As we learned yesterday, a communicator's request for information gave me an emotional flashback from my stint as a hapless operator of an "Employee Communication Hotline."
I answered his request thusly (I've changed his name to protect myself from accusations of being an even bigger douchebag than I already am):
John, John, John, John, John, John, John, John, John!
You're on the verge of your encore career, and you're still groping around for demonstrable, unassailable, quantitative proof that clear and credible writing is more effective than pretentious bullshit?
And you think maybe I've been holding onto this secret all these years?
And you think I'll give it away for free just because you asked?
That's a whole passel of craziness!
Seriously, John, you have God on your side. And you want statistics, too? Who in the company is arguing with these suggestions? Here's my suggestion: The first person who tells you they don't think the corporate prose could be more understandable—just plant your back foot and punch him right in the nose. Unless it's a woman—"Susan," for instance—in which case, seize control by calling her by her last name: "Frankly, Jackson, it doesn't make any difference to me, because as of COB on June 8, 2014, I'm totally the fuck out of here. I just thought, as a last act, I'd try to leave this culture a little more communicative than I found it. What's your objection, exactly?"
Of course, you have to be prepared for the possibility that Jackson actually has an objection. Like, "Isn't it going to add yet more time-consuming nonsense to our already grinding workdays to have to run a grade-level test on everything we write, no matter who the audience or what the subject, and dumb it down until it satisfies the arbitrary test of some propeller-head in communications who isn't even going to be here this time next year?"
As for the first name/last name stuff, I don't think that's a hill you want to die on. A candid, insightful interview with Fred is infinitely and obviously better than a platitude exchange with Smith.
John, seriously: If you want to improve the company voice, I think you'll much better spend your last year demonstrating the power of clear, honest, credible communication and hoping it catches on in the corporate culture. Codifying credibility in the style guide? I think there's a good reason no one else wants that job: It's thankless, and probably ultimately fruitless.
In a P.S., I said I hoped John took the response in fun, "though I mean my main point seriously." Not hearing from him, I wrote him a couple of days later to say I hoped he hadn't been offended. Not at all, he said. Just waiting to respond until he had time to do so.
That was about a month ago. Nothing from John.
Yeah, that's what I thought.
Communicator, please stop turning to "communication experts" to give you quantitative data and "best practices" that you know in your heart don't exist about an art that you know damned well isn't a science.
Because the only answers you'll get will be from the sorts of lying creeps who would invent and staff an Employee Communication Hotline.
Well, I'm not lying anymore.
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 midweek hangover 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? Check back here tomorrow, to see what I said.
Hat tip to fellow Jason Green, an amateur descriptive linguist who nevertheless says this development "makes my skin crawl (though NOT literally)."
My only regret is that I was never able to iterate on the model given the push back I received when I suggested we try different strategies.
... don't let the door push back on your ass on the way out.
My dad worked with Elmore Leonard at the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency in the early 1960s. "Dutch," as he was known to his colleagues, would work on novels before coming into the office to write ads for General Motors.
There's hope for us all.
A friend of mine is trying to sublet his apartment. He heard from a fellow named Shawn, who may be looking to sublet. He asked Shawn to send him a phone number to discuss the apartment. Shawn began his reply,
So, I am actually in Sweden visiting my girlfriend until this Sunday. ...
I instructed my friend not to rent to this worm.
Why? To review:(So, I realize the sentence-starting "so" is an out-of-control linguistic staph infection. Is there nothing we can do to prevent its senseless spread?)