Do you think writers and other professional communicators, who live to resolve misunderstanding and find common ground, suffer more deeply than the average citizen during a slow-motion social disaster?
Like doctors, forced to watch a person bleed to death?
From an advertisement for a job opening in executive communication: “The ability to interact with senior executives and meet their most exacting communications demands is imperative.”
Anyone with the 10 years’ experience that the company requires would instantly translate that to mean: “Our execs are unbelievably demanding when it comes to their communications. The last person couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with it. Are you man or woman enough?”
That’s the message you’re sending. And if it’s the message you want to send—why not send it directly, and say exactly that? It would sound so much less sinister than “exacting” and “imperative,” and you’d know for sure that whoever applied did so based on the very self-confidence you’re looking for.
But what do I know? I’m just a self-confident professional writer who understands how imperative it is to interact with senior executives and meet their most exacting communications demands. —DM
Full coverage of last week’s Content Marketing World in an upcoming issue of ContentWise, but I couldn’t resist sharing this exchange that I had with a Cleveland State University marketing student who attended a pre-conference session.
I asked him why a bright-eyed young communicator would choose a practical major like marketing instead of another occupation where he could be more likely to “change the world” as I somewhat playfully put it.
“Yeah, I thought about that for about a year,” the kid said. “Then I decided that if I make a lot of money, I can use that to change the world.”
At a particularly desperate moment in my career, I was helping a publisher start an employee communication consultancy. One of our “marketing” techniques was an “Employee Communication Hotline” that beleaguered communication managers could call for free advice, beginning conversations that we hoped might turn into lucrative consulting.
I could make more gleeful fun of this idea if it hadn’t been mine.
And so I manned the hotline.
What a nightmare: What’s the average percentage of readership of an employee publication? I’m looking for a study that proves employees prefer to receive all corporate news from their direct supervisor. What’s the ROI on an intranet?
It wasn’t so much the questions were imbecilic and obviously self-interested, it was that they were also unanswerable—and the questioners damned well knew it. Which served me right, of course, for creating something as boneheaded and disingenuous as an Employee Communication Hotline in the first place.
But the Employee Communication Hotline is no longer in service. Boy, is it no longer in service! As I learned the other day, when a longtime correspondent (I say “longtime” both to express my fondness for him and to imply that he should have known me better) interrupted a morning’s profitable writing assignment to ask me:
Hi, David: I think you know that I’m managing employee communications at [XYZ Corp.]—my last corporate adventure before heading off into the sunset (excuse me, “encore career”) of freelance writing and volunteering. Starting June 9, 2014.
Meanwhile, I’m working hard to truly raise the bar on internal comms here at XYZ. I’ve inherited responsibility for the company style guide (mainly because no one else wants it). However, it’s a great opportunity to improve the company “voice.” Like any company, this one will want proof that my suggestions are actually improvements over the status quo.
Two big ones:
Reading level—I’d like to see us aim for the 10th grade. Occasionally when the business units and Compliance get through with a piece of writing, even they wouldn’t want to read it. At [a previous employer], I could brandish the agreed-upon Flesch Reading Ease score of 55 and get people to back down (it was a number, for gosh sakes). I could pick a Reading Ease score here, but I’m thinking a grade level (both are generated by Microsoft Word) might be more meaningful. XYZ is filled with very bright people, but college-level writing is simply tougher sledding than it needs to be.
Third-person voice—”Susan also says” has no place in a news story, in my view. So far, I haven’t resisted using first names in our internal comms, but I’m about to. The reason: It doesn’t sound like journalism. If we want our writing to have the implied credibility that journalism brings, then we need to masquerade as journalists. Sure, first names are friendlier. When part of a corporate newsletter, they also say (to me): “You’re reading propaganda!”
There is one instance in which first names might actually work better. That is, if we wrote our stories with a fair degree of irreverence. I did get away with using “passel” in a story this week, but for the most part our stuff sounds like it comes from an insurance company. I’ve made inroads, but I’m a realist. We’ll never be Zappo’s. Which is why I think amping up the journalism is an easier fight to win.
So … do you have ideas on where I can find evidence, best practices, research studies, etc., about reading level and voice—and how they affect both readership and credibility?
Also, I finally pried some readership statistics loose from the system, and they’re pretty dismal. Do you know of a current standard for acceptable readership—i.e., what percentage of an employee base should have read something to consider that it “performed well”? Roger D’Aprix used to say 40 percent was “outstanding.” Is that as true for web browsers as it was for print? …
Thanks for whatever ideas you can share.
What would you have told him? (Next week, I’ll tell you what I told him.) —DM
Do you ever run across something you wrote years ago and realize you were smarter then than you are now?
I had that unsettling feeling when I read this post today, from my personal blog, Writing Boots.
It’s from the summer of 2008, after I’d taken a long sailing trip with some strangers:
One of my fellow sailors, a physical therapist, asked me about my work. I mentioned that I’m kind of an “expert” in employee communication and executive communication. I have a hard enough time keeping a straight face when I say such a thing; she found it impossible; we both burst out laughing.
What does a communication “expert” know, exactly? It’s a question I’ve addressed before, but inadequately, I think. Here are a few concepts that a communicator knows, if not exclusively, then at least more thoroughly than the client; I hope you’ll add to them:
1. The world is not about your product or policy or program. The world is about people. This one comes from my ad man dad, who gave speeches on the subject to his creative team, and who believes his main contribution as a communicator was his willingness to figure out what the client’s product meant or could mean to the harried, worried, insecure, greedy, hopeful, ambitious, yearning, lovelorn “man inside the man.” (Hey, it was the 1960s.)
That’s the main service we provide, to CEOs for whom we write speeches, subject matter experts whose work we’re charged to explain to employees—every client internally and externally. We’re the ones who know that people don’t care about what you’re selling, no matter how shiny it is. They care about themselves.
2. Communication doesn’t work real good. At least, it doesn’t work directly or immediately. Clients are often uptight about saying something for fear it’ll lead to something else. They’re nuts! Communicators know that one single communication almost never leads to anything. Communication is a vast combination of words and behavior and about seven million other mysterious ingredients. You don’t write a newsletter article or make a speech and see “behavior change” (the hokiest term in our business). It’s a nervous thing communication consultant to say, but it must be said: Communication is a marathon, boss.
3. Everybody already knows everything anyway. “We don’t want employees to know.” Fill in the blank, they already know. They may not know the number of the layoffs, they may not know the timing, but they know something bad is in the air, just as sure as a husband knows when a wife has stopped loving him. Whether or not he feels like acknowledging it, he knows. We all know when we’re wanted, how we’re wanted, how much we’re wanted by every friend, colleague, company, political party and institution in the world. I call this my “everybody already knows everything” theory of communication. But it’s not a theory. It’s a truth. Communicators who set out to win people over to an idea or convince them of a cause had better have a sincere client behind them, because people will smell it if they don’t. (In fact, they already have.)
4. A certain amount of bullshit is good. In America especially, people like people who hustle, and we like hustlers, and we don’t really draw that much of a distinction between the two. I think people want you, within reason, to prove that you want the business by making some bold claims that they know you’re going to have to—there it is again—hustle to back up.
5. The Ron Santo Rule: People like people who ask for what they want. Every year when the Hall of Fame ballot comes up, Chicago reporters go to Ron Santo, a radio announcer and a longtime Cub third baseman, and ask him how he’s feeling. Santo, who has lost both legs due to diabetes, more or less cries out in agony: He wants so badly to be voted into the Hall, he believes he deserves to be in, and he’s trying not to get his hopes up for the 25th straight year of crushing disappointment (Santo retired in 1975). Then he doesn’t get in, and the reporters drag their cameras back, and Santo wails again. Maybe next year. Of course, the heart on the sleeve doesn’t get Santo into the Hall of Fame, but I believe it has won him the adoration of millions of baseball fans and almost everyone in Chicago. Which keeps Santo employed on the radio despite his rather thin talent as a color announcer. Similarly, we need to tell our clients that somewhere in all their strategic communication planning and message drivers they need to make sure they tell their audiences what they want from them. (And how badly they want it.)
6. People want to know more about what they already know. The late Larry Ragan, who taught me some stuff about communication that my dad didn’t, said this all the time: Irish people watch shows about Ireland, Democrats read columns by liberals, communicators read blogs about communications. To reach people, you’ve got to convince them they already know a little bit about what you’re saying; you’ve got to make a strange subject seem familiar. Once you’ve done that and hooked them—only then can you lead them into new places.
Again: Am I the only person in a given meeting who knows these things? No. According to my own third rule of comunication, everybody knows everything. (Although some people are in serious denial!)
What I bring to the table is a deep understanding of all of the above, and a subtle ability to know when each applies the most. And that, my friends, is why I’m a communication expert.
The 2013 Strategic Video Awards have announced our call for entries, and thanks to work like this …
… I couldn’t be prouder to serve as the program chairman again, and our star panel of judges couldn’t be more excited to see the entries we receive.
Last week they laid off about 50 writers and editors at the paper that I started reading funnies first—The Cleveland Plain Dealer. This isn’t like layoffs at other papers. After all, on snowy Christmas mornings when the whole world was still and silent in Hudson, Ohio, the PD still came.
Now it’s being stilled and silenced too?
Maybe I feel more deeply for the PD layoff victims, too. Reporter Chuck Yarborough was among the survivors at the PD, and tweeted, “i still have a job … but i want to throw up … if i can just stop crying long enough.”
This unemployment-office flash performance of “Here Comes the Sun” goes out to all ex-journalists, in a spirit of hope that you’ll find new and useful work to do with hands freed from holding on for dear life. —DM