of talk. Sometimes I even laugh at what I am saying.

Can you tell me some of these words?

Yes. 'Target' is one, 'Focus' is another. 'Market penetration' is another 'Driven' is another . . .

Driven? As in 'I've driven over 20,000 miles this month and not stopped for petrol once'?

No. As in 'Customer-driven'.

Oh, yes. Well, what do you want to know?

I want to know what all these words mean and how to use them.

Hmm. That's a bit difficult.

Don't you know what they mean?

Oh, yes. They all mean the same thing.

That's not possible . . .

It certainly is. You could say, 'Our strategy must be to focus on a specified target area'. But if you swapped two words round and said, 'Our strategy must be to target a specific area of focus', it would mean as much. Or as little. 'Customer-driven' could be replaced by 'Customer-oriented'. Or 'Perspective' could be replaced by 'Overview'. Or . . .

Hold on. How am I meant to know which word to use?

In the long run, it doesn't really matter which word you use. The main thing is to get the right tone. And to do that, the only thing you have to remember is that all business language is not based on business at all. It's based on another parallel activity, also dear to the hearts of the male side of the species.

You mean sport, don't you?

No. War.

Pardon?

If you even half-listen to businessmen you'll realise that they are talking entirely in terms of war. There's nothing new about this. They have always talked about business as war, referring to advertising campaigns, and aggressive marketing, and penetrating the market, and making a killing, and that sort of thing.

You're not serious?

Aren't I? What do you call it when you send out marketing material through the post?

A mail shot.

Do you send it at random?

No. To a target audience.

And with whom do you follow up your aggressive mail shots?

With the sales force . . . Yes, I see what you mean. It is all a bit military, isn't it? It's like softening up the enemy with bombardment, then sending the troops in.

'Fraid so. But it's not as simple as that.

Isn't it?

No. Ever since the Gulf war . . .

The Gulf war? What's that got to do with modern business methods?

A great deal. Before the Gulf war, we thought of war as being between opposing armies, all foot soldiers and snipers. After it, we were taught to think of war as saturation bombing, with hardly a man in sight. In real war these days, the most important thing is to know the enemy's technical secrets. That's why there are so many spies. But the same is true in business.

More industrial espionage, you mean?

Yes. But it's also changed the nature of the imagery. It used to be all connected to foot soldier imagery, with sales forces, and so on. Now it is being taken over by the idea of aerial firepower. That's why there is so much bracketing and targeting and focusing and customer profiling . . .

But all this would only make sense if the businessman was trying to kill the customer. The customer is not the enemy, for heaven's sake] You can't really say that war and business are the same]

Well, it is rapidly emerging from the Scott Inquiry that for large sections of the Tory party war and business are hardly distinguishable.

Yes, but . . .

And it's no coincidence that in the past few years businessmen have taken to retreating to the woods at the weekend and playing military games that involve hunting and shooting each other.

Yes, but . . .

But what?

Nothing.

The modern businessman is not trying to kill the customer. He is trying to get him to surrender. 'We know you're in there]' he cries, 'so come out with your hands up and throw your credit cards down]'.

So if I want to sound like a

businessman . . .

You'd better learn how to sound like a soldier, and the quicker the better.

Thank you.

Not at all.

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