Puzzling It Out

Conveying information can be tricky. You need to describe X, but in order to describe X, you need to explain Y, which really doesn’t make sense unless one knows about Z. But according to the standard tenets of communications, you can’t lead with Z, because Z is not really what your story is about.

Writers grapple with this kind of problem every day. In recent years, life’s become a little easier for those of us in the information-pushing business, thanks to the World Wide Web. One of the many geniuses of the internet is the way it addresses the X, Y, Z problem: if something needs further explanation, you can just throw in a link. (In print, sometimes a sidebar does the same trick.)

Yet even with these tools, pulling together information that needs any explanation at all is generally more akin to doing a jigsaw puzzle than, say, constructing a tower.

That’s one reason I tend to be suspicious of outlines. A few lucky people have the ability to map out a flow of information completely in advance. But from what I hear, most are more like me. I discovered long ago that writing an outline was a waste of time, because there’s about a one percent chance my finished product will look anything like the plan.

If that sounds like you, too, then give up on trying to outline and start your project by jotting down a loose list of topics to cover.  Then get ready to revise the list as you go. Because there’s another reason it’s so hard to work from an outline:

No matter how prosaic your topic, the act of writing is inherently creative.

Writing is not a mechanical copying down of ideas your brain has already sorted out. It’s a conversation between your mind and your hands. It’s a kind of thinking-out-loud, only in this case, the “out-loud” is the click-click of the keyboard. Significantly, the thinking is not only about how to make your case—about how to get through X, Y and Z without making your reader want to jump out a window—it’s about what your case is, exactly.

Even in the most straightforward, practical piece of writing, there are choices to be made not only about how to convey your meaning but what, exactly, your meaning is.

So the only thing to do is to jot down your list and start writing, picking up puzzle pieces and angling them this way and that to see how they will fit. It can be tempting to try to force a piece into the wrong space. But how much more satisfying it is when you snap it into the perfect spot and the whole picture comes together.

Putting the puzzle together in this slow, deliberate way is a necessary part of the writing process and as far as I know there is no shortcut. But there are a few tips that can help:

  • Read it out loud. (Even if you’re in a cubicle somewhere, you can mutter it under your breath, can’t you?) You will never know exactly how your writing comes across unless you periodically take the time to do this. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it forces you to slow down and notice every word. Maybe it just helps you to listen to your piece the way your readers will ultimately “hear” it. Whatever the case, it works.
  • Print it out. I care a lot about the environment. But I must confess I go through a lot of paper. (I do try to make up for it by using both sides of every piece.) Sometimes, especially if you’re working on something long, you have to get it off that annoying screen and hold it in your hands. If you have the luxury, get up from your desk and take your copy somewhere else to read it.
  • Be brutal. Don’t hang onto words or phrases just because they’re funny or clever or beautifully written. If they don’t contribute to the message, whack ‘em. This is sometimes known as “killing your darlings” and I’ll go into it more in another post sometime. (By the way, thanks to the magic of word processing, you never have to actually kill a good turn of speech. By all means, cut and paste it into a new blank document and save it. It may come in handy another time. Or—more likely—you may change your mind the next time you read your piece out loud.)

The last tip? Know that it is a process.

When you’re in the middle of trying to pull a piece of writing together it nearly always feels hopeless—you’re sure there’s no way out of the mess on your page. But, trust me, every communications tangle has a solution. Be patient and you will find a way to say it.

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The Goldilocks Rule

Subtlety has its place in writing, of course. Specifically, it has its place in literature, where it’s often agreed that the more interpretation possible, the better the work. But subtlety has no place in employee communications. And it certainly has no place in “great place to work” applications. At least, not in the actual part you write down.

If you’re working on the latter right now, do yourself a favor and think in terms of Dick and Jane, not Virginia Woolf.

This is not, of course, because the judges read at a first-grade level. It’s just that they’ve got a job to do and to do it they need information. The last thing you want to do is make them read between the lines. (Or worse, read your mind.)

This may seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. I’m constantly seeing Great Place to Work submissions—and myriad other “best employer award” submissions—that omit the most important facts.

Here’s how it works: You set out to answer a bunch of open-ended questions about your work environment and culture. You’ve got a good company that works hard to support its employees, so you know you have a shot. You reach the question about how well management listens. Easy! First, you assure the reader that management does, indeed, listen. Then, you mention an event in which management listened. “Done!” you think, and move on to the next question.

But you’ve left out the most important part. The part that describes how management listens. The part that all but proves management listens.

For example, lots of companies have town halls. In some, leaders show up, make speeches, provide prepared answers to a few questions that have been submitted in advance, and leave. In others, leaders invite discussion, candidly answer questions from the floor, promise to personally provide an organization-wide answer to any emailed questions that should follow, and ask what else employees need. Do you see why it may not be enough just to say you have town halls?

Or say you have a system for employees to submit suggestions. Great. You write that down. But do employees know about it? Do they use it? And if they do, what happens then? Does anyone respond to their suggestions? Have any suggestions actually led to changes in the way things are done? That’s the kind of information that demonstrates you’re a company that listens.

In some ways, writing about management communications is relatively easy. Other kinds of questions actually do require some subtlety—not, as I said, in your writing, but in the way you think about your response. Maybe you have an organization with a real sense of mission—employees are passionate about what they do and feel they are making a difference. You can’t convey this by simply stating it’s the case. You can’t convey it by copying out your mission statement.  (Although you probably should do both these things.) Somehow, you’ve got to show that employees feel that way. This can be tough, but there are several ways you can approach it. Maybe you’ve got quotes from employees about how they feel. Maybe you’ve got quotes from customers about the level of committed service they received. Maybe you’ve got stories about employees going the extra mile—demonstrating by their actions that they care more about their mission than their job description.

Connecting the dots in this way is critical. But it’s equally important not to be distracted by some dot that has no business being there. According to my secondary sources, it was Chekhov who said: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” In other words, include the details that make your point—any other details are a distraction.

For instance, if you’re describing a policy supportive of employees, you’ll want to say how it works and who it benefits. You might have some statistics on usage, or feedback on how helpful it’s been. But you don’t have to go into details about how employees go about signing up for it, or include fine print from your legal department about the occasional exception to the policy. The extra detail just confuses the message, requiring the reader to figure out what matters and what doesn’t—a variation on having to read between the lines.

Which brings us to what I’ve just dubbed the Goldilocks rule: Good communications have not too little, not too much—but just the right amount of information.  Apply this to your “great place to work” submission, and at very least you’ll ensure you’ve gotten your message across.

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Houston, We Have a Challenge

Raise your hand if “integrity” is one of your company’s official values. Or maybe “honest” “candid” or “open” communications are on the list?

Why is it, then, that internal communications are so often dishonest? I don’t mean the outright-lying kind of dishonesty, although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that that goes on in some organizations. I’m talking about your beating-around-the-proverbial-bush, euphemism-spouting sort of dishonesty.

This is the kind of dishonesty that thinks words like “problem,” “bad,” and “weakness” are profanities—never, under any circumstances, to be used in civil company. This is the sort of dishonesty that throws around words like “redundancy” and “right-size,” or that makes managers say things like: “That’s a great idea and [insert statement making it clear your idea will go absolutely nowhere].” That’s right: the sort of dishonesty that categorizes “but” as a dirty word.

Where does this fear of  “negative” words come from?  

For some, it appears to be a kind of magical thinking: if we say things are bad, they will become so—and conversely, if we pretend things are better than they really are, maybe they’ll get better. Others apparently believe negative words are too scary: write or say anything too negative and your audience will become so upset that your intended message will fly right past, unnoticed.

I don’t mean to mock these ideas. A lot of careful psychological research has gone into findings about the power of optimism and about how people hear or don’t hear what we have to tell them.

The problem is, whether or not there is some truth to these theories, there exists something a lot scarier than the unvarnished truth. And that’s dishonesty. Because when you use words dishonestly, here are just a few of the barriers to communication you start nailing into place:

  • You put a chink in your credibility. Do this enough times and you might as well give up on getting anyone’s attention, ever again. (If there’s no fable called, “The Boy Who Cried ‘No Layoffs Coming,’” there ought to be.)
  • Your message loses its point. Think of it this way: if you’ve sugarcoated a potential disaster, why would employees shift into “urgent” mode to address it?
  • You lose certain otherwise-useful words, wed forever to their euphemistic meaning. No, I don’t think anybody will miss “right-size”—which wasn’t even a word in the first place. But what about “challenge” and “redundant,” for example? These words have perfectly good, useful meanings already. If you colonize them to mean something else, you could find yourself without a good word when you need it.
  • You condescend to your reader. This is a topic worthy of a post in itself, so I won’t go into it in great detail here, but just think how much better a response you’re likely to get from employees if you treat them like the adults they are.
  • You risk confusion: “What, exactly does it mean when you say you really like my idea and you have no intention of using it?” Or (worse): “What do you mean you’re firing me for lousy work? Last I heard, we were talking about all my ‘opportunities for improvement.””

I’m not saying that your messages to employees when bad news strikes should be missives of doom.

You can put things in a positive light by pointing to the actual  positives involved—and there is nearly always a positive. You can emphasize everything the company is doing to mitigate the current damage and to prevent bad things from happening in the future. You can highlight the goals of whatever action you might be asking employees to take, and linger on how good it will feel to reach those goals.

You can create a mood with words, and you should think about what mood you are creating. But don’t do this by using words dishonestly. Because if you do, you’re doing a disservice to your employees, your company and the entire English language.

Have you seen an example dishonest internal communications? Comment below! 

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