5 New Boardroom Phrases That Disguise Incompetence

Frankie Kemp

15 November 2023

The 1970s gave us unfortunate fashion, the 80s gave us questionable music tastes and the 90s brought along a whole raft of phrases for the boardroom that don’t actually mean anything.

If you’ve ever cringed at the moment you were encouraged to “think outside the box” or when bringing up a harsh reality you were asked, “How can the sky be the limit when there are footprints on the moon?” you can always start introducing these new beauties either for comic effect or just plain fun.

I’ve put together a list of new boardroom nuggets, which might have you cringing yourself in a few years’ time, but at least in the meantime you can cut the tension in a conversation, or inject some humour to alleviate any tension.

1) “Tickle the salmon!”

A salmon has a strange existence which for all intents and purposes isn’t incredibly interesting. Tickling the salmon is about turning a boring situation into a happy occasion, or a mundane one into a positive one, and is suitable for management decisions concerning monotonous work, or shifting people out of their comfort zone.

An example:

“Morale is low amongst the sales team downstairs”

“How can we tickle the salmon here?”

“We could loosen their straightjackets…”

2) “How can the sky be the limit when Einstein’s theory of general relativity states otherwise?”

If somebody is getting a little bit “creatively pumped” you snap them back to reality quite quickly with this little “never appropriate” number. You’ll get some funny looks yourself but it will take the focus off Mr Cliché.

An example:

“Let’s do some blue sky thinking, the sky’s the limit!”

“How can the sky be the limit when Einstein’s theory of general relativity states otherwise?” Well…?


3) “Let’s create a problem onion”

All problems can be broken down into smaller problems that need to be solved before the main issue can be addressed, so creating a ‘problem onion’ helps us see that we need to attack an issue layer by layer. The word ‘onion’ has no natural place in corporate doublespeak so it can help you stand out.

An example:

“Our employee turnover is very high compared to five years ago”

“It’s because of the new hiring policy, which came in after we shuffled the HR department”

“Woah, there’s obviously a root cause here.  Let’s create a problem onion and work this out step by step”

4) “Let’s five-why it!”

To really find out where the problem lies, you should ask yourself “why” five times in a row and it’s likely you’ll end up with something closer to the real issue. But it can also make you sound like a five-year-old child, and saying “why” constantly at your Sales Director is likely to lead to your P45 landing on your desk the following morning. The five-why questions are still one of the most effective problem-solving techniques, however, so we need a new, more diplomatic way of introducing this idea at the Board Meeting.

An example:

“The flingle flangle no longer works and the meta-flump collapsed this morning. What’s going on?”

“Let’s five-why it!”

“I know what that means, let’s do that!”

5) “Down marks the new up”

Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and admit either an error, or a defeat. When sales figures are terrible and there’s no other way to justify it, you can act like it’s a signal for progress and quote “down marks the new up”. This is effectively saying, “Failure is part of progress”, not that any decline is an end in itself.

You can follow with, “This business has been successful year on year since 1976, are you scared of a little dip? We know all too well that this is feedback, not failure: the beginning of success.” Use this phrase to make light of a plan that’s gone awry and recalibrate.

These are all ways to improve your communications skills and conversational skills in business situations, and if you want to learn more about my communications, presentation, networking or public speaking courses, then contact me today.

This article was originally published in 2014 and was updated in November 2023.

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