As employees look for answers during the COVID-19 crisis, they need simple, straightforward language. For communicators, that means eliminating hype, jargon, buzzwords and corporate-speak.
Employees have never liked corporate-speak, of course. In their 2005 book, “Why Business People Speak Like Idiots,” authors Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway and Jon Warshawsky wrote that employees perceive jargon, hype and buzzwords as packaged and inauthentic. “These contrived communications are the exact opposite of the natural conversations employees engage in everywhere else,” the authors noted.
And yet, many organizations still have not shaken off the curse of “garbage language,” a term that writer Molly Young uses to refer to meaningless drivel that tends to “warp and impede communication.” Now, the COVID-19 crisis has made garbage language smell even worse. With employees and the organizations they work for in survival mode, no one has time for barriers to communication.
In more than 30 years of research, my firm has found that employees demand straight talk from their organizations, especially in times of crisis. They need leaders to speak plainly and simply, and to provide clear direction on what everyone must do to help the organization survive. Here are some tips for doing just that:
• Write for the reader. This may seem fundamental — but it’s where a lot of content goes wrong. The scientists (or engineers or IT experts) want to include all the technical stuff. So you load up the piece with arcane details. And you lose sight of the fact that employees don’t care about the fancy stuff; they want content to be simple and relevant.
• Remember that you’re a real person communicating with other people. The personality of communication is often called “voice.” And the best way to engage your audience is to uncover your authentic voice and let your personality come through. By doing so, employees will relate.
• Sharpen the focus. Nelson Cowan, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, has found that jumbling too many messages together only causes confusion. To avoid overwhelming and alienating the reader, each article or individual piece of employee communication should focus on just one to three ideas. Save time for the reader by eliminating unnecessary words and dense blocks of text. Deliver quick, lean, convenient bites of practical information and visuals that help employees solve problems and are easy to skim through.
• Aim for an eighth-grade reading level. To eliminate corporate-speak, analyze your writing with tests such as the Flesch Reading Ease Score or the Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level Score. Aim for an eighth-grade reading level — not because people in your organization aren’t smart, but to make the content easier to understand. Limit big words, and make sentences shorter and clearer.
How to improve on corporate-speak
Many communicators nod in agreement that we should eliminate corporate-speak and simplify content, only to later revert to the same tired old ways. To illustrate how even the most challenging piece of content can be improved, here’s an excerpt of an actual 800-word company email (with the names changed):
The purpose of this communication is to update you on our Performance Cultural Initiatives and our efforts to enhance Acme’s Performance & Development System.
Over the past several months, we’ve made steady progress and are pleased with our work so far. Our goal is clear: Create value by fostering a high-performance culture characterized by a winning attitude, where every person in every job is inspired to move us forward. This includes strengthening leadership at all levels and strengthening capability across our organization. Our efforts are grounded in a forthcoming set of Leadership Priorities, which will serve as the foundation for an integrated Performance & Development System. This Performance & Development System will be designed to provide a uniform approach for the assessment and development of Acme employees.
The message can be fixed by writing it for employees, not for HR leaders who are proud of their progress. To do that, we must first determine what employees need to know (and do). We also have to lower the reading level. The excerpt is written at a university reading level; but it’s an email, not an academic paper. Making the content simpler and more direct also saves the reader time. Here’s the makeover:
Here’s a quick update on changes to Acme’s Performance & Development System:
- The goal: to help you succeed in your job.
- What’s new: leadership priorities, which define attributes for success at every level. These leadership priorities provide a framework for professional development and for next year’s performance-management process.
- This year’s performance-management process isn’t changing, so please continue to work toward your current goals.
- You’re receiving this heads-up now because you’ll soon start to see elements of the leadership priorities appear in training and development classes, especially in courses for managers and leaders.
- To learn more, visit the HR portal, where you can watch a two-minute video and read an overview about leadership priorities.
How did we do? Not bad; we’ve got the grade level down to 9.8 and it’s obviously more direct and accessible, Plus, although it’s not free of all jargon, the writing is much friendlier in tone. As communicators, let’s abolish stodgy corporate-speak and create content that meets employees’ needs. Let’s start today.
Alison Davis is the CEO of Davis & Company, pioneers in employee communication. Founded in 1984, Davis & Company has a proven track record of supporting leading companies in a variety of industries and geographies to communicate effectively.
Photo credit: danielala