Category Archives: Writing

I’m holding out for a hero

heroI was in a coffee shop the other day and before leaving I took our cups back to the counter to save the staff having to walk over and clear the table.  The bloke behind the counter called me a “legend”.    Well I dunno about that, but it did get me thinking.   We need more heroes.   Recognition schemes, best practice awards, employees of the month and all those corporate  initiatives are just not inspiring enough.  Come on, let’s make some real heroes.  I don’t mean coffee shop legends who don’t deserve it, I mean those people in our organisations who really are the stars.  The thinkers, the doers, the motivators, the cheery souls, the ideas people, the innovators, the devotees, the unsung heroes who drive company culture and make the organisation what it is.

I’ve been reading Will Durant’s Heroes of History, in which the great American writer salutes those who, in his view, have made the greatest impact on man’s rise to greatness – from Confucius to Shakespeare, via ancient Greece and Rome.   I have never read Durant before, but blimey he’s a good writer.   Look at this passage from the introduction to his ‘top ten heroes’ …

“I see men standing on the edge of knowledge, and holding the light a little farther ahead.  Men carving marble into forms ennobling men.  Men moulding peoples into better instruments of greatness.  Men making a language out of music, and music out of language.  Men dreaming of finer lives, and living them.  To contemplate such men, to insinuate ourselves through study into some modest discipleship to them.  To watch them at their work and warm ourselves at the fire that consumes them.   Too soon we extinguish the flame of our hope and our reverence.  Let us change the icons and light the candles again.” 

It’s thrilling stuff from a writer devoted to celebrating the human spirit and championing greatness.    And in some ways, its “greatness” that we should be talking about in our world – not good practice.    If I walked into an organisation for the first time – or I was thinking of joining one – I’d want to know who the heroes are and why, not what best practice looks like or how the recognition scheme works.   You’ll find out much more by asking “so, who are your heroes and why?”.   We comms people have the means to “light the candles” of greatness within our own office walls.   So let’s not be shy of using a bit of hyperbole.  Let’s find and shine the light – let’s “warm ourselves at the fire” –  of those ordinary heroes who do what they do every day at work … and who make us all feel just that little bit better about ourselves.

PS – My hero growing up was Phil Collins.  I even bought a drum kit because of him.  How cool am I? (don’t answer that)

Who’s to blame for corporate jargon?

golden-bullJust before Christmas, the Plain English Campaign announced the 2012 winners of its annual ‘Golden Bull Awards’ for bringing plain English into disrepute.    And this year’s winners happen to be my own local NHS Trust!   The Cheshire, Warrington and Wirral NHS Commissioning Support Service wins top prize for this classic piece of jargon-fuelled nothingness:

A unique factor of the NHS Cheshire Warrington and Wirral Commissioning support organisation is its systematised methodology for project and programme management of small, medium, large service re-design and implementation…Building in equality and risk impact assessments the options are taken through a process to arrive at the content for an output based specification and benefits foreseen as a result of the implementation.  The service is inclusive of full engagement with Clinical Commissioning Groups who direct at decision-making points how they wish the proposal to be deployed (re-commission, de-commission or changes to current services/providers), and lastly an implementation team who see the service redesign through to evaluation and benefits realisation.

You can see the other mesmerising award winners here, but be warned, don’t read them all in one go if you are prone to migraines.   The sad thing is, of course, that these great examples of corporate fudge and wizardry are not uncommon.  They can be found in pretty much every organisation.   So who really is to blame?   Is it managers with over-inflated egos?  Is it training?  Is it cultural?  Is it a reflection of poor academic standards before people enter the workplace?   Is it a peer pressure that makes leaders in particular feel the need to appear intelligent and business-savvy?   Is it a lack of confidence?  Is it a reluctance to use emotion and authenticity at work?  Is it a deliberate act of confusion?  Is it comms people … are we to blame for the way this has got so out of hand?   jargon1

I’ve never met a comms person who hasn’t complained about the negative impact of jargon, and almost everyone on the ‘frontline’ tells us they want their comms to be plain and simple … so why haven’t we been successful in stamping it out?   Is the battle now too big for us?   Do we not have the influence?   Or is it the lack of will … do we not consider writing to be important anymore?   I saw a blog entry from a comms practitioner today who said (in the context of looking ahead to 2013) that ‘writing is dead’ and it’s pictures and infographics that matter now.   Are these people serious?  If we give up on writing, prose and realness in our comms, we’ll fall into an even deeper abyss.  The infographics will just become ‘jargon in pictures’.  We may like the look of our pretty graphics but our audience will just shake their heads and wonder where it all went wrong.   I’m all for good use of imagery and graphics, but not at the expense of the written word.  No way.  I think good corporate writing is more important than ever!

Maybe, like the Plain English Campaign, we should recognise the skill involved in being able to write 200 words without any discernible point whatsoever.   A few months ago I listened to a very senior executive speak for a whole hour and not say anything.   At the end of the PowerPoint-filled 60 minute presentation, we all turned to each other and said “what did she say?”.   Now that’s talent!   I don’t think corporate communicators can shoulder all the blame for what’s happening but I do think we have to take some responsibility for it.   Are we really doing enough to stamp this out, or do we just relegate it to the ‘too difficult’ pile and pretend to be outraged by it?

The ten best ways to make your message stick

There’s a scene towards the end of the film Seven (or Se7en if you want to be arty about it) when Morgan Freeman looks into ‘the box’ (you know the scene) and says nervously into his radio “stay back, John Doe has the upper hand now”.    I think we’ve reached the point where we internal communicators have looked into the box and realised that our John Doe – the audience – has the upper hand now.    Our audience is busy, discerning, savvy, mostly disengaged, probably cynical and possibly stressed.    In most cases, they’re probably not particularly interested in what we’ve got to say.   Even if they are, they want it fast, clear, honest and relevant.    And preferably in 140 characters.   In recent years, 24 hour news, the internet, social media and other technology has eroded our capacity for attention.    We may only get one shot.   So what makes a compelling message?   There’s no shortage of books on the subject, but to save you having to read them all, I’ve read them for you.   Most are rehashes of existing good practice, but here are the best bits of the best ones, with some of my own advice thrown in …

1. Aim for the heart not the head.   In her book, Talk Less, Say More, Connie Dieken champions the ‘less is more’ principle of maximising success by minimising words.    Her best tip for grabbing attention is to give people what they value up front.   According to Connie, there are only three comms skills that matter – Connect, Convey and Convince.   And if you can’t connect, you’re stuffed.   So that means aiming for the heart not the head.   The ‘feeling’ part of our brain always reacts first, so make sure there is emotion behind the words.  Make people care.  If they care, they act.

2. A good way to do that is through storytelling.   Stories tap into our emotions.   They bring us to tears, lift our hearts, entertain us, thrill us and inspire us to action.    Organizational storytelling is big business and there’s loads of books on the subject (the best being Steve Denning’s Squirrel Inc) as well as companies offering storytelling consultancy and training.   But to be honest, you already know how to do it.   You do it every day over the dinner table and to your children at night.   It’s not rocket science.    If you over-craft them they won’t be stories.

3. Chip & Dan Heath’s best-seller Made to Stick contains a veritable feast of great advice about making messages stick.   The stand-out section is the one about the curse of knowledge which explains why being well informed about a topic can mean that we lose our ability to explain it in simple terms to someone less well informed.   Experts forget what it’s like to not know something, which makes them think everything is important.  Our job is to help them filter out the stuff that’s ‘not important’, ‘important’ and ‘really important’… leaving only the bit that is ‘most important’.

4. SPAM filters are not just for incoming.   Put the curse of knowledge into a large mixing bowl, add a healthy portion of corporate jargon, a heaped spoonful of unnecessary adjectives and a sprinkling of macho leadership.  Stir with six different spoons and leave to stand for two hours before serving to an audience that isn’t hungry.   When people don’t eat, it means they don’t like what’s on the plate.  Cut out the unnecessary ingredients, like jargon and waffle, and keep it simple.    Serve a green salad rather than a three course banquet.

5. Count the calories.   Keeping with the food analogy, see your comms as a calories controlled diet.    A good way to keep attention is to open up gaps of knowledge.   Our brain doesn’t like uncertainty and it doesn’t like gaps, like unfinished stories.   So deliberately open gaps that your audience wants to see filled.  Create interest, limit the amount of detail at any one time, tell people what they can expect next (open the loop), leave some ambiguity to leave them wanting more.  Then fill the gaps with low calorie servings.

6. Don’t ever underestimate the impact of good writing.   There’s a new breed of executive internal communicator out there who believes the ability to write is no longer a core skill – that it’s operational not strategic.   They’ll  be the same people who say they’re not creative to avoid having to come up with an idea.   Personally I don’t agree, but either way good writing is essential to the art, so if you’re not the artist, you better find someone who is.   With the attention deficit disorder present in most organisations and the increasing need to connect first time, good impactful writing is actually more important than ever, not less.

7. There has to be a why.   There’s only one message in Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, and that’s to, ahem, start with why.   For a message to stick it needs more than publicity.  It needs a sense of purpose, a cause or a belief that people can relate to.   That won’t be the what, the how and the when …. it’ll be the why.

8. Use weapons of mass distraction.  Another Chip & Dan Heath tip is to use ‘the unexpected’ to grab attention.   A good way to do that is to break a pattern.   Changing, adding or removing something from an existing pattern alerts our brain that something is different.   It makes us sit up and take notice.   One of the downsides of our over-managed internal comms environments is that we are often severely restricted in how we communicate – logo police, brand guidelines, templates, managed channels, poor capability etc.   But too much of that and we lose the ability to be noticed.   How do you distract people from the humdrum of daily life?  Surprise them.  Make them jump.

9. Metaphors aren’t just for poets.   Like stories, metaphors can transform a complex message into clear and recognisable meaning.   Metaphors help us to understand others and build empathy.  They satisfy the search for meaning that we all seek in our personal and professional lives.   Turning your message into a graphic or written metaphor can produce that “Ah, I get it now” moment.  Read Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind for more on why this is important.

10. Don’t think too much about it.   There’s a psychological theory called the paradox of choice which says that if you give people too many choices they can suffer some form of paralysis and end up not making a choice at all.    In comms, we often over-craft messages by trying to include so many different options and opinions that the final message gets diluted and bland.   Usually it’s the first draft or the unscripted anecdote that hits home best.   Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ passage was not part of his prepared speech.   After he had completed his formal script, he looked around and sensed his audience needed more, so he ad-libbed and the rest is history.

Shakespeare’s warning

My family and I went to watch an outdoor theatre performance of Twelfth Night in Chester at the weekend.    I’m no Shakespeare scholar and I can sometimes struggle to keep up, but I do try to listen carefully and I often find long passages of prose that completely blow me away.   From Twelfth Night this line stood out for me, spoken by Feste the clown to express his distrust of language:  “A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit.  How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.”  The castaway Viola (disguised as a man) replies, “Nay, that’s certain. They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.”    Now that’s a prophetic 430-year old piece of advice  for corporate communicators if ever there was!   Workplace communication, with its tendency for meaningless jargon and ambiguous or politically correct language can so very easily be misunderstood.   Sometimes our (perfectly well intended) communications are so dressed up with context, background and justification that the true message gets lost mid-way down page two after acres of pointless preamble.    Such communications can indeed backfire on us if we’ don’t follow the golden rules of clarity, brevity and consistency.     Not only does the message get lost, but the style becomes part of the culture.   There are plenty of “good wits” in our organisations ready to turn our over-crafted sentences against us.   Similarly, “they that dally nicely with words” by trying to inject unnecessary and unwarranted hyperbole “may quickly make them wanton” by over-using expressive adjectives and diluting the true meaning of potentially powerful messages.    We could do worse than take the advice of the Bard.  He knew a thing or two about getting a point across…. even if 400 years on no-one knows what the hell a ‘cheveril glove’ is (some sort of loose animal skin apparently).

By the way, at the same time as I was posting this entry, this article appeared on LinkedIn.  Similar sentiments but much better written than mine!

“Exciting” … Oh, come off it!

I’m a wordsmith by trade, so I have a tendency to sprinkle more than my fair share of adjectives and expressive language into the communications I write.   Expression, even over-expression, is part of human communication.   Just watch two Italians having a conversation.   We exaggerate heavily to emphasise a point, we use carefully chosen adjectives to add colour to our sentences and we intensify words with italics, capitals, underlines and bold fonts to get the message across loud and clear.    In electronic and SMS communications, we love to use emoticons to leave our reader in no doubt of our meaning or mood.    As communicators in business, we’re probably all guilty of excessive hyperbole at times, but that’s fine.   It beats that bland corporate text book style you see in some organisations.    But I do object to the over-use of the word ‘exciting’.   I saw a communication from a bloke the other day who wrote, following his recent appointment, how “tremendously excited” he was to be joining the legacy software decommissioning project.   Oh come on.  I’m all for exaggeration, but let’s keep it real.    I do feel the word ‘exciting’ is becoming part of the leader’s lexicon of yawn-inducing jargon – “exciting strategy”, “exciting opportunities”, “exciting roles” etc.    What does that mean exactly?   If you genuinely are excited, show me, don’t tell me.   Then I might engage.

What real writing looks like

I have to admit that I’ve never been a great reader.   Despite making a living out of words, writing and stories, I’ve never been one for fiction.  Until recently.   For my new year’s resolution this year I set myself a challenge to read some classics, starting with Dickens.   What an idiot I’ve been.   This stuff is SO good.   It’s the same with Shakespeare, which I’ve also started to get into.   It’s like a period of enlightenment in me to be reading this fantastic, inspirational writing for the first time.    One passage from Great Expectations has really struck a chord with me.    It comes early on when Pip recalls the day he first meets Miss Havisham.   In one paragraph, Dickens writes with such power about how lives can be turned, for good or bad, by one memorable day.    I have to reproduce it here simply because it demonstrates what REAL writing looks like:

“That was a memorable day for me, for it made great changes in me.  But, it is the same with any life.   Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think of how different its course would have been.  Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”  

Now why don’t we see writing like that in the boss’s memo to staff?