“A free online gobbledygook generator for writing strategy document! Really?” This was my reaction when a friend told me about this online utility. Is this where all the consultants get those words which I always thought were safely guarded in vaults at big consulting company head offices?
“It's time that we became uber-efficient with our holistic relative capability” was one such random line generated when I tried. Wow! I am now well on my way to becoming a hot shot management consultant.
MBAs, like me, are famous for their barely contained lust for business jargon and I think a lot of it starts at the institute when we are solving cases where we are asked at the end of the case, “If you were the CEO what would you do?” And surely that required a ‘deep dive’ and a ‘cross-pollination’ of ideas before some ‘blue sky thinking’ can identify the ‘elephant in the room’.
Fresh MBAs out of college are not alone. Recently Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times took the McKinsey Quarterly to task for similar language. “With more discontinuity and volatility and with long-term charts no longer looking like smooth upward curves, long-held assumptions giving way, and seemingly powerful business models becoming upended.” is an actual line from an article in the McKinsey Quarterly.
If you are one of those people who are now sick of ‘boiling the ocean’, ‘taking it offline’ or ‘going after the low hanging fruit’ then you must refer you colleagues or bosses to a new research in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The study, done by New York University and a Swiss University, shows very powerfully that when you want to come across as believable and trustworthy, using concrete language is the way to go. In these experiments the professors found that statements that said exactly the same thing were judged more likely to be true when they were written in definitive rather than fuzzy language. The study found that using verbs like ‘count’ and ‘write’ are solid, concrete and unambiguous. Whereas verbs like ‘help’ and ‘insult’ are open to some interpretation.
But if ‘help’ and ‘insult’ are ambiguous, where does it leave ‘cascade’ and ‘onboard’, asks Jena McGregor in The Washington Post. This problem becomes bigger when younger, less experienced managers believe that simple language makes one sound less credible. Many people think that they have to use complex ‘corporate’ language to impress people.
While it is obvious that our goal should be to cut out the business jargon and strive to use plain English for clear communication, it is not so simple. We also have to deal with what psychologists and economists sometimes call the ‘curse of knowledge’. The basic idea of the curse of knowledge is that when we understand something, we find it hard to think about it from the perspective of someone who does not understand it.
Articulation of important messages like strategy faces two other adversaries—co-creation and wordsmithing. We start with something that might sound fairly robust and straightforward. Then we call in colleagues and teammates and sometimes a bunch of consultants for their valuable inputs. Then we look for powerful words. A humorous but hard hitting YouTube video by Dan Heath on why most mission statements are so terrible is very accurate.
Starting with an inspiring “Our mission is to serve the tastiest damn pizza in Wake county”, collaboration, co-creation and wordsmithing gives us this work of art: “Our mission is to present with integrity the highest quality entertainment solution to families”. Sounds unbelievable but the steps from one to the other and the reasoning behind them are no different from many that I have personally heard.
I have seen many leaders really struggle to use plain language, especially when it comes to communicating something like strategy.
My first advice would be to simply write the communication the way we speak. We don’t say “I need some face-time with you. Can you can firewall a slot in your schedule?” We say “We need to meet.” Why should strategy statements be any different?
The second advice would be to use story structures. Write out your strategy as a story—how things were in the past, then how things changed, what you are going to do now and finally what success would look like and feel like.
When we use a story structure we are able to harness three huge powers of stories.
The first is everyone gets it. No matter what the level in the organisation, what educational background or what experience, everybody gets it. Because stories allow us to visualize, imagine and relate, and because stories make the abstract concrete, stories connect.
The second power is stories stick. We all seem to have an infinite ability to remember stories. No wonder that while I can’t remember all the theorems, principles and laws that were repeatedly massaged into my head in school, I remember all the stories I heard during my kindergarten days.
The third power for me is the most useful—stories can be retold. No matter how clear your message is, and how simple it is to understand, there are only a limited number of occasions, be it one-to-one or one-to-many, for you (or your team) to personally narrate the strategy to your employees. However, a story well told is easy to retell and this strategic story can be retold by people who you tell the story to. In turn, they can tell it to others and the communication lives on.
My third and final advice would be to use stories about your strategy in action. In one of my favourite books on communication, Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath tell a story about how FedEx used a specific example to bring to life the company’s strategic aim of being the “most reliable shipping company in the world”.
“In New York, a FedEx delivery truck broke down and the replacement van was running late. The driver initially delivered a few packages on foot; but then, despairing of finishing her route on time, she managed to persuade a competitor’s driver to take her to her last few stops.”
Stories like this are tangible demonstrations of the company’s strategy and help take abstract notions and make them real for people to understand.
So go ahead and speak to an imaginary seven-year-old in the room using a story or a story structure and your message will never be forgotten.