Keeping it (un)real

He’s a shrewd one, that Sir Alan Sugar.   As he announced in the opening episode of The Apprentice, he realises that knowing every word to ‘Candle in the wind’ does not mean he is Elton John.

Using our Suralan to Plain English dictionary, we see that his sensible – if somewhat obvious – point is that being able to say the right things will not automatically make you a success in business. But without even looking at how his hapless protégés walk the walk, it’s worth noting just how poorly they talk the talk.

From business writing to business speaking, the distinction that must be made is between effective self-expression (which is vital from job interviews onwards) and meaningless buzzwords. That these two be kept separate is as fundamental as Sir Alan and Sir Elton not mixing up their night-on-the-town outfits.

The question raised just before this series began airing was: is it appropriate, in this economic climate, to encourage the aggressive, money-grabbing ways that helped get us into this mess? Alternatively, will people tune into the programme for tips on how to get, or hold onto, a job?

Whatever their motivation, tune in they have: over eight million viewers watched episode one. Sir Alan was quoted on describing this year’s contestants as “very bright and high calibre compared to what we’ve seen in the past”. As a newcomer at series five then, I can only assume previous series have been populated entirely by briefcase-carrying chickens (with or without heads).

There is a growing consensus that what is needed now is more of a back-to-basics approach. As Tim Worstall points out in February’s Real Business magazine: ‘[t]oo much of the economy lies in banking and financial services’, and that what this situation calls for is the textbook entrepreneur, eg ‘one who takes available economic resources…and turns them to more productive uses.’ Similarly, Cassandra Jardine of the Telegraph wrote of the need for more literal ‘apprentices, with just the small “a”’.

Aha. So, we’re looking at a difference between reality and reality television. (No, really.) In the real world, trust and teamwork are encouraged.

And what has TA 2009 given us? On the team-building side: criticisms of a project manager who wasn’t ‘autocratic’ enough; and reference to colleagues as ‘puppets’. For cultivating business relationships, we have: business manager Mona belligerently telling a prospective client ‘you’ve got it all wrong’; sales consultant Debra snapping ‘we’d already bought it!’ at Sir Alan himself, when he dared question her team’s buying of overpriced cleaning supplies; and Majid who didn’t ‘want to lose to girls…not that I’m sexist’.

And from trainee stockbroker Ben’s inappropriate and hyperbolic ‘making money is better than sex’, to moist-eyed Senior Commercial Manager James – he of the success-flavoured spit, who ‘trusted with my heart when I should have been looking with my eyes’ – the whole batch is clearly aiming for the record of most words used to say nothing at all.

For all that, long may we continue to watch The Apprentice (albeit often in mortification and through our fingers). Just not as a means of polishing one’s communication skills: these people can’t even polish cars. Perhaps we could add a disclaimer for anyone in any doubt: this is Big Brother in suits, not a seminar on business.

The definitive guide to transforming the writing of individuals and teams