10 ways not to cock up your comms

Honesty is the only policy if you want to cut through the noise these days. Andy Kenworthy shares his 10 point manifesto on how to get your point across.

George Bernard Shaw wrote: “The single biggest problem in communications is the illusion that it has taken place.” This is true whether you are talking to your partner, or trying to sell an idea to millions of people.  

We communicate through stories. Stories are powerful. What we think of as our personalities, our likes, dislikes, even our most deeply held beliefs are really just a bunch of stories. To control stories is to have influence over what most people believe about themselves.

When people encounter stories they don’t like, they fight them as if they were real. When they encounter stories they do like, they carry them with them as part of themselves.

In business it is our job to create positive stories around the brands we work for. These days that means demonstrating the company’s positive purpose. Here are my top tips to make that happen. 

1.     Keep in mind what you want people to do once they encounter your story.

Fantasy author Terry Pratchett was once asked whether he would like his writing to change people.

“Yes I think I do,” he said. “Fundamentally I want my writing to change someone from a person who has £3.99, to somebody who doesn’t.”

This, of course, is the price of one of Terry’s books.

The point is to focus on the precise change you want to see in the world. Imagine the next thing you want somebody to do, and then design your story with the best chance of making them do it. 

Be wary of ‘informing’, ‘educating’, or ‘raising awareness’. They are seldom active enough in their intent to make anything happen. 

2.    Less is more.

Mark Twain said: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

These days if something takes too long to explain you will end up talking to yourself. You may get the chance to unpack something in detail once you have people’s attention. But to get their attention you have to transmit the core information as clean and fast as a sniper’s bullet.

When I trained as a senior journalist in the UK, I had to write sentences of no more than 25 words, and paragraphs of not more than 45. It’s not always possible, but it instills the discipline you need. If you need help with this, check out Hemingway.com. It has a free app that aims to show you when you are rattling on in ways nobody understands.

Create stories pitched at a distracted eight-year-old and you will be getting it about right. This forces you to boil down concepts until they are really clear. It doesn’t allow you to use fancy words and long sentences to hide the fact that you don’t really know what you are talking about. 

3.    Show, don’t tell.

When we have something interesting going on in our work there is a huge temptation to tell people all the details. This should be treated with caution. It can lead to boring jargon or technical information few care about. You care about how you do what you do, because that is your job. Other people don’t care how you do what you do, because that is your job.

Show them what you do, the results, the impact, and why you do it. Focusing on this forces you to make sure you are actually having an impact in people’s lives that is worth talking about.

4.    Don’t just communicate information, demonstrate emotion.

There is a temptation to believe if we tell people enough information about something they will care about it. It doesn’t necessarily follow.

Jason Clay, is senior vice-president of markets at the World Wildlife Fund in the US. He was once working with starving Sudanese farmers. He wondered why most affluent people believe famine in far off countries is simply the result of weather, not geopolitics. A Sudanese farmer told him: “It is because you cannot wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.”

After decades of ‘raising awareness’ on the processes of climate change, further work on this is largely a distraction. People know about climate change, they just don’t care about it enough yet. Abstract information won’t change that. Even people who will earnestly consume information and share it with friends will bypass the action you want them to take.

It has to connect with their emotional core, not just their intellect. This is what wakes them out of their slumber.  

To put it in shopping terms, there are a few times when we think: “Hmm, l will carefully weigh up the pros and cons of this purchase”. But more often we just say, “Shit! I want that! Now, how the hell do I convince my partner/friends/myself that it was a good idea?”

The emotion nearly always comes first, followed by the justification. So communicate the emotion first, then provide the justification acting on it.

5.    Keep it real.

It’s impossible to communicate authentically unless you have some kind of genuine emotional response to talk about. Claiming you’re excited or passionate about something when you are not will not work. Neither will telling other people they should be excited about something. It has to actually be exciting.

Using words like ‘passionate’, ‘innovative’ and ‘exciting’ nearly always indicate the opposite. It's the same as having to tell somebody a joke is funny, it means it probably isn’t. Or like putting last minute spices into a meal to hide bad food.

Tell the most genuinely sincerely emotional version of what you are doing. Then let people decide how they feel about it. Otherwise they will know you are trying to manipulate them, and will resist.

Don’t say ‘we are stoked’ if you are not actually stoked and/or you are a surfer. People will know this. It's like your Mum throwing gang signs while doing Vanilla Ice karaoke. 

Another example of startling insincerity is the recent hyperbole arms race going on in marketing.

This is where people are supposed to be beside themselves with joy at the most minuscule of benefits.

“You will be delighted by the hazelnuts…”

No, I won’t, I might just be pleased my hazelnut yoghurt has them in there.

There has also recently been the phenomenon where marketing departments decide we should adopt their brand like a childhood friend.

I once got a tea towel from Genesis Energy talking about borrowing a cup of sugar and being neighbourly. I don’t want to be neighbours with my power company. I want them a long way away behaving like a power company.

It’s also where yoghurt tries to befriend us at the breakfast table. 

“When fresh low fat yoghurt meets the taste of dreamy vanilla and roasted hazelnuts things get really interesting.” 

Or Anchor cream: “Whip me, pour me, swirl me. With a dollop, a dash, a swirl. Live in the now. Excite the senses. Pure joy!” There is cream in this container right? Not a full body Tantric orgasm and instant enlightenment? Or did I miss something in the nutritional information?

6.    Kiwi-ness.

New Zealand suffers from its own special variety of inauthentic communication - the ‘Kiwi As’ affliction.

There’s a limit to how many things can be Choice As Bro, or The Bomb. Force feeding chewed up bits of people’s culture back to them is not always the best approach. Anybody with an IQ in double digits knows this was not written by one of their mates out on the street. There’s no good pretending it was unless you can do so very convincingly. 

7.    Authors have authority.

Martin Luther King didn’t say: “I think I might have a dream.”

JFK did not say: “One day, possibly, we might consider putting somebody on the moon.”

Jesus did not say: “You probably shouldn’t kill people.”

Research properly, then speak clearly.

Build your case on strong foundations.

People are more convinced the more forthright you are. They will remember your point much more clearly. Even if they disagree, they are more likely to react, and reaction is good engagement.

8.    Don’t be blinded by style.

Stories are shiny. They can be distracting. I have seen fabulous glossy communications that look gorgeous and say precisely nothing. Most people do not notice. They won’t complain. But they won’t do what you want them to do. And they will stop communicating with you.

Use a plain text format to completely develop the messaging before adding design. Take all the bells and whistles off things and see what it actually conveys.

9.    Communication = entertainment.

If people are not having fun with the communication they won’t absorb it.

This goes for everything, whether it is a blockbuster movie or a technical annual report. We sometimes convince ourselves that specialist people turn into information processing machines. Even technical people are people. Give them what they want, not necessarily just what you want to give them. 

10.  Most stories don’t last.

I return to the UK every few years. When I turn up there I expect everybody will be fascinated to hear about life among the surfing Hobbits. After 36 hours on the road, my stories survive about 10 minutes.

It goes like this. “How’s life over there?”

I talk.

Somebody says something like: “’Dave bought a new car…’”

And they are gone.

It’s just human nature. Even the Apollo crew must have experienced it. 

“Hey, Neil, how’s it going?”

“Well I went to the moon and…”

“Chuck bought a new car…”

Don’t worry about it, create more stories.

Finally, here’s a famous and perfect example of how not to do it.

If you watch this and think it looks fine you should be banned from marketing your business. You should possibly be banned from public places.

You have to ask yourself, how many people at Microsoft watched that, and approved it?

Be vigilant. Communicate authentically.

Andy Kenworthy.

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This year’s Sustainable Business Network Conference is Communicating in an Age of Authenticity. It takes place on August 31.