My running buddy’s a doctor. And while pounding the pavements, she’s given me a few tips on how to get to the point. Because sometimes, it can be a question of life or death.
Before we started running together, I thought I had the whole ‘how to deliver difficult messages’ thing nailed: you say sorry; you explain why; you move on to a fix. But while that might work a treat when you’re writing to customers to say their gas bill’s going up or that a mobile banking app is bust; it doesn’t work with really tricky messages. Like telling someone that if they don’t lose weight they’ll have a heart attack before the year’s out. Or that something unusual came up in a routine scan.
That’s the kind of conversation she has with patients, and their families, every single day of the week.
I never tire of asking her how she does it. How she not only explains the complexities of a cocktail of drugs to a vulnerable patient, but also persuades them to care about it. Or how she’ll listen to a chain smoker’s woes with sympathy but will never sugar-coat her fix to their ailments.
Her calls to action are clear. Her explanations are straightforward (she doesn’t even need to say sorry to give them, either). And she only has 10 minutes to gain the patient’s trust.
These days, I give my writing the 10-minute test too. Assuming I’m lucky enough to have my reader’s attention for that long, I ask myself will they:
* find my call to action
* make sense of what I’m saying
* believe me?
I’d never want my doctor to waste time sitting on the fence or dwelling on background details when giving me news. So, I shouldn’t go there with my readers, either.
As part of Learning at Work week, we’re sharing stories about things we’ve learned in unexpected places.
My daughter’s learning to play the flute. And while her squeaky blasts and spit-spraying puffs into the mouthpiece might sound terrible to our neighbours, my more generous ears think otherwise. Which is why, in a moment of proud parenthood, I told a Spanish friend all about her efforts. How she’ll spend forever piecing the parts of the flute together and slotting it back in its velvet-lined case. And how, even if a note comes out an octave higher than anyone expected, she’ll firmly press her fingers down on the keys and give it another go until she gets it right.
It turns out that my Spanish friend’s son is studying music, too. ‘He’s in his second year of classes now,’ she confided. But when I asked what he’s learning she looked at me blankly. ‘Nothing yet. He starts with music theory, like everyone does.’ I was stunned. Two years of lessons about dotted minims, clefs and the like and he doesn’t even get to touch an instrument.
Which made me wonder how much theory is enough theory. When I run a writing workshop, people often fret about their spelling or where they should put an apostrophe. They’re concerned that if they don’t get that stuff right, they won’t be able to write in the right tone, or on brand. Which is nonsense.
I always make a point of parking the technical details at the start of a workshop – it can get in the way of enjoying writing (just as I’d rather play a piece of music before I analyse it). When people give different types of writing a go not only does it prove that their corporate career hasn’t sucked every single ounce of creativity out of them, it also shows that they can improve a piece of writing (even if the odd apostrophe’s off).
Most people want to see better writing at work – just as my neighbours would appreciate a little less shrillness from my daughter’s flute – but studying the theory alone won’t make that happen. I think we learn best by doing. Our workshops give the long-forgotten ‘writer’ inside everyone a job to do. One that they can keep on doing, even when the session’s over.
And the semicolons? Well, let’s leave them for the editor to deal with.
When big things happen in a business, it’s important not to forget about the little things. Like how people talk about change internally. And how they write about it, in particular.
Take Pfizer and AstraZeneca for example. Earlier this year, ‘big pharma’ player Pfizer attempted to take over AstraZeneca. The deal didn’t work out. It might still happen, though, once Pfizer gets to the end of a cooling-off period. But no one at AstraZeneca’s really sure what that means for them. A friend of mine who works there confessed, ‘no-one’s got a clue what’s going on’.
If you’re in a department like HR or internal comms, people look to you for information. And if there’s none available, those people will worry instead. Or they’ll listen to water-cooler gossip about how their function’s moving to the other end of the country. And that’s hardly going to boost employee morale, is it?
I think if there’s even the faintest scent of change on the horizon, like there is at Pfizer and AstraZeneca, then someone needs to speak up about it internally. And not in a cloud of corporate vagueness. But honestly. To show that the bods in the boardroom really do care about how employees are feeling. They certainly don’t want to make the same mistakes as Microsoft in their lengthy memo to employees that takes 11 paragraphs to get to the point: 12,500 people are about to lose their job.
Because if Pfizer claims ‘respect for people’ and AstraZeneca ‘to do the right thing’ that’s true, especially at times of change, isn’t it? And if both companies could get a sense of those values across in their writing, then maybe people wouldn’t feel so clueless anymore.
Greek philosopher Aristotle reckoned he had this whole persuasion business nailed. His thinking was that if you combined logic, emotion and credibility, then there was no way your audience would disagree. In Aristotle’s opinion, it’s logic that’s the trump card, though. If your argument doesn’t make sense, no one’s going to care what you’re saying.
Except that logic doesn’t always do the trick, does it?
We might know that a bank or utility or supermarket or mobile phone company has a cheaper deal, but that doesn’t mean we’ll switch. Logic alone isn’t enough to persuade us. You need something else there too.
When it comes to writing at work, pretty much everyone needs their words to persuade. Marketing wants to sell more. Managers want to motivate. HR wants us to fill in some paperwork. Recruitment wants to convince candidates that their firm is a great place to work. Facilities don’t want us to park in a certain place next Friday. Good business writing is good sales writing. No exception.
Of course, the reality is that a lot of business writing – particularly the internal stuff – does a pretty poor job of persuading us, of selling an idea to us. And a lot of the time, that’s because the writers think logic’s going to make the case for them. They’ve forgotten about all the other ways that words convince us to do one thing instead of another.
We haven’t forgotten, though. When I run writing workshops, people always ask me for tricks and techniques to make their words work harder. So we’ve pulled them together to create win me over, our Academy workshop all about the art of persuasion. (In words, naturally.)
Analgesics. Dermatological treatments. Respiratory medicine. It’s hard to understand what pharmaceutical firms are saying half the time. They mix and match the kind of language they’re using, and it doesn’t do them any favours.
Things usually start positively on the front of the packaging. A headache tablet might declare that whatever’s inside ‘hits pain fast’. But when I dig a bit deeper, the same firm says this particular product can treat ‘neuralgia’. All of a sudden I need a pharmacist to translate language that’s directed at me, the consumer. So the words aren’t doing the job they’re meant to. As our Padders says, there are times when an ‘occupational dialect’ is helpful, and others when it’s downright baffling.
Big pharma firms spend more on sales than R&D. They’ve realised that if they don’t sell their products to pharmacists, or pharmacy assistants, they’ve little hope of reaching consumers who come into a chemist with a migraine. But wouldn’t it be smarter to make how they talk about their products more appealing to customers directly?
When I worked with people in the world of pharma I’d often challenge them about their way with words. They’d blame regulators for their choice of language, or the categories they use to measure sales, or the fact that medicines don’t fly off the shelves. The language mixes up a few snappy headlines to hook customers in, before veering off into industry-speak. ‘They’re slow, not fast, moving consumer goods’, they’d say, by way of explanation.
But there’s a reason why it’s called ‘consumer healthcare’. The people buying are consumers, not doctors or pharmacists. And these are products that the government has said are safe for self-medication; shouldn’t we be able to understand everything the little leaflet that comes with the packet says?
If they manage to do that extra bit of thinking and talk to us in a language that makes sense first time, we’ll be more likely to trust them. And much more likely to look for their brands when we can feel a migraine coming on.
I don’t like smileys. It’s not that I’m a miserable so-and-so, it’s just I have this old-fashioned theory that if my writing’s going to make someone smile, the words’ll do it on their own. The reader’s not going to need a prompt. That would be the literary equivalent of holding up an ‘applause’ sign to a TV audience.
But I see smileys in all sorts of unexpected places. Web chats about unlocking a phone. Tweets about giving your electricity supplier a meter reading. Invitations to link up with someone I’ve worked with on LinkedIn. Feedback forms from someone who’s just been to one of our workshops. And emails. They sneak into emails all the time.
Why do we need these open brackets, lonely colons and stranded hyphens to inject a bit of personality into our writing? ‘It’ll make me sound like a real person’, I’ve been told, or ‘it’s okay, because the customer frowned first’. But I’m not convinced we need emoticons at all. If, say, I was in a mobile phone store swapping a SIM card from one phone to another, I wouldn’t smile non-stop at the customer. Nor would I wink at them, or stick my tongue out. So why do it virtually?
If there is such a thing as emoticon etiquette when writing at work, then in my mind it goes something like this:
- If you’re talking to a customer, then never smile first.
- Smile, and only smile.
- If it’s a colleague, well, you probably know them better than I do and can make your own mind up.
And if you’re writing to me? Don’t take it personally, but I never smile back.