Portrait of Henry VIII, King of England

Warning: today’s post may seem a bit esoteric. I think it’s pretty darn interesting, and I  know it has real-world implications for anyone trying to communicate anything, but if you want to cut to the chase you can always scroll down to the end.

What a difference a word makes!

I’m reading Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall is a massive historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, who, as a trusted counselor to Henry VIII, helped usher in the English Reformation. Although I have my share of interest in history and read plenty of historical fiction as a kid, I rarely read it now. Why? Because I hate clumsy exposition. There is nothing so deflating as to be caught up in the middle of a fictional world, rooting for a character, crying over a sad turn of events, eager to see what happens next, only to be swiftly dumped back into the 21st century when the author stops to explain something. It’s even worse when that something is stuffed, with all the authenticity of a plastic pear, into a character’s mouth.

For example, I somehow missed the much-praised television series, West Wing, when it first aired. My 15-year-old daughter, a latter-day fan through the magic of Netflix, is now eagerly introducing me to what I missed. And, several “seasons” in, I’m very much enjoying it. But I squirmed through quite a few episodes before I got to this point.

Here’s why: West Wing, as you probably know, is about a fictional modern-day U.S. president and his closest staff. He’s got the kind of liberal politics that make it highly unlikely he’d ever have been elected in real life, and his ironclad integrity is even more unbelievable, but these stretches of reality are not what make me squirm. What drives me crazy is that at key points throughout nearly every episode a character will suddenly say something like, “What do you mean, the bill has to be voted on in both houses of Congress?” and another character will answer, “Well, every bill has to be passed in both the House and the Senate…blah, blah, blah.”

This is ridiculous. People who work at the White House don’t ask these questions of each other. Why? Because they work at the White House. They know the answers, and the writers know they know the answers, but they put those words in the characters’ mouths because they want to be sure you, the audience know the answers. And though dialogue like this does serve the function intended, it also yanks us viewers right out of our cozy involvement with the scene, back into our chairs in front of a television screen.

The fact is, the very best television (I’m speakin’ to you, The Wire) manages to avoid this kind of exposition. It does this in part by getting the message across much more subtly, in part by respecting the audience’s ability to catch on. The very best writing does, too.

Which brings me back to Wolf Hall. It’s not easy—at all—to create a work of fiction set in a time or place that’s unfamiliar to readers without inserting a lot of heavy-handed exposition. But Hilary Mantel manages to do it with an awe-inspiring grace.

In some cases, it comes down to one word.

On page 295 of my hard cover edition, a character tells Cromwell he is going to try for permission to visit “our brother Bainham.”

At this point, we’ve never heard of anyone named Bainham and need to be told who he is. A lesser author would come right out and do so (or, worse, have some minor character pipe up from across the room, “who’s Bainham?”) Mantel, writing in present tense as she does throughout the book, does this:

Bainham is the barrister who was taken up by [Sir Thomas] More last year and tortured.

(The brackets are mine—readers of the book know by this point who “More” refers to.)

What’s significant about this sentence is what Mantel could have said, instead:

Bainham is a barrister who was taken up by More last year and tortured.

Had she done this, had she used “a” instead of “the,” she would have been talking directly to me, the reader. She would have been bypassing her characters completely and, in the process, lifting me right out of their world and setting me down, with a thud, in 2013. Because both the characters in the room know who Bainham is. They don’t need to know he is “a barrister, etc.”

But it is perfectly within reason that they might need to search their memories for a moment, recollecting for themselves or reminding a friend who he is, in which case they might well say, “You know who I mean—Bainham is the barrister who was taken up by More last year and tortured…”

Do you see the difference?

One little word: the instead of a, and it turns from clunky exposition to a flowing internal conversation.

Yes, I have written this entire post to expound (as it were!) on the tiniest word in a 500+ page novel. But when I read that paragraph, that “the” jumped right out at me. It was so simple. And so perfect.

Ok, I promised you this would relate to the kind of writing you and I do, every day. Chances are, you’re writing neither historical fiction nor television screenplays. But you are writing for an audience, and you need that audience to stay with you, in whatever “story” you’re telling. So you need to remember:

  • If you use meaningless jargon—you will lose them.
  • If you sound inauthentic—adopt a voice that is too self-consciously hip, or an attitude that is too filled with rah-rah boosterism, or anything that strays from honesty—you will lose them.
  • If you are not inclusive—if you use sexist language, or project implicit assumptions that don’t apply to some part of your audience—you will lose them.
  • If you make too many careless mistakes in either content or form—you will lose them.
  • And if you can’t demonstrate the relevance to them of what you have to say—you will lose them.

Not to scare you or anything, but every word really does matter.

I’m working on some posts now about National Work and Family month, comedy in the workplace and a cool scheme to communicate work-life programs at Johns Hopkins. Some will be published here, some on Huffington Post, some on both…but you’ll only catch them for sure if you’re on my mailing list—sign up to Follow Me! 

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Benefits Communications: The Basics Still Apply

The signatures of President Barack Obama, Vice...

Just about now, as fall tiptoes ever closer, benefits administrators everywhere are dreaming not of crisp new back-to-school outfits or a bountiful harvest, but of benefits open enrollment. Those dreams are not likely to be the happiest during the best of circumstances, but with regulatory changes big and small brought on by the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare), they’ve probably turned into nightmares for some this year. (Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against Obamacare. I just know it’s giving headaches to a lot of benefits administrators and their communications departments.)

How much your company’s benefits plans and policies will change depends on all kinds of factors, from how big your organization is to what you’ve offered in the past. And it’s likely you’re still scrambling to figure out what many of the changes are going to be, as well as what you need to communicate and when. In fact, if you’re still depending on old-fashioned print for open enrollment materials, this may be the year to explore some more easily-updated electronic formats.

But whether you are communicating via quill pen or Yammer, the cardinal rules of good communication still apply:

Put yourself on the employees’ side of the desk. Chances are, employees will most care about:

  • Cost: Will health benefits cost more (or less) than what I’m now paying, and by how much? Remember that cost usually comes down to numerous factors that not all employees will be considering, so it’s up to you to fill in those gaps. If they choose the new lower-premium plan, how much higher will their deductible be? If they opt for the more expensive plan, will they still be saving as much on co-payments as they did last year? Ideally, give them some concrete examples to illustrate your points.
  • Coverage:  Are there any important differences in service coverage among the different plans I can choose from? Are there any changes from last year? While coverage questions may be a little more straightforward than questions of cost, you still want to be sure to direct employees’ attention to things they might not have considered. Have there been any major changes to the prescription drug formulary? To the networks? Are referrals needed in order to see a specialist?

Remember a key rule of the late, great crime-writer Elmore Leonard and “leave out the parts that people skip.” The things your employees will likely not care to know about include arcane bits of legal mumbo-jumbo. Sure, some of that stuff has to be included in your communications. But, as much as possible, try to get it out of your central text and into fine print or, better yet, links.

Be clear. You, yourself, may eat, sleep and—as I mentioned earlier—even dream in benefits jargon, but many employees wouldn’t know a PPO from an IPO from HBO. Stick to the simplest possible terminology and define it every step of the way. (Remember, this has nothing to do with education or intelligence. Most people not steeped in the benefits world really don’t know how coinsurance differs from co-pay.)

Be detailed. The details you don’t want are those the lawyers want you to include. (Ok, yes, you may have to include some of them anyway.) But the details you do want are the what, how, when and where of benefits enrollment. What do employees need to do, how and when do they need to do it and where can they get more information?

Be available. The best benefits communications, provided in the best possible formats, can’t cover every employee’s situation or answer every question. Set up a hotline or a dedicated email box. Invite employees to text you. Do it however you want, but make a live human being available—ideally not only to employees, but to their family members.

Be honest. If the options aren’t quite as comprehensive as last year or costs have increased (or both), say so up front. With luck, you’ll also be able to communicate that costs are going up everywhere, that your organization is still delivering a tremendous amount of value, and that you’ll continue to look for ways to bring coverage up and costs down. If your company has made a habit of honesty in its communications, your employees may even believe you.

Need some help with your benefits communications? Drop me a line: or give me a call: 718-628-4753.

I’ve been trying to figure out how the Affordable Care Act is affecting benefits communicators this year. If you have any thoughts to share, please, please contact me and let’s set up a time to talk—on or off-the-record, it’s up to you!

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The Uncanny Valley of Communication

Uncanny Valley graph (updated)

Uncanny Valley graph (updated) (Photo credit: Elif Ayiter/Alpha Auer/…./)

Here’s a fascinating question. How aware do you have to be that you’re being sold a bill of goods before you put up your defenses and refuse to buy it?

Who hasn’t been swayed—or at least tempted—by a cleverly-worded (or hip-looking) ad, choosing one product over another even while knowing they were probably about to pay a premium for something that wasn’t objectively any better than anything else? Or for something they didn’t really need at all?

Good old Shakespeare took this up (sort of) in one of his most famous sonnets, which has the fabulous opening lines:

When my love swears to me that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies.

As the sonnet goes on to explain, much more gracefully than I’m about to, the speaker is a bit long in years, but is flattered that his girlfriend assumes he’s young enough to believe her nonsense. She, in turn, is pleased that he believes her (even though, presumably, she knows he doesn’t, really).

It all leads up to the closing couplet, complete with Elizabethan sexual innuendo:

Therefore I lie with her and she with me
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

Altogether a stunning sonnet, but that’s not why I include it here. There’s a lesson, or at least a thought experiment, in this for us contemporary writers of somewhat (ok, a whole lot) less creative copy.

The sonnet popped into my head when I was pondering the question I began with. How is it that I can watch or read an ad or listen to a sales pitch, knowing full well the message has been artfully crafted to draw me in, and still find myself drawn in? How is it that I can sit in front of a schmaltzy movie, listen cynically to the swelling music, and still feel my eyes fill with tears?

And how, if at all, does this phenomenon relate to our work as internal communicators?

I spend a lot of time in this blog and elsewhere promoting my belief that when employee communications aren’t honest they lose all credibility. I moan about the misuse of words like “challenge” and “opportunity” to mean “problem” and “weakness.”

And yet, I also believe in the power of words to create actual concrete change in the world. After all, that’s the theory behind much of what’s often derisively called “political correctness.” Gender-neutral language, for example: as a woman who can remember a world in which “he” was still considered a universal designation for humans of either sex, I can attest firsthand to the power language can have to affect not only our feelings but our understanding and beliefs.

So it seems to me there is a line to watch for, especially when you’re conveying not-so-happy news: on one side is language that is aspirational—it paints the best possible picture of any given situation—and on the other side is, well, BS. There’s nothing wrong with trying to put your message in the best light, as long as you don’t step over that line.

People in the world of animation speak of the “uncanny valley.” The idea is that as animation has gotten more and more realistic-looking, it sometimes reaches a point where it falls off a cliff into creepy. The story goes that when the folks at Dreamworks first tested Shrek with a group of children, the kids were terrified. The animators had made the princess character so realistic that she looked almost human, but at the same time she was missing some essential element of humanness. The result was monstrous, in the eyes of these kids, and the animators had to backtrack, re-creating her character in a purposefully less realistic manner.

So, here is the challenge (yes, I’m using the word correctly) for internal communicators—really, for all communicators: get as close to the edge as you dare, but don’t fall into the uncanny valley of communication. In our case, it probably won’t actually scare your audience, but it will scare them away.

Do you have something that needs to be written or revised? Join my dozens of satisfied clients. Contact me here or just give me a call: 718-628-4753. 

Killing the Monsters

On the whole, I don’t believe in synonyms. Such is the magnificent complexity of the English language that only rarely do two words mean exactly the same thing. Even if the dictionary gives two words the same definition, they almost never carry the same connotation, which is what makes using the thesaurus such a treacherous game.

But sometimes, in some contexts, one word can be used as easily as another. That’s when some corporate communicators can always be counted on to reach for–the longer word. After all, why say something in one syllable, when the same thing can be said in two or three?

Hence we substitute “difficult” for “hard,” “utilize” for “use,” “assist” for good old “help.”

If we’re lucky, we land the big one: a whole phrase that can be substituted for a simpler word. Hence the steady creep of phrases like “at this point in time” and “in this day and age.” (“Now,” anyone?)

I assume this tendency stems from a misguided concept of how “formal” or “professional” language should sound. But it’s absurd. The fact is, professional language should (generally) be free of slang. It should steer clear of taboo or derogatory words. Spelling and punctuation should be correct. Grammatical rules should generally be followed. But there is absolutely no reason to use a cumbersome word or phrase when a simpler one will do. And there’s a major benefit to using simpler language: your communication will sound more natural–closer to the spoken word.

Think about it. When’s the last time you used “attend” rather than “go” in spoken conversation?

Even if you’re talking to your boss, do you say, “I need to make a determination about whether this project goes forward?” or do you say, “I need to decide whether to continue this project?” Most written communications benefit from being as close as possible to casual speech. You want your audience to be able to take in and understand your words as easily as if you were explaining something to them in person.  More easily, in fact, because on paper you’ve had time to organize your thoughts. You’ve left out the “ums” and “uhs” and “I means.” You’ve checked your facts and explained your terminology.

When you get ready to write, write down what you’d say to someone standing in front of you. Then clean up the grammar, spelling and organization, check your accuracy, root out clichés and jargon. You’ll be writing professionally, without hardening your language with an artificial veneer of “professionalism.” To see how well you’ve done, read your copy out loud. If you find stuffy, unnatural, “professional” language, kill it.

No need to feel conflicted about this act of violence. Consider it self-defense. If you don’t kill your monster words and phrases first, they will kill your communication.

This is a short post, coming to you from Florence, where I’m basking in the sounds of another gorgeous language. But I’m still available to talk to you via email. How about sharing some of your examples of misguided professional language?

Are you applying for the Best Companies for Multicultural Women List? Or entering a local “Best Place to Work” competition? You can’t win if you can’t tell your story. The essays I write for companies  are routinely cited by clients and judges as among the best they’ve ever read. Use the Contact me page to let me know what you’re working on, and let’s make some time to talk. 

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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Eschew Jargon

Don’t you love that word: eschew? English is rich with so many quirky, wonderful words. One of the great joys of reading great literature is savoring the writer’s word choices like a dish cooked by a master chef.

(Sometimes I just stop reading to wonder at the word a writer has used. How did he/she think of that? It’s so surprising, so utterly perfect. In Dickens’ Bleak House, a nasty old man, Mr. Smallweed, always has at his side his equally nasty granddaughter and caregiver, Judy. Just about every time Dickens mentions her he uses a different adjective: “snappish Judy,” “scornful Judy,” even – with some irony—“gentle Judy.” Several hundred pages into the book, when she turns up yet again by his side, it’s this: “The door is opened by the perennial Judy.” Italics mine. Perennial! So absolutely perfect. But who in the world, other than Charles Dickens, would have thought to use that word in such a context?)

But if words chosen with care and inspiration are like a brilliantly seasoned meal, jargon is the fast food of language. It is predictable and boring and, worse, often fails utterly to do what language is supposed to do: communicate—just as fast food generally fails to deliver either flavor or nutrition.

What exactly is jargon?

Defining jargon can be easier than recognizing it: jargon is the language of insiders. What they are inside of can be as various as a field or a trade, an organization, a hobby or a sport. Jargon is a kind of shorthand. Sometimes, it even has its uses. When doctors write for a medical journal, for example, it makes sense that they’d use medical jargon. Speaking doctor to doctor, jargon might well be the most precise and accurate language they can use. But when they’re writing for a larger audience—when they want to explain the workings of a drug or the causes of a migraine to the rest of us, jargon can kill their communication.

People in the HR, work-life, and related fields have their own jargon, but more often than not the audience for their communications is the whole wide arena of people in their companies. And companies, themselves, have jargon—their own alphabet soup of acronyms for programs and policies, their own job and department titles that make perfect sense within the company but outside—not so much. Actually, assuming your organization, like everyone else’s, has turnover, it’s not even safe to say everyone at your organization will know what you’re talking about. One friend told me how, for the first month on his new job, he kept getting emails with subject lines that ended in “EOM.” Until he mustered the courage to ask, he had no idea that it meant “end of message”—in other words, no need to actually open the email. Acronyms like this are particularly insidious; just check out the acronym section of the free online dictionary to see how many different things the same set of letters can mean.

But even if you feel completely confident that people within your organization will understand your jargon, it pays to remember that folks on the outside—say, the staff scoring Working Mother and NAFE 100 Best Companies applications (over which a lot of HR folk are slaving just now)— will not.

The tricky part about avoiding jargon is that if you understand it, you may not recognize it. You’re so accustomed to referring to certain employees as “hi-pos,” calling that program “FLEAS” and hiring people into the role of “Lead Operations Analyst,” you forget that these are terms used only within your field, your department or your company. You may find it obvious that one term is jargon, but be surprised when your cousin, the cable guy, has no idea what you mean by another term.

Right on the fuzzy border of jargon lies “corporate-speak.”

Corporate-speak is the long list of mis-used, meaningless or clichéd words and phrases that have crept into the lingo of daily life in the business world—and often the nonprofit world, too. The opening paragraph of this post on another website does a wonderful parody of the phenomenon.

Corporate-speak takes many forms. Like jargon, it has no single clear definition and people may disagree over what does and what doesn’t fall into the category. (Over two months ago, someone started a discussion on the topic in one of the LinkedIn groups I belong to and members have been weighing in and arguing almost daily ever since.) It includes invented words, used euphemistically to disguise an ugly truth: downsize started like this, and when even that was deemed too depressing it became rightsize. It includes real words, used incorrectly or at least unnecessarily, for reasons only known to the perpetrator: 99 times out of a 100, when you write utilize you should be writing use. (Utilize means to make use of something as something else—“I’m utilizing my cat as a neck-warmer.” But even in that case, use would do just fine.) And take it from me, something can have an impact on something else, but it can’t impact anything. “Impact” is not a verb. (The word you’re looking for is “affect.”)

Some corporate-speak involves pointless—and pompous–wordiness. How is “this point in time” different from “now”? Some corporate-speak began as image-rich metaphor but took an express train to cliché. Consider: think outside the box, sit at the table, at the end of the day, and push the envelope. (Come to think of it, I don’t have the faintest idea what the origin metaphor of “push the envelope” might be…) Like jargon, corporate-speak can be a tempting shorthand and can even be useful on occasion. But also like jargon, it is the fast food of communication, and is ultimately not only unsatisfying but downright unhealthy.

So stop serving your readers mass-produced, flavorless language. Explore the wealth of the English language and write to communicate. Eschew jargon; give your audience it can chew on.

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