Leaders: Your people write poorly. You ask for it. Consistently.

Leaders: Your people write poorly. You ask for it. Consistently.
November 30, 2016 Beth Nyland

Love it or loathe it, if you’re a business leader, you probably review and approve other people’s words. Email, presentations, reports, proposals, and more.

There are bright spots in this work. Moments when you look at a message and say, “Nailed it!”

But there is darkness, too. Moments when you cringe and sigh, “Not again.” When a message needs fixing, you litter the page with revision marks, or even edit the thing yourself, grumbling all the while about morons who don’t know how to write.

Your people are not morons.

I’ve yet to encounter a business person who cannot write something coherent. And I work not just with communicators, but accountants, sales people, engineers, strategy consultants, HR analysts, attorneys, artists, actuaries! Given the latitude to choose their own words, nearly all of them write clear, captivating stories—quickly.

You try. Set a timer for three minutes. Write about your first boss. Use details. Focus on one moment with that person, and describe the scene. Go!

Fun, right? You’d be amazed at the stories that emerge from this fast, freewheeling exercise. Vivid. Funny. Emotional.

Now set another timer. Take five minutes this time. Write about your company’s product or service—again, using details. Choose words that will appeal to the primary audience: your customer. But be conscious of secondary audiences, too. Write something that will stand up to scrutiny from your manager, senior leadership, attorney, and anyone else who might review your work. Go!

Fun? Not so much. More like frustrating. Possibly paralyzing.

Your people are so worried about choosing words you will approve, they’re reluctant to use words at all.

Forced to put something on the page, they reach for words you’ve already blessed. Key messages. Approved talking points. Catchphrases lifted from your company’s verbal history of PowerPoint slides, press releases, internal announcements, project charters, and strategic plans.

Consistency is good. Right?

Of course you want to tell a cohesive story, to maintain a steady image and protect your brand.

But you don’t want to be vague, incoherent, or boring—and that’s what happens when we all recirculate the same corporate jargon and approved lingo, regardless of purpose, audience, or circumstance.

“Optimize performance.”

Here’s an example. It’s a phrase I love to hate. “Optimize performance” is corporate shorthand for getting the most out of something. The phrase is so generic that it works (but actually doesn’t) for just about anything:

  • Products as diverse as computer networks and lawn mowers
  • Processes as peculiar as handling waste and training for a marathon
  • Human organizations as divergent as municipal governments and symphony orchestras

You could say you’re “optimizing performance” for all of them. But what would that really mean?

Suppose your organization has set “optimizing performance” as a strategic priority. When people sense that budgets and bonuses depend on “optimizing performance,” by golly, they’re going to connect their work to those words. Literally. That’s why those cringe-worthy drafts you receive are all some variation of:

“We’re optimizing performance internally in order to optimize the performance we deliver to our customers, so they can achieve optimal performance.”

Here’s how “optimizing performance” weakens the stories people could tell, if only they felt free to use other words:

In a technology start-up, software engineers promise features that will optimize performance … … rather than explaining how the product will help photographers process images faster than ever.
In a fitness company, the R&D department proposes innovations to optimize performance … … rather than suggesting products that will help distance athletes run fast and far in comfort.
In a finance firm, a sales team assembles a 30-page deck on performance optimization … … rather than telling stories about how the firm has helped investors earn more from every square foot they own.

These well-meaning people are choosing consistent, approved words. But they’re not communicating clear, meaningful details.

Consistent does not mean identical.

Consistent means compatible, harmonious, not at odds. It means you’re not sending mixed messages, but developing a story that hangs together.

Different audiences know different things about you. You want different things from different audiences. If you want different outcomes, you need different stories. And different stories call for different vocabulary.

And let’s face it. You want more than different. You want BIG: breakthrough thinking, radical progress, extreme growth.

If you want your people to make big things happen, set them free from a tiny vocabulary. Stop insisting that they repeat the same words, the same way, in every message.

Give your people permission to tell your business story in new words.

Maybe you’re stunned that your team feels constrained to use certain words. “I never said that,” you insist. Maybe not. But have you said otherwise?

Here are some things you can say to today, to move your people—and their messages—in more innovative directions:

  • “Put this in your own words.”
  • “Tell me what this means to you.”
  • “When you revise this, try using only words a customer would use.”
  • “I’m looking for a new way to say this. Can you give me at least three options?”

Grant your people the freedom to say things differently. Invite them speak in languages other than corporate-ese. Your permission and encouragement might be all it takes to move them—and your business messages—from paralyzed to energized.


Photo credit: Ben Ostrovsky via flickr

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