Leave it to Weird Al Yankovic to show us just how much we miss the mark when engaging with our employees and colleagues. In a song called “Mission Statement in his latest album, Yankovic puts corporate buzzwords into a parody of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, highlighting just how meaningless and purposeless corporate communications have become.
A couple of years ago, I added the function of internal communications to our sales force to my responsibilities. My team’s mission was to simplify and consolidate the dozens of emails going to the sales force on a weekly basis. We started by interviewing nearly 100 account executives to find out that they grapple with over 100 emails per day and quite frankly saw “corporate emails” as their last priority. When asked what we should be doing about it, almost everyone we interviewed suggested we consolidate the emails into a weekly, summarized newsletter, which made it easier for them to consume.
We started by consolidating the emails into a well-designed weekly newsletter, but as I looked at the emails we were looking to consolidate, I realized consolidating them was the least of our problems. The emails were almost as if they’ve written in a foreign language. Full of every corporate buzzword imaginable (kudos to Weird Al for capturing at least 90% of them). Some were more essays than emails with an average length of over 400 words. I can see why the audience was deleting them before reading them. I would have done exactly the same.
That week, we started coaching execs on how to literally translate emails into words that humans can actually understand and can connect to. Long and boring sentences such as “effective risk management system across all lines of business enables us to make informed decisions, and safeguard the company’s assets” turned into simple, human-friendly sentences like “managing risk will help us avoid trouble”. We even went a little quirky on some of them just to change it up. We incorporated pop culture themes, humor, and even some slang. In the following weeks and months, we received hundreds of compliments. Our approach has been replicated dozens of times across the organization and to this day, people still look forward to getting their weekly newsletter.
Communication is arguably one of the most critical functions in business. So why are we still masking our true messages behind meaningless business phrases?
Part of the reason goes right back to our education. When we come out of school, we are trained in professional and academic writing. We are taught that maintaining a professional and serious tone in professional writing is important. We use third person almost exclusively in professional writing and avoid addressing the reader (i.e., using “You should know …”) instead of using first person (i.e., “I think this is …”). Leveraging this communication style in the workplace is no longer effective. It turns people off and disengages them.
As Guardian writer Steven Poole observes, buzzwords help deflect blame, mask mistakes, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations. Unlike what you were taught in school, business communications is not about lecturing. It is about inspiring action. It is about getting buy-in through influence. It is about showing the authentic side of leaders. It is, after all, about humanizing the way we communicate in the workplace.
We took a very iterative approach to communications. We ran experiments on a weekly basis to see what works, we measured the response and feedback and constantly adjusted. Based on our learning, here are some tips that may help you humanize your corporate communications:
Be Yourself – Let your personality shine through by speaking in the same language that you would use with friends and family. If you use “hey” to greet friends, use the same in your communications. Your personality and authenticity will shine through and people will start paying attention.
Tell Stories – Stories are a powerful way to get a message across while making it memorable. Drop the formalities and tell a story in your own unique way. Don’t be afraid to make it personal and even emotional. You want your personality to come through.
Inject Humor – Work doesn’t always need to be so serious. It’s time to make it fun, plus everyone loves a good chuckle. Some of the best and most memorable corporate emails I’ve seen incorporate humor, jokes and anecdotes.
Speak to People – Create a conversation by using the words “you” and “I”. Ignore the guidelines that you were taught back in school. You’re not writing essays anymore, you are inspiring action. A simple way to test the impact of your communication is to share a draft with a friend or family member and have them repeat, in their own words, what they understood and what it inspires them to do.
It’s so easy to get sucked into corporate vernacular, but we cannot forget that despite being in a business environment, we are communicating with humans with a goal to connect and inspire action, not lecture. This is where simplicity and authenticity really shine.