Tuesday, 24 March 2015

"Contempt for the reader; you are showing contempt for the reader......."

A former colleague of my wife would brandish this phrase at his team when they wrote something that wasn’t tailored to their reader’s needs; it was too long, too hard to follow, too clever for its own good.

This is a harsh (but fair) way of saying, that they did not think about their audience (mostly the reader because we are now addicted as a business community to email, eBulletins, monthly updates, think pieces, presentations, and increasingly blogs) when deciding what to tell them. In fact, tragically it so often feels like an endless stream of consciousness without any thinking being done about the start, middle and end. 

There is pressure on senior people to show leadership, set direction, provide updates and so on, but - perhaps because they are in senior roles and therefore under constant diary pressure - they do not take the time to think about the purpose of what they are saying or writing. They fail to ask themselves the ‘so what’ question. They just write. And write. And write. 

It is the oldest and most important rule of any form of communication - be clear who your audience is, what they want and need to know and what you want them to do as a result. Only having done this can you finalise your message and how you will deliver it.

As the purpose of the communication is often unclear so too the presentation of the material suffers; it becomes dense, muddled, and long. Often it is so long and hard to penetrate that the reader doesn’t even bother. So many important update emails from senior people get filed to be read at a later time but that later time never comes as each time the email appears in the preview pane of the reader’s inbox, its treacle-like awfulness becomes overwhelming and it is found a more permanent home in another folder left to gather email dust!

So often even some basic signposting is missing that would help. We do not see enough people saying this is for information, you do not need to do anything, or this is a must read for these reasons. It is all about the writer and not about the reader. Or worse, they say “FYI” and then hide an action for you in the bottom of the email! 

So much stuff is simply that, stuff. No real purpose (except to be seen to communicate). No real focus, just a lot of words that feel important to them. 

So here are three things to think about before the metaphorical pen hits the virtual paper;
Do I need to send this communication at all?
If I do, is this the right way of doing it?
If you do and it is, what is the shortest, clearest, most interesting way I can do it?

The oft-quoted (and mis-attributed) aside of Blaise Pascal in 1656 is still relevant today; "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” It can be hard to write a shorter email than a longer email, update or presentation as it takes time to collect your thoughts and edit out the information that is not required. But it is so, so helpful to the reader.

It is hard too because we all feel - especially in large corporate organisations - a pressure to prove how clever, informed or expert we are in our field- so we include technical detail, jargon (agghhhh!) and more information than the brain is capable of absorbing at one sitting. And then we commit the other sin in communicating; we just throw it down on the page and expect the reader to make their way through it with linguistic farm implements to cut away at the dense undergrowth of words and dead wood of text. It doesn't hurt to break up the text with some subheadings, bold some key words, use bullets, numbers, anything to help the reader actually read the text without having to squint or take a short lie down before finishing reading. 

Overall the trick that is missed is to forget that communicating is about relationships. It is about connecting with someone else - and ideally often many, many people, perhaps in many different parts of the world with different values, concerns and ideas. The best communicators make the receiver feel like the message was meant just for them - it is delivered with them in mind. It makes it easy for them to receive it, understand it and respond to it. 

Perhaps next time you have to write your latest update to your team, blog post for the corporate blog or contribution to your staff magazine, you will have more concern for your reader and avoid that drift into contempt. Think about them and how you can make their experience of reading your words as easy and enjoyable as possible. And if you do, you will be standing out from the crowd because most people around you will not.

Over the coming weeks......

......I'll be using my blog to share some of things I've seen and learnt over the last 15 years in consulting. It feels like a good time to take stock as my time as PwC comes to an end and I look for my next challenge.

I am very proud of what I have achieved with my fantastic team at PwC, leading the development of a new client-facing communications business - a comms agency within PwC - but decided to leave as I was just not enjoying it enough. I look forward to taking what I have learnt at PwC and throughout my career to my next challenge.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Some stuff I wrote for PwC blogs in 2014.................

Digital communications; are you the problem?


Getting engaged or heading for a break-up?


Delivering good jobs: focus on mental health


Employee engagement: mind the gap!


Monday, 12 May 2014

The British disease

With my new wi-fi Sky HD box (get me!) I watched When Corden Met Barlow over the weekend in glorious technicolour. As well as being a very entertaining and revealing hour's worth of TV charting the rise, fall and rise again of Gary Barlow's career, it also highlighted that much talked about 'British disease'. The one where we build folk up and then knock them down mercilessly.

If ever a career episiotomies this condition perfectly it is Mr Barlow's. The cruelty and personal unpleasantness of the attacks upon him as he fell from top of the celebrity pops to an uncool, unfashionable and unwanted has-been was astonishing. It had a deeply offensive bullying, pack-mentality quality about it which left me cold.

The fact that he has now risen to status of national treasure- I'm not getting involved in the current debate over his alleged tax arrangements- is remarkable and even more impressive. His story teaches us three things.

Firstly, the line between confidence and perceived arrogance is very fine and when the media and rivals want to show it has been crossed they do- and how!

Secondly, having a place of comfort and support you can fall back on in difficult times is vital. Gary Barlow had his family and his music which kept him going. That oasis (no musical pun intended) of support and peace is something we all need regardless of what we are trying to achieve. I write that today sitting in a park looking at my gorgeous twelve-week old daughter- we're having a daddy-daughter day, which as well as being great fun is a reminder- if it were needed- as to what is important in life.

Thirdly, class and talent is permanent. What eventually put Gary Barlow back on top wasn't that media and celebrity fashions changed, although they did, and that people were prepared to hear from him again, it as that he is a remarkably talented musician and a decent man.

His story also teaches us that if want something badly enough, and are prepared to work for it and stick at it, anything is possible.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Something I've written for PwC's People Agenda blog; 'Digital communications; are you the problem?'


Thursday, 6 March 2014

Imperfect peace is better than war

The political "crisis' or the wile handlin' in political circles in Northern Ireland last week was unedifying.

Anyone who has followed closely the process that has taken us from the dark days of 'The Troubles', through the Downing Street Declaration and Good Friday Agreement to today knows that the OTRs (on the runs) have been part of story and Republicans' list of issues for all that time. If I was Peter Robinson or anyone in the DUP I wouldn't have made the fuss they made last week as it exposes two things; they weren't paying proper attention over the last few years- they cannot credibly say they didn't know about the OTR deal as it is a matter of public record- and they weren't as effective as Sinn Fein at negotiating similar arrangements for loyalists or those soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday. The hand wringing last week did them no credit at all.

We must however separate two issues. The scheme itself- right or wrong- which has been around for some time, and the calamitous, incompetent decision to send a letter as part of this scheme to John Downey. The latter was a disgrace. The former an unpalatable but probably necessary part of negotiating a settlement to end a war.

Making peace is about compromise. Sometimes inelegant, ugly compromise. But compromise for a bigger purpose. Compromise for peace. The peace we have in Northern Ireland is imperfect but it is a million times better than the awful spectre that stood over that great island for so many years.

Two weeks. A lifetime.

I have been thinking about this post for the two weeks or so since our daughter, Aoife, was born. It has taken until the last few days for me to commit pen to paper, well, finger to iPad screen. Why? Three reasons.

One, there is almost too much to say. How can you summarise in a few paragraphs the feelings of becoming a parent for the first time and do it justice? How can you adequately sum up the lifetime of transformation we have experienced over the last two weeks?

Two, the fear of resorting almost entirely to cliché. I have fretted; is there any original way to express one's feelings on this occasion? Will I sound like the worst of lazy writers? Has it all be said before?

Third, the time to sit, think and then write has become somewhat condensed these last fourteen or so days. This is due in part to having new tasks to complete; feeding, changing, nursing etc but also to the time we now take just watching our little bundle of perfection. I imagine it being a similar experience to the days of the first TVs in the street when people from all around went to the chosen house to watch the box in the corner of the room. We can now very happily spend an hour at a time just sitting watching Aoife, even if she is doing nothing but sleep!

I have waited until the last few days when time and a clear (and less tired) head has allowed. I have gathered my reflections; things I learnt over the last two weeks or things I now know even more than I knew before. I will say sorry now if a cliché or two sneaks in. Here goes.

Meeting your child for the first time is the greatest meeting of your life.
The moment Aoife entered the world was heart-stopping. Is she ok? Is she breathing? Why isn't she crying? Then the feeling of relief followed by euphoria, followed by overwhelming emotion, when the crying starts and she is placed on he mummy's chest and she looks at you. It is a feeling of meeting someone for the first time who you instantly recognize and instantly know. I wasn't sure that love at first sight really existed until I met Aoife. It does. Cliché use apology!

Hospitals can be scary but doctors, nurses and midwives can make you feel safe.
The care we received- and I include myself in that as someone who received kindness and consideration in the two days of so we spent as a family in hospital- from the people of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital was brilliant. It was all good but I pick out one moment. As our labour was getting to the final stages and tiredness was setting in (not just mine!) two doctors joined us in the delivery room. The way they took control- calmly, sensitivity but firmly- inspired confidence and gave us a feeling of security which as first time parents we really appreciated. My abiding memory of those moments were the clarity of communication from the doctors- simple language, calmly delivered with a strong sense of purpose. The atmosphere in the room changed as soon as they arrived and shortly afterwards our daughter arrived!

Grandparents are happy when they become grandparents!
Yes, this falls into the category of things I now know even more than before! I have never seen joy- pure, unstrained, uncensored joy as when our parents met Aoife for the first time. The look in their eyes, their bursting pride, their tears of joy were so wonderful to share. It is unlike any other expression of joy I have ever seen and a little bit of me enjoyed a moment of self satisfaction that I had played a part in making them that happy.

People are so kind and thoughtful.
We have been inundated with cards, presents, calls, emails, Tweets, Facebook mentions and good wishes from family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and friends of friends and family. It has been so humbling that so many people wanted to share in our joy.

I love my wife more than words can express.
I consider myself to be a very lucky man to not only have met, but to have married, the best, most special person on the planet. I do of course have great judgment so I take some of the credit for this meeting and subsequent marriage! The downside of this love- this all encompassing, gut-wrenching, can’t imagine life without each other love- is that you hurt when they hurt. And there doesn’t come much more pain or hurt than giving birth- I am reliably told. Watching the person you love most in the world experience the worst pain of their life is awful- you would give anything to take their place and yet you are left feeling totally helpless. Mercibly my wife is braver and tougher than me so she took it all in her stride but it was hard to watch. Thankfully those few hours are a memory now but my memory will always be full of my wonderful wife’s amazing determination to bring our darling daughter into the world and now I have seen her add the title of planet’s most incredible Mum to go with her wife world crown. So I go back to where I started; I am a very lucky man and my daughter is a very lucky girl.

Oh yes, one last thing; sleep is over-rated!

We have known our daughter for just over fourteen days. It feels as if we have always known her. Our world now revolves around her (cliché klaxon!). Our lives will never be the same again and we thank God and all our blessings for that.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Are you positive?

I really liked recent comments by Nicky Morgan MP about the need for the Tories to be more positive in its language. It is a coincidence that I have been saying this for some time- honestly!

Elections in Britain are won in the centre ground. The people who win elections are not tribal. They sometimes vote Conservative. They sometimes vote Labour. They sometimes vote Lib Dem. They sometimes vote for someone else. But whoever they vote for gives them a positive reason to vote. If British electoral history tells us anything it tells us that these key voters need to be inspired.

Parties of all colours have captured this crucial vote election after election by offering a positive message- something that could make the lives of them and their loved ones better. The NHS, a welfare state, the white heat of technology, owning your own home, keeping more of your own money, a country at ease with itself, things can only get better, more money for better public services, fairness for all, the list goes on. All of these ideas have been positive ideas of what government can do to make life better.

Granted it has been a tough few years to be positive but if this government wants to be re-elected in one form or another it needs to find a positive voice- it needs to give people a reason to move off the sofa on election night or make a detour on their daily journey to vote. The same is true of Labour. Give the people something to shout about; something to get excited about, something to get behind. Be positive or be in opposition.

The language of life sentences

The recent Court of Appeal case following last year's European Court ruling has thrown the debate about life sentences or life terms back on the public's agenda.

For the purpose of this post I am not concerned about the legal position- important though that is- but the language used and the reason it is important.

For the justice system to work effectively it needs to do more than be a technical delivery of the law- it must carry the public's confidence. I believe that the biggest cause of public disquiet and loss of confidence is when sentences don't do what they say on the tin. This lack of a Ronseal moment is seen most acutely when considering life sentences- as by their nature they are the most serious cases and the people who pose the greatest risk to our safety.

If someone is sentenced to life in prisonment, the public expect them to spend the rest of their life in prison. The fact that they don't concerns and confusing folk. We need much more honesty in our language. 'Life' should be used when that is what we mean; not ten years, not twenty years, not thirty years, but life. The whole of the rest of that person's life. We are not doing that in hundreds of cases and these few that are the subject of this current case provides a great opportunity to start to get it right. In the States the concept of 99 year sentences is appealing as it carries a certainty- something exact. 'Life' almost always does not mean life- it means something else.

If life sentences were a brand or a product they would have very little customer loyalty. No-one would be buying. Whether the law as it currently is applied properly or not is not my concern here, it is the language used. We should always try to say what we mean as simply and clearly as we can. Why would it be different in the most serious judgements over someone's freedom? The language really matters. Let's call it as it is.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Two jobs and a bar

It has been a hugely rewarding start to the year.

I am now two weeks into my new job at PwC and enjoying every minute. It is so invigorating and energising. It offers that brilliant combination of working with very smart, talented people, who recognise their best chance of success for their clients, their organisation and themselves is to work with their colleagues- supported by a set of corporate values and an environment which encourages this team working but also embraces diversity. So far so good and I've only got lost in our various offices once or twice (ok, maybe three or four times!) so far.

Alongside this new job, Mrs J and I are preparing to take on the greatest, hardest job in the world as we contemplate impending parenthood. We are thrilled, excited, scared and nervous but as ready as we will ever be. We just hope and pray that everything goes well over the next few weeks. We are also reflective about the awesome responsibility we will soon have and in awe of those who have gone before us.

I have spent a lot of time over the last few months thinking about everything our parents have done for us and everything we owe them. The two greatest gifts that we have been blessed with are the unending and unquestioning love of our parents and the unshakeable values and ethics they instilled in us. Some of these are rooted in the Catholic Church in which we were both raised- and for all it's failings we are still very grateful for that- but also in own family's values. Working hard, being honest but streetwise, treating people fairly, having confidence in yourself with a healthy amount of questioning of others, having an iron will to succeed but the humility to accept that things go wrong, and a love and belief in family. Not a bad gift to give your children and a legacy we plan to embrace and perpetuate.

If we do half the job with Junior Jones that our parents have done for us we will be doing very well. They have set a very high bar.