Communication: The College Tour Edition

Their jobs should be obvious: sell the value and unique features of their schools to the excited teenagers and anxious parents (or is it the other way around?) that troop through their offices each year as part of that modern ritual, the college tour.

But the very first two schools my son and I visited on our own college tour a few weeks ago proved something I should have known: nothing is obvious.

I’ll call them College of the Bad Example (C.B.E.) and Right University (R.U.), because they provided almost laughingly perfect examples of bad and good communication.

Lesson 1. Target Your Audience

C’mon now, you say, isn’t this a little elementary? Apparently not.

As it happens, my son is a budding jazz trumpet player who wants to go to a conservatory, so that’s where we had arranged tours. In most cases, when we set up our appointments—weeks in advance—we answered questions about his specific interests: classical or jazz? Vocal or instrumental? Performance, theory or composition? We also informed the schools that he was a high school junior, trying to decide where to apply.

When we arrived for an information session at C.B.E., dozens of other families were there. We quickly learned that they comprised a mix of high school juniors, like my son, and seniors who’d already been accepted and were trying to decide whether to attend. They also comprised classical and jazz musicians, composers, singers, musical theater types—you name it.

Rather than planning in advance for this disparate audience, the admissions staff began by announcing that they might split the group in two: admitted students and high school juniors. Shortly after that, while we continued to wait, they announced that they’d decided not to bother splitting up the group, they’d just talk to us all at once and “pardon us in advance” if some people might find the information repetitive.

The result? Well, as it turned out the admissions staffer who led the session said next-to-nothing anyway (see below). But if she had, you can bet almost none of it would have been information specifically relevant to a high-school-junior-jazz-trumpet-player. We could have gotten a lot more by spending just fifteen minutes on the website.

In contrast, when we showed up for our appointment at R.U., we found just one other family. This is not because there weren’t lots of prospective students visiting the school. As we would learn later, when we met for the actual tour part of the tour, a dozen other families were there that very day. But unlike at C.B.E., we’d each been assigned information sessions with different people at different times of day, based on the specific areas of study our kids were interested in—and where they were in the application/admissions process.

Not only that, but when my son was handed a packet of information about the conservatory, it included a sheet of paper detailing the curriculum for the specific division within the jazz department that he’d expressed an interest in.

Lesson 2: Check In With Your Audience

At C.B.E., the admissions staffer ushered us into a room packed with chairs and began by asking for a show of hands of who was a junior and who was an already-admitted senior. She apologized again in advance for saying anything some of us might already know. Then she stopped asking us anything at all and just talked. Without addressing either audience.  See below.

At R.U., our two families sat down around a table and the admissions staffer asked each of the students (both boys) to tell her about their interests. She listened carefully to the first boy, without interrupting, and then said there’d been a mix-up; his interest was in musical theater and she’d thought she’d be talking to two prospective jazz students. However, she told him, she’d be able to tailor the information to fit his needs. After listening carefully to my son, who talked about his musical interests in detail, she said he may have been misled by the name of the division he thought he was interested in: she felt he’d probably prefer one of the other divisions within the jazz department and she explained why.

Then she proceeded to give us a great deal of detailed information both about the school in general (see below) and about our kids’ prospective divisions within the conservatory. She spoke about theater groups and performance ensembles they might be particularly interested in. She spoke about current students and alumni who had similar interests and what they were doing now. At the end of the hour, she led us back to her office so she could give my son a new sheet of paper; this one detailed the curriculum for the division she thought might suit him better. She also suggested two faculty members for him to talk to.

Lesson 3. Get Inside the Heads of Your Audience

For the admissions staffer at C.B.E, it was just another day. She’d woken up, eaten breakfast and come to work. At the end of the day, she’d go home again.

She failed to realize that, for the rest of us, it was a day—or more probably a week—out of our tightly scheduled lives. We’d travelled hundreds of miles, in some cases. Paid for plane tickets or gas, paid for motels and meals, left work behind and chosen not to visit another college somewhere else, just so we could spend one hour trying to get information that would affect a decision that might have an impact on our kids’ entire lives.

Sure it was nice that she was friendly and a little casual. But neither my son nor I appreciated her endless banter and jokes that had nothing to do with information-sharing. I happen to know something about this particular college. It has a fascinating history and an unusual approach to both academics and student life. Our admissions staffer mentioned none of these. In fact, over the course of the hour, it was remarkable how little information she managed to convey.

The admissions staffer at R.U. was also quite personable. But she wasted not a minute of our time, providing so much meaty information about the program, culture, curriculum, size, admissions process, acceptance rates—you get the idea—that we could hardly write it down fast enough. Which is fine, because she also came prepared with much of that information in printed form, so she could turn most of her attention to responding to our specific needs (see above) and answering our questions.

There you have it. Three good lessons learned, all during the week I swore I was taking off from work. (The problem with a career in communications is you can never take a vacation. Communications—good and atrocious—are everywhere.)

We’re encouraging our son to look past the awful job they did communicating at C.B.E., and try to find out more on his own, because the school has a good reputation.

Will your audience lend you the same slack?

Struggling with a writing job? Let me know how I can help. And if you enjoyed this post, please sign up to be notified of future posts by clicking “follow me” on the top right of this page.

A Thoroughly Idiosyncratic Overview of Three Days in Scottsdale

Yes, I write about writing. But I also occasionally write about  the field of work-life,* one of my areas of content expertise. Those who don’t come to this blog to read about work-life might still enjoy this post, as it’s really about communication. (Frankly, to my mind most everything comes down to communication.) But I can also assure you that I’ll be back to writing as a topic in my next post, “Communication: The College Tour Edition.”

*work-life, for the uninitiated, has come to refer to the universe of programs, policies, benefits and culture-changing initiatives employers, policy-makers and others offer to support people’s efforts to be whole, fulfilled, responsible people in both their personal and work lives.

The future of work-life may depend on our ability to tell stories.

That might have been my greatest lesson from last week’s Work-Life Forum, sponsored by the Alliance for Work-Life Progress — except I already knew that. It’s all about communication, baby. And communication nearly always improves when stories are involved.

But that didn’t make the forum any less interesting. It drew an entertaining mix of thinkers and practitioners from corporations, consulting firms, non-profits, think tanks and academia. Since it was designed to be highly interactive, and since many attendees have been in the field and known each other forever, it took on a relaxed, late-night-in-the-dorm feel: lots of intense conversations, lots of bad jokes.

It opened with storytelling.

We spent the entire first afternoon together in a workshop on the topic led by Mark Guterman, co-founder of MeaningfulCareers.com. Guterman had a lot to say about how and why stories work: fascinating stuff that I will no doubt pick apart and admire in future posts. But in relation to advancing the work-life field, the main takeaway is that they do work. Data alone rarely convinces an organization’s leaders that it makes good business sense to trust employees and provide them with the supports they need to navigate their many life commitments. Data alone rarely breaks through the information-overload to connect employees with programs and policies and benefits that can help them. Data alone rarely changes public policy.

Storytelling was not officially on the agenda for the second day… 

…but it was in the air, nonetheless, as participants traded real stories to get their points across or dramatized their points with fictional scenarios. (Really. A talent scout would have found it worth the trip.) We spent much of that day in break-outs called “imaginariums,” discussing the real and the ideal of leadership commitment to work-life; of methods companies use to spread wellness initiatives into the community; and of what work will look like in the future. (We began the morning with a catch-up on research, which often tells a story, too. My favorite nugget from a report called Networked Families, as reported by Judi Casey of the Sloan Work & Family Research Network: Technology allows families to connect when they are apart and keeps families apart when they are together. There’s a prize-winning novel in there, somewhere, don’t you think?)

It’s a stretch I can’t quite make to say that the final event, late on the third morning, had anything to do with storytelling, but it did have to do with communicating.

Six leading work-life practitioners were each given 60 seconds at a time to deliver advice on a work-life-related topic.

Time limits were strictly enforced through the use of a mélange of (highly amusing) sound effects that loudly drowned each speaker out after her/his minute had passed. This went on for ten rounds—an exhaustive and exhausting display of communication-on-steroids.

It was interesting to hear what they had to say, but it was equally instructive to hear how some managed to tie up their messages in a neat 60-second package while others were caught at the buzzer with a tangle of unfinished ideas. This is not to disparage those who couldn’t quite pull it together in the time allotted—I have absolutely no doubt I would have been one of them, given the chance—but just to once again point out how dependent communication is on context. In this case, the context depended on the ability to work with sound bites and the kind of small detail that brought the message home quickly: the striking statistic, the aphorism, the metaphor.

And speaking of sound bites

The actual greatest lesson I learned from this forum (since, as I said, I already knew the one about storytelling) was how to tweet. I already had a Twitter account, but I rarely used it. With help from some more digitally-savvy folks like Casey Carlson (@caseylcarlson) and Kyra Cavanaugh (@lifemeetswork), I stepped more firmly into the Twitter universe. I’m not promising I won’t step right back out again. I still have trouble understanding its value in many situations. But for now, you can get a good sense of some of the ideas flying around the AWLP Forum by checking out my tweets and those of others, at #awlp2012.

Feeling exhausted or confused by the 100 Best Companies application? Contact me for help!

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Ten Great-Place-to-Work Conference Takeaways

I’m still relatively new to this blogging business but regular readers will have already figured out my dual (and not unrelated) professional commitments:

  • writing that communicates in the most powerful and effective way possible and
  • organizations that are fabulous places to work.

Today’s brief post centers on the latter. Here are ten  things I took away from last week’s “Great Place to Work” conference (sponsored by the Great Place to Work Institute, of course) in Atlanta. (The company presenting  each tidbit is credited in parenthesis):

  • Work is the fifth most important thing in employees’ lives, after (in order) their roles as parents, as spouses, as friends and as members of their religious communities. (Bright Horizons,  apparently based on research by Peggy Thoits.)
  • Storytelling is a critical element of culture and it works best when it’s plastered across your walls (or better yet, scrawled there by employees.) (Kahler Slater)
  • An organization’s mission matters most when every single employee recognizes his or her role in it—like the woman on the Mayo Clinic’s housekeeping staff, whose job includes disinfecting surfaces in patient rooms. She told a television reporter (apparently without prompting) that her job was  “saving lives.” (Mayo Clinic)
  • Companies can put together some pretty darn impressive videos.  (Corollary: I can never pack too much Kleenex.)
  • A successful business doesn’t get there by cajoling and coercing people to get things done. It gets there by hiring great people, then stepping out of their way. (W.L. Gore) 
  • Organizational values are just words on paper. Defining the behavior that represents the value is what makes it come to life—even for engineers. (Novozymes) 
  • The folks at DreamWorks get free breakfast, lunch and dinner. And they get to work at Dreamworks. (DreamWorks) 
  • It’s much better to share too much information with employees than too little. (Whole Foods) 
  • Employees get a kick out of managers who are willing to make fools of themselves. (CarMax) 
  • Breakfast sandwiches are better when eaten hot. (Robin Hardman Communications)

How are things at your workplace?

I’m lucky: my boss (here at Robin Hardman Communications) is letting me take next week off to visit some colleges with my son. The following week, I’ll be in Phoenix for the Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP)’s “un-conference.”

It being the twenty-first century, I’ll have my various electronic devices with me during these trips. So don’t be afraid to contact me if you have questions or need anything at all. It may be a few weeks until my next blog post, though.  If you want to be notified when the next one arrives, just click on the “follow” button in the column to the right.

Beware the Adjective!

Remember “show, don’t tell?”

Generations of creative writing teachers have imparted this bit of wisdom, but if you’re like many harried communications professionals, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how it applies to the writing you do every day.

In fact, “show, don’t tell” can be a surprisingly useful bit of advice—an easy way to make your writing instantly more original and compelling. And it can be applied in unexpected ways. It doesn’t just mean use real stories to illustrate your points, for example. It also applies to parts of speech.

Say what? Parts of speech? Yup. I may be going out on that proverbial limb here. I know it’s a gross oversimplification with a million exceptions, but I’ll say it nonetheless:

In the world of words, verbs and nouns show. Adjectives tell.

Don’t get me wrong. Adjectives play an important role in language. After all, I couldn’t have written that last sentence without one. But too often they become an easy out, a quick route to imprecision, banality or meaningless cliché.

Consider a most obvious current example: “awesome.” Few will disagree that the once rich and evocative word has lost all but the most generalized meaning. (We know it means something positive, rather than negative, so that’s something, I guess.) Now think: is there a verb or a noun as meaninglessness as “awesome”? While I can think of a few that come close (“issue,” anyone?) I can’t think of any that provide as much a temptation to replace meaning with nothingness.

I’m not a linguist, but I suspect the structure of not only English but of most languages makes it impossible to overuse words like “issue” as much as some folks overuse “awesome.” As a result, nouns and verbs rarely take on the generalized meaninglessness of many adjectives.

“Awesome” and its ilk (every generation has its “awesome”) are extreme cases. But adjectives of all stripes are about telling, rather than showing, and often in the most vague and boring manner possible. I’ve never been happier with the public school system than the day my son came home from fourth grade to say his class had held a funeral for the word “very.”

But I seem to be breaking the rule.

Enough of telling, let me show you what I’m talking about in two simple sentences. Which do you prefer?

The view from our hotel room was beautiful.

Our hotel room overlooked a field of sunflowers that spread out for acres in every direction.

See the difference? But how easy it is just to slap down a word like “beautiful” and move on to the next sentence. It takes an act of will and some hard work to stop, think again, write the why of the beautiful, instead.

Of course, you can’t communicate without adjectives and you wouldn’t want to. But you can think twice every time you are about to use one. If you train yourself to be suspicious of adjectives, to consider them potential enemies to strong communication, you’ll find that your writing instantly improves. (You’ll also avoid common redundancies. In the last paragraph, I almost wrote, “a conscious act of will.” Then I thought: is there any other kind of act of will? Surely  an act of will is conscious by definition? English is rife with such tautologies: free gift, past history, unconfirmed rumor… Stopping to think before using an adjective might have the added bonus—er, I mean bonus—of ridding the world of such pointless expressions.)

Plus, when you do need an adjective, you might find yourself choosing it with more precision and care. Some time back, I wrote about Dickens’ odd and wonderful use of the word “perennial” to describe a character. While that might be considered verb-choice as extreme sport, even more prosaic choices among adjectives can make a difference.

For example, earlier in this post, I wrote “Adjectives play an important role in language.” “Important” was probably the right word for this sentence, but I did think about a handful of other options before I used it. Here are a few other adjectives I might have chosen:

Adjectives play a necessary role in language.

Adjectives play a critical role in language.

Adjectives play a crucial role in language.

Adjectives play a vital role in language.

If I checked the thesaurus—which I keep prominently displayed for one-click access on my toolbar—I’d probably find still more so-called synonyms. (They are rarely exact synonyms, which is the whole point. Each of the above sentences has a slightly different meaning. But if I didn’t tiptoe suspiciously around every adjective before employing it, I might never have thought about what nuance I wanted to convey.)

So the next time you find an adjective creeping carelessly into your work, dare to confront it. Do you really need it? Is there a more active, descriptive, verb-and-noun-friendly way to say what you want to say? And if you do need an adjective, is the one you were about to use the best one to make your case? Challenge that adjective! Make it prove that it’s on your side before taking it in. Your readers will thank you.

Have a question about something you’re trying to write? Bring it on!