Audience Engagement, School Spirit Style

Purple versus Gold. Image by Vickie Bates.It’s such a small thing. Yet, when it comes to engaging your audience, it’s huge.

Did your alma mater have school colors? Did it divide the student body into Blues and Yellows or Reds and Greens? Were there points awarded all year for various activities – academic, athletic, volunteer work? Was there cause for celebration among fellow Greenies when your team won the end-of-year tally?

This type of thing was a big deal at my high school, culminating in Field Day – a full day of sporting competitions with the largest pool of points on the line.

So it baffles me why I should receive a request to donate to the annual fund accompanied by a photo of present-day students, grinning from ear to ear, like they’ve just emerged victorious from the traditional Field Day tug-of-war, adorned in Gold.

I was a Purple, you see.

It’s not like this should still matter some unmentionable number of decades later. And it doesn’t really. I’m long past reliving any high school athletic glory or Purple-Gold rivalry.

But engagement is all about speaking to your audience about what matters most to the audience. Not what matters to you or what’s convenient for you. How hard would it have been to line up four Purple kids and snap the exact same photo, then sort alums by school color, and send a customized appeal – Gold kids to Gold alums, Purple ones to Purples? With spreadsheets and mass email systems?

Easier than beating Golds at tug-of-war…

Building a Blogging Community

“The more passion in the blog writer, the more passion in the readers,” explained Rowse at his BlogWorld talk.

I had the pleasure of hearing “Blogging from the Heart (But Smart),” a talk by Darren Rowse, author, blogger extraordinaire and digital photography guru, at the Los Angeles BlogWorld conference a few weeks ago.

Slated for the early morning session of Day 2, after many attendees enjoyed a tequila-maker-sponsored party the night before, it was clear from the packed auditorium that Rowse’s talk was going to be inspiring.

“Where the heart and the smart come together,” Rowse told the crowd, “ that’s where the magic has happened for me.” While he advocates passion around your subject matter and your blog community, he also recommends treating blogging like a business (if you want it, ultimately, to be a business) and defining what success means for you.

If your blog is all heart, you risk burning out on passion, he said. Think strategically about your audience, content, brand, and blog promotion.

More than a Job: A Passion for Blogging

Rowse has launched a number of blogs, Problogger and Digital Photography School perhaps the best known outside of his native Australia. He has an especially beneficent and welcoming approach to creating blogging communities and sharing his knowledge.

According to his book, Problogger, written with co-author Chris Garrett, Rowse and his wife got married and started a family as his blogging career got under way. He talks about his kids on Twitter and shares proud-dad snapshots and, he said, as kids do, his children occasionally run through a shot of a video blog or play in the background of photos he’s trying to take. The line between personal and professional blurs; candor and openness appeal to readers, engendering a sense of trust.

Through all this, as the subtitle of Problogger suggests, Rowse and Garrett have blogged themselves a comfortable income. Making money from blogging isn’t the only purpose of Problogger or for many people who start blogs, myself included.

The message that resonated most strongly for me (in addition to my love of strategic thinking!) was Rowse’s encouragement to “do good in the world.”

“Be useful,” he urged in his BlogWorld session, “do something heartfelt.”

In the introduction to Problogger, Rowse acknowledges that building a successful blog “takes hard work and discipline…I never want to be accused of giving an unbalanced view of blogging or hyping it up as a get-rich-quick thing.”

What makes the book so practical for those about to blog and writers who’ve already taken the leap is its step-by-step approach to everything from content creation to finding and engaging an audience, search engine optimization, advertising, and selling and buying established blogs. Rowse and Garrett offer examples from their own experiences in blogging’s early days and provide helpful case studies, including a year-by-year analysis of how Rowse grew the Digital Photography School blog.

Am I Blue?

One of the chapters offers a simple-to-follow technical walk-through of setting up a WordPress blog on your own domain. For those who find WordPress needlessly complicated (you may have noticed I use Blogger), this was illuminating. As was the section on choosing your blog’s color.

“As everyone knows, color affects mood,” the section starts. “What do you want the mood of your blog to be?”

Good question, I thought. When I created No Bad Language, I’d spent 10 years at companies saturated in blue. One company even had the word “blue” embedded in its primary product name – you can’t escape “blue” when you work for a jeans giant – the other company used blue (and white), as many health-care entities do, to denote “clinical,” “sterile,” “medical” – all those words we associate with safe products. From corporate websites to intranets to PowerPoint templates: blue.

I found I could hardly look at blue anymore, despite it being my very favorite color my entire life, no contest. And, what’s furthest from blue? Why, red, of course.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Problogger indicates that red suggests “passion” (that’s fine, I’m very passionate about good writing and effective communications), but “anger,” as well (oh, dear, not really part of my blogging purview here or anywhere else). The book continues:

“Blue = conservative, business
Green = nature, go
Grey = formal, staid”

Given a bit of time and distance from blue branding – and a solid education in social media and blogging in the interim – I’m in the process of re-evaluating that choice plus a few others I made early in my blogging process.

All this to say, you may see some changes to the blog as we go through the holidays. I welcome your feedback and expertise, if you’d like to share in the Comments. Do you have favorite colors? Which backgrounds make it easiest to read blogs online? What works for you, and what doesn’t?

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Life’s like a movie. Write your own ending.”
~ Kermit the Frog, “The Muppet Movie”

Saving Face: 11 Ways to Recover from a PR Disaster

Netflix stock has opened like a poorly reviewed sequel for the past two weeks after reports that the online DVD/movie-streaming company lost 800,000 customers in the last quarter.

The irony is that new pricing and a hastily conceived change in business model, aimed at boosting Netflix’s stock, turned off customers, inviting reputation-drubbing reviews, and ultimately caused scared investors to dump shares.

There were three separate chances – the pricing change, the Qwikster announcement, the Qwikster demise – for Netflix to communicate effectively and help their customers adjust to change, yet the company seemed to bungle each opportunity, infuriating customers to such an extent that they unsubscribed from the service.

Why did communications go so wrong? And, once they’d created a problem, how could Netflix have handled communications to keep customers and investors happy? How do you successfully retract messages and deliver newer, better ones?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Netflix customer and have been for about seven years, though I don’t own stock in the company. I am probably what Netflix considers a Luddite user – I’ve always had a low-priced DVD-only plan. I was unaffected by most of this as a customer; as a communicator, I learned, and was reminded of, some valuable lessons about messaging change. Here’s what Netflix could’ve done before, during and after…

Introducing the Higher-Priced, Reduced-Service Business Model

In July, Netflix announced it would change its service offerings and price structure. Up until then, folks who had DVD-by-mail accounts also had the option to stream some movies for free from the Netflix library.

Here’s Lesson #1: When you give away a product or service for free, as the old joke goes, you’ve just established its worth. Netflix should have done a better job communicating why it was offering free streaming to begin with, and it should have been explicit about how long the free offer was going to last, so customers weren’t surprised when it went away. Even if they didn’t do this when they launched free streaming, there was still time to communicate before the price hike and service change.

Lesson #2: Explain your decision clearly and provide evidence. When you’ve offered something for free, then decide to charge for it, it’s going to feel like a loss to your customer. When brands and companies retract an existing feature, they need to make the case for change to the audience. The explanation – and any research backing it up – must be compelling enough to convince the audience to adapt to the change. The rationale can’t simply be about a company’s bottom line. (For an effective example of charging for an online service that used to be free, check out this NPR story on The New York Times’ paywall.)

Instead, Netflix choose to deliver the news about changes in pricing and service like this:

“Last November when we launched our $7.99 unlimited streaming plan, DVDs by mail was treated as a $2 add on [sic] to our unlimited streaming plan. At the time, we didn’t anticipate offering DVD only [sic] plans. Since then we have realized that there is still a very large continuing demand for DVDs both from our existing members as well as non-members. Given the long life we think DVDs by mail will have, treating DVDs as a $2 add on to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs.”

Lesson #3: Know your audience. Buried inside this price-change announcement was the news that Netflix had plans to eliminate DVD-only plans. Essentially, they were telling customers with DVD-only preferences that they’d better jump on the streaming bandwagon quick-smart or they’d find themselves paying for a combo plan while using only one part of it. Kind of like paying for a surf-and-turf platter and only eating the steak.

If this wasn’t confusing enough – and if freaked out customers were still reading – Netflix abruptly reversed itself: “Since then we have realized that there is still a very large continuing demand for DVDs both from our existing members as well as non-members.” (Italics mine.) The language takes the form of a pronouncement: We’ve decided this for you in consultation with ourselves. With any change – and any decision that affects customers’ wallets is always going to feel like a big change – audiences like to feel as if they’ve been consulted, like they’ve had a chance to provide their point of view. This messaging is entirely one-way communication. It’s no surprise that customers took to social media to voice their complaints…and that Netflix remained silent in those channels for days afterward.

Lesson #4: Be human. Statements like “…treating DVDs as a $2 add on [sic] to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs” reinforced what many Netflix subscribers viewed as a money-first, customers-second approach. This will happen when the words “financial sense” appear before “people who just want DVDs.”

When communicating about change or any difficult subject, always, always place human beings before any other issue. And try to make those human beings your audience, your customers or your stakeholders, not you and your investors.

With each of its decisions, Netflix failed to indicate if they’d done research into what customers wanted and needed and the price points they were willing to pay. How difficult would it have been to poll customers, invite them to focus groups, or engage them in social media channels before making a business decision?

But, companies on the brink of change are often ruled by fear – of what customers really think, how they’ll react, and what any hint of change will do to Wall Street. Decisions based on research into stakeholder perceptions – part of the due diligence of change management – are a lot more strategic than ones based on assumptions. When we engage stakeholders, we start to think of them as individuals and spend more time with them in two-way conversations, listening and learning. As a result, our communications become a lot more relevant, relatable, human.

An Apology Minus a Strategy

It took until mid-September for Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to jump into the fray the company had caused.

“I messed up,” he began. “I owe everyone an apology.” It was such a promising start, seeming to acknowledge the problem. Unfortunately, this was also the email that begat Qwikster and foisted the awkward two websites/two passwords/two credit card charges business structure onto baffled customers.

Lesson #5: Demonstrate that you’re sincere. Apologizing was the right move for Netflix, and the CEO was the right person to deliver the communication. The apology itself was well-worded; it didn’t resort to any “I’m sorry you thought I said that when I really said this” shenanigans.

Hastings went on to provide some context, pointing to companies, such as AOL and Borders, which had failed to adapt to change. “Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly,” he wrote.

Then, he added, “When Netflix is evolving rapidly, however, I need to be extra-communicative. This is the key thing I got wrong.” But, when he tried to re-explain the pricing and service changes, the language again turns a deaf ear on customers:

“So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are becoming two quite different businesses, with very different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. It’s hard for me to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary and best: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to ‘Qwikster.’”

“We realized….we need…we think it is necessary and best…” I’ve included the link to the full email so that you can see for yourself that, besides the apology, there’s little in the way of an explanation that takes into account the needs of and what’s best for customers. Really, it’s not about you, the email essentially says, it’s about how hard this is for me.

“For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that distinctive red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be the same for many of you. We’ll also return to marketing our DVD by mail service, with its amazing selection, now with the Qwikster brand.” [sic]

Lesson #6: Pinpoint the issue and address it directly. In its haste to announce and explain Qwikster, Hastings and Netflix lost sight of the real issue at hand: customers were upset over a perceived loss of service combined with a price hike. They weren’t clamoring for Qwikster as a solution. This lesson goes hand-in-hand with the previous one – it’s impossible to be (or sound) sincere when you’re addressing the wrong subject.

For this to feel like a genuine apology, Netflix needed to clearly state its rationale for the price changes and back up its words with tangible improvement to existing service(s) that demonstrated a benefit to customers despite the price increase. The Qwikster announcement merely changed the subject, it didn’t make the issue go away.

Lesson #7: Unless you can poke fun at yourself, don’t try to be funny when communicating difficult information. “There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!),” Hastings added to his email, striving to be jocular. Humor is tough under the best circumstances; it never works when your audience is angry (actually, it works to make them angrier) because it sounds like you’re missing the point. Which is exactly what Hastings was doing.

The About-face

Customers weren’t the only ones left scratching their heads. Investors, the audience Netflix was preaching to all along, became equally irate as the missteps shone a spotlight on an utter lack of strategic thinking in the executive suites. Stock price reflected this loss of confidence, plummeting some 70 percent in three months, after visiting $300 a share in mid-July of this year.

R.I.P. Qwikster.

On Oct. 10, a terse email from “The Netflix Team” – rather than the CEO this time – announced that Qwikster had imploded on the launch pad.

The note reiterated its pricing messaging without acknowledging the customer outcry that had led to Netflix’s disastrous business model revamp: “While the July price change was necessary, we are now done with price changes.”

The brevity of this communication was designed to get the whole thing out of the way quickly. Yet there are still lessons to be drawn:

Lesson #8: Don’t market, explain. With every announcement, Netflix felt the need to market some additional service. Here it’s a giant paragraph (far longer than the space allotted the slap-dash demise of Qwikster) devoted to their streaming services. It’s random, it’s off-topic, it’s just not helpful. Mainly, it suggests Netflix is just going to keep hammering away at their messages and not listen to or care about what the audience has to say or needs to know.

Lesson #9: Enlist back-up. Work with industry pundits and influencers among your target audience in advance of any big announcement. Explain what you’re about to do, demonstrate the research you’ve done to support the change, detail how you plan to message about it, and listen to their reaction. Adjust your message accordingly, then ask for their support when traditional media come calling with questions and on social networking sites, before chatter gets loud. Netflix should have enlisted industry analysts and techies before its first announcement; it was an absolute requirement by the time they retracted their position on Qwikster.

Some final lessons that may help brands and companies avoid PR disasters like this:

Lesson #10: PR can’t solve everything. You gotta feel for Netflix’s spokesman, who was sounding mighty beleaguered by the time announcement No. 3 rolled out. This was one of those PR disasters where Netflix basically revealed that “the Emperor has no clothes.” There was no strategic thinking or planning behind Qwikster – it was a knee-jerk reaction to a deluge of angry customer comments – and no PR can dress that up.

Lesson #11: Focus on the future. This is where your customers and Wall Street want you anyway. It’s clear Netflix had a vision of a future where clunky old DVDs – easily damaged, slow to mail – were no longer part of the business model. Instant streaming seemed to be the way of the future. But, the company needed to do the work to get customers to share the same vision, understand the value proposition, overcome any technology gaps or fears, and adopt the new way of accessing the Netflix library.

To be visionary, you have to know how to lead. In this case, Netflix needed to invest time, money and, goodness, yes, communications to educate the portion of its customer base that wasn’t in that magical early-adopter space. Teaching, sharing knowledge and information, is always preferable to pronouncing. And, like two-way communication on social networks, it puts you squarely in touch with your most valued constituents and helps you understand what they’re thinking, what they need, and when they’re ready to make the leap with you.

Just the Facts?

NPR ran an intriguing story this morning that gets to the hearts (and minds) of the people who are the targets of messaging.

The story was about the drought in the southwest United States and why, no matter how long the drought has lasted and how desperate communities have become, what many think of as an obvious solution – recycling waste-water – isn’t even on the table. So to speak.

After a quick synopsis of the drought, the story dives in to the discussion of messaging, and there’s a lot of valuable information for communicators helping their audiences cope with change.

What the advocates of recycled waste-water discovered when they tried to convince communities to adopt this solution is that no amount of scientific information could sway the good citizens. And, this isn’t a case of education level or translating science into plain English. The issue, if I might place myself into the mindset of some of these townsfolk, was: “No way, no how am I going to drink sewage-water or serve it to my family!”

Discussions with psychologists seem to have got to the root of the problem: contagion thinking. This is when one concept is so tightly bonded to another concept that no amount of facts will separate them or dissuade people from their way of thinking.

In this case, it went like this: “You can talk ‘parts per billion’ and ‘filters’ and ‘cleaning chemicals’ all you want, but nothing – and I mean nothing – is going to flush that image of sewage from my mind when I look at a glass of your filthy recycled water.”

Glass Half-Full Thinking

To aid recycling advocates, the psychologists suggested messaging that separated the original sewage water from the clean recycled water that ended up in people’s taps. Instead fresh river water and natural aquifers, rather than sewage, were identified as the source water. Of course, they were able to de-link these concepts because what they were saying was true; they’re not suggesting inventing false scenarios – that just wouldn’t wash when you’re trying to create credibility for your messages.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every audience is coping with contagion thinking. But, listening to this story this morning brought to mind some of the difficult conversations we have to have with our audiences, whether internal or external. How many times have you discovered that science, economic theory and well-researched rationale isn’t always persuasive?

Whether we’re trying to communicate changes in a benefits program or the decommissioning of a facility in a community or asking employees to work in new ways because of recently passed federal laws, our audiences have strong attachments to certain ideas and emotions about each of these actions, and facts alone may not be enough to help them change and adapt.

Internal audiences may have different concerns from external audiences. What we can do as communicators is work not just with the change management teams, senior leaders, line managers and external spokespeople, but with the audience members themselves.

It’s as important to find out what isn’t convincing your audience as it is to know what’s working, and then find new answers and reasons that speak to that emotional core of concern. With internal audiences, what we find is that every aspect of change management runs more smoothly: these concerns interfere with everything from process mapping to training and adapting to new roles. For external stakeholders, you discover that audience members feel the company has “really heard” them, and you see more engaged advocates for the change your company has embraced.

Worth listening to the whole NPR story here.

Writer Be Nimble: Avoiding Clichés and Buzzwords

Nim – ble  adj. 1. Quick, light, or agile in movement or action. Ex: nimble fingers. 2. Quick, clever, and acute in devising and understanding. Ex: nimble wits. SYNONYMS: Brisk, facile, spry. ANTONYMS: Slow, inept, dull-witted.

The business world is unlikely to run out of clichés, euphemisms and buzzwords anytime soon. Sure, your sharp eye spots blatant examples – “rightsizing” – and long before your CEO shows up to the all-employee meeting, you’ve redlined it and penned a more humane way to discuss what today’s economy is doing to your company.

From “reengineering” to “economies of scale” and, my favorite, “delayering,” which sounds like removing excess frosting from a cake, you’ve heard them all, right?

What about “nimble”? Or its cousins “entrepreneurial” and “efficient”?

Now, hold on, I hear you object, nimbleness is a good thing. Why The Economist frequently resorts to these phrases to honor companies that have held their own through the Great Recession: “The firm combines the heft of a big company with the scrappiness of a start-up.”

Okay, they were writing about Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, you continue, but, hey, “nimble” means quick and clever and implies we’re fit to navigate the shark-infested waters of the world economy.

Time to Nimbly Do a Reality Check

“Nimble” has become a trend-word, along with “entrepreneurial,” “efficiency,” and “productivity.” These clichés are now up there with “robust,” which used to apply to rosy-cheeked, bouncing babies, then became a popular descriptor for the tech industry, and now is appended to everything from cupcakes to car engines, though probably not the economy. “Quality” was another that lost its essence from overuse abuse.

The problem with trendy words is that when they become ubiquitous, your message loses all meaning.

Effective communicators understand messaging is a two-way deal – it’s not just what the CEO wants to say (“No matter how big our company gets, we’re going to remain nimble and entrepreneurial.”), but what it means to the audience.

If you’ve been finding yourself writing about how nimble and entrepreneurial your company is these days, here are a few ways to check that your messaging has real meaning:

Is the company nimble?
Face it, not every company can be nimble and entrepreneurial, especially ones with diverse product lines, tens of thousands of employees, and operations that cross state lines and international borders. Because “nimble” is such a buzzword – and impresses Wall Street – almost every company that’s publicly traded is calling itself “nimble and entrepreneurial.” But, is your company really nimble or is it wishful thinking? Remember, there’s nothing wrong with being strategic or cautious in the current economic environment. And companies that are visionary and maverick will do pretty well, too. Perhaps it’s just a matter of stepping spryly away from the cliché and finding a more apt, unique modifier to distinguish your company.

If the company is nimble, how is it nimble?
If you’ve done your reality check and your company passes, then, congratulations. Just know that a lot of companies out there are claiming to have exactly the same brand attributes as you. You can still call yourself nimble, but now it’s time to distinguish yourself from the “nimble” hordes with some specifics. “Nimble” has two definitions, which one are you? Are you both? How are you nimble? How does your nimbleness differentiate your brand from its competitors?

What is the company really trying to communicate?
Be careful to avoid using “nimble” and “entrepreneurial” as euphemisms for something more serious, such as layoffs. As with euphemisms from the recent past – “reorg,” “consolidation” and “streamlining” – the true nature of the company’s actions will become obvious to your audience and the news media. It’s far better to address tough issues head on, share what you can (legally, responsibly and respectfully), and promise to keep your audience informed as soon as you know more.

What does “nimble” mean to employees and investors?
Before letting your CEO message, it’s important to understand how the message will be received by the audience. To some employees, “nimble” may be positive; perhaps they’ve been struggling with too many layers of hierarchy between the people who do the work and the people who make decisions about the work. Being more “efficient” may mean there’s a greater chance they’ll be listened to. Or, on the negative side, it may feel like management is about to lay off more employees, leaving fewer people to cover the workload. As for the pundits on Wall Street and CNBC, they’re more likely to be impressed by a company’s nimbleness if they have specifics: How is the company planning to be more nimble? Why? By when? And how will it measure the improvements?

Reality checks are crucial when messaging. Not only do they help you to know your audience, they steer you away from risky clichés. After all, use a buzzword like “nimble” when no one thinks it’s accurate, and the company may gain a reputation for being quite the opposite.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Nimble thought can jump both sea and land.”
~ William Shakespeare, Sonnet 44

The 4 Essentials of Employee Communications

Yesterday’s post looked at examples of leadership communications gone wrong. Today, we’ll look at four essentials that can help writers avoid unfortunate miscommunications with a company’s most valuable resource: employees.

Step Away from the Desk
Good writing doesn’t start and end at a desk, tethered to a computer. Before you can get to the place where you “know your audience,” it’s important to learn your audience. And the way to do that effectively is by getting in there like a beat reporter.

Just as cities are made up of neighborhoods, companies have their “villages,” and to some degree each has a culture, language and even norms that vary from the collective corporate entity. The trick is not to “vacation” – visiting a few times, picking up some of the lingo and a contact here and there, and then working over the phone, relying on those few contacts from then on. A quick phone call may be easier with the workloads we’re shouldering these days, but cultural reporting requires immersion – it means developing a deep understanding of what’s meaningful in these worlds, however small and finite they might be. You want to be Margaret Mead in this world, not a discount traveler.

It’ll sound silly, but it also means going to lunch (not away from the office, but having lunch “in the village”), where the casual atmosphere allows employees to be more reflective about their work in the larger context of the company, what their constraints are, where they feel they’re supported in their work – and where not.

We become better writers – and communications counselors for our leaders – when we have a deeper understanding of what matters to specific audiences in our companies, when we go beyond a few examples of jargon and really know how to speak the language because we not only understand the work, we’ve seen first-hand what it takes to do the work.

I truly believe no one sets out to use an example, like “rocket science,” to purposely hurt an audience’s feelings. But real understanding of the culture within some of the technical organizations within our company goes a long way to avoiding accidentally slipping in something that does.

Test It Before You Deliver It
Developing strong ties to a client group or department can help communications in other ways, as well. It allows you to share messages and even entire pieces of work (articles, memos, speeches) beforehand across a range of roles within the department (rather than just with leaders or the same contacts over and over).

Of course, we’re talking about sharing non-confidential information here, but it helps to cultivate a process of sharing more. We in the corporate communications culture are innate hoarders of information, we hold it close. I had a journalism professor, way back in the day when it was the epitome of journalistic integrity never to share a story with a source before it had been printed. He told his flabbergasted class that he shared every story with every source. “Why wouldn’t you want to get it right?” he wanted to know. This professor was a seasoned cultural reporter, and it was his philosophy that interpretation can shade meaning while the source of the information can shed light on it.

Testing out messages may need a more formal process, like an editorial board (and here, having a range of pay grades represented or a rotating group to reflect diversity of opinion, is even more effective than the same small group every time) or it can be as simple as sharing a story over lunch.

“Write Up” to Employees
I’m with the party that endorses clear, concise writing, but that doesn’t have to mean writing in simplistic ways.

With the advent of online communications and the further reduction of messages to 140 characters on Twitter, there’s been a move away from – and even a bit of fear around – using language an audience might not understand. It’s the worry many speakers have, our corporate leaders among them, that what they’re saying might go over the heads of the people in their audience.

This is where time spent in the trenches is invaluable. It’s where we learn to trust the audience – actually, more often it’s where we learn that our audience is far more sophisticated in the detailed work of the business than we might ever hope to be – these are smart people or they wouldn’t be doing the work they do. Trust that they not only get it, but want to hear something substantial from senior leaders. They don’t want discussions that remain at the surface, they want the deep dive, and if they don’t understand a word or a concept, they’ll figure it out from the context or ask a question at the end of the speech.

This last one is going to make you cringe, but here goes…

If You Dare – Tell the Emperor He Has No Clothes
Leaders need their communications counsels to be honest coaches. Those “rocket science” analogies I wrote about yesterday? That was a worn-out cliché. On that basis alone, it would have been better not to use it and to wave off the CEO from returning to it over and over again.

Be prepared for uncomfortable conversations. Be prepared to be overruled sometimes. But, be prepared with concrete examples – not merely of better wording, but with videos of world-class speakers, news stories, statistics, and any other kind of proof you can present of their impact on the target audience.

It’s going to mean coming up with wording and new directions on the spot. But, if your senior leader sees the depth of your understanding of the subject and the audience, she or he will rely on you for that expertise because it will make the CEO a stronger communicator and create real engagement in the organization.

I’d love to hear about the practices you’ve used to support senior leadership. I’ve left out the entire area of feedback, so suggestions would be very helpful.

A great resource on the topic of effective speechwriting is this article by John Watkis, “41 reasons why good speakers give bad speeches.”

Pun-ditry

To undertake a post on humor is to tempt Fate. Or, as Tina Fey might have it, it’s waving baked goods under Fate’s nose when she’s trying to write.

Everyone gets tickled in a slightly different place on their funnybone.

Does humor have a place in professional writing – be it internal memos, magazine articles, executive speeches, or press releases? It definitely can, but a few guidelines can help.

  1. Know Your Audience: Isn’t this the case for all good writing and communications? You bet. Never more so than when using humor because humor is dependent on individual taste, background, and cultural, ethnic and religious norms.
  2. Have Something to Say: Humor is no substitute for delivering information that your readers or listeners can use. No matter how hard they laugh, if your audience is left with a lingering sense that they didn’t get something useful from your communication, they’ll ultimately feel they’re wasting their time.

Most pros advise going for puns rather than belly laughs. One key reason for this is that editors and avid readers are consumers of words and have a natural appreciation for word play. Do it with flair, and you may get column inches out of your press release.

Remember word play that relies on a visual interpretation of text will be far more difficult for an audience listening to a speech, however, verbal punning is perfect in these instances.

Likewise, while I have laughed till I developed a stitch in my side over the antics of Autocorrect and the LOL cats, if you’re trying to explain in writing what one of the “kittehs” at I Can Has Cheezeburger is doing, the joke will probably go down like a hairball.

Then, there’s being too clever: One company found this out the hard way when it used what it thought was a humorous soundbite to start off a video explaining why the company was downsizing. “I came to this meeting because I heard they were serving food,” chortled an exec on the video. Loss of job, loss of life, loss of lunch – these are not moments for levity unless you inhabit Quentin Tarantino’s world.

Your audience – employees, gentle readers, shareholders, the editor of a network news show – is made up of human beings. They respond to humor like we do, but it’s important to be respectful. And substantive. Humor won’t hide a lack of real news or information in your content. You don’t want to insult your audience or their intelligence.

What tickles your funnybone? Do have examples of written humor that works or fails?

Writing that inspired me this week:

“I think no innocent species of wit or pleasantry should be suppressed; and that a good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation.”
James Boswell