Category Archives: Communication matters

The will of the people

In an earlier blog post I shared the observation that a street demonstration is a manifestation of a failed democratic process.

To me it certainly felt like something of a ‘last resort’ at the Peoples Vote march in London, where folk of all ages united in a cheerful, peaceful and, I thought, powerful expression of ‘the will of the people by an estimated one million marchers.

When all has been said (but not done) to bring the Brexit debate to a resolution that might unite rather than divide UK voters, I turn to pithy and humorous messages that typify most mass demonstrations for light relief and insight. As a lifelong lover of language, such placards and banners can capture and communicate in a short sharp way that no amount of bluster from MPs and commentators even can. Maybe the leave-remain debate should be decided by a showdown – placards at dawn?

What follows is a small selection of the placards at the Peoples Vote march. They’re broadly grouped under four headings – hasty handmade; pointing the finger; playing on words; using humour…

One placard – the first I saw – encapsulates all four elements (see right)…

The majority of placards were handmade – but it was the crude, handwritten and simplest ones had, for me, an added effectiveness – produced by real people speaking from the heart…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were prime targets for the strong feelings of the demonstrators; Theresa May and the members of the so-called European Research Group were, for obvious reasons, first in the firing line…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other placards went for a play on words – Brexit and breakfast, May the Prime Minister and May the month etc – some more contrived than others…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, there were ones of note for their subtle and not-so-subtle use of words to make people laugh. Humour is, of course, subjective but these are a couple of the other messages that made me giggle…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to fellow marchers (including my family) for sending me home thinking that maybe we’re not all, as Private Frazer from Dad’s Army would put it – doomed. Thinks – maybe Dad’s Army could have done a better job with sorting out the Brexit shambles. Captain Mainwaring for PM anyone?

For a flavour of the march https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=52&v=81eLXg21VSA

More signs of protest – from the NHS March in London in March 2017  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/03/11/nine-healthy-signs-nhs

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What makes a great performer?

At one of the community breakfasts I attend on a regular basis (the promise of a Full English cooked by someone else can get me out early even on a wet and windy morning…) I was talking hospitals with someone who knows operating theatres from the inside. I commented on the use of the word ‘theatre’ in this context. “But it’s correct” she said “You should see that way some of the surgeons perform!”  The brief chat got me thinking…

A surgeon doesn’t have a very big audience – the most important member is usually unconscious and colleagues should be doing their various jobs rather than sitting back and admiring the performer’s handy-work – however skillful s/he may be.

At a folk concert on the other hand the performer is very much in the spotlight and is there to entertain and (not unfairly) will be judged. At a concert the night before our breakfast-time conversation there was, I thought, a considerable gulf between the support act and the ‘headliner’. When I go to hear someone sing/play music, I don’t want to sit worrying on their behalf – that something is about to go wrong – I want to relax and enjoy the experience (particularly when I’ve paid to be there!)

The main act that I was there to see – a solo artist – did not disappoint. He’d been playing and singing on his own and in bands for decades and, apart from the ravages of time that affected his waistline and (a little I thought) his vocal dexterity, his performance was masterful. He was in charge, he controlled the tempo of the set and the audience reaction with it. He also managed to appear vulnerable but you never doubted that if there were any mistakes they’d go unnoticed by most of the adoring and forgiving supporters.

And I think that vulnerability is important alongside the confidence and the expression of sheer talent – I don’t want my performers to be like well-drilled machines; I want humanity and feeling.

Which reminds me of a talk I attended many years ago. It was given by the head of a very large public sector body – responsible for a budget of many millions and the livelihoods of many millions of people. He was also the managing director of a successful family business so he wasn’t just a professional bureaucrat. It was only because I was on the second row that I could see his hand was shaking as he gave his well-rehearsed and fluent presentation. Great, I thought, despite all that status he’s as human as the rest of us!

Do you know about the Impostor Syndrome? https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_cox_what_is_imposter_syndrome_and_how_can_you_combat_it?language=en

What’s in a sandwich (van)?

When I started my second proper job in London 35 years ago (my wife says she’s still waiting for me to get a proper job…) an exotic sandwich was ham with coleslaw. In the 15 years in that job, the street in EC1 where I bought my sandwiches [Exmouth Market] changed beyond all recognition, and the status of those two slices of bread with something edible in between was similarly transformed. Fast forward 20 years to the present and you’re offered an almost infinite variety of breads, fillings, and names.

I was thinking about sandwiches on my drive to work last week when, within about a minute, I saw two small sandwich vans. As a man with 40 years in marketing, the vans said everything to me about the differences between the two companies involved.

The traditional sandwich board has been largely updated by the sandwich van as a mobile expression of an offer, exemplified by the two vans belonging to URBAN Eat and Day’s Bakery.  A great case study in branding for the young people I support as they consider setting up their own businesses. So, what did those two vans say to me?

  • New (URBAN Eat launched in 2010) for young snackers, vs established (Days having been baking since 1741!) for the older customer
  • Fast food – URBAN Eat talk about ‘bursting’ on to the food scene, creating wholesome ‘eat now’ food for a ‘hungry public with no time to spare’, vs family tradition – the business was in the Day family from 1741 to 1996 and the recipes have, of course, been handed down from one generation to the next.
  • National – URBAN Eat supplies over 3,000 stores across the UK, vs local – Days have 11 shops in North Herts, Essex and Cambridgeshire [note the different images created by ‘store’ and ‘shop’].

The contrasting writing styles on their two websites perfectly portray the different personalities of these two providers of the humble sandwich (other products and providers are available) …

“Since bursting on to the Food On The Go scene back in 2010, URBAN eat have been creating innovative, delicious, wholesome ‘eat now’ food with an urban cultured twist. Our food is designed to be convenient and tasty, providing inspirational food experiences and freeing the public from lunch fatigue. We aim to create ‘Exciting Everyday Moments’ by celebrating the little pleasures in life.

URBAN eat create a handcrafted range of sandwiches, salads, prepared fruits, hot eats and indulgent snacks with the aim of creating an oasis in your day! Our passionate team of development chefs work round the clock to create a host of exciting new products inspired by emerging food trends across the globe… so watch this space!”

https://www.urbaneat.co.uk

“Days Bakery was founded in 1741 in Ashwell and must be one of the oldest remaining bakeries in the country. It was run by family members throughout its long existence and prided itself on quality, very much a village bakery. The business has continued through the generations and Howard Day took over in 1953 after surviving two plane crashes in the Fleet air arm during the Second World War. Howard was all about high quality and expanding the business. In his later years he became very ill and was forced to sell the business to Nick Dorrington and his brother James in 1996. Howard was a great support in the last year of his life to Nick in passing on his family business and enjoyed handing on all his personal recipes which many are used to this day. Our current manager Clive Draper was trained by Howard Day.”    

     http://www.daysbakery.co.uk

Don’t always believe the supermarkets when they tell us we shoppers want choice – sometimes it’s all too much. My favourite sarnie (as we used to call it when growing up on Merseyside) remains plain cheese and onion on thick white bread, with maybe a little salad cream. What’s your sandwich of choice?

What’s in a job title?

The other day I was on the train and I was asked to show my ticket, not by a Ticket Inspector (which describes what she was doing) but by a woman with ‘Passenger Host’ on her name badge. She certainly didn’t fit my idea of a host – there wasn’t a mushroom vol-au-vent in sight – but it was obviously meant to make me feel cared for; something the rail company in question is spectacularly failing to do right now.

Whenever I think about job titles (which is not often) there are two titles that come to mind. A woman I’ve respected and admired from afar for several years describes herself on her business website as ‘Chief Muckety Muck’. Muckety Muck is defined in the dictionary as ‘an important and often arrogant [so self-important] person’. I know the person concerned is using the title with her tongue very firmly in her cheek so I’m wholly comfortable with it and her.

The other job title sticks in my mind for a different reason – it makes me cringe because I don’t think the title-holder is using it in a playful way. I have also respected him from afar for several years but not his [self-selected?] job title – Driver of Ideas. I don’t understand what it’s trying to achieve – unless it’s meant to sound a bit, er… edgy. Don’t we all sort of ‘drive ideas’ in our, possibly more mundane, roles inside and outside of our jobs?

Moving from the very specific to the more general, take a job title that includes the word ‘executive’ – what does that suggest? Throughout my career I’ve understood that a job title with executive in it (other than Chief Executive of course) is likely to be badly paid and of relatively low status; that the inclusion of the e-word is intended to make the post-holder feel more important to compensate for the terms and conditions. The dictionary definition of executive is associated with power and responsibility – which is maybe why it looks good on a CV when read by people who have never been executives themselves. And might people value the information they receive from an ‘executive’ more than if they receive it from an ‘adviser’?

Another important sounding, but vague, title is ‘consultant’. I’ve always associated it with people who are between jobs (the actor’s euphemism for being unemployed) but don’t want to admit this publicly. It’s usually coupled with something like ‘I’m currently looking for new projects/ challenges’ to muddy the water even further.

Coach is a role I’ve never understood and this may be because it means different things in different contexts (and I don’t mean talking about a vehicle with four wheels and lots of seats). So there are job coaches, sports coaches, life coaches and lots of other kinds no doubt. And how does a coach differ from a mentor or a counsellor? I imagine it’s to do with the relationship with the person being coached but I’m not sure – I probably need an adviser to put me straight on this.

Which brings me to further confusion – around the role of an ‘adviser’ (which can also be spelt as ‘advisor’ to complicate things further). While we’re here, have you heard about SPADs – in different contexts they can be ‘Special Political Advisers’ or ‘Signals Passed at Danger’ (but don’t get me started on confusing acronyms).

Back to advisers and I’m still confused because I’m not sure about the difference between advice and guidance (although my mental image of a guide is quite different). This is not unlike the problem I once had with the difference between ‘helping’ someone and ‘supporting’ them. Then a colleague suggested that helping someone implies there’s a solution to their problem and you’re going to find it for them. In comparison, when supporting someone, they will find the solution and you’ll just be doing your best to give them a nudge in the right direction. So support is more empowering.

This all begs the question as to what a job title is meant to achieve. It is intended to look good on a business card, website, or even on a name badge? It is meant to describe what the role involves – to the post-holder, to their colleagues, or to clients (or all three if that’s possible)? Or is it something more subtle – to create an impression (however inaccurate) about the post-holder?

All advice or guidance welcomed!

 

 

 

Lazy language

Regular readers of these blog posts will know I have a series of ‘red rag words’ that get my goat. (You’ll also know I like alliteration). Just three are ‘engage’, ‘deliver’ and ‘disrupt’ (as related to business innovation).

I think what I dislike about current use of these words is that, more often than not, they’re lazy language; used so vaguely as to be meaningless. ‘We will engage with the community’We will deliver Brexit’We’re in the business of disruption’– but how, why and when? Just saying it doesn’t commit anyone to anything. Lovers get engaged, letters are delivered – although both increasingly rarely – while train delays increasingly disrupt people’s lives.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted if one word can take the place of three and when a single word used in the right context needs no further explanation – that’s the beauty of our language well-used.

I’m now fast developing a collection of red rag phrases – ‘agile working’ (see my blog on the subject), ‘fit for purpose’, and ‘blended learning’ are three recent additions to the list. I think people use phrases like this because they trip off the tongue (there goes that alliteration again) and they sound positive and definite. In reality, they don’t have any consequences for the speaker or writer so they’re safe to spout.

Say what you mean and mean what you say’ is sound advice. Yes – language has to evolve, yes – grammatical rules are there to be broken, but clear communication is too important for words to be carelessly used and abused by lazy linguists.

Further rants…

On agile working https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/is-agile-working-the-answer

For other blog posts in this ‘communications matters’ series, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/communication-matters

 

Walking the talk

You know about dog-walking and house-sitting, but what about people-walking?

To be honest, when I first heard about this I thought it was a ridiculous idea – another fad from America. I was dismissive because it sounded like a service for people who are just too lazy to do their own walking.

In fact, it is an idea from the USA; I first heard about people-walking from an exponent from California. As he described his typical clients (I think it’s become a viable business) I changed my mind…

Some people feel safer walking with something else, others who are new to an area want to find their way around with someone with local knowledge. Some want the reassurance of having a walking partner because of poor physical ill-health. The last customer segment he identified as lone workers (who may also be home-based) who simply miss the company of another human during the working day. Walking and talking are objectively ‘a good thing’, so what’s not to like.

The people-walking service was profiled as part of a radio programme about confiding in others and, of course, this is what happens between regular clients and the people-walker. Walkers start to confide in the people-walker because, as we know, it’s sometimes easier to share our innermost secrets and concerns with those we’re not too close to. The professional distance between the two walkers is important and avoids the baggage that comes with family members and friends.

It also illustrates an observation from the world of Men’s Sheds – that people often feel more comfortable talking shoulder-to-shoulder rather than face-to-face. So, in any relationship, not having to face the person you’re talking to may be less intimidating.

Nearly a decade ago, before I became passionate about Men’s Sheds (for passionate read ‘he can bore for England’) I thought I’d hit on a new idea for thinkers and talkers – the Walkshop™.

It wasn’t an original idea of course – I think it’s quite big in Australia – but it was borne of a personal interest. I decided that a circular walk in the countryside (preferably with a pub at the end) discussing a common topic, idea, problem etc with other like-minded people would be an enjoyable and potentially useful way to spend a couple of hours. The physical exercise, fresh air and a rural environment would stimulate the brain and promote creative thinking within the group.

That was the theory and, with the support of a very creative thinker from Bedford (thank you Kayte) we piloted it in a work and after-work situation. But the idea never really took off; life got in the way of reviewing and developing the concept. Given the apparent success of people-walking, maybe Walkshops should be for pairs of walkers, as well as groups?

I still think the Walkshop™ idea has legs (pun intended) and if others think there’s mileage (second pun intended) in developing it, feel free to take the idea [but you’d need permission from the designer to use the logo] and run with it (last pun for today) and let me know how you get on.

To link to the relevant June 2018 Radio 4 programme about people-walking, go to https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b4zwz8 To meet the people-walker, go to https://www.facebook.com/thepeoplewalker

 

A word in your ear about keeping connected

Last week, in the run up to the new GDPR Data Regulations coming into force on 25 May, I was sent 18 invitations to confirm my interest in receiving future mailings from a range of sources – mainly not-for-profit organisations.

It’s an opportunity for me to stem the flow of items dropping into my inbox (you should try it – it’s liberating). I’m sure there will be lots more invitations (not to mention some reminders from those same organisations to whom I haven’t responded).

As someone with a 40-year career in marketing, I thought I’d also take the opportunity to look at the different techniques, primarily the words, that those 18 organisations have chosen to try to keep me on their circulation lists. My assessment is, of course, neither objective nor scientific, but then nor is the basis for my decision about which mailings I opt-in to, and which I let go.

The headline in the subject box…

Right now, I would imagine that most hearts sink when they see those four letters – GDPR. So, should you include them in your subject box? Only four of the 18 organisations thought so, and who knows how many people stopped reading at that point (at best filing it away for ‘reading later’).

Personally, I appreciate the use of humour in communications although, of course, what’s funny is very subjective. A couple of organisations chose to mention ‘privacy policy’ in their headlines – which is almost certainly a turn-off – but one softened the blow with humour – ‘Update to Our Privacy Policy (yawn)’ – it made me want to read more. The communication signed off in a similarly lighthearted way, saying “That is all. You can go back to your own life now.”

Most communications were variations on the ‘don’t miss out on future communications’ theme. ‘Let’s keep in touch… we’d love to keep talking to you’Keep updated’ ‘Don’t let GDPR end our relationship’ ‘Stay part of … action required’ ‘Don’t miss out – we know it’s boring but…’  ‘we’d like to keep in touch.’

The organisation sending the communication…

It helps if I personally know the people behind the invitation – I’ll give people I know and like the benefit of the doubt, keeping reading for longer. Part of my response is even more subjective – what’s my gut reaction when I see their communications drop into my inbox? Eventually I become more rational – have they provided useful, interesting and important information over the last 12 months – would I miss it?

The wording…

Once into the body of the communication, I assess whether I’m drawn in by the message including the style of writing. Whether it’s personalised in any way – Dear first name/ Mr surname / member/ subscriber/ service user – which applied to a third of the 18 organisations – is not so important to me, although on balance I think some sort of salutation – even just ‘hello’ – is better than none at all.

I tend to dislike anything ‘shouty’ – using CAPITAL LETTERS, text highlighted in red or underlined, and too many exclamation marks!!! Ironically the worst offender in this respect was an organisation promoting peace (it certainly didn’t come across as a gentle invitation).

I’ve already mentioned humour, and who says Privacy Policies have to be discussed too seriously? The most humorous communication on this subject said…

We’ll show you ours if you show us yours

To make sure you know what [we’re] doing with your private bits (data, of course) we need to show you our new Privacy Statement.

And to make sure we know exactly what you’d like from us, we’d love you to reveal your innermost…preferences.

This came from a campaign against male suicide – so they clearly think a lighthearted approach to a serious subject is the way to connect. And what they also did cleverly (as did three other organisations) was to use the GDPR opportunity to do a bit of market research for future mailings – encouraging me to update my preferences.

Building trust…

Our personal data and mis-use of it is, of course, high on the international agenda so the introduction of the new regulations is timely. Most effective marketing is about developing long term relationships and, particularly in the current climate, building trust is an important part of doing that successfully.

So I ask myself, do I believe what they say in those e-mails – are they serious about keeping my details secure, or are they just saying that because of the new regulations?

Four communications used reassuring phrases and, strangely perhaps, the more casual the assurance the more I believed them! Try this ‘The new privacy law has given me the opportunity to clean up my mailing list and ensure the E-Newsletter only goes to those who find it useful… The mailing list is managed only by me and the emails stored are never shared with anyone.’ Honest, simply said, sounds sincere – great.

One way that correspondents can show they mean business is to say how my support (and the information I share with them) will be used for my benefit – the trade-off. Surprisingly perhaps, only five of the 18 organisations took time to tell me what I’d get if I said ‘yes’ to their invitation. One organisation probably went into greater detail than necessary about their future plans – but it was great to know what I was going to be signing up to receive.

Surprising few (five organisations) thanked me for my time. One went overboard offering me the possibility of winning a box of doughnuts if I responded by a certain date (many gave 25 May as their cut-off date). Which brings me to my last consideration…

The call to action…

If you expect a response to a communication you not only need to make it clear what you want the respondent to do, but you need to make it as easy as possible for them to do it. A simple, clearly marked button to click for opt-in and a polite ‘thank you’ when I did was the most painless experience. I make an allowance for additional tick boxes to refine my preferences but that’s about it. Anything more than half a dozen clicks and I lose heart.

The twist in the tail of this exercise is that the majority of organisations inviting me to opt-in to their mailings under the new data protection regulations probably didn’t need to renew my permission in the first place!

Some myth-busting about GDPR consent from the Information Commissioner’s Office https://iconewsblog.org.uk/2018/05/09/raising-the-bar-consent-under-the-gdpr

If you need a few resources to get to grips with GDPR, go to  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/free-lunch-business-support