When words CEOs and CFOs use sound too good to be true


[Note: See update at the bottom of this post.]

For many years, I’ve heard radio ads in which the announcer repeated the phrase, “People judge you by the words you use.” The ads touted a program that would help you beef up your vocabulary so that smart guys at the beach wouldn’t kick sand in your conversations.

According to new research into the words CEOs and CFOs use, it can be especially important to judge the words they use — as their pronouncements can be filled with words that are poker tells indicating they have a losing hand.

A Stanford Business School accounting professor and a Stanford Ph.D student have been researching the way CEOs and CFOs at publicly-traded companies use words that are, in essence, bold-faced lies. According to a story today on NPR’s Morning Edition, the research indicates that when they are lying, “CEOs tend to use a lot of words that express positive emotion — things are fabulous and fantastic and extraordinary.”

I’m not surprised.

An awesome exception to the rule.

That’s because I’ve read the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four a few times and grasped the concept Orwell was trying to convey with his version of such language perversion called newspeak. That’s also because, when I was growing up in the 1960s, my favorite Superman comic book episodes involved Bizarro World, preparing me for a world in which people often say the opposite of what they mean.

However, I should warn you to disregard this theory when it comes to listening to at least one CEO, Steve Jobs. While I haven’t listened in on too many of his conference calls with analysts over the years, I can’t imagine him not using one of the words the researchers have likely discovered means “un-awesome.”

While I might have some differences with his approach or philosophies regarding certain things, over the years I’ve observed that when he says awesome, it actually means awesome most of the time.

Update: Strange timing, this post is. This afternoon, Steve Jobs made a somewhat rare appearance on Apple’s quarterly earnings conference call. Apple, by any measure other than analyst iPad sales estimates, blasted a centerfield homerun with their report, but Jobs used his visit on the call to pronounce the coming crop of competitors to the iPad “Dead on Arrival. While I personally give Jobs every benefit of the doubt when he’s talking about how great Apple products are, I think when he goes shrill about the competitors, he may be demonstrating a tad bit of whistling past the graveyard. That said, I’m not worried about Apple’s foreseeable future.