Brian Fugere '80: Cutting the bull

by Brenda Pittsley

Pretentious language doesn’t work on Brian Fugere’s 10-year-old son as well as it used to.

“That sounds like a bull word, Dad,” Scottie now fires back whenever Fugere suggests, for instance, that the boy’s grades might be more “scalable,” if only he would “synergize” his “mind-share” more effectively.

Fugere can’t argue. Young Scottie knows bull when he hears it because his father is also the father of Bullfighter, a software application that helps business insiders write recognizable English.

Released to much fanfare in June, Bullfighter works like a spellchecker. Installing the software causes a bull icon to appear on the toolbar of Word and Power Point documents. Clicking the icon activates a search for bloated sentences and meaningless, overused jargon. Users are then presented with a Bull Index, essentially a report card on the document’s readability and use of terms such as “synergize,” which isn’t found in any standard dictionary.

Bullfighter was a hit from the moment it charged into the public arena. Publications ranging from Time magazine to Le Monde, the New Zealand Herald, and the Hindustan Times covered the story.

Such a comprehensive, positive response would be a marketer’s dream for the launch of any retail product. But Bullfighter isn’t for sale. It’s free. Anyone can download it off the Internet or order a CD, which is also free (although the CDs were out of stock and on back order soon after the first news reports).

The Bullfighter CD includes a gently humorous, cleanly written booklet sleeved in red velvet like a bullfighter’s cape. The manual is replete with mathematical formulas, yet it’s still decidedly readable.

Offering Bullfighter for free is a service to humanity, laughs Fugere, who says that while in college it is unlikely anyone would have voted him Most Likely to Cut the Bull.

“I was a world-caliber geek,” he says. “I was too busy worrying about what was in my Samsonite briefcase to even consider communications with the real world.”

But while Bullfighter is a useful tool for writers everywhere, it also provides subtle marketing and branding for Fugere’s employer, Deloitte Consulting, a division of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu: Within 30 days of Bullfighter’s release, 250,000 people had visited the Deloitte Consulting Web site (www.dc.com) and 100,000 downloaded Bullfighter.

Fugere, who majored in business administration and economics and who holds a master’s in industrial administration from Purdue University, is a partner at Deloitte Consulting and a former chief marketing officer for the firm.

He says Bullfighter was originally conceived as an in-house tool. “Straight Talk” has been a Deloitte company theme, and its 15,000 consultants are urged to use clear language in business communications. The company also publishes a Straight Talk Series of business primers that, like Bullfighter, use humor to make their point.

Yet bull is so pervasive in modern business that consultants spread around the world had trouble trying to tame it in their daily transactions.

“We discussed this challenge, and thought about software,” Fugere says.

Bullfighter was off and running. Under Fugere’s leadership, a team of developers, editors, and researchers built the software in about eight months.

Response to the project was wildly enthusiastic within the company. Some 10,000 submissions were counted in a contest to pick bull words in need of eradication. Fugere’s team also conducted “quite a lot of research to understand clear and straightforward communication and how it relates to business success.”

The research, he reports, looked at thousands of documents issued by Dow 30 companies. The consistent finding was “the clearer the communication, the better the financial performance,” Fugere says.

Researchers also looked at Enron documents from the late ’90s and from 2000 and 2001. They found a “strong linkage” suggesting that the company’s downward trajectory could be seen in its communication style, which grew more arcane as the end neared.

In Fugere’s case, Bullfighter taught him to avoid words like “stakeholder” (“except when talking about vampire slayers,” he says) and “ecosystem” (“great if you’re talking about the environment; a little questionable for business”).

Of course, he also talks straighter with Scottie and his three other children, all teenagers who “present a constant exercise in word mastery.” His wife, Gail Stoneburner Fugere, is a 1980 Puget Sound grad.

Following in Bullfighter’s successful hoof prints, the world might see more devices from Deloitte aimed at improving communication. “There are other business evils out there that are widely hated and reviled,” Fugere says.