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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Using simple phrases to convey complex ideas

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

“Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” G.K. Chesterton

It is estimated that Project Managers spend over 90% of their time communicating, so it is important that they get good at it. I have found that it is helpful to condense complex ideas into simple phrases that anyone can understand. Here are a few of my favorites!

Are we baking bread or boiling water? We can boil water more quickly by turning up the heat, but that same solution would result in burned bread. I generally use this when there is a schedule slippage and we are trying to determine the path forward. Some problems can be resolved by the application of additional resources, but some problems are subject to the Law of Diminishing Returns. You need to be able to distinguish the two.

Is this a dead cat bounce? Great (but awful) visual! This is a Wall Street term that refers to the temporary recovery of share prices after a substantial fall, normally caused by speculators covering positions. I was in a meeting a few weeks ago and we were looking at the performance of a smaller organization. In spite of the slowdown resulting from COVID-19 procedures, this organization had actually increased performance! When asked if the performance would continue, I said that it was a “dead cat bounce”. End of conversation!

I need to carve out time. I love this one because it is a great visual. Doesn’t your mind's eye see a knife carving into something? The other day I asked someone to pull some data for me. They told me that if it was important, they could “carve out some time” and get it done for me. It left me with the impression that they were so busy that every second counted, but that my request would literally be carved from some lesser request. Beautiful!

Are we restarting the Missouri? This is a new one, and I believe its origins are from the movie “Battleship”. The heroes go to Honolulu to recommission the battleship Missouri as they had just lost their Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in battle. The only ship available was the Mighty Mo! There is a scene where the director contrasts the high-tech nature of the new destroyers to the primitive way of lighting the engines in the Missouri. I think the person using the term meant that we were reusing robust, but obsolete technology.

Are you a chicken or a pig? This is classic. The reference is to a bacon and egg breakfast. The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed by literally having skin in the game! This can be helpful when you have a group of stakeholders who are all eager to provide feedback, but hesitate to actually get involved in the work of the project. Just saying, “We have too many chickens, not enough pigs” can be shorthand for “you need to either be quiet or get to work.”

This organization has too many quisling’s. I first heard this expression while reading the novel World War Z. The reference was to WWII Norwegian Leader Vidkun Quisling, who headed domestic collaboration with the Nazi regime. The actual definition is now “a traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country.” Quisling sounds slippery and unappealing, and isn’t commonly used in casual conversation. Say it a few times. Quisling. Gross! Devastating when used properly.

Interesting words or phrases are powerful persuasion tools. Add to your lexicon and watch as people react differently to you!


Why is competence so hard to find? I am in the process of closing the sale of on a piece of rental property, and the mortgage company completely screwed it up! The purchaser had a pre-approval letter, but two days before closing they said that they misread the application and the withdrew the pre-approval. What? And even though this nameless incompetent in the bowls of a large bank cost me several thousand dollars, I have no recourse. Good grief. Do your job.


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