How to Avoid “Writing Down” to Employees by Applying Rocket Science

Photo by Vickie Bates.

I awoke this morning to a soundbyte of U.S. President Barack Obama using this phrase: “…those American people out there.”

While the president wasn’t addressing employees, he is trying to reach out to key audiences (those who’ll help to fund his campaign for re-election), and so, before I’d had a chance to brew my morning tea, I was provided with a perfect example of accidentally “writing down” to an audience.

We’ll leave President Obama to his fund raising for a moment to look at how writing can unintentionally go wrong when leaders talk to staff. I’m being deliberate about the use of “unintentional” here because professional communicators do a great deal of thinking before, during and after they write, and it seems like an extremely rare occasion when a pro intentionally crafts something to make a senior leader look bad or make the audience feel worse.

Rocket Science that Backfired

A number of years ago, a corporate leader was trying to rally a large engineering organization around a massive project that could make or break the business. There were many employee meetings, designed to give engineers a sense that the CEO was taking an active interest in their work, listening to their comments, available to answer questions – basically, that he understood the demands of all their effort. Except every time, he told them, “This isn’t rocket science.”

Engineers may be linear thinkers, but they’re not that linear. Like most people, they have a sense of pride and ownership about the skills and knowledge of their profession. They know they’re not literally doing rocket science, but their work is equally technical and they care just as much about the outcome. Without knowing it, the CEO and his writer were repeatedly insulting the audience they wanted to rally.

A few years later, while on a consulting job, I watched a leader use the phrase in exactly the opposite way, yet have the same effect. Again, a highly technical employee audience, whose work was the essential core of the business, and they were told that it was so much like rocket science that the CEO didn’t understand what they did.

This talking point was meant as a compliment, but it went over with this audience like a lead balloon. Most employees want to believe that the CEO understands the business they’re all engaged in. It opened a credibility gap that continued to grow until the CEO left the company and was replaced by someone who’d worked his way up to the C-suite from this technical department.

This is unfortunate in so many ways. My motto is “there’s no bad language, only unfortunate choices.” This isn’t about assigning blame to the writer for an unfortunate choice of words, or the CEO (who, in the second case, may have been going off-script at the time; in the first case, it was written into the script and meant as a sobering reality check – like I said, unfortunate). Both the writers and the CEOs probably had genuine intentions of rallying the troops (CEO #1) and patting them on the back (CEO #2), but the end result was unfortunate for the employees.

What’s happening with President Obama’s turn of phrase above? It’s distinctly different from his campaign speeches of three years ago, when the then-senator positioned himself as an average American citizen, “one of us.” There is no camaraderie to be found in “those American people out there.”

Out where? Beyond the gates of the White House?

This phrase places an unfortunate divide between the president and the American people. I hope his speechwriter realizes it soon.

“Writing Up” to Employees

In each of these cases, this is writing that’s being done from behind a desk. Behind a desk, you say? Isn’t that where most writing is done? Isn’t that where our computers live?

Yes, it is, and that is exactly the problem.

I’m going to leave you with that conundrum since this post is getting long. Tomorrow, we’ll look at four ways to avoid the unintentional gaffe, find and try out the messages that resonate, and write in ways that have fortunate results for leaders and employees.

In the meantime, if you have examples of your own, please feel free to share (though you may want to apply some creative writing to disguise the innocent).