I learned about Humpty Dumpty as a child. Humpty Dumpty was apparently an egg, who fell off the wall into a state of extreme disrepair, and neither the King’s men nor the King’s horses could put Humpty back together again. Several things about this confused me, for instance, how an egg got on top of the wall in the first place and I figured that he was probably pushed. And when did horses become in-the-field medics?

As I got older, this expression “on the fence” was used often, and the image I always got was once again of Humpty Dumpty. When people tell me, I am on the fence; it means impending disaster into a state of extreme disrepair. Yes, I now know for most people that is not what it means. Might I suggest that y’all just tell me “I am indecisive?” To say I am indecisive allows the conversation to continue.

Often, “I’m on the fence” is a guise to allow the speaker to wait and hear what others will say. Just say it; I want to know what others think. Give the reason you are on the fence. If you are in a meeting and someone says, “I am on the fence,” ask “why.” Push people “off the proverbial fence.” The use of the expression “on the fence” has been a way to shut down the conversation with obfuscation. Get off the fence.

Someone says, “we’re ahead of the curve with this one,” which is to say, “we’re at the statistical high end of the bell curve.” What does that really mean? Don’t be afraid to ask by what measure and means was this conclusion drawn. Specificity in language prevents this sort ambiguity, and allows for a discussion based on real information so that appropriate decisions can be made.

There are a number of sayings that are confusing and do not lend themselves to productivity in business. They sound good, but, alas, doing a quick poll reveals many people have no idea about what some of these expressions are supposed to mean or worse they think they do, but they don’t. How are people supposed to know what actions to take if they don’t understand the conversation? Let’s take a look at a few phrases that might have a few differing connotations:

  1. “burn rate”
  2. “it’s a one off”
  3. “let’s square the circle”
  4. “we want to move this up and to the right”
  5. “we’re facing headwinds”

In rock climbing, there are simple commands “on belay” where by the climber is asking if the belayer is ready, to which the belayer needs to reply “belay on” for the climber to know that it is safe to start climbing. Before the climber starts, they need to tell their belayer, “climb on” and then actually start climbing. The expressions literally inform the partners of the intended immediate action. They are standard and those participating know what they mean. It’s not “I got your back” or “let’s square this circle.” The climber/belayer conversation is specific to a sport on which the safety of the participants relies on such short, specific expressions.

In business short concise sentences work. Sure, you may not sound like are a part of a secret elitist club, but what is more important than to be understood. While many of these phrases sound good and are commonly used and accepted, you need to ensure everyone understands the situation. You need to speak clearly. The goal is have people take action to support your efforts, not go do a Google search to determine what you are talking about.

In the photo, I am literally on a six foot wall in my backyard and I am very comfortable. If someone asks, this is one of the few times it is very appropriate for me to say “I’m on the fence.”