Perfect Pitch

I’m thrilled to introduce the first blog post from the famous Jay Cross.  Jay needs no introduction and we are really excited to have him on board.

Twenty years ago, the start-up I was working with hired “the world’s best presentation coach” to help our executive team raise a few million in venture capital. He showed us what made Reagan and Kennedy so compelling and Nixon so bad. He taught us the power of pausing and the impact of sound bites. And we learned what words to employ and which ones to avoid. Landing a big deal requires attention to detail. Words matter a lot.

In this post, I’ll share some words training execs should avoid when trying to sell their vision to higher-ups. In my next post, I’ll share words that will help their cause.

The late comedian George Carlin performed a monologue entitled “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The FCC closed my local radio station for playing it. You still can’t utter these four-letter beauties on television.

As a consultant and author, I maintain a list of forbidden words and terms, too. You can say them on television, but you’d be a fool to use them with a senior executive, because you’d be misunderstood.

The words to avoid are:

  • Learning
  • Learner
  • Social
  • Informal
  • KM
  • Training
  • eLearning


You say learning or learning management system; the executive hears schooling. Schooling brings with it the baggage of classrooms, teachers, boredom, courses, grades, and irrelevance. It takes too long. It doesn’t do the job. People wish they didn’t have to send their kids there.

Schooling, particularly the assembly-line schooling most of us endured, is the opposite of effective learning. Sit in a row and shut up. Memorize, don’t think. Sit still. Speak when you’re spoken to. Answer questions but don’t ask them. Don’t color outside the lines. Whatever you do, don’t work with others. Is it any wonder that school grades are unrelated to wealth, health, or success in life?

Instead of learning, I talk with execs about Working Smarter. No exec has ever told me that’s not what they’re after.


Learner is a bad word because it brands those who use it as training professionals. No one else calls workers learners. They are sales people, customer service reps, engineers, supervisors, and so forth. Calling them learners almost implies that you expect to have them under your control. Managers hate that. You plan to take them off the job to learn something? Forget about it.

People learn by doing, not by being instructed. They are corporate contributors first. Focus on how you’ll help them make larger contributors. The learning aspect is a necessary evil.


You probably see social networks as the key to team building, collaboration, and sharing collective intelligence. A solid social network enables you to find expertise when you need it. Network interactions build productive business relationships. In-house micro-blogs provide a nearly instant electronic grapevine for disseminating news. Networks route around organizational silos and improve customer service.

To the hardened executive, however, social can mean the office football pool, Facebook, beer bashes, and potential sexual harassment suits. Don’t bring it up. Networking and collaborating work well instead.


Since writing the book on informal learning and have championed experiential learning for decades, I’ve felt the dark side of informal time and time again. The executive suite suspects anything informal is lackadaisical and loosey-goosey. Informal lacks discipline.

In the real world, the primary way people learn to do their work is informal. They learn by from experience. They learn by trial-and-error, by mimicking exemplary performers, and by struggling to get things done. “I do things I don’t know how to do in order to learn how to do them,” said Picasso. Disregard informal learning and you miss 80%-90% of the learning taking place.

Were I to write the book again, I’d call it Experiential Learning.

KM (knowledge management)

Knowledge management is an oxymoron right up there with jumbo shrimp, larger half, and plastic wood. You can’t manage knowledge.

The DNA of knowledge management gets it in trouble. KM was invented to snow senior execs. It’s captivatingly logical but unworkable in practice. Most of the time, KM is a top down system that was sold by a consultant on the golf course or the first class cabin of the plane. The customers of KM — the workforce — rarely see any need for the generalizations and policies they find in KM. They weren’t even asked. Hence, KM efforts have bombed time and time again. My definition of KM: it means whatever you want it to mean.


Training is something you do to someone. The trainees may or may not change their behavior as a result. Training is a weasel-word because it talks about activity without addressing outcomes.

Training is an example of “push” learning, i.e. the authorities will tell you what’s important. Today’s talent development focuses on “pull” learning, i.e. helping people find and use what they deem important.


In 1999, I was the first person to use the word eLearning on the web. Back then, I optimistically wrote that “eLearning is learning on Internet Time, the convergence of learning and networks and the New Economy. eLearning is a vision of what corporate training can become. We’ve only just begun.”

My eLearning was dynamic, collaborative, real-time, and comprehensive.

Six months later, nearly every vendor at the ASTD Conference in Dallas claimed to have eLearning. Some guys who reported test scores over a modem line told me they had eLearning. (I am not making this up.)

The term eLearning has become meaningless. These days, what isn’t connected to the net?


Try this experiment. See if you can go for a day without saying Learning, Learner, Social, Informal, KM, Training or eLearning. If you win that invitation to sit at the table with the leadership team, you’re going to have to restrain yourself from using trainer-speak.

In our next post, we’ll look into speaking like business people.