On speaking clearly

I’ve changed jobs again recently (hence the lack of posts – life got rilly rilly busy there for a bit).
Fortunately there have been a few moments of clarity in amongst the chaos. Yoga, swimming and a couple of ‘introvert party nights’ at home with my books have helped immensely and led to these ramblings.

I’m a corporate communicator by profession, so it goes without saying that I find words, people, and the ways in which people deliver their words utterly fascinating.
One thing I’ve been mulling over recently is the fact that people tend to assume they’ve been understood, when sometimes this isn’t the case. I’m talking about every kind of interaction here: at the pub with your mates, at home with the kids, round the water cooler and in the boardroom.

A poignant example from my childhood springs to mind. When I was about nine years old I remember my Dad taking my younger brother and I aside. He told us that Mum felt taken for granted and that we all needed stop taking her for granted. Wide eyed and horrified my brother and I agreed to stop doing that immediately. And that was the end of our ‘chat’. Dad returned to his book and we kept on playing. The main thing I remember taking away from the conversation was that I understood it perfectly. Mum was upset and it was because of us. I had no comprehension of what ‘taking Mum for granted’ looked like but, being a Type-A overachieving child, I took it upon myself to do the opposite. I went out of my way to appreciate the hell out of her after that. I thought for hours about how much I appreciated her and said things like ‘Isn’t Mum so cool?’ to my bewildered little brother at least once a day, because I wanted to be Helpful and Appreciative. I think I even drew Mum a dorky picture or something. At any rate it was clear in my little mind that we were absolutely, without a doubt, not taking her for granted anymore. Except we were: when Dad told us off a few weeks later for the same thing I was devastated (sensitive kid, if you hadn’t already gathered).

And herein lies the challenge of communication. You need to check for understanding – your audience’s interpretation of your words can be wildly different to your own. I used that childhood anecdote not to critique my parents (who are lovely and I do not take for granted, especially when I remember stuff like this!) but to highlight how the best-intentioned conversations can go terribly wrong.
When Dad spoke to us, two specific pieces of information were missing: what taking Mum for granted looked like, and what not doing that looked like. Be specific about what’s currently happening and what needs to be different in future and you’ll get better outcomes in most conversations.

I’m guessing the outcome Dad (and Mum!) wanted was for us to pick up after ourselves more – and at the very least thank Mum more when she did do stuff for us. We got there eventually. The older I get the more I reflect on these things.
But at any rate, knowing exactly what you want out of any conversation helps you get straight to the point.

That’s all for today’s ramblings. I’m keen to hear other people’s anecdotes – tell me about a time you totally misunderstood someone!

Ghosts of flatmates past: corporate branded mugs

Today marked a real turning point for me. I’ve been bedridden with the flu since Saturday: not a wimpy ‘mini flu’ but the real deal. The proper, old-fashioned, take to your bed for five days kinda thing. It was awful. I forgot to get my flu jab this year (sorry Mum) which was foolish.

I’ve been religiously getting a pre-winter flu jab for as long as I remember but for whatever reason, I just ‘didn’t get round to it’ this year. But I digress.

Today’s communication insights are brought to you by a corporate branded mug from a company I will not name.

A muggins moment

I realised I was on the mend earlier today when I was immensely irritated – and then hysterically amused – by a mug. A MUG. Of all the things to cheer me up and make me feel like myself again. It was a momentous occasion for three reasons: firstly I felt well enough to walk down three flights of stairs to make myself a hot drink, and then carry it all the way back up to my room without getting dizzy and needing to stop on the landing.

Secondly, I managed to find a clean mug. I live with seven other people and our crockery has a cute habit of either festering or disappearing. When you do find something, odds are, it’s going to be mismatched and nobody will claim ownership of it. Hence my discovery of this ‘motivational’  mug that looks like it wandered into the flat at some point during 2006 and hid under the sink until this morning.

Thirdly, I recognised my inner grump was returning when I looked at the mug and got ragey. The return of the inner grump means I’m pretty much healed.

Here’s the mug. I’ve expressed how I feel about this mug via font snobbery in a very mature fashion.
Shit Mug

Why this mug sucks

I’ve mentioned before that my day job is in a corporate communications environment. I’ve also mentioned that I really like my job but some things make me cranky. ‘Message mugs’ are one of these things. If I was in a dramatic mood (let’s be real, I am) they’ve been the bane of my life since my first foray into corporate communications in 2007.

Here are my issues with this specific ‘message mug’:

  1. Too many catch-phrases: ‘continous improvement’, ‘exciting opportunities and processes’ – nobody talks like this!
  2. It uses ‘striving’, one of my most hated words in a corporate environment
  3. The copy is so, so patronising
  4. It’s unclear what they were trying to achieve by spending presumably quite a bit of cash on several of these bad boys
  5. There are way too many words for the format that the message is printed on. It’s a mug.  It’s not a brochure or leaflet that you settle down to read at leisure, it’s a piece of crockery.

Making mugs (and other collateral) work for you

  1. My gut feel is that you shouldn’t do ‘message mugs’ in the first place. Chuck your logo on your mugs, for sure, but if you really care about building employee awareness of your new vision/values/behaviours, find new and engaging ways of getting face time with them. Hell, if you printed your messages on biscuit wrappers you’d probably achieve better results than stamping them on mugs (I have no hard data for this claim: I am just a sucker for biscuits). But I do promise you can afford to let your employees enjoy a cup of freakin’ tea in peace. They won’t become disengaged by not having your messaging in their face every second of every day. 
  2. If you must do a mug, reduce the wordcount and simplify your communication objective to one thing: awareness, and awareness only. Just put one thing on there: either the company vision or the four key value words. That’s it.  Plus your logo.
    I assume whoever made this mug was aiming to achieve awareness of the corporate vision (the first sentence) and the corporate mission statement (the second sentence). This is already two concepts and they should’ve stopped there. But they’ve gone on to also outline some corporate behaviours to generate employee understanding of what these two concepts look like in action. Great in theory, and something that communicators need to do – just not on a mug!
  3. Start thinking about other stuff like face-to-face conversations. Asking your people to feed into what the new behaviours should be. Engaging with senior influencers so they model the behaviours you’re trying to promote. Setting up dedicated staff awards to recognise those who do embody the changes you’re trying to promote internally. Having real conversations with real people about why this stuff matters, how it can impact the bottom line – but avoiding big pompous words.
  4. You can definitely achieve general low-level awareness through things like mugs, just don’t expect anything more than that from this particular format. So don’t spend lots of cash on the ‘fluffy’ stuff like posters and mugs. If you’re after greater understanding and sustained behaviour change, invest in regular, relevant communications across a variety of channels – once the mugs are out there of course 😉

If you’re not familiar with communication objective setting and the stakeholder commitment curve (Awareness, Understanding, Commitment, Action) you might find this worth a read.


Listening to: Itchin’ On A Photograph by Grouplove

Some words. On words.

Words are tricky. So are calligraphy pens.
Words are tricky. So are calligraphy pens.

I write for a living. My day job is in a corporate communications department, as an internal communication channels manager, for those of you who understand what that means.For those of you who don’t, I basically write and edit copy all day long with a bit of project management thrown in just to keep things interesting. I like my job a lot, but sometimes I get a bit cranky with people.

Why? Because words.

Now this is ironic, as I love words (you may have already gathered from my geek-girl ramblings). But in a business environment, words can suck.Why? Because some of the people I’ve dealt with over the years simply want to publish stuff that makes them look good, or important. This is totally understandable. I get how the corporate world works. But there’s this myth that to achieve this, you have to write in a way that is pompous and confusing.

My view? Do this and your communication will fail, or at the very least you’ll have some irate readers.

Write like a human being

When I’m doing the writing myself, I try to keep it as informal as possible to begin with. And when someone else sends me stuff they’ve already written, I gleefully edit their copy before publication. I quite like this bit as I can be lazy and someone else’s copy is an easier start-point than a blank page.

I also dislike this bit as it’s always where arguments discussions start. I say “Let’s change some of these words you have written so people can understand what you’re saying, quickly” and the other person says something like “No! By using many big words I look smart, and you are implying your readers are stupid if you think we should simplify things. We must use many big words. And lots of capital letters at random points throughout the message. Plus the CEO/CFO/CIO/Superman signed this off and he’s the BOSS so you can’t change it, minion.”

The rebuttal

At this point I usually end up calmly standing my ground and saying something like: “I absolutely don’t think our readers are stupid: I think they’re very busy. If they can skim this in 5 seconds and understand it in 10, there’s a better chance they’ll do what you’re asking them to. If they have to spend 5 minutes interpreting something they’ll either give up or get really pissed off. Also, capital letters everywhere confuse the eye, mo fo.”

I wish I could say the last part more often but I try and keep it clean at work. You get the gist. Most of the time I am cheerfully persistent and steer the stakeholder towards better copy getting published (yay for better results!), but sometimes the other person gets their way and I have to publish some material with awful words in it. And this makes me sad.

My blacklisted words/terms 

I could make a much longer list but keep it simple. These are the four worst-offenders in business writing, in my opinon. I get a bit ragey when I read these terms in copy.

  1. Step-change
    e.g. “We’re delivering a step-change in process for better customer service”. Just say change, for the love of god. Just say “we’re changing things for the better.”
  2. Actively
    e.g. “We’re actively listening to your feedback.” Just delete the word ‘actively’ and your sentence still works! #revelation
  3. Culture Change
    This is ironic as I find culture change and employee engagement work really interesting. But I cringe when I see it written down like it’s a ‘thing’ to be ‘done’, a la “Hurrah! We must do A Culture Change. We will make a Culture Change Programme to help our employees make the Culture Change and then we will talk about how the Culture Change Programme has delivered the Culture Change that it set out to do. Let’s make sure whenever we talk about it, it’s in a ten-page document with lots of capitals.” As the Kiwis say: Yeah-nah
  4. Strive
    e.g. “We strive to always deliver fresh, high quality produce.” I saw this one on a note in a staff canteen once. Um, what? Either you do or you don’t. Putting ‘strive to’ in there sounds like a cop-out clause. As Yoda says, “Do or do not, there is no try.”

The ultimate sin-sentence, is one I swear I’ve actually seen at least three times in my six years as an internal communicator: “We’re actively embedding a Culture Change in the organisation, while striving to deliver a step-change in service and process.” Wow.

Like I said, I like my job a lot so this vent is of a cheerful nature. But words, people. Words. They’re tricky – use them carefully.

Related content:

Listening to:

Atlantic City, Bruce Springsteen.