Coding Horror

programming and human factors

If It Looks Corporate, Change It

Are you familar with happy talk?

If you're not sure whether something is happy talk, there's one sure-fire test: if you listen very closely while you're reading it, you can actually hear a tiny voice in the back of your head saying "Blah blah blah blah blah...."

A lot of happy talk is the kind of self-congratulatory promotional writing that you find in badly written brochures. Unlike good promotional copy, it conveys no useful information, and focuses on saying how great we are, as opposed to delineating what makes us great.

Happy talk is the kudzu of the internet; the place is lousy with the stuff.

And then there's the visual equivalent of happy talk. Those cloying, meaningless stock photos of happy users doing ... something ... with a computer.


What is going on here? Given the beatific expressions, you'd think they were undergoing some kind of nerd rapture. Maybe they're getting a sneak preview of the singularity, I don't know.

It's unclear to me why companies (and even some individuals) think they need happy talk, stock photos of multicultural computer users, or the occasional headset hottie. Jason Cohen provides an explanation:

Even before I had a single customer, I "knew" it was important to look professional. My website would need to look and feel like a "real company." I need culture-neutral language complimenting culturally-diverse clip-art photos of frighteningly chipper co-workers huddled around a laptop, awash with the thrill and delight of configuring a JDBC connection to SQL Server 2008.

It also means adopting typical "marketing-speak," so my "About Us" page started with:

Smart Bear is the leading provider of enterprise version control data-mining tools. Companies world-wide use Smart Bear's Code Historian software for risk-analysis, root-cause discovery, and software development decision-support.

"Leading provider?" "Data mining?" I'm not even sure what that means. But you have to give me credit for an impressive quantity of hyphens.

That's what you're supposed to do, right? That's what other companies do, so it must be right. Who am I to break with tradition?

I'm not sure where we got our ideas about this stuff, but it is true that some large companies promote a kind of doublespeak "professionalism". Kathy Sierra describes her experiences at Sun:

By the time I got to Sun, using the word "cool" in a customer training document was enough to warrant an entry in your annual performance eval. And not in a good way.

I cannot count the times I heard the word "professionalism" used as justification for why we couldn't do something. But I can count the few times I heard the word "passion" used in a meeting where the goal was to get developers to adopt our newest Java technologies. What changed?

Some argue that by maintaining strict professionalism, we can get the more conservative, professional clients and thus grow the business. Is this true? Do we really need these clients? Isn't it possible that we might even grow more if we became braver?

It's a shame that this misguided sense of professionalism is sometimes used as an excuse to put up weird, Orwellian communication barriers between yourself and the world. At best it is a facade to hide behind; at worst it encourages us to emulate so much of what is wrong with large companies. Allow me to paraphrase the simple advice of Elmore Leonard:

If it looks corporate, change it.

The next time you find yourself using professional text, or professional stock images, consider the value of this "professionalism". Is it legitimately helping you communicate? Or is it getting in the way?

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: