A Victory for Vague Language! Purposeful Vague Language and Miscommunication
There’s a belief that’s entrenched like no other: to be a great leader, you must be a gifted and expert communicator. That usually means leaders should be clear, concise, and precise when communicating. Of course, at the Kimono, we don’t take much for granted. We like to dig and that’s what brought us to this excellent article by some smart people that should make you think differently. If you have 8 hours of your life to spend and a working knowledge of correlation coefficients, you can see the article HERE. For all others, just read on and let the Kimono do all the work.
Why Communicate in Vague Ways?
The authors of this piece make a controversial claim. Namely, that it pays to communicate in vague and cloudy ways. Especially, in certain circumstances. Their logic goes something like this. Rival firms and organizations are always scouring the marketplace, like sharks roaming the seas, to determine whether they should jump in or not. Before they decide to jump into a given market and really get the competition going, they do their intel. And, “by doing intel”, we mean that these outsiders hang on every word of the senior executive team that is already operating in that space to determine their entry decision and attack strategy. Firms that are already in that market don’t want new competitors or entrants because it destroys profits. The authors refer to them, simply, as incumbent firms. Essentially, incumbent firms will purposefully and intentionally use vague and evasive language to complicate and confuse the interpretation of information by potential rivals. Up to this study, this concept has never been tested before, but it makes sense. A Commanding General never wants to give away his strategy to potential threats, so he or she either keeps quiet, gives out false intel, or provides vague intel to keep potential rivals guessing. For business executives, they really don’t have the luxury of not talking and the SEC gets rather upset when executives lie. But they can, and do, find this middle ground—of being vague.
To get at their answers of their theories, the authors tore through years and years of annual reports (yawn) and company press releases for vague and cloudy language. Their data collections involved the U.S. Airline industry, which is considered highly competitive. Simplifying, let’s highlight the main findings. One, organizations operating in profitable markets wanted to keep them that way—profitable—and to do that they used more vague language. Second, the more wolves circling the marketplace, the more incumbent firms used vague communication to keep them out of their space. Third, it worked and it worked well. Vague language by the CEO and senior executives seemed to keep the barbarians at the gate—they were less likely to enter into the incumbent’s market space. Okay, we’ll throw just one stat at you; increasing the use of vague language by one standard deviation or only 59 “cloudy” words like “may” or “appear” or “sometimes” reduced the probability of market entry by one of these circling rival sharks by a staggering 11.4%! Additionally, they found that when the firm was huge and controlled a larger share of the market (think Southwest or American), there was greater use of vague language and entry into their markets by new entrant rivals was less likely (good luck Allegiant!).
What Does it All Mean?
What’s this mean to you? Well, it means that Opening the Kimono and offering full disclosure isn’t always the best decision. This is especially true if you’re a business owner and your potential rivals can hear you. And rather than deceive or stay quiet, sometimes just using words like “maybe” are enough to keep others on their toes!
Love to Learn says the Kimono!