Category Archives: Communication matters

This is a smart blog post

I was thinking about the word ‘smart’ the other day – as I drank from a bottle with ‘smartwater’ written all over it. The trendy label claimed the container was a plant bottle (meaning it was ‘up to 30% made from plants’) and the water was ‘vapour distilled with added electrolytes’ whatever that means.

In fact, I was drinking tap water – nothing particularly smart about that except it’s a fraction of the price, but the bottle’s a good size (850 mls) and fairly robust so I’m hanging on to it – no single-use plastic (however smart it is) for me if I can help it.

It wasn’t until sometime later I saw on the label – in very small print – the name ‘Coca Cola’. So this looks like some smart branding on their part (to appeal to people like me?)

I wondered what had happened to the ‘SmartWater’ of yesteryear – a theft deterrent liquid that was painted onto equipment that was then only visible under ultraviolet light. The idea was that you could paint your postcode onto your bike frame (for example). If your bike was stolen and recovered by someone with an ultraviolet light, it could be returned to its owner. I wonder whether it’s still in use….

Perhaps I should have mentioned that I was not being particularly smart while drinking the water; I was driving along a smart motorway (no – I wasn’t in a Smart car) on my way to Worcester. For those who don’t know – a smart motorway (formerly managed motorway) is… a section of motorway in Great Britain that uses active traffic management (ATM) techniques to increase capacity by use of variable speed limits and hard shoulder running at busy times. So now you know, and at least I wasn’t using my smart phone while drinking water and driving…

Which brings me to ‘smart working’. It was the subject of a blog post 18 months ago examining the logic behind ‘agile working’ ‘flexible working’ and all variations in between. I was suggesting that the concept is dressing up the idea of ‘getting more for less from employees’ to make it look new, dynamic and… well… smart.

So, what have I concluded about the use of the word ‘smart’? I may be an old cynic (I’m certainly an old pedant) but I see it in the same light as the word ‘exciting’ – it’s made to make something look or sound sexier and more interesting and desirable than it is; as if we ourselves become smarter by using the product – drink, phone, crime deterrent, motorway, or way of working.

Talking of a final ‘smart’ – Billy Smart – now he really was bright. Born one of 23 children he worked on fairgrounds until, with his brothers, he created what was the world’s largest travelling circus under canvas in the 1960s. Later, after a failed attempt to buy Blackpool Tower, he came up with the safari park idea and Windsor Safari Park went on to attract 2.5 million visitors a year.

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

Advertisements

Shoulder to shoulder

A decade ago, I worked with the founder of a social enterprise that transformed the lives of young people who had been failed by the education system. They did amazing things but had a problem with their young learners – in the mornings they couldn’t get them to turn up on time, sometimes it was not at all! They solved this problem by buying a minibus and picking them up each morning at great expense in terms of time and transport. The tutors would take it in turns to drive around the houses of the trainees and, if necessary, they would almost literally lift them out of bed and dump them in the minibus.

Very quickly they discovered the unexpected benefits of providing this door-to-door transport service – that the conversations that took place in the back of the minibus while travelling to and from home to work gave them far greater insights into the real lives of these young people than any number of face-to-face conversations between tutors and students. The learners found it far easier to ‘open up’ about themselves when out of the classroom; liberated from the confines of the learner-teacher relationship. And another benefit – the young people got to know each other better, made friends, and supported each other.

I was reminded of this the other day when sharing an observation from the Australian Men’s Sheds Association (an observation that regular readers of this blog may already know) – men don’t talk face-to-face, they talk shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s a generalisation of course, but I think it’s generally true. We men are far more likely to open up and talk about the important things in life when working together on a joint project (and, I suggest, when walking side-by-side) than when sitting opposite each other, even in a social situation.

This is how the former head of the Irish Men’s Sheds Association puts it… Put 12 men aged over 55 in a room and say ‘please talk to each other about your lives, relationships and health.’ Six will leave the room immediately, and many of the remainder will sit around the walls. But is you throw in a broken lawnmower and say ‘hey guys, fix that’, within two hours you’ll have achieved your objective, plus they’ll know each other’s skills and aspirations and, of course, you’ve got a lawnmower that works!

Although pointless banter is an important element in any Men’s Shed, I think it’s also the purposeful activity that helps the conversation flow – whether that be making things to sell, getting involved in community projects, or developing personal projects in the company of others.

In my current mentoring work with long-term unemployed people, I am rediscovering the truth of the ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ theory. In those one-to-one relationships I’m aware of the unequal relationship between the ‘adviser/expert’ and the ‘learner with issues’ (not having a job may be just one of a number) and it can create an unhealthy dependency. But recently I’ve been giving car lifts to some of these people – to attend meetings with the council about housing issues, to see charities about volunteering, and to counselling sessions. It means we’re sitting side-by-side in a car and, once again, I’m having conversations that I suspect would never have happened if we were always office-based, meeting on opposite sides of a table.

For more about the magic of Men’s Sheds go to www.menssheds.org.uk

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

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