Beware the perfect storm

perfect-stormIn any time of disruptive change, some CEOs and politicians latch onto a metaphor to try to communicate what’s going on – or an oversimplified version of it – to us common folk. Trouble is, this often doesn’t work. And coining a cliche (speechwriters beware) can make the speaker look like a follower, rather than a leader.

So we come to the perfect storm. Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein skewers that literary (or movie) allusion in his column today:

A bit of unsolicited advice to business executives trying to explain why their company or their industry is suddenly in the soup:

Please spare us the “perfect storm” metaphor.

It’s hackneyed, for starters. It doesn’t square with the facts. And for people who fancy themselves leaders, it’s downright unbecoming.

Newspaper and real estate magnate Sam Zell and Wall Street presence Robert Rubin have laid claim to the perfect storm metaphor recently, Pearlstein notes.

The worst aspect of this turn of phrase is that, far from letting executives off the hook, “perfect storm” refers to a dangerous weather pattern for which ship captains like the one in the movie (if you missed it, see trailer here) are likely to receive more than ample warnings.

The captains of industry and Wall Street heard dire warnings before 2008, Pearlstein contends, so this storm exonerates no one.

In crafting investor relations messages, we usually do better with straight language than metaphor. Results generally speak louder than words, and the goal of a company’s explanation ought to be clarity – rather than spin.


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