Sometimes I wonder what language my clients are talking in.
It sounds like English. And there are plenty of filler words that make sense. But then they throw in an abstract name for an internal project, a nifty abbreviation, or a lofty saying that sums up their brand’s essence. And when I ask them to ‘humor me’ and translate it, they struggle.
Often that’s because they can’t let it go: it took three working groups, 10 drafts and the approval of 17 stakeholders to get it signed off.
As a writer and a trainer at The Writer, I spend my days helping people get the results they want from their words. And whenever someone in internal comms asks me to lend them a hand to convince people to get on board with a particular project, I often challenge them to do three things.
#1 Remember what it was like before
Think back to your first day at your current place of work. How were you feeling? How many days (or weeks) did it take for your inbox to fill up, your diary to become jam-packed, and you to know – without a doubt – that your team really relies on you?
Here’s the thing. We want our people to feel involved, engaged and an essential part of the business from day one. But the way we write (and even the way we speak to each other) can stop that happening.
When I first started working for The Writer, my first client was a tech giant in Silicon Valley. As part of the project, I spent a fair bit of time reading their words. One of the pieces that fell into my hands was their new starter manual. Their ‘onboarding bible’. And what did I see on page one of that manual? Acronyms. Abbreviations. Fifteen examples of internal shorthand. It’s like they were saying: ‘Welcome aboard. (But to really feel a part of things, you’ll need to speak our language.)’
Comms professionals have to stand up for their reader. It’s their job to counter the curse of knowledge that blights so many businesses. It’s their job to remember what it was like before: before you knew what that word, abbreviation or initiative meant.
It’s impossible to engage the people around us – to draw them in, to excite them, to count on their support – if they haven’t got a clue what we’re talking about. So take a step back, and write in the same way you’d talk to someone outside of work about that project. Chances are, your colleagues will get your message much quicker when you do.
#2 Help your people make sense of it all
Last week, one of my clients in financial services shared some slides with me. She was making the case to ‘optimally leverage the full spectrum of generational knowledge’ at work. After months of research with employees across the business, this was her rallying cry. Problem is, it’s pretty tricky to turn several syllable-laden words into a clear recommendation someone can pick up and run with. I don’t think her readers even realized there was a call to action.
When I’m working with executives, helping them articulate a particular vision or narrative, I’ll dig deep to figure out what that statement really means. If a senior leader can’t explain what ‘being operationally excellent’ or a ‘digital transformation journey’ looks like for absolutely everyone, then their vision is a wasted one.
I think that a goal, mission or purpose has to work at every single level. That way, internal communicators can explain it to people working on the factory floor, in a call center, in a store, in reception, in catering, or in any other part of the business.
When sharing other people’s messages, internal communicators should challenge the content to within an inch of its life. It’s only then that they’ll feel truly comfortable sharing it – and they’ll be more likely to engage the people they work with. If employees can make sense of a vision, they’ll make it their own. If they can’t, they’ll just ignore it.
#3 Write like a human, not a robot
I spend a lot of my time out and about, visiting clients and helping people in those organizations use language more effectively. And when I do, one thing almost always happens: robots creep into the room.
Someone can tell me all about an internal campaign and I get it. I get why and they pique my interest. But the moment their fingers start tapping on a keyboard, something goes wrong. They end up turning their messages into a barrage of business buzzwords.
Last time I checked, my colleagues were human beings, not corporate robots. People who I chat to at the water cooler, people who rarely say no if there’s a chocolate biscuit on offer, and people I’d happily grab a beer with after work. And I’m sure that’s true for your organization too. So why do we speak to them one way, and write to them in a totally different tone?
In huge businesses, it’s hard to connect with colleagues if they’re on the opposite side of the Atlantic to you. But it’s going to be even harder if we let corporate robots meddle with our words. The smartest communicators have clocked this. They’re able to add an anecdote or two, a snippet of personality, a glimpse of the person at the other end of that email when they write. And that’s how they build teams – and relationships – with every single one of their colleagues. Which is crucial, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve yet to meet anyone who’d rather work with a robot. (Although perhaps that day will come.)
So next time you’re putting a message together, take a minute to read it out loud before you hit ‘send’. If you find yourself putting on a robotic voice, using vague language that won’t help your colleagues act, or cramming it with internal-speak that will bamboozle a new starter, then take another look at it. If you don’t, your reader’s going to need a translator.