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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Why good communication never goes out of style

How you write says a lot about you as a leader, explains Neil Taylor of language consultancy Schwa

If you’ve ever used the word ‘invest’, don’t go and work for Jacob Rees-Mogg. He’s written a style guide for his civil servants (for as long as he has them), and banned it – along with the words ‘very’ and ‘hopefully’. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that JRM’s list of strictures is a slightly eccentric collection of pet peeves and somewhat old-fashioned pseudo-rules. But he’s by no means the only political leader to have a go at telling people how to write – Michael Gove published his own style guide a few years back, too.
Now, I’m all for giving people advice on how to write (heck, I run writing workshops every week, and, did I mention my book?). But so often these style guides miss the real point: they fret about how many spaces to put after a full stop, but not the more important stuff: is what you’re saying clear? Is it interesting? Will it persuade anyone? Will the reader like the sound of the person talking?

The human and the not-so
If you’re a leader, how you write matters more than you might think. In a big business, you might run a team that rarely sees you in person. That means the words you write – or that get written for you – are a big part of what shapes people’s opinion of you. And most leaders aren’t great at it. Their words are cold, corporate, clichéd – and there are way too many of them. For instance, when Tesco’s Chairman announced Dave Lewis’ replacement as CEO, he wrote:

Ken is unquestionably, a seasoned, growth-orientated business leader. He has deep commercial, marketing and brand experience… Ken has values which align with our own, strong strategic and operating acumen, and is proven at the very top of a large and respected multinational retail group… Ken has contractual commitments to his previous employer, and therefore we will announce his precise start date in due course.’

No-one in real life actually talks like that. In contrast, Dave Lewis himself wrote this:

‘My decision to step down as Group CEO is a personal one… I have no doubt that Tesco will kick on again under new leadership next year. When that time comes, I will watch progress from outside with interest, deep affection and pride. In the meantime, you can be sure that I will give the job everything I have until my very last day.’

I can believe that Dave Lewis really said that. It’s short, natural, human. He sounds like someone you’d actually want to work for.
I saw something similar a few years ago when I was working with a big financial services firm. Both the Group CEO and UK CEO used to send out weekly emails to the whole business. The Group CEO was dour and traditional, and his emails were long and cold. The UK CEO, on the other hand, was warm and down-to-earth. His emails were much more laid back, and full of little insights into his personal life. The inevitable result: no-one read the Group CEO’s; everyone read the UK CEO’s. When I asked the teams, what made the UK CEO a better communicator, they said ‘Well, he’s Australian, isn’t he?’ But guess what: even British leaders can be engaging human beings if they let themselves. It was no big surprise when that UK CEO was quickly poached to go and run a much bigger business; he was the one who could really inspire people to follow him. By the way, putting your words in the hands of an internal comms person isn’t always the answer, either. Too often they’re timidly writing what they think you want (or what they’ve always written), rather than fighting for the kind of language they know, deep down, really works. And unless you’ve got a brilliant ghost-writer, readers can usually sniff out when something’s really authentic and when it’s not.

Which words work
There’s lots of evidence from psychology about what language really works for people. Let’s start with the most important: the more everyday your language, the easier it is for people to process. In turn, that makes them more likely to believe it. (And the simpler your language, the more intelligent people think you are – Google ‘Oppenheimer’ and ‘erudite’ for the research that proves it. What’s weird is that that’s the exact opposite of what we’ve been trained to think.) The research also shows we find concrete language more memorable and persuasive then abstract language. So leaders who can translate their big-picture goals into really tangible examples, and tell real stories, are much more likely to get their message to stick. And there’s also a ton of evidence that our memories are particularly fond of visual stuff. That might mean painting a picture with your words, or finding the metaphor that helps explain the subject you’re talking about in an easy-to-grasp way. We often think of this stuff as a bit fluffy – mere icing on the cake of your leadership (see what I did there?). It’s not; it’s crucial. Get it wrong and some people won’t remember you even had a cake.

The secret’s on your phone
All this means we should all stop worrying about if it should be ‘which’ or ‘that’ (it doesn’t matter, by the way – it’s a completely spurious rule). Instead, spend your time turning your writing into something you’d actually read. Then other people will too.
And if you’re struggling, here’s a tip: record yourself on your phone, and use that as a starting point. Most of us are much more straightforward and engaging when we’re talking than when we’re writing. Even Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Founder of language and
 behavioural science consultancy Schwa and the author of Brilliant Business Writing. He works with businesses all over the world, including PepsiCo, HSBC and Sony Music, to help them communicate better.

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