How To Speak Professional-ese

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How To Speak Professional-ese

Words by Mr Adam Welch

15 April 2015

Ah, work. Everyone has to do it. Or, at least, make a show of doing it. Or, you know, turn up once in a while and make some sort of affirmative noise over the top of their cappuccino foam. It’s preferable that these sound bites should be intelligible, but not really all that necessary. The main thing is that something is said. Anything, really. Judging by the fury and desperation with which the office-bound spit out those fiery syllables, this is critically important. It’s almost as if, without the arbitrary opening of mouths, lazy loosening of vocal chords and free flapping of lips in air-conditioned boardrooms, the glorious cathedral of capitalism would instantly collapse into silent, frowny ruins. (This is presumably written in the small print of that “social contract” everyone’s always banging on about). But – given the consensus is that extracting financial compensation from your employer requires you to speak – what exactly should you say? It’s a perturbing question – or, to use official management terms, an “interesting talking point”. Even more troubling is the process of understanding, and so responding to, the things that are “put out there” (said) in the various “workshops” (meetings, with free pens and Post-its) that one might have to “get on board with” (reluctantly turn up to) in the course of a day. But you can stop hyperventilating now: MR PORTER has compiled a complete “drill-down” (vague catch-all implying depth) on “freeballing” (speaking) in professional-ese, arranging our “findings” (baseless assumptions) by key work scenarios, and fully translating each phrase to reveal what it really means. Follow this closely, repeat at will, and watch as your colleagues deliver that most glorious of approvals: “buy-in”.

The Kickoff

The process of flailing around to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing.

The first thing you might find yourself doing at work is coming up with some sort of task to complete. Many professional types find that introducing such activities into the working day really helps to fill out those hours between nine and five when you aren’t going for coffee, drinking coffee, or staring at your empty coffee cup. And for the task to seem worthwhile, you will also need a “mission statement” (inspiring yet ethereal slogan), possibly related to “core values” (one or more SEO keywords) or “DNA” (the most obvious and predictable aspect of whatever your company/ brand/ client stands for).  The following phrases should come in handy at this stage.

The vocab

“What we really need to focus on here is innovation.”

Unfortunately, someone is going to have to have an idea.

“We need to shift the paradigm of this business model.”

Let’s just ignore all the research and do something hasty and showy, with lots of Venn diagrams.

“Let’s first get all our ducks in a row.”

Shall we just faff around for a bit?

“Are we ignoring the low-hanging fruit here?”

Let’s just do whatever we did last month. Does anyone know how to use the photocopier?

“Let’s peel the onion.”

This is a complete mess – shall we try and do something about it? PS I’m going to cry.

“This is all about engaging millennials.”

Can someone please update the Facebook page?

The Brainstorm

A sort of tombola of interchangeable ideas.

Like Boggle, but with people instead of dice. And, crucially, not fun.

It’s a longstanding tradition among speakers of professional-ese that the best way to get from the “what” to the “how” is to force 17 people to sit in a room and shout at each other until everyone gets bored and tired and gives up. In such situations, when nature is allowed to take its course, the group settles on an idea proposed by the loudest and most fluent professional-ese speaker, who normally punctuates sentences by laughing at his own jokes and accents his wordplay with relaxed body language (leaning back, spreading thighs, etc). An idea is only acceptable so long as it fits into one of the major categorisations that professional-ese allows. These are:

“Next-level” (mystically better, but in no definable way).

“Bleeding edge” (like cutting edge, but even messier).

“Disruptive” (bearing no relation to anything being discussed).

“Activational” (a hashtag).

If you have the requisite stamina, posture and volume and are interested in making sure your idea is the one that makes it through, season the conversation with one or two of the following gems: 

“Why not let the data decide?”

Your idea stinks.

“We should stick to best practice here.”

Stop disagreeing with me.

“Yeah, I can wear that hat for a moment.”

I’m going to pretend to listen to you but secretly I’m playing Tetris in my head.

“Can I just talk to that for a second?”

This is my show, shut up.

“Wow, there’s some great thinking here.”

A sack of potatoes could do better than this.


Ostensibly, what you get paid for doing. Don’t worry, it’s mostly just sending emails.

Once you’ve got a mission statement and an idea, then it’s time to start the real work, which is often referred to as “actions” or “action points” (tr. “googling things”). Actions can only be completed if you give “110%” (talk loudly about what you’re doing rather than actually do it). Unless, that is, that everything is happening “organically” (where everyone waits around hoping the desired result will just materialise by itself). In both situations, you unfortunately only have two professional-ese pronouns with which to organise all this. It’s a subtle distinction, and you’ll have to use your own judgment to decide whether you need to say “we” (usually best for insinuating/ demanding) or “you” (which is more useful for incriminating/ blaming/ outsourcing). Sample usage is outlined below.

The vocab

“What we need to do is…”

Someone else can deal with the details and I’ll take the glory. Thanks!

“Can we just change the…”

Do as I say. Do it.

“Did you manage to…”

It’s abundantly clear you’ve been twiddling your thumbs for a week now – time for a smackdown! 

“Do you have bandwidth?”

I need to fob this off on to someone else – you’ll do.

If you’re not quite as fluent in professional-ese as your colleagues, you may find yourself the loser in the game of musical chairs to see who will be doing the heavy lifting, the actual work, not just bleating about it. Being told that you “own” something in the work sphere isn’t nearly as fun as being told that you now “own” a new car or country house. It actually means that if anything goes wrong with the nettlesome, messy project at hand, it will be your initials next to it in the official notes and your neck on the chopping block. What inevitably follows ownership are some “actions” to complete yourself. Here are some of the most common varieties:

“Reaching out” (sending an email).

“Touching base” (sending another email when no one replies).

“Circling back” (sending a third email, ccing a few extra people so someone gets in trouble).

You will know that your actions have borne fruit when you encounter…


The natural product of a hard day’s work. See also: nightmares; RSI.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Where there are roses, there are thorns. Where there’s professional-ese, there are issues. There’s no avoiding it. In any case, no one really tries, because the good thing about issues is that they are never your fault. In fact, it’s unclear who is responsible for them. Perhaps one day the origin of “issues” will be discovered among the universe’s dark matter. But until then, all we can do when greeted by one is to announce it and shrug our shoulders. Use some of these reliable professional-ese catchphrases to do so.

The vocab

“It’s a cost issue.”

We frittered away the whole budget on triple-choc muffins and prosecco during the kickoff.

“It’s a communications issue.”

Everyone loathes each other and would rather just get on with things by themselves.

“It’s a process issue.”

When I came in this morning, I could barely even remember my job title, let alone where my desk is or what my colleagues’ names are.

“It’s a resourcing issue.”

There isn’t a single soul in this building I would trust as far as I can spit.

“It’s a management issue.”

We’re doomed.

The Debrief

An awkward recap in which everyone tries to avoid eye contact and pretends to learn from previous balls-ups.

Eventually, there will be no more action points to perform, and all the relevant issues will have been announced and enumerated. This is when everyone should “take a step back” (immediately stop working), “take stock” (survey the wreckage of the project) and make some additional comments that will lend the whole process a sheen of meaningfulness. This is usually the time someone refers to “KPIs” (things you should have looked at sooner) and “burn” (how many hours of your life you’ve just wasted and will never get back). Out of this discussion, there may arise a “case study” (a rose-tinted document, heavy on the hindsight, proving work has, in fact, been done). Or maybe you will receive an Outlook Meeting Request to a none-too-cheery and forensic-sounding “post-mortem”. But before that, you’ll have to deal with all the leftover ideas, actions and issues. And this is how you should talk through them:

The vocab

“There’s some great learnings here.”

We f***** this up on a scale so epic that Ridley Scott’s people are trying to secure the movie rights.

“Let’s just put this on the back burner.”

We shall never speak of this again.

“There are lots of moving parts here.”

I’m really not sure what we just did. Shall we give up?

“We’re just boiling the ocean here.”

Well, that was a waste of time.

“Moving forward…”

Let’s just plough on and hope we do better next time.

“Onward and upward.”

I’m not taking the fall for this fiasco. You are!

Illustrations by Mr Adam Nickel