Thursday, 26 March 2009

Bullshit Bingo

Have you come across it? It’s the fastest growing participation sport in corporate life. It just needs a place in which to do it, an audience, as many players as you can muster, a few minutes’ preparation and a victim. The game is a product of boredom, cynicism and powerlessness and comprises a strange mix of childish prank and indirect aggression.

Do you have the first idea of what I’m talking about? No? Well the chances are that if you have never played it you’ve been it’s innocent prey. I first came across it at the end of year lunch for the firm of consultants I’d just joined. I’d been asked to make a speech to my new colleagues, and had prepared a short, address to the whole staff before a boozy meal and taxi back to hearth and family for the Christmas holiday. As I approached the stage, I noticed a small fuss from the five, forty-something teenagers on the back row. They were sniggering to themselves and passing a piece of paper to one another, and I was genuinely interested to find out what was going on.
I asked them what they were doing and there was much shuffling, whispering and passing of papers back to the ring leader, who said, rather defensively, “Nothing!”. I persisted, sensing some kind of set-up.

“Please gents, what’s going on?” I asked again, the rest of the audience now fascinated, silent in anticipation…The ring-leader, Roger, Handed me a piece of paper rather sheepishly, and whispered, “Bullshit Bingo”. There was an awkward muttering and a few titters from the crowd and a confused nothing from me. I could smell trouble but I didn’t know what this “Bingo” thing was, so I asked Roger to explain. Pale, and in very public agony, he told me about this game that he’d spent time preparing, for him and his highly paid mates to play at my expense. And for your information “Bullshit”- or “buzz-word bingo”, for the easily shocked- is played as follows…

Any number of players pays a stake to enter the game. Each entrant is given a “bingo card” with a blank,16 square grid on it. In each of the squares the player writes a piece of jargon, a cliché or other trendy but meaningless phrase, that they think is likely to appear in the presentation they are to attend. Then the players simply sit and listen to the talk and wait for their predictions to appear.
When one of their chosen words or phrases is spoken, the player crosses it off their card, just like bingo. When they’ve crossed off all of their words, they’ve won. Then they must shout “Bingo”, loud enough for all of their fellow players to hear. The victor collects the winnings, usually, to be spent on champagne in the bar at lunch.

Stakes vary from industry to industry, though the highest pot-scoop I heard about was £5,500, (110 players at £5 per head) at an analysts briefing run by a Japanese investment bank in London in 2004. I was astounded and appalled. I’d never heard of “BB” before and the more I found out, the more incredulous I became. My impending speech was forgotten for a moment and Roger, thinking I was angry (I wasn’t) said, “It’s nothing personal Jim. We do it to everybody. Kevin, (the MD), got ‘bingoed’ in his first 3 minutes last year.”

Much laughter erupted around the room, but Kevin, who obviously didn’t know a thing about it either, just sat there red-faced and furious. Mind you, he is a truly terrible presenter, and we all know the truth hurts.

Now here’s the thing. I fancy myself as a good speaker and had been brought into the business to help the firm get better at just this kind of thing, so I had an idea. “What’s in the pot then?” I asked.
“Er, 320 quid” said Stuart, “16 (of the 30) people in the room at 20 pounds a pop.” Rogers’ sidekick in the game and a main-board colleague of mine. “OK, so if I agree to double the winnings if I lose, can I play against you?” I continued,

“If I make my speech as planned, and I say even one of those words on your sheets, I’ll double the pot. But if I go through the whole thing and no-one wins, I’ll take the money.” After a little bit of debate behind hands, the players agreed to the challenge, and off I went.

Even as I spoke, I was struck by the thought that this is in fact an awful and excellent pastime in equal measure. Pastime being the precise word, because it does, really help to have something interesting to think about when some M&S clad corporate clone is droning on about “visions and values, synergy and strategy” to the background of the dullest set of slides seen on stage.

The real issue here, is not the fact that some bored blokes, too scared to stand up for themselves, have invented such a game, but that they’ve done it because they’re sick of the same old “bullshit” they hear in corporate life. Can you really say that a part of you doesn’t agree with their sentiment? Have you never sat there during a slide show and secretly wished that the presenter would explode, or wet himself or do something to relieve the tedium? Why has Bullshit Bingo sprung up now?

Maybe it’s because as business becomes more global, we tend to find larger companies dominating, and some kind of international language of business takes over. The kind of language that sees nations, borders, traditions and culture as irrelevant to their operation and the people stuck in these “territories” as irrelevant too.

Maybe that’s it. The speeches mean nothing because we, the audience, are not seen as people with sense, feelings, education, families and other things to do, but as Human Resources. Things like every other business resource, to be bought, consumed and discarded. You don’t waste time and effort briefing your office building on a takeover, so why bother briefing the office staff?
But all of these companies have Human Resource Departments who have been trained to pretend that people need a little more maintenance than a building, who persuade their bosses that it might be a good idea to keep the Human Resource informed, so they set up “Employee Briefing” sessions.

In a recent survey, senior managers in over 50 of the UK’s top 250 businesses were asked to rate the value and effectiveness of the presentations they attend. Of the 2000 people that replied, over 80% of them felt that the presentations they attended were of “little to no value” to them in their working lives, and that 95% of them felt that the they could have learned more from a single page of A4 text on the same subject. What a disaster. .

So what should we Infer from the outbreak of Bullshit Bingo? In corporate terms, a speaker that uses concrete language might make the following point in the following way.

“We have made a £4 million loss this year. That is a very bad result and one that cannot be repeated next year or we will go bust.” A skilled bullshitter may say the same thing as follows.

“We have made negative £4 million profit this last reporting period. It’s a result that leaves us with a real challenge going forward.”

Abstract nouns include: Quality, Integrity, Trust, Faith, DNA (metaphorically), Hope, value-added and reliable. You get the picture, abstract nouns are the DNA of a bullshitter’s speech. The binding thread that holds an idea captive until it dies of boredom and the audience follows soon after. If you want to know how to stop BB in your Company, you can do one of 2 things- Ring me, or give the biggest bullshitter in your business this article…

Oh, and by the way, I lost! One rogue “vision” and £640 was gone from me forever.


* What’s an abstract noun? Any word that describes a thing (noun) that needs further explanation before it makes any real sense. “Cat” is a noun, a concrete noun, that needs no further explaining before the audience can conjure up the image in their heads. Each of us may be thinking of a different type of cat, but that’s OK, we’re together in that we’re all thinking of CAT= Mammal/4 legs/Furry/Miaow etc.

Now an abstract noun is a little different. Abstract nouns describe things that exist only in the imagination, so you can’t touch, taste, smell, hear or see them. They need further explanation if they are to make any sense to us at all. Trust is an abstract noun, so is quality, honesty, integrity and synergy.

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