Why the word ‘stakeholder’ must die

Tessa Parry-Wingfield

The Power of Words

OK, hands up, I got my 6-year-old to draw this picture. But there are surprisingly few images out there with vampires and stakes that are appropriate for this blog. Anyway, it’s got your attention – right?

I digress. This is not a piece about images, but – and the clue is in the title – it is about the word ‘stakeholder’, and why it needs to die. Preferably forever, in a vampiric way, worthy of The Lost Boys. It’s a word that almost every client utters to me when we have content briefings.

It also worms its way into my copy during amends. Blogs, articles, reports, interviews, video scripts – you name it. It’s always there, staring at me, making my eyes want to bleed. Although you’ll never see it in my final draft. Ever. Here’s why….

Apart from conjuring up the above image in my mind whenever I hear it (less important), it doesn’t truly mean anything (very important). Sure, I get the concept. But it’s alienating language and should be firmly placed in the extra-terrestrial realms of jargon.

If they’re investors, say investors. If they’re employees – why not, ‘our team’. Employees is also fine, of course. Suppliers? Sounds ok as is to me. And customers – well, I’m not sure they ever refer to themselves as stakeholders. The whole shebang? Well how about: ‘anyone with strategic interests in our business’? Or: ‘people involved in this particular project’.

Ok, it does go against the grain a bit. As in, it’s swapping one short-ish word for many. This is unusual advice for me. But these are unusual times, and the struggle is real. At least the alternative does what it says on the tin. Everyone’s in on the conversation and understands exactly what you’re talking about.

By now you’ll be unsurprised to hear that stakeholder has been added to my dictionary of banned words. Nay, it was probably the word that kicked-off the whole tome. It’s the leader of the gang when it comes to highfalutin corporate management speak that may sound important, but is anything but.

It puts a barrier up between you and your audiences. It distances them from what you’re saying, because they don’t know what you mean. It may even be a wasted opportunity to engage (ghost face emoji).

It’s an urban myth, but a credible one (that perfectly encapsulates what I want to say, so let’s go with it), that Financial Times journalists are trained to write so a 14-year-old can read their story and understand it.

Well, if that’s the FT’s modus operandi, brands should also try and speak more colloquially and have a conversation with their target audience, rather than shout at them down a megaphone. Did I lose you when I started spouting Latin? Point made.

It doesn’t stop at stakeholder. Alongside it in my ‘Bible of the Banned’ is ‘value added’, or worst ‘value add’. What’s wrong with benefit, or superior? ‘Going forward’ gets my goat too. And don’t even get me started on ‘thought leadership’. It’s possibly, after stakeholder, the most over-used, meaningless phrase of recent years. More on that, though, when I’ve conjured up a viable alternative.

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