One of the great challenges in business communications is making a computer-generated letter sound personal and still achieve its goal. It’s not easy to make a collection letter feel like it was written to an individual, to walk a line between friendly and firm and recognize that many of the recipients are embarrassed to be getting letters like that. I was asked to do that a few years ago, overseeing a project where we rewrote more than 700 letters of various intents to credit-card customers.
Despite positive feedback, we were told to change them back a few months later because many of our internal constituencies didn’t think friendly and empathetic was the right approach. Sigh.
That’s why I particularly liked this Ted talk from branding pioneer Alan Siegel, whose corporate tagline is Simple is Smart. In this speech, Siegel describes simplicity as “a means to achieving clarity, transparency, and empathy, building humanity into communications.” And he practices what he preaches…delivering a speech for what is normally a 15-to-20-minute time slot into just over four minutes.
Siegel is behind the YMCA’s new rebranding strategy, changing the name to “the Y” to reflect the nickname everyone has used for generations, although somewhat inexplicably, the Y is asking newspaper editors to refer to individual branches by the old name (e.g., the YMCA of New York City). This could be described as a “Twitter strategy,” where companies like National Public Radio and Kentucky Fried Chicken have now become NPR and KFC to fit into what some analysts describe as “a bite-size space.”
Siegel’s message is simple, yet few have embraced it. What can you do in your daily actions to make clarity, transparency, and empathy into a national priority? How can you overcome the barriers that the lawyers and the politicians often put in place to make that goal such a challenge?
I was recently asked to write a plan outlining how I’d approach my first few months in the job I’m interviewing for. A few people (a couple of recruiters among them) commented on how unusual the request was, but I think it makes a lot of sense.
The interview process can be a beauty contest, with its emphasis on scripted answers and connecting with the interviewer. This task requires the writer to demonstrate an understanding of the role (which probably requires that he or she did a good job asking questions during interviews) and of organizational needs and priorities. It also tests your writing and organizational skills and also provides some insight into your leadership and management style that may not come out through your scripted responses. I kept mine to two pages, so I was forced to balance the creation of a simple, easy-to-understand strategy with the desire to give the hiring manager a sense that I understand the scope of the challenge and will hit the ground running.
The process will also help me in future interviews with this employer — assuming I get one — because I now have additional questions that I will bring to the table, because I’ve thought through ways I’d approach different problems the organization faces, and because I will have better examples of ways I’ve resolved similar challenges that I might not have come up with in a conference-room setting.
One tip: There aren’t many good templates for this task, but Harvard professor Michael Watkins has written a great book on this subject called The First 90 Days, which provided me with a great starting point.
All in all, I will use this in the future when I’m trying to choose between qualified job applicants who want to demonstrate their ability to help us achieve our goals.
Readers, how about you? Have you been asked to do a 90- or 100-day plan? How did you approach it and what impact did it have on your candidacy?
If your new tires fell off after installation, whose fault would it be — the mechanic or his tools?
If you’re a U.S. general, you blame the tool. At least that’s what they’re doing in an article in today’s New York Times about the military’s use of PowerPoint. Lost amid all the jokes and criticism of a “tool that has spun out of control” is a simple fact: PowerPoint done right enhances rather than undermines the quality of communication.
Great PowerPoint presentations seek to persuade rather than dump information. Great presenters crystallize their message long before they sit down to design slides. I was a multi-bullet, heavy-copy PowerPoint people in my previous life, but I now find myself spending more time thinking through the message and the appropriate visuals. I think about the story, the audience, the decision-making journey, and how to make my points as simply as possible.
It’s a joke to see these senior officers moan about the quality of presentations and the time wasted delivering them. As you read the quotes from the “PowerPoint Rangers” about the time spent preparing slides, ask yourself whether the generals delivering them had anything to do with crafting the message…or whether they even looked at their decks before delivering the presentation.
Hey, generals! Fixing this problem is simple:
- Limit the number of slides you can use in a given period of time. General McCrystal, you’re the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, for God’s sake. Tell your people that their slide limit for a 30-minute briefing is five. Period.
- Teach junior officers the right way to present. Start them at West Point, in ROTC classes, and at Officer Candidate School. Highlight the people who do it right; re-educate those who don’t. Reinforce the message at the senior-officer schools.
- At the beginning of a presentation, ask presenters to explain their objective. If they can’t communicate it quickly and briefly, send them back to the drawing board.
- Teach junior officers — and their bosses — how to WRITE clearly and persuasively. There are times you use PowerPoint and times you use memos. My high-school English teacher prevented us from graduating until we could put together a well-reasoned essay (thank you, Mrs. Banikowski). Our children hit college (and eventually the work world) with expertise in Twitter (how persuasive can you get in 140 characters?) and IM’ing. Ugh.
- Know your audience. I’ve spent time with Tyler on his college essays over the past few months and if he’s learned nothing else from our calm, collaborative sessions (he would characterize those conversations differently), it’s that you have to consider who is reading your paper (or listening to your presentation). I hope he brings the memory of our time together to college with him this fall.
Of course, these tips don’t apply only to our soldiers in Afghanistan. You can use them on your own personal and corporate battlefields. Click here for other posts I’ve written about bringing brevity, clarity, and simplicity to your communciations.
What advice would you give the generals?
I have a well-deserved reputation for “writing long” at times. I’ve edited documents and provided suggestions that make the original significantly longer. But does that mean I’m less clear than someone who writes “short?” Absolutely not.
Mark Twain is remembered for apologizing for the length of a letter by saying it would have been shorter if he had more time. Having the time to edit is a great thing. But it can also be frustrating to deal with critics who are poised like raptors to point out that your e-mail directive asking for feedback or input is longer than the size of their computer screen — as if that’s a mortal sin.
In many cases where clarity is an issue, the problem is not too much information, it’s just poorly organized. Dictionaries work because the words are in alphabetical order; change the organization and a dictionary is pretty much useless.
Length in and of itself is not a determinant of clarity or simplicity. Cutting content may eliminate wordiness, but it may also eliminate critical information that helps readers understand the actions or gain perspective that the writer wants.
Warren Buffett’s annual letter to stockholders is a great example. It’s long — 18 pages — but readers flock to it for its insight (how his businesses have dealt with the financial crisis), its humor, and its views of where the economy is headed. I’ve never seen a word of complaint about its length, because the content is so valuable.
My advice is to worry less about the length of your e-mails, PowerPoints, and other writings and more about how you’ve organized them. Here are a few suggestions on ways to drive clarity, even if it is at the expense of brevity.
- Use bullets, particularly for action items. Length isn’t important if your reader clearly understands what you want them to do…and by when.
- Consider your audience — who should get it and perhaps more important, who shouldn’t. I’ve found that the people who whine the most about length are the ones who are least likely to respond anyway.
- Use subheads where appropriate. This includes tables of content, indexes, and other navigational aids. Vary your type (size, color, and boldness, not typeface) for emphasis and to draw the eyes to key points.
- Proofread. Between what Twittering and IMs and the like have done to people’s ability to communicate (particularly as it relates to spelling, punctuation, and word usage) and the desire to “publish” quickly, clarity often breaks down in the absence of the final “attention to detail” step. If you have time, ask someone else to read your document and tell you what you are asking the reader to do. Revise as necessary.
- Add a fourth word to those ABC’s mentioned above: Euphony. Making the document flow and sound or read in a pleasing, agreeable manner is a key component. It may take a few more words, but it’s well worth the effort.
Bulldog Simplicity celebrates clarity over brevity (although clear and short are certainly preferable). Your goal should be to ensure that everyone understands their responsibilities and their next steps and that it’s written in such a way that boredom or indifference doesn’t lead them to stop reading before the end.