Posted by: Kristen Ridley | January 18, 2013

(say) + DO = Credibility. Otherwise = #fail

no block words One of the people I follow on Twitter [@RealizedWorth] posted a link pointing to an online article. The title was “Bringing Corporate Social Responsibility to Life Through Storytelling”. Sounds like a terrific premise, doesn’t it? I thought so too, until I clicked-through and discovered that the article was EIGHT FULL PAGES of solid-block words! Just words, lots of them in paragraph after paragraph. To be fair, there were a few bolded sub-headings, one indented quote, and a numbered list [although each item IN that list was another big-block of just words], so there were a couple of things to break up the words. But I have to be honest and say that when I scrolled through to see what else was there, and realized the work I would need to put in to find out what kind of insights – and I’m sure they’re in there, somewhere – I decided it wasn’t worth the amount of time I’d have to invest and I clicked back out.

Now, you can absolutely go ahead and call me lazy, shallow or too “social-media-ized” with the attention-span of a gnat, and, you might even be right! But the problem is that I’m not the only one who feels that way. The “NOW! FAST! SHORT!” sickness is pretty much an epidemic, particularly on Twitter – I mean, let’s remember 140 characters maximum, right?! How much can you actually communicate in that, so you better get your message across short and sweet if you hope to command attention in a constant stream. Sad, but true!

But the purpose of this post isn’t at ALL to diss the authors of that article or their insights – which, let me say again, I’m sure  had plenty of good insights to offer – it’s a reminder, for myself, and any other communicators who might want or need it, that even though the currency of our work is words, if those words don’t jive with what they actually MEAN to the people reading them, then we’re dead in the water when it comes to creating engagement, and, more importantly, the desired action as a result of the words we offer for our audiences.

So, if your title suggests that you are going to “bring something to life through storytelling” then you probably want to remember how the stories YOU loved were told, and try to parse the things that story and storyteller did and said that made the story grab you and impact you. I could be wrong, but somehow I doubt that that story was presented to you as a wall of words. No, in fact, the rule against the wall of words approach is arguably the numero uno “no-no” of communicating.

This article and my – admittedly somewhat visceral – reaction to it reminded me of my favourite approach to give myself a wake-up call/reality check when I myself get caught up in communicating for me, or for my bosses, or for anyone else other than my actual audience. And I am happy to confess that it happens to me as much as the next communicator. In fact, if I am really honest, it might even happen to me MORE than the next communicator, because I’ve spent most of my career as a professional communicator in corporate environments. And corporate environments are complex, with many different stake-holders, and senior level decision-makers, and a whole bunch of differing agendas and requirements. And there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just the nature of a corporate environment. It is what it is, as a colleague of mine once said.

So when any communicator gets too caught up in navigating the wants and needs of too many of those corporate stakeholders, and forgets who is ultimately going to decide whether our words are worth reading, let alone acting on, [hint: not the internal stakeholders!] a wall of words, or excessive jargon, or completely made-up quotes can happen way too easily.

We MUST guard against that. After all, that’s why the organization has hired a professional communicator in the first place. Somebody at some point recognized that the business needed someone who could deliver the corporate messages to people outside, and in ways that would accomplish the desired action. So, even though in some environments that may not be the paramount job colleagues THINK we should be doing, it IS the job we should be doing. So we must find ways to navigate that fine line and do BOTH.

There are lots of ways to come at that ultimate objective, such as creating a list of the most frequently used jargon or buzzwords in your company and creating at least two or three “real word” alternatives that you can get agreement on from your stakeholders. Having these words ready to go and already blessed can save tons of time when you are working on messaging and trying to make it something that will genuinely connect with your audiences. That also leaves you more time for the conversations you may need to have about other parts of the message that might need some adjustment.

But my favourite approach to “keeping it real” when I’m writing for my business is what I like to call the “Granny/8-year-old” check. I bet you can already guess what that’s all about, but just in case, I’ll explain.

In most business environments the people to whom communications about your organization are directed are diverse. Unless you work in an extremely specific and very technical industry, and never communicate with anyone except other technically knowledgeable individuals, your message HAS to be simple enough for the least knowledgeable reader you will have to understand.

So, when I write something for the business and I have a first draft, I walk away from it and let my brain disengage for as long as circumstances permit. Then I come back to it, and I read it and ask myself: “If I gave this to my grandmother [or my 8-year-old, whichever one you happen to have easiest access to!] to read and asked her if she understood what I was talking about would she say yes? And, secondly, would she be likely to do whatever I’m asking in the piece after she read it?”

It sounds pretty simple, and it actually is . . . eventually. You need to train your own brain to be able to separate from “corporate communicator” you, and shift into “normal person” you so that you can read something – even something you wrote, and feel proud of – and look at it with the objectivity to accept whether you hit the mark or if you’re in a different county from where you need to be. It really helps with this if you read and write other things beside the corporate info you deal with at work. It also helps if you actually HAVE a granny or an 8-year old – or even a trusted friend or relative who’s willing to read corporate stuff for you [confidentiality permitting, of course] and give you the honest reaction of a normal person.

Sometimes it stings a little when I hand over my stuff to the honest – sometimes brutally honest – group of “real people” in my world who help me out with this. But the eventual result is a much more focused, straight-forward and useful piece of communication. One that is far more likely to elicit the reaction and action I, and my business NEED to have from the people who consume our information. One thing I can tell you FOR SURE, is that those folks would NEVER let me put out an eight-page wall of words . . . nor should they! We have to remember that it’s not about us, or even our business partners. If we want the right results from our communications, they MUST speak to our audiences in the way THEY want and need to receive information. You can come up with all the justifications you like for other approaches, but the real people are the ones who decide whether you’re giving them what they want or not. If they decide it’s “not”, they’ll go elsewhere, it’s really just that simple . . . and just that complicated at the same time.

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