Call out the obfuscators

Our language is being abused by politicians, business leaders, bureaucrats and others, and we should challenge them. In the current profusion of information, particularly on social media, we are liable to be confused and deceived, at least for a time.

This conspiracy of obfuscation is dangerous. However, it is unlikely to win in the end because it often doesn’t work. And some of us will not let the obfuscators get away with it.

This is a summary of an article published by Renegade, a website for people who want to think differently. Read the full article.

How to make your readers believe you

Be yourself. It is easier said than done, especially in a corporate environment.

It’s essential for writers to feel able to be themselves. And most people – often under pressure to conform to some corporate ethos, real or imagined – find this extraordinarily difficult.

Some have challenged convention: politicians such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Although it may not be so easy in the business world, Warren Buffett has done it for decades, and Michael O’Leary of Ryanair is one of the few chief executives who has repeatedly challenged convention, while making himself unassailable by the sheer scale of his success.

Most people long to be themselves. They just need to be given permission to do so. When they are, their writing improves and organisations function better.

Read a fuller version of this post on LinkedIn.

To help your staff write more effective reports or documents, contact us and book a free 30-minute assessment.

Ulysses with an iPad

I am a third of the way through Ulysses, James Joyce’s famously unreadable and controversial work of literary genius, and I have made a crucial discovery. An iPad or similar device is an almost indispensable aid to enjoying a work as rich and allusion-packed as this.

I never like to read the introduction to a serious book until I am well into the text. I want to read it fresh, let it work its magic, then find out more later. I started to do this with Ulysses, ploughing through nearly 200 dense, funny, poetic, often incoherent pages, frequently losing the thread, until I weakened and read the introduction (by Cedric Watts in my Wordsworth Classics edition).

Sure enough, it has told me too much of the plot for my liking, but its mention of the “electronic web” opened my eyes.

Going back to the first page of Ulysses, I googled “Buck Mulligan” and was suddenly able to appreciate the opening scene’s extraordinary fusion of Greek myth and Catholic ritual. I am learning about literature and civilization while enjoying a brilliantly frank and witty exploration of the lives of ordinary people.

Ulysses with an iPad – not what Joyce had in mind when he wrote his monumental modernist work in 1922, but great fun, which I would recommend to anyone.

[Editor’s note: Why do we have a post about reading on a blog about writing? Because if you want to write well, you need to read well. We always include a list of recommended reading in our training courses.]

Customer calling – is anybody listening?

I tried a new way of getting help from my energy supplier this week, but ran into familiar hassles. I wanted to move from a standard tariff to a fixed tariff. Not so difficult, surely? I thought I’d try having a webchat. I found it a touch irritating that every other sentence was answered with “that’s fantastic, Fiona!” but a bigger problem lay ahead.

Absolutely no one could grasp the fact that my house used to go by a different address. It is still the same house, but its identity has changed. My chatmate gave up, and passed the buck. “I suggest you call customer services and explain your problem Fiona.” Could they call me, perhaps? “No Fiona I’m afraid not, they cannot make outbound calls.” OK, so the webchat was a waste of time. I continued my quest via email. Emails punctuated with “good news!” and the inevitable “bear with me” just went round in circles as the query was passed from assistant to assistant, with each new agent asking questions that had been answered earlier in the email trail. If the webchat was purgatory, the emails were surely customer-service hell.

Where’s the Customer Relations?

It grated because, in a previous life as a customer service agent, I enjoyed dealing with unusual queries, which I usually found myself able to solve. So why couldn’t anyone think outside the fusebox, and try to work with me, the customer? Eventually someone did have a brainwave (albeit to gain information I had already given) and the mystery address was ascertained. Now we can all move on and choose a better value tariff. Hooray! But why make it so hard for us?

It happens like this all the time. A while ago, when a package was lost (delivered to the wrong address, and then signed for) the courier, credit-card company and merchant all refused to accept responsibility. I didn’t get my package, or a refund, or an apology from anyone.

I’ve also met the webchat robot before. I once tried to cancel a subscription continued in error. Almost everything I typed was met with “that’s great!” even when I said things like, “Don’t you understand? This subscription should have been cancelled.”

Good complaint handling makes all the difference

If organisations did their research, they would discover that the three things that matter most to customers are that someone listens to their complaint, that someone takes responsibility, and that they make a genuine effort to solve the problem. Most of us aren’t after money.

Based on my recent experiences, I can give energy suppliers and other organisations a few simple tips:

1. Listen. Far too many customer-service agents seem only to read from scripts, and simply can’t give an honest reaction to a genuine query.

2. Don’t allow more than one agent to share an email account; this just causes duplication and frustration for the customer.

3. Don’t put people on the job whose English isn’t good enough. Some of our problems are hard enough to explain anyway.

4. Don’t use stock phrases. We can smell them a mile off, and we know they have nothing to do with our complaint.

If you value your corporate reputation, you can’t afford to make these elementary errors. We customers will tweet about you, we will tell our friends, we will tell the regulators; and one day we will destroy you.

Listen to us. And if you want to learn to use customer-friendly language, try talking to my colleagues at Clarity.

How to persuade

We can all learn something from the activities of the government’s so-called Nudge Unit, which applies elementary psychology to make it easier for people to act in their own and the public interest – insulate lofts, keep cars off the streets, pay taxes etc.

Its official name is the Behavioural Insights Team, and the headline “Pay your tax or lose your car”, composed for the DVLA, was a very effective example of scare tactics in action. Almost instantly, it doubled the number of people who paid their car tax on time. But there are many other persuasive techniques, and one of my favourites is flattery.

Whenever I suspect that it will be difficult to convince someone to come round to my point of view, I always look for something in their position with which I agree. “You are quite right…” I say or write, and describe their rightness on one particular aspect of the issue, before going on to introduce other considerations.

In my experience, someone who is smiling inwardly at being recognised for their rightness is much more amenable to reason.

You’re right to be sceptical of glib advice, but might you try it all the same?

Euro lifeboats and other metaphors

The European Commission has just inaugurated the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which is basically a large pot of money meant for keeping struggling Eurozone members afloat in tricky times. The President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, was speaking at a maritime conference, so he decided to use a fitting metaphor to describe the ESM. Here’s what he said:

“So, since we are in a maritime conference, if I may use a metaphor – we have been building the lifeboats during the storm in the Euro area and it is not easy to build the lifeboats during the storm, but we are making progress and I am fully confident that our member states, after what are always very lengthy negotiations, will keep this momentum so that we can show our common determination facing the challenges and difficulties that we know still exist.”

Apart from the fact that this is an enormously long sentence, there’s a glaring flaw. Lifeboats are normally ready before a storm. And then they’re deployed only when the ship is sinking because the storm has damaged it. If you’re building lifeboats during the storm, the ship is going to sink and everyone on it will drown. Not exactly encouraging for Eurozone members.

Perhaps a more appropriate naval metaphor would be one I used in the first paragraph, keeping countries afloat by repairing them, bailing them out etc. Or something about the ESM being a strong anchor for the Eurozone ship in rough seas. I’d love to hear your thoughts on maritime metaphors for the Eurozone crisis.

In speeches, be yourself

Be yourself. This simple injunction is good advice for most kinds of writing, but when it comes to speechwriting, it overrides all other considerations.

I’ve spent the past two weeks running workshops on writing and giving speeches, and although we explored use of slides, preparation, structure and many other important issues, this is what lingered in my memory.

Three women went first, and all had prepared something to say on a particular topic. All three were excellent but the one who had chosen the most personal topic was the most engaging.

Then it was the turn of the men, and the same applied. When they were given a script to read, they were initially unconvincing, but as they practised and began to ad lib, they became better. Not surprising, perhaps, but utterly conclusive. In the end, all an audience really wants to hear is the authentic voice of whoever is in front of them.

Acquiring the confidence to be yourself is not always easy. But it is essential. We see the opposite at business conferences every day as yet another besuited figure gets up to work through a series of bullet-pointed slides – not being themselves but trying to represent what they think they ought to be, and utterly wasting that precious chance to connect with an audience.

Clarity can help you with your speechwriting. If you’d like a consultation, please contact us.

Could Dickens help your business writing?

At the end of our Clarity training courses we give out a list of recommended reading. The idea is that people’s writing is influenced by what they read and that a dose of good fiction may counteract the corporate drivel that they are inundated with at work.

I’m thinking of adding Dickens’ novels to our list. But how, you may be wondering, could I possibly recommend a Victorian writer so often accused of long-windedness and sentimentality? The quality in Dickens that could be helpful is his vivid description of people and places.

The problem with so much business writing is its imprecision, its vagueness. It deals in processes and policies, and uses abstract nouns with other words piled in front of them as descriptors. For example, “the talent and development agenda” and “pragmatic effective learning and development solutions”.

Dickens wrote stories about individuals and places that we can visualise. We can hear them speak. We can almost smell them. That’s the way to communicate ideas – by creating pictures in the reader’s mind, by writing as far as possible about real people doing things. I think reading a bit of Dickens could help.

Time magazine is running a series of blog posts on why read Dickens in advance of the bicentenary of his birth on 7th February 2012.

Don’t write – talk

I was about to start coaching Steve (not his real name). He looked nervous, waiting to hear what I thought of the writing sample he’d sent me. I’d only known him for ten minutes but I liked him: he was funny and straightforward.

Unfortunately, his writing was terrible. It was a speech for his boss, the head of a think tank, full of phrases like “business architecture restructuring” and “building a financial escalator”. Still, I’ve helped people become coherent before. We started working on some exercises, using techniques that have worked for other clients.

After two sessions we were in exactly the same position. He seemed to understand what I said, so why couldn’t he improve?

An idea occurred to me. Steve had told me that he felt he was less educated than his colleagues. I think he was unconsciously making his writing ‘difficult’, and therefore sound clever, to compensate. So for the next session, I took my dictaphone with me. I asked Steve what one of his more mystifying paragraphs meant; recorded his answer, typed it and printed it.

It was good: brief, concise, mentioning the most important points first and backing up assertions with real-world examples. True, it’s unlikely his boss would want to swear quite so much in a speech, but fixing that took a couple of minutes. Redrafting the abstract, complex, jargon-rich writing he’s been producing till now has taken hours, and never produced a good result.

Now we have something. We’ve found a way of getting Steve to write the way he talks.

Mediocre but instructive

The three party conferences of 2011 are over, and even political anoraks are relieved. It is a poor commentary on all Britain’s professional politicians that the most memorable speaker from all three parties was a 16-year-old schoolboy.

None of the party leaders distinguished themselves in their conference speeches – although there were instructive features in all three.

Nick Clegg’s speech was the most focused. Read my analysis of the all three party leaders’ speeches to their parties.