Clarity of message and clarity of metaphor

Many years ago, I worked for a company whose leader was a brilliant speaker.  In general, he also could create create thematically compelling presentations, but he tended to reuse his metaphors.  In his original presentation, the products of the company were represented by a triad metaphor.  Then the three principles of the company were represented by the triad.  And then… until he was reined in, any three things were represented by that one metaphor.

This is a problem.

Here is another problem, illustrated by the inimitable Fry and Laurie:

Stephen Fry’s character keeps trying to make his point with an ever-shifting array of metaphors.  Hugh Laurie’s character keeps trying to anchor it by saying, “Hello.  We’re talking about: _____.”  Fry’s lyrically tripping tongue speedily outstrips Laurie’s ability to keep the audience tuned in to the topic at hand – they are unmoored in a restless sea of images.

Neither of these approaches work to create effective business communications.  Metaphors need to be selected carefully, crafted carefully, and presented carefully.  When used correctly, a metaphor can be a great tool to connect with your audience.  When selected, crafted, or presented haphazardly, metaphors can only create confusion.  Or, in the case of Fry and Laurie, humor.

A small example of why version control is so important

Working at a breakneck pace?  Think that release is ready for the wire?  You might want to open the document and check just one more time.

While you’re at it, you might also want to make sure young aides are briefed in the concept of keeping the meta-commentary out of the document itself.

Just a thought.

How not to use Twitter – a UK case study

Twitter – it’s either all the rage, or a cause of rage among people you know, right?  Mostly people seem to either love it or hate it to the point where they rant about it for what may seem like several days.

The service is admittedly quirky – it has its own syntax and rules.  You can target a specific person by placing the @ symbol in front of their user name,  and you can identify a topic or issue by prefacing it with a hashtag (e.g. the protests and crackdowns following the Iranian elections means that #Iran is a very common hashtag term at the moment).

Identification via hashtag does more than just giving a regular reader a categorical “heads up.”  It makes a topic easier to search for.   For instance, a search for “law” might give you everything from gripes about someone’s mother-in-law to a legislative alert; however, if you search for “#law” you will get messages (“tweets”) specifically relating to law and the legal field.

Hashtags, therefore, can serve as primitive but valuable finding aids for people interested in certain issues or topics. tallmanwalking {at} gmail(.)com" target="_blank"> So, consider this case study of the UK furniture firm Habitat, who signed up for Twitter and immediately started populating their tweets about store sales with random hashtagged terms like #iPhone and #Apple.

Who thought this was a good idea?  What happens when someone who is interested in the new iPhone runs into a tweet about a furniture sale?  Do they say, “Oh – I thought I was interested in an iPhone, but perhaps I will purchase a sofa instead”?

I have to say that I think the chances of that happening are extremely low.  I would even go so far as to venture a guess that people running a search on #iPhone might feel as if they were the targets of a very inept con.  I don’t know about you, but when I am the target of an inept con, I either think that the person attempting to perpetrate it is exceedingly stupid or has such a low opinion of my intellect that they haven’t bothered to make an effort.

It’s not especially good branding strategy to either look really stupid or assume your customers are really stupid.

The original post linked above has fantastic advice about how to step back from the brink of such a PR disaster.  The best of these in my opinion is this:

Its ok to fail. Do it quickly and apologise publicly. People are a lot more forgiving when you admit to your mistakes rather than deny any wrongdoing.

Very, very true.  If you are stepping up to use a medium that is expressly designed to communicate both directly and publicly with your customers, you really need to proceed with utter openness and honesty.  Otherwise, don’t bother.

Everything in moderation: fly coach

Last month, the chiefs of the big three automakers flew to Washington in three different private jets to make the case before Congress that their companies could not continue to exist without government assistance. In the annals of “let them eat cake” executive hubris, I’m not sure I know of an example that ranks higher.

So, having been handed their… hats and told, “go away and come back with a plan, not a plea,” one auto chief will make that second trip from Detroit to Washington by driving himself in a hybrid.

Pardon me for being rude, but this is just stupid.

Why is it stupid?  It shines a big, shiny spotlight on the executive’s former egregious act by indulging in a theatrical bit of penance.  It reminds me of the old saying we had when I was waiting tables: If you screw up, apologize once.  If you apologize once, they remember the apology.  If you apologize multiple times, they remember what you did that required an apology. This is silly enough that it rivals Monty Python’s “Restaurant Sketch:”

It also makes any even vaguely colorable reasons the executive might have had for indulging in the private jet in the first place all the more laughable.  Your time is so valuable that you just had to take the G4?  That notion is pretty much shot if you spend almost nine hours behind the wheel (actually, probably more – watch 66 at rush hour. It’s a bear) ostentatiously flagellating yourself in an all-too obvious PR stunt.

The executives in question were called out for acting out of touch with reality, for not understanding the consequences of their actions. In communications terms, the Great Hybrid Drive comes across as reactionary and petulant – and illustrates a continued lack of understanding of what is at stake and why people cringe when executive perqs are preserved at the same time as real people, not numbers like “fifty thousand” lose their jobs.

Here’s a bit of free advice: next time you are called to be humble, do it for real. Fly coach, cope with crying babies and nervous seatmates, and when someone asks you how your flight was, say, “Uneventful. The best kind.”

It’s what real real people do.

ETA: Now they’re all doing it. And they’re also proving my point: the articles that talk about their big drives are also talking about the jets, further cementing the auto chiefs’ earlier stupidity in the public’s memory.

More topical communications examples from the Olympics

Yesterday evening, Nastia Liukin of the United States and He Kexin of China received tie scores in the uneven parallel bars Olympic final. Even as the identical scores were posted, Liukin’s name immediately went into the second-place slot.

The people who were immediately baffled by this included: Liukin, her coach (and father – former Olympian Valeri Liukin), the Olympic commentators on NBC, and probably several million viewers. The tie-breaking mechanism was arcane and automatic, causing outrage from some and suspicion from others. Tim Daggett, NBC commentator and an Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast himself, could only say later in the broadcast that “the computer” had an automatic tiebreaking mechanism, and he seemed unfamiliar with the specifics. The impression that it left with many was that the system was arbitrary, and gymnastics is a subjective enough sport without opening the door any further to suggestions of arbitrariness or caprice.

What could have saved this situation? Proactive, transparent communication from the Olympic gymnastics organization. Even if the tiebreaking rules are available (and I’m sure that researchers at news organizations worldwide were sent scrambling for the IOC Gymnastics rulebook), the situation was unusual enough that someone in the Olympic gymnastics organization should have been able to make an immediate, on-the-floor statement to explain what had happened and why. When even the experts in the field react in puzzlement, you have a communications problem. Only transparency will fix it.

“Drawing the sting”

When I was in law school, a trial practice professor of mine discussed a technique called “drawing the sting.” It referred to the strategic revelation of negative information about your client so the other side couldn’t stage a dramatic uncovering of the same information. The logic was simple: if it’s going to come out, let it come out in a way that allows the home team to retain some control over how the information is presented. This technique, when done well, also has the collateral effect of making you look frank and forthright instead of dishonest and sneaky.

The effect of drawing the sting can ripple outward from the disclosure, having impact far beyond the moment when the information is given. Therefore, whenever possible, the information has to be given in a straightforward, undramatic manner in an atmosphere lacking in emotional charge. The less emotional freight you load on to the revelation, the less it will travel.

As a topical example, consider the following scenario:

  1. Benjamin Boukpeti is the only member of the Olympic Togolese whitewater kayak team.
  2. M. Boukpeti was not considered to be a medal contender, both before the event and after the first run.
  3. M. Boukpeti’s last two runs had the kind of speed, strength, and athleticism that cause sports journalists to write things like, “heroic,” “epic,” and “fairy-tale.”
  4. M. Boukpeti won the bronze.
  5. This is the first ever Olympic medal for Togo.

Taken together, these pieces of information make a stirring, emotional story. Now add one more piece of information to that mix: M. Boukpeti has been to Togo once in his life. He was born in Lagny, France, and makes his home in Toulouse. His mother is French, his father is from Togo and Boukpeti himself holds dual citizenship. He trains with the French national team, but could not have qualified for the French Olympic team. Since he qualifies under Olympic rules to paddle for Togo, he paddled for Togo.

As I watched the coverage of his accomplishment on television, it was plain to me that this last paragraph of facts were all well known to the journalists covering the event, as they mentioned them in a matter-of-fact manner. When M. Boukpeti was interviewed afterward, he was frank and open about his background. As a result, many articles on him concentrate on his achievement rather than his nationality.

Contrast that with this report, which makes Boukpeti’s past and his representation of Togo look clandestine and shady, and imputes cynical motives to his representation of Togo. It acknowledges that his choice of nationality is within the letter of the Olympic regulations, but implies a violation of the spirit. It also implies that the facts of M. Boukpeti’s nationality are not well known and readily obtainable. (I can’t speak to the British television coverage of the event, but the information available on the Internet indicates that you don’t need a “former England & Great Britain kayaker…[and] something of an expert on the sport of canoe slalom” to “reveal… the real story behind a would-be fairytale.”)

If you mentally rearrange the order of the facts above to put the discussion of his nationality second in the numbered ranking, it probably lessens the emotional freight of M. Boukpeti’s accomplishment. The story becomes a bit less of a “fairy tale,” but no less of an athletic accomplishment. It is also how Boukpeti actually handled the facts, which seemed to smooth the ripples of most journalists’ stories about him as well. Now imagine what would have happened if those facts had somehow been concealed – the story discussed in the last paragraph would have been written everywhere, and it wouldn’t have mattered how legal his choice of nationality was: the focus would have been off the bronze and into the dirt.

Silence, mortals.

Quick quiz: is the communications discipline a unique function, or is it integrated throughout a business?

Answer: both.

(Did I mention I have a law degree? Lots of my answers are variations on the theme of “it depends.”)

Digging deeper into the question, communication is always happening at all levels of a business. Unfortunately, what is communicated is often what the communicator would never intend. For example, silence is a form of communication, and a particularly pernicious one to many leaders. In the face of management’s silence, employees see only actions. In the absence of verbal messages to modulate these actions, they interpret, speculate, and talk.

Or, in other words, they gossip. When this gossip is handed from person to person, it gains an unmerited patina of credibility. As they’re waiting for a meeting to start, Robynn says to Neville, “I don’t know what’s going on upstairs, but there was a big meeting the other day that wasn’t on the usual management calendar: maybe we’re being spun off.” Later in the day, Neville turns to Fiona and says, “I’ve heard that we might be spun off,” while they’re both waiting for the microwave to free up. Two days later, in response to Chris’ frustrated rant, Fiona tells him, “They’re spinning us out.” In three easy leaps, like that grade school game of “telephone,” a bit of idle speculation is turned into an expensive problem as employees spend their workdays being distracted, worried, and unsettled instead of committing their energies to the corporate problems they are paid to solve.

Can managers always tell employees everything? The short answer is no. The long answer is a complicated and situational mix of what is sensitive, what is useful, and what is mission-critical. But a manager who continually and proactively communicates with staff gains a measure of credibility and a short period of silence is less likely to be filled with fevered speculation and gossip. The main key is the cultivation of a key question: “Who needs to know this?”

This sounds tremendously simple, it’s true – and once it is a habit firmly ingrained, it is simple. But like all good habits, it takes a lot of cultivation. Not every piece of information needs to be communicated to every person, and in the same way every time. Where many managers realize the need for communication in the big, sweeping situations, they often miss the opportunities for communications on smaller issues. The question that needs to become ingrained is, Who needs to know?

A compliment at a senior staff meeting on a project that is being handled by a subset of the manager’s staff? Who needs to know? At the bare minimum, the leader of that project should know. One approach: an e-mail to all staff members on the project, letting them know that their efforts are being noticed.

A technological change that might have some impact on the manager’s IT department? Who needs to know? IT is the obvious port of call here, but managing downstream effects is important also. Therefore, a call or quick meeting with the IT manager to make sure any necessary transition is handled smoothly – and communicated to those end-users affected might be in order.

A staff change at a major competitor? Who needs to know? What member of the manager’s staff is going to find this piece of information useful to fine-tune their approach to their job?

The daily result of such constant communication is trust. And when the spin-out is contemplated but can’t be communicated downstream yet and silence is necessary at the moment, that trust is going to be extremely valuable.

Language and “correctness”

My first post initially contained this first sentence:

Everyone has their parameters for hiring a freelance writer.

One of my first beta-readers alerted me to the fact that some people have issues with this construction: the use of the third-person plural pronoun as a third-person gender-neutral singular pronoun.  I don’t have problems with this construction, though there are other usages that grate (“between you and I,” “I felt badly about it,” – there are more.  I won’t go on).  There are others whom I respect who also find this to be a useful construction, but I will mention two: the website Common Errors in English and the technical linguistics blog Language Log:

The argument was settled long ago: singular they has routinely been used throughout the history of English, by all the best writers,* until certain subcases were artificially turned into “errors” by self-appointed experts. Successively less discriminating pseudo-authorities then generalized the proscription in successively sillier ways, although they have largely been ignored by the users of the language.

[Emphasis mine]

I’ll get back to that last statement in a minute, but first you might have noticed that I changed that initial sentence in the first post.  Was I backing down in my assertion (backed up by some very eminent language scholars and the “best” writers) that use of they/their to indicate a singular third person is correct?  No.  That brings us to our audience.

Users of the language – there’s the rub.  Who is your audience?  Who are you talking to?  Some people really believe that this use of they/their is an incorrect, amateurish construction in any and every case, and my use of it will throw them out of the flow of what I am saying.  They have to get around how I said something to get to the sense of what I said.

In other words, is it more important to be perceived to be technically correct or is it more important to be easily understood?  Anyone reading what I had initially written would certainly understand what I was getting at – but would their eyes and brain then alight neatly on the next thought or would they be mentally hung up by the construction of the first sentence?  If they do hang up – if the mental gears grind and smoke and they wonder, “Is she really a good writer?” or triumphantly think, “Aha – a fraud!” or any other possible response other than, “Yes, okay – and…” – will understanding prevail?

Possibly it will, but not without a lot of work on their (and possibly my) part.  In this endeavor, I am my own client.  Am I served by dragging my audience rather than leading them?  I would say no, and I would say no on behalf of any other client of mine.  Therefore I changed it.

* NB: Jane Austen – ed.

ETA: Language Log again, with a very timely post – and this is exactly the type of singular “they” that does grate.