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.]

The truth about complaint handling

Can energy companies really improve their complaint handling? Currently, customers typically have to contact their supplier six times before their issue can be resolved. With Ofgem breathing down their necks, Energy UK, which represents the industry, insists:

“Handling complaints well is a must. Suppliers are committed to improving and a programme of change is under way.”

I wonder. Having worked with complaint handlers at many different organisations, including one energy company, I can reveal where the main problem lies. It’s not with the complaint handlers, overwhelmingly conscientious and decent people who will do the right thing nine times out of ten, given a chance.

The problems start at the top. Company bosses find it almost impossible to empathise with their customers. This is hardly surprising, given their preoccupation with brand identity, reputation management and, of course, the bottom line: all of which they view from a corporate perspective.

But reputation management begins with the understanding that your reputation is not in your hands; it is in your customers’ hands. So listen to those customers, understand their complaints, work out what you can do that might satisfy them, and respond accordingly.

Very few organisations do this. Instead, they establish complaints procedures, risk management policies, and work out what to do from there. Aggrieved customers are then told about policies and procedures that have nothing to do with their complaint. I recently worked with a bank where the unfortunate complaint handlers were so weighed down with cut-and-paste material of this kind that they would waffle for six or seven paragraphs before telling the customer whether they had upheld or rejected their complaint.

A word to the bosses, then. Ditch the corporate claptrap. Don’t let your lawyers hobble you with caveats. Start with the customer, and give your complaint handlers the training and support to do the job they are longing to do.

Learning from a writing master

Skewering the phoney and pretentious is one of the great pleasures of life. It doesn’t happen often enough. Thank goodness for the likes of Richard Ford, the American novelist, who sets much of his work in New Jersey, but writes about people who are recognisable anywhere.

I just read this passage from The Lay of the Land (the third in his Frank Bascombe trilogy. Rumour has it a fourth in the series is to be published this autumn), in which Frank is describing his daughter’s new boyfriend:

“Thom teaches equestrian therapy to Down’s syndrome kids at a ‘pretty famous holistic center’… He read Sanskrit, history of science and genocide studies, swam or rowed till books got in the way; born abroad of mixed parentage, he has a deep honeyed voice that seems made of expensive felt; he plays a medieval stringed instrument, of which there are only ten in existence; has mastered Go, was once married to a Chilean woman and has a teenage child in Montreal he’s deeply committed to but rarely sees. Worked in Ghana for the Friends Service, taught in experimental schools (not Montessori), built his own ketch and sailed it to Brittany, wears one-of-a-kind Persian sandals, a copper anklet, black silk singlets suggesting a full-body tan, sage-colored desert shorts revealing a shark-bite on his inner thigh from who-knows-what ocean, and always smells like a fine wood-working shop.”

Enough. Perhaps Ford is overdoing it a little, but I laughed aloud in recognition, although of course I have never met anyone like that. The point is that the observation is so acute, the accumulation of detail so telling, that you, the reader, feel that you know this man – and know him to be a snake.

If you want to write well, read Richard Ford and learn a trick of two from a master.

When your audience doesn’t understand

We often hear people say: “That’s not jargon; everyone knows what it means.” But do they really?

One of our clients was giving a presentation recently when he noticed that several of his audience appeared to be distracted by their mobiles. Eventually he caught the eye of one as he looked up from his phone. The person concerned sheepishly confessed that he had been looking up the meaning of one of the terms the presenter had been using.

The presenter subsequently discovered that other members of his audience had been doing exactly the same thing. Everything turned out fine, and he was relieved in one sense, but disconcerted to realise that he hadn’t been getting his message across as clearly as he might have.

Our client was lucky to have a fully engaged audience sufficiently motivated to do their own on-the-spot research. And it prompted me to wonder how often such presentations are given to less committed audiences who simply lose interest as the jargon count builds up.

Cascading jargon

In a recent Guardian article, Steven Poole had an enjoyable dig at office jargon. Among other things, he suggested that asking for something by “end of play” might be “trying to hypnotise you into thinking you are having fun”. I am similarly suspicious of the corporate fondness for prettifying everyday tasks and functions, the word “cascade” being one of the most preposterous examples.

“Please cascade this email to your direct reports,” ran a sentence in an email I was sent the other day in preparation for a workshop. I challenged my clients to find an alternative way of expressing this request, and was delighted when they came up with: “Please share this message with your team.” I was even more delighted that they unanimously preferred their revised version.

In this instance, replacing the words “direct reports” with “your team” was probably just as important in conveying the everyday human warmth so lacking in the original. But the word “cascade” retains a grim fascination for me.

Not only is the introduction of a waterfall metaphor unnecessary and distracting. It also suggests an old-fashioned top-down management style. What about the poor soaked and huddled masses underneath?

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?

Animal metaphors

I am indebted to my friend the author Adam Jacot for some animal metaphors that have surfaced in management circles. You may be familiar with “boiled frog syndrome”, “lipstick on a pig” and “elephant in the room”, for which “moose on the table” seems to be an alternative, presumably among Canadians.

But unless you are a statistician, you probably haven’t heard of “a pig in a python”, which strikes me as an apt illustration of a surge in a statistic measured over time. Nor had I heard of “shooting the puppy”, which means to do the unthinkable. My favourite new animal metaphor, however, is “seagull manager” for one of those annoying people who flies in, makes a lot of noise, shits all over everything, then leaves. I suspect we can all think of someone who might fit that description.

Long live metaphors, I say, and animal ones are as good as any. Except that metaphors have even shorter lives than animals. In fact, they are more like fruit – delicious when fresh, increasingly unpalatable as they age.

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.