A Dark Theory About Why Execs Seem To Only Spout Platitudes

I don’t know why writers think business people will read the same platitudes spouted over and over. Maybe it’s like sports reporters who quote athletes saying they gave 110%. Regardless, the late Mary Kay Ash, founder of Dallas-based Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc., is among a posse of execs quoted in an article posted Sunday that claims to have amassed the 20 best pieces of execs’ business advice at resumebear.com. Her quote?

For every failure, there’s an alternative course of action. You just have to find it. When you come to a roadblock, take a detour.

Not a bad tip, but didn’t I also read that in a fortune cookie I got from May Dragon once? My most dark theory about why execs only spout platitudes to journalists about their business practices: They don’t want to reveal the nuts and bolts of how they got things done, because they don’t want to show their hands (ever) to their competition.


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22 responses to “A Dark Theory About Why Execs Seem To Only Spout Platitudes”

  1. Some worker says:

    Either that or they don’t know the answer either.

  2. Gwyon says:

    They can’t admit they were lucky.

  3. amandacobra says:

    Also, telling people to be cutthroat to the point of playing dirty or being straight up cold-blooded to get ahead doesn’t sound as good as fortune cookie platitudes about roadblocks and detours.

  4. Daniel says:

    My dad always used to say, “Son, when you fall down, don’t just lie there until you die, feral dogs attack you, or a property owner comes forth to kick. Get up, and eventually have a meal of some kind: for only in this way can life continue.”

    I come back to this gem whenever I fall down. Which isn’t very often, but still.

  5. amanda says:

    Ummm…Dave, it’s because every single one of these books are ghost-written by a pool of writers who write the same book over and over again… It’s good work if you can get it, and have infinite tolerance of ego. Even I was contacted by a famous (infamous) Dallas corporation to write just such a book. The first thing they did was drop a stack of previously published books, including several titles from Mary Kay Ash. Of the dozen or so titles provided, all were written by just 3 different people.

  6. Daniel says:

    I think her quote should be on a poster, with a picture of a kayaker heroically negotiating a boulder amid the dramatic white water. I think this poster should be put in every cubicle farm in North America.

    No, I don’t.

  7. Bill Marvel says:

    I’m going to disguise the details here for obvious reasons. Once upon a time I had to interview an executive who was also an artist of real accomplishment. His work had achieved a very high level of beauty and sophistication and was admired by other artists and by those who understand and value art. We had a wonderful conversation for about two hours about his sources of inspiration, working methods, the work of other artists in his field, about art and life. He spoke clearly and eloquently. Someone who didn’t know a thing about art would have little trouble following our talk.
    For the last 20 minutes of our interview, I switched to his work as a corporate executive. It was as though some toggle flipped inside his brain. He dropped into exec-speak. All I got from him was a stream of MBA jargon. “Ascertain needs” this, and “assure customer satisfaction” that. Yes, I said, but what does that mean? What do you DO? How do you spend your day? The jargon intensified. His life as a busy executive became even more opaque. I asked him what was the first thing he did in the morning when he walked into his office. He told me he “ascertained needs” and “assured customer satisfaction.” This was a man who had arrived close to the very top of a huge multi-national corporation.
    I’ve had many opportunities to talk to execs. I’ve had friends and colleagues who became execs. It’s very hard to get them to speak like human beings. (Certainly they’re not unique in this respect; politicians come to mind.) I thought at first there was a language barrier, but now I’m convinced it’s something about the executive mind and the way it works, or doesn’t work, or works in strange ways. Even when they think they’re speaking plainly, they’re not. The system trains them to think in certain well-established patterns that rely heavily on jargon and platitude.
    Is this because the executive suite is so intensely politicized? Is it peer pressure, the pressure to conform as you approach the top?
    Does exec-speak produce exec-thought or the other way around? As a writer, I have to think that language not only mirrors thought, but helps to construct thought. That’s very frightening, but it explains a whole lot.
    There are some executives who can speak plainly and directly. When you meet them your heart leaps up in joy.

  8. Dave Moore says:

    @ Bill Marvel: Maybe this is a phenomenon created by the emergence of the MBA. It’s definitely an echo-chamber effect, that’s for sure.

  9. Daniel says:

    They are like politicians or (somewhat ironically) academics in a humanities-related field: They not only speak in jargon, they actually hide behind it, because they either don’t actually have much to say or they’re afraid they don’t.

    Too, execs usually have a goodly dose of salesman in them (again, like politicans), and when they speak, that’s the side you’re seeing. Even a relatively lowly white-collar salesman uses the exact same lingo as the exec. Without it, they’d be naked.

  10. Simpler answer:

    Not a lot of people make it to the C-suites relying on luck or with the pessimism that infects society’s losers.

    And type A personalities don’t usually spend time worrying about communication outside their business focus.

    When they do have to communicate outside their field, they gravitate towards simple, clever-(they think)-but-cliched sayings that reflect their general optimism and don’t-quit attitude.

    In short: You don’t often see a Bentley with a “S*** happens” bumper sticker.

  11. Puddin'Tane says:

    Many C Levels run on fear and actually not always good communicators so it’s easy to rely on clichés or even come across as mean spirited as a means to seem more authoritative.

    Unless someone is close at hand to help them “keep it real” they just come across as stiff text.

  12. notseenonTV says:

    I blame Tony Robbins and the Self-Help awareness movements for our executives’ cliched statements and blind optimism. Shame on them and their successful, rich, ways…

  13. Daniel says:

    For what it’s worth, I applaud their optimism.

    And the fact that their (verbal) communication skills are execrable is nothing but good news for me. I cry, Keep up the gobbledygook!

  14. Don says:

    I think we need to strategize, change our paradigm, grab some low hanging fruit, talk off-line, think outside of the box and then knock it out of the ballpark. Now, THAT’S the secret to good business!

  15. Dave Moore says:

    @Don. You left out the verbs “synergize” and “task.” A pox upon you.

  16. Bill Marvel says:

    There’s my problem. I tend to knock the low-hanging fruit out of the ballpark.

  17. Is that a euphemism, Bill?

  18. amanda says:

    I think we just met the handful of authors…

  19. Skeptic says:

    Bill Marvel:

    I’ve taken swipes at you on this blog. I thought they were fair, given the circumstances. But our comment above is a wonderful piece of writing, and I enjoyed every single sentence. Not a clunker in the bunch.

    Perhaps we should ask the same question of you with respect to journalists that you’ve asked of business execs: why can’t you write like this all of the time? You would certainly add at least one devoted reader to your fan-base.

  20. Skeptic says:

    Dammit, that was supposed to be “your” in the second sentence.

  21. Phil says:

    Glenn Hunter’s probably best suited to answer the question.

    But I have three observations:

    1) I think execs mostly respond to what they’re asked. If journos don’t let them off the hook, they sometimes might possibly maybe say something substantive.

    2) Some execs are honestly mistaken about what makes them interesting. They think the same one-liners that motivate the sales staff will work on the public. Not always the case.

    3) Then there’s reg FD, which makes public company execs so scared to say anything that they just don’t. I wouldn’t either.

    4) I can’t count. But, as amandacobra said, some execs just don’t want to say that they outsourced labor, stole an idea, spread lies about their competitors, bullied a standards committee, and all sorts of other unflattering things that DO give companies an edge.


  22. Bill Marvel says:

    Thanks for your gracious words.
    I have tried all my years as a journalist — going on 50 — to write “like this.” When I’ve fallen short, it’s not because I’ve been a journalist, but because I’ve been less of a writer.