The 8 Lucy Kellaway rules for claptrap and the fundamental theorem of corporate bullshit

Lucy Kellaway

After 25 years of calling out corporate business jargon, Lucy Kellaway, columnist for the UK’s Financial Times, has posted eight rules that generate bullshit. The motivations that drive those rule reveal the fundamental theorem of corporate bullshit — all bullshit comes from either people hiding problems, or attempting to make what they are doing seem new and innovative.

Kellaway published her summation in a column called “How I lost my 25-year battle against corporate claptrap.” My British followers frequently share these columns, and I stand in awe of her persistence. In my dreams, she and I triumph over the evil of corporate bullshit, but we both know that’s a fantasy.

In her retrospective, she cites eight rules. Let’s examine why they’re so true.

1. Never use a short word when a long one will do

If the first principle of journalism is to simplify then exaggerate, so the first rule of guff is complicate then obfuscate.

An HR manager running an off-site meeting showed how it was done last year by warning attendees to “be cognizant of the optics of your personal brand”. In other words: tuck your shirts in.

Simple principles stated simply might make you seem unsophisticated. Long words are an attempt to cure that. I also think that certain words (like “cognizant,” “optics,” and “brand” in the above quote), repeated often enough in a corporate environment, become part of the background noise. Once you’ve heard “optics” frequently enough you fail to recognize it as jargon.

2. Everyday euphemisms are the way forward

In guff, all negatives are spun, so no one need take full blame for anything. Uber has done pioneering work in the past few months by producing language so ugly and boring that the audience can only respond by switching off.

The company has variously admitted to having “underinvested in the driver experience” and being “in a reputational deficit”, in the hope that no one will notice it has screwed its drivers and its name is mud.

Confronting our failures head-on takes courage, a feature that corporations, not being human beings, lack. The people working for those corporations protect their positions by manifesting that same cowardice in their public statements.

The thing is, you’re not fooling anybody. Bad news (like a layoff), couched in euphemisms, is still bad. The more clearly you state it, the more quickly you and your readers can address how you’re solving the problem.

3. Disregard the grammar you learnt in school

One of the charms of guff is its syntactic flexibility — all nouns can be verbs and vice versa. Oscar Munoz made great use of this rule when he talked of “deplaning” a man who was manhandled roughly off one of his United aircraft in April.

Other great examples of nerbing and vouning fill the archive: to cold towel; a global touch-base; to effort; to front-burnerize; to town hall; to potentiate; to future; to value add; to bonus well.

But my favourite came from a manager who, in trying to draft a memo, said: “There must be a better way to language it.” He’s right. There must.

As an old friend of mine used to say, “any noun can be verbed.” Like “language.”

These verbifications exist because business wants to make everything sound dynamic (except when they’re avoiding blame, see Rule 2). New words are exciting, active, and exclusive — they make it seem as if you are creating something new, even if you are just doing something ordinary.

4. There is no such thing as too much emotion

It all started in 2003 when the late Jimmy Lee sent an email to everyone in his corporate finance department at JPMorgan, saying: “Call a client and tell them you love them. They won’t forget that you made this call.”

I disagree. It all started, not in 2003, but in the 1970s when we got in touch with our feelings. All that’s happened is that such soppy language has migrated to the workplace.

In these cases, emotion is a substitute for logic. What there is an actual strategy, passion is just called motivation. When there is not, passion is just an excuse to talk about how excited you are to run around in circles. If you want your workers to display positive emotion in their work — fellow-feeling for their colleagues, love for customers, joy in a job well done — then give them something worth doing. Talking about passion is a lot easier than effective management, but it generates nothing positive on its own.

5. If you produce something simple, rebrand it so no one will know what it is

Over the years, Toyota has renamed the car a “sustainable mobility solution”; Amazon has called the book a “reading container”; Speedo has rebranded the swimming cap a “hair management system” and a Nestlé bottle of water has been described as an “affordable, portable lifestyle beverage”. This rule is the most baffling of the lot as there is no reason for it.

This rule is not baffling at all. People want what they do to sound sophisticated even if what they make is simple. Simple products can be complex to get right, but that’s no reason to obfuscate how you describe them.

6. Do not limit yourself to words that are in the dictionary

Make up your own by stitching together two or more existing ones.

The greatest ever example of this was Eversheds, a frumpy law firm, which in 2007, tried to appeal to young recruits by looking for “knowlivators, innovateers, performibutors, proactilopers, prioricators and winnomats” — the last being a particularly unwinning combination of winners and diplomats.

As with the previous rule, this comes from a desire to make the ordinary seem special. And once you create a term like “knowlivator,” you get to own it, because nobody else wants it.

7. There is no such thing as too much metaphor and cliché in one sentence

Rick Hamada, CEO of Avnet, is a master at this: “Drilling down one more click on services, we actually think of multiple swim lanes of opportunity around business.” However, he is not quite as good as the following management consultant: “You have to appreciate that the milestones we have set in these swim lanes provide a road map for this flow chart. When we get to toll gates, we’ll assess where you sit in the waterfall . . . ”

First you create the metaphor. Then you fall in love with it. Then you forget that it’s a metaphor. Then you don’t even realize your sentence is noisy and incomprehensible.

8. Ignore rule 1

The most lethal new language is not a mass of robustifying learnability. It is simpler but no less confusing.

You use short, well-known words, but the catch is you use them to mean something different. The word of the moment is “play”.

[A great example:] Angela Ahrendts who, in a Burberry annual report, wrote the most mysterious sentence ever composed in the English language: “In the wholesale channel, Burberry exited doors not aligned with brand status and invested in presentation through both enhanced assortments and dedicated, customised real estate in key doors.”

Some corporate types have recognized that long words and neologisms like “knowlivate” mark you as an obfuscatory idiot. But they still need to obfuscate. So instead of long words, they string together small, ordinary words in ways that suggest something new and exciting, even if it is actually old and ordinary.

The fundamental theorem of corporate bullshit

I’d like to thank Ms. Kellaway for her decades of service — and even more so for her rules. Examining them all in one place — and probing the motivation behind them — has led me to the fundamental theorem of corporate bullshit:

People use bullshit for one of two reasons: to hide bad news or to make their ordinary actions seem sophisticated and unique.

Next time you read an incomprehensible public statement, press release, or email, apply this theorem. It will help you read between the lines.

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  1. I still like FDR’s 1942 response to bureaucratic obfuscation.

    A government agency had issued this instruction about blacking out buildings during air raids:

    “Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.”

    “Tell them,” Roosevelt said, “that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.”

  2. “The fundamental theorem of corporate bullshit: People use bullshit for one of two reasons: to hide bad news or to make their ordinary actions seem sophisticated and unique.” Summed it up nicely!

    OH @work: euphemism for firing: “de-hiring interview.”

  3. Long time reader, first time poster. Your “fundamental theorem” fits nicely into any industry. I come across a lot of jargon in my field of education. I wish you could touch on education more, but I know that’s not your field. Even for us teachers, your advice is very helpful. Thanks for what you do, and keep it up.

  4. Late to the game commenting on this one, but there is an underlying insult to all of us in corporate bullshit. These “message crafters” think that we are all stupid enough to be dazzled by the brilliance of their words. That’s the main reason we should all reject this crap. Don’t doubt yourself, but know that bullshit writing is condescending to you, who they view as the simple and ignorant audience. Don’t invest in or buy products from the companies that insult you in this way and don’t employ anyone who writes like this.

  5. To Blake, here is a piece from the Guardian on Education.

    “Finally, universities need to stop rewarding the creation of empty administration. They can do this by not rewarding empty talk with attention. Simply switching off as soon as someone begins to use empty business jargon will mean people who present new ideas think them through thoroughly. They need to make stupidity costly. One way to do this is by requiring people to fully carry out their own fanciful ideas. When people have to implement an idea, they are likely to think twice before proposing it.”