A Few Things About Communication: 1. Rectify The Language
“If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong.” These are the words of Alfred Edward Kahn, a beloved economics professor and the man known as “the father of airline deregulation.” It’s easy to appreciate (and cheer for) an economist calling the architects of economic obfuscation on their shenanigans. Like all real wisdom, it grows more profound over time and when applied to new contexts.
I would actually go so far as to say that it applies to everything we communicate, everywhere. Even (or especially?) when we talk to ourselves.
There are only two ways in which we, as individuals, can impact the world and people around us. The first is through our behavior, the second is through communication. Most of our behavior, of course, is a product of how persuasive other communicators are.
In “The Spell of the Sensuous” David Abram recounts a theory of why the Spaniards were able to conquer the Aztecs as easily as they did. The Aztec language was locked to the concrete places, things and events around them. For them, as for many indigenous people, there was no reality separate from nature. The Spaniards came with modern language like ours—self-referential and founded on our human constructs—removed through abstraction from nature. Because the Aztecs had no concept of deceit or misrepresentation of facts, when the Spaniards misrepresented the truth, they thought their gods had abandoned them, and were crushed.
Our communication has lost touch with reality in almost every realm—from the Orwellian language of politics, to the “sound-good-bites” of business to the sensationalism of the media, with their hyped-up marketing programs for every disaster. (Does calling the recent floods in Australia “the Silent Katrina” provide any meaning?).
Most business communication is dead and empty because there is no human feeling or intention behind it. Somebody is usually second-guessing somebody they need to please who thinks they kind of sort of know the company line because they heard it from the people they need to impress but don’t really feel it so are careful to use the same words that their boss does which don’t have any deep connection to them whatsoever. Nobody understands it because it is a meaningless bunch of jargon.
Big companies may have the time and resources to waste on communication that is overly complicated and manicured to death, (and sometimes conveniently use it as a place to hide) but entrepreneurs do not. So the worst thing you can do is to try to become one of the big boys by mimicking the way they talk.
Here are a couple of examples:
From the BP Code of Conduct:
As one of the world’s leading companies, we have a responsibility to set high standards: to be, and be seen to be, a business which is committed to integrity. In a complex global business environment like ours, that’s not always easy. Our code of conduct is designed to help us achieve this.
Our code of conduct is the cornerstone of our commitment to integrity. As Tony Hayward, our former group chief executive, affirmed: “Our reputation, and therefore our future as a business, depends on each of us, everywhere, every day, taking personal responsibility for the conduct of BP’s business”. The BP code of conduct is an essential tool to help our people meet this aspiration. The code summarizes our standards for the way we behave. All our employees must follow the code of conduct. It clearly defines what we expect of our business and our people, regardless of location and background. Ultimately it is about helping BP people to do the right thing.
The code includes many examples of how our group values should be applied in specific situations. The level of detail and practical approach signal our determination to embed our values and a culture of integrity more firmly in our group.
What did they say? This is the code of conduct referencing itself - having no connection to how the company actually behaves. And it looks like somebody got paid by the word.
And one more, from Massey Energy (owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine and all its disasters), from their Ethics Commitment Agreement for 2008 (the latest I could find):
Credibility is the lubricant of business. Credibility promotes efficiency and effectiveness by smoothing contacts among businesses and individuals.
What did they say? No, it’s not. Credibility is NOT a lubricant. And anyway, they have no credibility.
Here’s an example of a statement that works; the goal of the World Wildlife Fund:
By 2020 WWF will conserve 19 of the world's most important natural places and significantly change global markets to protect the future of nature.
See the difference? There is a connection to reality in the WWF goal, there are real things there, not just words that reference other words. I know what to hold them accountable for.
Here’s what to do.
There is a simple, foolproof technique for writing in a way that people care about and understand you: Take the time—before you begin—to really figure out how you feel about your subject or issue. Be clear about your truth and what you want people to know. The difference, by the way, between what you want to say and what you want people to know can be huge.
This will sound preposterous, but, remember you’re a human being talking to other human beings. What do you need them to know? What do you need them to do? Answer these questions for yourself - nobody else - and clarify your thinking, because you can’t write clearly unless you do.
If somehow, some acronyms snuck by you and landed in what you wrote, try getting rid of them. If any of the words you’re using are not absolutely necessary—study them one at a time—take them out. If there are words that everyone in your industry uses, words that are hot at the moment, words that lots of people use to mean something slightly different, be relentless and find another way to say it. It doesn’t mean that everything you write will be ten words or less, it only means that you will have considered and meant every word you say. And that is a powerful, powerful thing.
When I teach entrepreneurs, I always tell them to use unworn language, and if they don’t know what that is, to read Emily Dickinson. Unworn language helps people hear things and consider what they’re hearing or reading without pre-judgment and in an open way. It sort of sneaks up on them before they can think they already know it when you know they don’t.
One thing is for certain. If you use the same words as everyone else to tell people how you’re different, the odds are not in your favor.
If language in business has lost it’s connection to reality, isn’t this the perfect opportunity for entrepreneurs to bring it back? Words have the power not only to convey truth, but also to create it. “I have an idea.” “Let’s start a business.” “We can do this.”
In the beginning was the word. Let’s make sure the word makes sense.
Related post: If Branding is Dead, What is Alive?