Meaning Guide

Am I wasting everyone’s time stating the bleedin’ obvious?

A useful meaning-hack: Does the opposite of your statement say something interesting?

I’m sure I’m not the only parent who has been tempted to slip into sarcasm when my kids ask stupid questions.  “Daddy, should we put our coats on before we play in the snow?”  “No, we should take all our clothes off and freeze.” Etc.

Sometimes I feel the same way about workplace communication:  “We aim to deliver the programme objectives on budget, on time, and in a way that maximises the value to the business.”  As opposed to what?!  “We aim to deliver a programme that is late, overbudget, and pointless?”

Obvious statements can slip past us very easily, so I find it’s sometimes useful to deliberately reverse the statement and see if it says something interesting or not.  “We aim to consistently deliver 300 units to customer X” is meaningful, because “we will not be consistently delivering 300 units to customer X” is also meaningful.  “We aim to consistently deliver for our customers” is not very meaningful, because “We aim to consistently fail our customers” would be suicidal.

The obvious candidates for this principle are corporate values, which so often lack meaning because they blandly list virtues we’d hope to see in any decent human being.  “We will act with honesty, integrity and dedication” isn’t very interesting, because it’s hard to imagine a company that would actively encourage its workforce to be deceptive, fraudulent and feckless.  Another good one is the list of superfluous positive adjectives you get in memos and business cases:  “We believe that efficient and effective delivery of superior excellence will maximise effectiveness and efficiency of positive value-adding” etc.  There is no meaning here beyond “We think this would be good” – but of course if you didn’t think it would be good you wouldn’t be submitting a business case would you?!

A word of caution:  This doesn’t work so well for identity meaning, that is, meaning that has more to do with the relationships of those speaking, than the substance their words allude to (I’ve written about this here).  The bland values poster or the superfluously superlative business case prose may be hugely meaningful to you if you were part of the team that wrote them.  There are plenty of statements that say something very obvious on the surface (“Hi isn’t it warm today?”, “It’s a goal!”, “You look frustrated” etc.) but are deeply meaningful in context, because they tell us something significant about who we are in relation to one another.

With that proviso, I commend this as a useful trick when no one seems to be engaging with what you are saying:  Think of the opposite of your statement and see if it says something interesting.  If not, then save everyone some time and think again about why you’re trying to say anything at all.


  • Really good test!
    One of my favourites is the redundant “going forward” that people often add to their situation reports. Using your test “going backward” shows how pointless the phrase is. I often wonder what the speaker means by the phrase. Maybe it’s just “on the other hand” or even “but”.

    • Or “from now on”, as in “going forwards, can we all follow the procedure please” … like most of these office-isms, I think the real meaning is as a social cue. What I’m really saying is something like “I identify with the people who say ‘going forwards’ instead of ‘in the future'”

Subscribe to new content:


Subscribe to new content: