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Get to the heart of it, think like a teen

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Art Linkletter _ and now Bill Cosby _ almost got it right with their TV shows, Kids Say the Darndest Things. The title of the show actually should be: Kids Say the Smartest Things. Kids' language is just terribly earnest and direct. There's none of the subterfuge and euphemisms in, for example, current business terms such as "rightsizing" or "reskilling" or "outplacement."

As I relearned in a recent encounter with a group of high school students, young people are openly curious. They want straight answers. And they're not yet sophisticated enough to hedge their opinions. On TV, adults laugh at young children for their charming transparency. But after my conversation with a group of Midwestern teens, I think our jaded adult institutions could use a heck of a lot more of their non-self-conscious truth-seeking and total lack of circumlocutions.

I was once told that some of the best writing in existence was done to explain things to children. And it's true. If you want to know how to recognize trees in the woods, say, get a book written for young people. The sentences are short, vigorous and declarative: "Elms look like upside-down feather dusters. Chestnuts are the Peter Pan trees of the woods. They never grow up." Descriptions have to be put that way for kids. Otherwise, the book won't sell.

Facing a group of young people, I discovered I had to communicate in just such a way to reach them. It was a revelation.

Kids are darn direct (and not at all funny) when they talk about hopes, dreams, their futures. Their questions bore right in: How did you decide to get into your business?

Grown-up executives, on the other hand, seem to prefer a language of indirection, what grammarians call the "passive voice." A hypothetical but all-too-real example:

"It has come to management's attention that it is imperative that business transformation be implemented in real-time in order to focus on assuring a uniform high-quality experience of our services for our customers."

Teen translation: Our customers think we're losers. We've got to change. Like yesterday.

The language of grown-ups _ especially business managers _ is stuffy and stilted. Its jargon has meaning only at the office, where executives talk about "context," "paradigm shifts," "category killers" and "market forces."

Management-speak also has this one-step-removed-from-reality quality to it. For instance, I often hear such wooden phrases as: "We must leverage technology to grow the business." It sounds as if you can improve your business by shoving a pry bar under a computer and heaving. Or "Our employees must become more customer-centric." I think that means we ought to treat the people who buy our stuff better.

By comparison, even the slang of the teenagers I met was active, alive. Thus, a car was "sweet," because of what its sights and sounds did to their senses.

But it was in their questions that I was confronted with reality:

"Did your education prepare you for what you are doing today?" "When did you decide to get into the business you're in?" "Would you have done anything differently in your life?" "What are you going to do next?"

What tough _ but wonderful _ questions!

Answers: 1. I wasn't trained as a consultant, but education disciplined my thinking process. 2. It wasn't a conscious decision as much as an evolution. More important, I moved to where I enjoyed the work. 3. Only to be a little more adventurous. 4. I'm writing another book.

Adults never ask such things. Teen queries are all about purpose. They're like the ones I used to ask myself. They're also the sort of questions we business types ought to be asking about ourselves and our companies.

But to do that we need to step back. In the hustle of work, it's nearly impossible to separate the urgent from the important. Urgent is: How am I going to get to all the meetings today? Important is: What must our company do to succeed in the future?

The latter is a teen kind of question. The best way to approach such a big topic is with the open mind of a kid. And that is because, for children, everything is still possible.

_ James Champy is an author and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at