We have a tendency to expect others to do all the work of understanding what we communicate. This is especially true when it comes to sensitive topics. The author of this week’s featured book, Words That Work, can help us correct that tendency. Doing so is crucial for anyone who wants to make things better.
I admire the book because it points out all the mistakes I’ve made. I have worked at the heart of some controversial issues, both large and small. In any such instance, it is alarming to see how quickly two sides will form. Even the most complex issue will quickly devolve into trench warfare. All people need is a topic, a limited resource to fight over, and a couple words within the topic to signal what side they’ll be on.
This is a shame because the issues that we fight over are never so black-and-white as we make them out to be. And the polarizing words we use are never so precise and accurate as they seem. But tribalism holds sway and I’m starting to think the language we use is only meant to signal our positions and deepen those divides. It’s a selfish act.
Because we use the language that we want. Not the language that others need.
Mission Statements: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
I’ll steer away from politics and use corporate language to illustrate. Executives often talk about the “bottom line” and “profit” when describing an organization’s goal. It’s often the first thing that they mention when they talk about their business.
But such a business, designed to maximize the bottom line, is surely a terrible place to work. Imagine it. Such a place rations toilet paper. Such a place charges $0.25 for cup of coffee in the breakroom. Such a place frightens every person in the workforce. Most business executives don’t conjure this image when they use these words; that’s not their intent. But that is their impact.
So take our author’s advice and use the term “performance” instead. That is a term that great employees can appreciate. Is profit important? Of course. Everyone understands that. But are you going to seek profit by being a penny-pinching scrooge or by becoming the best at what you do? Performance is what every committed employee wants to strive for and, by putting it above profit, you make a connection between their desire and yours.
Or better yet, don’t even talk about bottom lines at all. Consider Google’s mission statement:
To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Google understands that they will be quite profitable if they achieve that mission. So they focus on that. Without any mention of profit. Employees understand this, too. They know that they must remain profitable to continue to meet this mission and so they work at it. Profits result. They work more at it. More profits result. The positive cycle spins. Meanwhile, consider these lines from Procter and Gamble’s mission statement:
We will provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improves the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come. As a result, consumers will reward us with leadership sales, profit and value creation.
Who is this for? What is leadership sales? What is value creation? Again, who is this for?
It’s very easy to attack the mission statements of big companies. I’m not sure it’s very useful. But it is an important example of how the bad language only deepens our divides. If you worked for this company, the absolute best this language would do is have zero effect on you. It will just sound like business-speak. But if you read it a couple times, you’ll start to notice that there is no mention of anything that makes you want to be there. How does this mission inspire? Where do I fit in? Am I going to make a difference?
An executive that communicates this way creates an unnecessary distance with their employees. You don’t have to say these words. You don’t have to write them this way. If you want a mission statement that works, Procter and Gamble, I have a great idea. Eliminate twenty-five words from this statement.
provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve s the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come. As a result, consumers will reward us with leadership sales, profit and value creation.
Have it read as follows:
We will improve the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come.
That sounds so much better to just about anyone. Did you lose some specificity? Yes. Do you feel a panicky sense of abandonment by not mentioning sales, profit, and value? Probably. But any employee and shareholder can understand that those things are going to be accomplished if this broader mission is achieved. More importantly, this says something that people want to hear with words they understand.
Again, who is it for? You can’t use your language if you want to inspire their hearts.
Clear But Also Specific
You can, however, go too far with this approach. I think of Herb Kelleher here. He was the fabulous Founder/CEO of Southwest Airlines and he said thousands of brilliant things but he made an error once. One small error is nothing, really, but I think it’s important to spell out.
When asked about his company’s future plans and corporate strategy, he said this:
We have a strategic plan—it’s called doing things.
This is funny and it points to the idea of productivity and execution over propeller-beanie statisticians. All the same, if taken by itself, the statement is a flop. What things, exactly, will they do? There is no explanation. It feels evasive. If this were a politician, people would be wary. But to his credit, Kelleher gave a much better answer later on when he defined the kernel of his company’s strategy as follows:
Keep costs low and spirits high and the people of Southwest Airlines will keep LUV in the air.
This statement hits all the right notes. People can trust that the “things” Southwest will do will continue to move them in this specific direction. To his credit, Kelleher said such wonderful things very often.
Don’t Bring A PowerPoint To A Knife Fight
I’ve written this before but it bears repeating. Our language, whatever we use, must be conveyed in a way that people can recieve it. That means we have to understand our audience. This is incredibly hard because it forces me to leave the comfort of my own values. It’s darn near impossible when it involves difficult topics.
When it comes to difficult topics, I love data. If I had my way, I’d let algorithms rule just about everything in a very Dalio-esque sort of way. However, most people don’t like data. In fact, as this article explains, our egos hate data. Therefore, if you want to help people who don’t value data, the first step is to not use data.
This is hard if you have no other tools. Abraham Maslow expressed it best with his “law of the instrument”:
I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.
Data is a tool. One of many in the box. If it is the only tool you care about, you will be the hammer looking to make everything a nail. You will be wildly unpersuasive.
Language is a tool, too. A swiss army knife, actually. One with many components. If you only use the components within that tool that you value, you will again be that person with a hammer looking for nails. You will be wildly unpersuasive.
Don’t use your language. Use theirs.
I can imagine a question from a reader: But if I meet them on their level, what’s in it for me?
I think we ask this question quite often of ourselves. Which is sad. It shows that we are struggling with our intent. The effort to be persuasive can either seem manipulative or generous (as explored in yesterday’s article). The actions are the same; the only difference is your intent.
So what is our intent? To win? It’s a sad state of affairs when we only seem willing to persuade when we want them to lose, to come to our side, to give us something we want. There are other reasons. Better ones. I’ll explore that tomorrow.