I never cease to be amazed at how many otherwise intelligent, erudite, sensible human beings seem to have complete brain fade when it comes to writing anything – particularly in a work context.
It's as though all normal rules of logic or common sense go straight out of the window as they attempt to shovel as many thoughts as possible into a single sentence.
It doesn't matter that no-one understands what they have written without reading the text at least three or four times; they have satisfied the project leader/finance director/head of engineering or whoever. They have communicated. Job done!
So why is there such a problem – some would call it an epidemic – when writing (or editing) company comms?
My experience of handling such work over the last four decades suggests that the reasons are complex.
I honestly believe that, when people first go into comms, they are fired up by the possibilities of, not only communicating well with their colleagues, but also inspiring them to help take the company/organisation to the next level.
So where does it all go so horribly wrong?
Firstly, it's an absolute truth that very few comms teams are staffed properly. Many excellent people simply don't feel they have the time to write exciting, inspiring stories. They are beaten down by the sheer volume of work hitting them day in and day out. In that scenario, it's batten down the hatches, do what you can to survive, and let creativity fall where it may.
Secondly, there's usually a lack of seniority in the comms arena. People report into different areas and often fall victim to working as part of the hype of the marketing mob, the general dullness or HR, or in small one or two-person teams, ploughing their own comms furrow without a clear idea of what 'success' might look like.
And that brings me to my third point: very often people are not trained properly for the specific job they are being asked to do.
How many comms professionals these days, for example, are 100 per cent confident in their writing skills? Even things like basic grammar (apostrophes, compound adjectives, capitalisation etc) cause many of them problems. Ask them to edit work from other people and they often lack the confidence to make the necessary changes or, indeed, to reject an article all together.
Over my comms teaching career I have come across hundreds of excellent individuals – and almost all of them face the same problems.
Many of them feel the need to 'big up' the company all the time with overblown marketese often passing for communication. Not for them the task of asking challenging questions of the management and getting the real story. Staying "on message" is more important. Replace stories with messages and they can't go wrong…
Throw into the mix 'business speak', that horrible faux language where problems don't exist and everything is 'exciting', a 'challenge' or an 'opportunity' and our simple communication starts to take on a life – and language – of its own. We don't believe it when we write it and the readers certainly don't swallow it.
Then we have comms people suffering from the 'they wouldn't like it syndrome'; those who are more worried about not offending anyone than telling people clearly and simply what's going on. An offshoot of this is the 'I wouldn't be allowed' clan. Here, people censor any sort of humour or excitement in their comms so that they can't possibly be called to account by anyone for anything… ever.
Of course, it's all a defence against a lack of confidence in their own skills and knowledge ¬– and is often caused by not working with other serious, hard-hitting comms professionals, who are prepared to lead by example, demand excellence and throw work back if it's not up to standard (when was the last time that happened?)
So, what's the solution?
Well, for a start, it's not easy and it requires a whole different mindset. Many people will be scared to actually put it into practice. It begins with one word: "NO!"
- No, I won't employ an unsuitable person in the comms team just because he or she is being redeployed from another part of the business.
- No, I won't work in the evening or at weekends because you are not prepared to employ enough people.
- No, I won't accept that a low standard of written English grammar is ever acceptable.
- No, I won't accept that piece of shoddy work. Do it again.
- No, I won't take on that extra task unless you tell me what else you want me to stop doing.
- No, I'm not prepared to send out that piece of communication until either you write it properly or I have had the time to edit it correctly.
- No, I'm not going to accept that my comms must never be humorous, challenging or edgy.
- No I am not prepared to accept the status quo.
We teach our kids that, if they think something is wrong, to "just say no".
Is it time for some of us to do the same?