Business Communication Instruction shares the latest news, tips, techniques, and methods being used by instructors today to make their classes more rewarding and enjoyable.

Where do bad words come from?

People say “world class” when they haven’t the energy
the courage to find and use a word that actually
means something

There are a lot of bad words out there.

And most of them can be found inside companies, where good people use bad words for the wrong reasons.

You hear words and sentences in the corporate world that you would never hear in the real world. Have you ever, outside of work, heard someone say they needed to “calendar a meeting to talk about actioning their deliverables?”

Have you ever been at a party where someone talked about “shifting a paradigm,” or “proactively leveraging our core competencies?”

Of course not. People don’t talk that way in the real world. Yet, for some reason, they do talk that way—and, more frequently, write that way—in the corporate environment.

My question is: Why? Where do all these bad words come from? How do they catch on so quickly at so many companies? Why do so many otherwise normal people feel so comfortable using them in conversation, and writing them in e-mails?

I put this question to a colleague of mine, a writer and editor who would cut off his fingers before he ever wrote the words “core competencies” or “low hanging fruit.” And his answer was interesting.

“You know how Father Flanagan of Boys Town said, ‘There’s no such thing as a bad boy?’” my friend said. “Well, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a bad word, either. All words are good . . . but some of them are just overused, misused, and otherwise abused by people in the corporate environment.”

It’s an interesting viewpoint. And as I thought about it, I started to agree with him.

Bad words are like bad kids . . . they don’t start out bad, but they turn bad quickly.

I’m reminded of the two popular characters in the movie, “The Breakfast Club.” You know, the jock played by Emilio Estevez and the popular princess played by Molly Ringwald.

You knew these types of kids in high school. Very popular . . . and very shallow. Maybe they were once nice kids, but they became so popular that they forgot how to behave. They are invited to all the parties, and everybody wants them around. And as such, they get big heads, and they lose their sense of self. They think they need to be all things to all people, and because of that they become incredibly superficial.

And the more superficial they become, the more popular they become. And the more popular they become, the more superficial they become. It’s a vicious cycle that never ends.

I think that’s what happens with many corporate words, too. There’s nothing inherently bad about words like Synergy, Proactive, World Class, and Paradigm. Once, long ago, they actually meant something. They were useful, once. But they’ve become so popular that they simply don’t mean anything anymore.

We’ve overused them, misused them, and basically sucked any meaning out of them whatsoever. Let’s look at some of these Molly Ringwald words and see if we can figure out where they went wrong.

World Class. I once reviewed the communication vehicles of a large financial services company. Scattered throughout all their materials—internal and external—was the phrase “World Class.” Their analysts were World Class. Their products were World Class. Their devotion to service was World Class.

So I asked the communicator to define “World Class.” “What,” I said to her, “does it actually mean?”

And she couldn’t tell me.

“So why use it so much?” I asked. “Surely there are better, more specific words you can use to actually describe your products and services?”

And that’s when she told me her little secret.

“The lawyers like us to use World Class because it really doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “If we say something like ‘best in the industry’ or ‘top performing’ then they want us to be able to prove that . . . and we can’t always do that. So we just use ‘World Class.’”

In other words, if you want to say something is really good but can’t point to any specific reason why it’s so good, call it World Class. It’s a way of saying you’re the best without having to prove it.

Synergy. This is a word that actually held quite a bit of meaning, at one time. It was initially used during a merger or takeover, to talk about how the two companies together would be stronger than they were apart.

But once it got out there, it got really popular really fast, and people started using it to describe everything from projects and products to initiatives and corporate cultures.

I once read a CEO column where the guy (or the communicator who wrote the column) actually used

Bad words2

800 words to talk about the company’s “Culture of Synergy.”

Now, it’s what I call an “eye glazer word.” As soon as you read it, your eyes begin to glaze over, and you lose interest in whatever it is that you are reading.

Proactive. Again, this was once a useful word. If you were proactive, you were ahead of the game, creating change rather than just reacting to it. You were strategic. You were forward thinking. You were proactive!

Now? Well, I once read an article in a company newsletter that talked at great length about “Proactive Goal Setting.” Wouldn’t all goal setting, by its very nature, be proactive?

I also once read an article about a company restructuring, where the CEO felt the need to call it “a proactive restructuring.”

Did he really think that if he left out “proactive” and just called it a “restructuring” that employees would then assume it was some kind of half-assed, reactive restructuring?

Bandwidth. This word also used to have a very specific meaning. It was used by IT guys to get out of doing any actual work. Here’s how it would work:

Communicator: “Mr. IT person, can we please put a short video on the home page of the intranet, where our CEO explains the concept of having a Synergistic Culture, and explains the process behind our Proactive Restructuring?”

IT Guy: No can do. Don’t have the bandwidth.”

But somewhere along the way, someone decided that bandwidth could be a good excuse for getting out of any kind of work!! Here’s how it works now:

Corporate Manager: “Sally, can you pull together a report on the Anderson account by next Tuesday? I need to present it at the quarterly sales meeting.”

Marketer: “Sorry Bob, I am up to my ears on the Radcliff account. I just don’t have the bandwidth to take on any more work right now. Why don’t you ask Jim? He just finished the Halloran account and should have the bandwidth to take on another project.”

As I said earlier, none of the above words is inherently bad. They’re just too popular. They are too shallow. If everything is World Class, then nothing is World Class. If we assign the word Synergy to anything relating to two or more things coming together, it loses all meaning.

And when we insert the word Proactive into any sentence when we want to sound like we’re really on our game, it becomes a very superficial word with little substance.

And when it comes to these and all the other bad words, I only have one question: Can they be rehabilitated? If we stop using them for a while, will they regain their meaning? If we stop abusing them, can they one day add value to our communications again?

Father Flanagan would no doubt say yes. Me? I’m not so sure. I think once a word turns bad, we’ve lost it forever.

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Do your internal communications match your external brand?



cat mirror


They should, and the only way to find out if they are is to get out and have conversations with the people you’re trying to reach

You have a kick-ass website that really resonates with your target audience. It reflects your brand: cool, hip, a bit irreverent and modern. In fact your marketing efforts have won awards!

Communicators … high fives all around, right? Well … not so fast.

Here’s the deal. Only your employees can actually bring your brand to life in the eyes of your audience. You can have the best website and award winning marketing efforts, but they mean nothing if your internal brand doesn’t match up.

This was the situation at Houlihan’s restaurants. They nailed their brand … at least externally. Internally … well, not so much. To their credit, they recognized the gap.

That’s when we got the call to work on a really fun project. The goal:  help them with their internal training materials. When we started the project, this is what their funky, cool award-winning website looked like:

Screenshot 2014-04-07 15.12.12

And this is what their internal training materials for employees looked like:

Screenshot 2014-04-07 15.19.25

Antiquated. Old-fashioned. Walls of text. Just plain boring.  Lots of jargon. In other words, like just about every other company in their industry.

You can see how see how dangerous this situation is. They’re in the business of selling not only food—but a complete dining and drinking experience. The materials they use to build that experience looked like they came from the 1950s – certainly not the way to get your employees onboard and ready to deliver the hip, cool and fun vibe you’re selling.

The fact of the matter is the line between external and internal communications is blurred, if not erased all together. Thanks to social media, anyone and everyone can spread the word about how good or bad you are in seconds.

You’ve got to get it right and make sure your internal communications match your external brand. You’ve got to make sure your employees not only work according to your brand and values but they reflect your brand and values.

So, how did we start the transformation? First, we listened. This was the crucial element of this project. We started by talking to employees and leaders throughout the organization.

We had them tell us what was working and what wasn’t. What did they love the most about their jobs? What was most challenging? How did they use the current training materials? In a perfect world, what would the training program look like? What kind of people are hired at Houliahan’s? What would the perfect candidate for a position look like?

The answers and insights to these questions were pure gold. When you look at the old materials, anyone could go in and just edit the copy. That part was easy. The trick was to understand the program, the culture and the business so we could bring the training program to the next level, not just update the materials.

There were three major ‘A-ha’ moments after we talked to the Houlihan’s employees:

  1. Clearly a good explanation of the culture and personality was missing from the training materials. Dry, corporate canned copy along with some pretty boring graphics wasn’t getting the job done.
  2. There was too much stuff. Most of the trainers and managers didn’t even use half of the materials given to them. They literally cherry picked the pages (out of hundreds of pages of information available to them) that they actually used and basically built their own training structure. The rest of it just sat on the shelf, collecting dust.
  3. There wasn’t enough about sales. Outside of serving, one of the most important responsibilities a server has in any restaurant is to sell more food and drinks. After reviewing over a thousand pages of training materials, not only was the sales aspect of the job not highlighted, it was completely absent.

We completely blew up the training pieces they had and we simplified. Hundreds of pages were cut from the training materials and put online for additional reference. We updated the copy to match their brand, culture and demographic. We paid attention to the graphics, and made them just as important as the words themselves.

We also created two pieces: A culture piece and a sales piece. These are the foundation of their training program and really help trainers introduce the Houlihan’s culture and explain the experience that the servers are expected to deliver.


Culture Piece (click for a closer look):

Screenshot 2014-04-07 15.24.03

New design by Collision Labs


Sales Piece (click for a closer look):

Screenshot 2014-04-07 15.27.13

Most important, we changed the tone and style of the writing. We went from “corporate” to “creative.” We got hip. We spoke the language of the employees we were trying to reach.

The writing became more conversational, more relaxed, and easy to skim and still hit the main messages.

In short, working with the talented folks in Houlihan’s marketing and communications departments, we helped create a new internal “voice” for Houlihan’s. One that employees would identify with and pay attention to.

But before we ever started writing, before we ever started swapping drafts with the Houlihan’s folks, we listened. Changing the training materials wasn’t just about good copywriting. We first had to understand the culture.

That’s something every communicator should remember. In order to reach, engage, motivate, and educate your employees, and help build an internal culture that matches your external brand,  you first have to listen to your audience.

And then ask yourself: Do the communication pieces you create support what you’re trying to do? Does your internal voice reflect your brand, your desired culture, and the people you’re trying to reach?

If not, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. If you’re struggling with this, it’s time to get out of that cube and start talking to people at all levels in the organization.

Then, and only then, can you make the adjustments necessary to get noticed. And getting noticed is half the battle.


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Great Writing is built on specificity

Great writing is built on specificity

By Steve Crescenzo

Organizational leaders love to talk about “the big picture.” They love to talk about the view from 30,000 feet.”

Why? Because that’s where they live. They sit up there on the corporate version of Mount Olympus, and hurl communication thunderbolts down upon the masses in the form of executive letters, columns and memos.

And all of those communications represent the view from 30,000 feet, because that’s often the only view the executives see. And that’s fine. People need to see that bigger picture. They need to see the larger perspective, and understand how the various components fit together.

We’re not denying that the view from 30,000 feet is an important one. But at some point, corporate writers need to strap on a parachute and get their butts down to the ground level, because that’s where the action is.

Great writing is built on specificity. And there’s very rarely any specificity when you only look at something from 30,000 feet. Everything is kind of . . . blurry.

The classic CEO column in most employee publications is a great example of this. In the column, the CEO might talk about six or seven important projects or topics . . . but he’ll just touch on them. He might give an update, or mention that “the team” is doing great work. And then, in his mind, the job is done.

But for the communicator, the job is only beginning. Let’s say the CEO mentions that “The ongoing initiative to restructure the supply chain is proceeding according to plan, and the Six Sigma team assigned to the task is on schedule for a February rollout of the new system.”

That’s a nice big-picture update. Just what you’d expect from the CEO.

But now it’s time to tell the story. It’s time to put boots on the ground where the action is. It’s time to talk to some of those Six Sigma black belts who are actually doing the work. What problems have they faced? What has been their biggest challenge? What will success look like? How will it affect individual employees? How will it affect the company as a whole?

On the ground level, we’re looking for examples and anecdotes and specifics and drama and people. We’re looking for stories! And you can’t see those stories from 30,000 feet.


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Bar Charts don’t equal an infographic


Gotta call it

Sigh … it seems that too often, left to themselves organizations will always create bad, boring content. In our Creative Communications case study in this issue, we  showed you how an infographic can be a creative and powerful way to tackle a complicated topic. But, that’s because it was well thought out and designed.

Just because you have bar charts doesn’t mean you have an infographic. Don’t do creative communications just to do it. Just like any other story you put together, infographics need to be thought out and well planned. Otherwise, the result is … well you know.

Bad Teacher Infographic


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What is the communicator’s role in engagement?

While some companies spend thousands of dollars on useless “engagement surveys” smart communicators do their own thing to drive employee engagement

This month, I’m giving a speech in Warsaw, Poland on the communicator’s role in employee engagement. And make no mistake: I believe a strategic, creative communications team do a lot to drive employee engagement.

But where I’m skeptical is how folks then turn around and measure that engagement level. And I’m also skeptical about what some companies think engagement really is.

In the communications biz, we throw the word “engagement” around a lot. We’re always trying to figure out if our workforce is “highly engaged,” or “somewhat engaged” or “disengaged” or some other kind of engaged.

But the problem that none of the high-priced engagement consultants want to admit is, it’s really, really hard to tell if an employee is engaged in his work, and in the company as a whole.

Supposedly, these consultants, like Gallup, have ways of telling. They do intensive, incredibly expensive surveys, and ask magic questions (such as, “Do you have a best friend at work?” and “Do you feel your coworkers do great work?”) that will reveal the level of someone’s engagement.

Which is all bullshit, of course. Because you can’t tell anything from a survey like that. Here’s an example:

Let’s say that you are a male employee in a manufacturing environment. And let’s say that you are having a torrid sex affair with a female coworker.

It’s a scenario everybody should be allowed to experience once in their lives: sex at work!

And you have all kinds of cool code words and phrases with your coworker/lover.

For instance, if you say: “I’m going to get a bagel. Do you want one?” It really means:

“Grab the grease gun and go wait for me in the janitor’s closet.”

And, “Where are you going for lunch?” really means:

“Go in the tool shed and take off everything except your hard hat and your boots.”

And all kinds of cool stuff like that.

So you’re having sex two or three times a day, while you’re supposed to be working? And why can you do that? Because you’re not really doing any work! In addition to screwing your coworker, you’re also screwing the pooch on any one of a number of projects.

And how can you get away with this? Because your boss doesn’t give a shit! He’s been on the job forever, and he’s just treading water until retirement. On top of that, he’s a raging alcoholic who suffers from back-breaking, mind-crushing hangovers every morning, up until 11:30, when he goes to lunch for two hours and drinks seven beers.

Then, in the afternoon, he sits at his computer and plays with the stock market.

Now, let’s say you’re that employee who is having sex on the job rather than working. And now, the annual “Engagement Survey” comes in. You’ve got to answer all these questions about your boss.

What would you do? I know what I would do . . . I’d give the son of a bitch the highest ratings I possibly could, that’s what! Because if I grade him low, they’re going to make him actually work! And I don’t want that!

If you think this is unrealistic, you’ve never heard of the “Mark Five to Survive” mentality. I first heard about it when I was doing some focus groups for a large company that did this kind of engagement survey every year. In the group, I asked the participants about it.

“Oh, yeah,” said one woman. “We call that the ‘write five to survive’ survey.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked, in my best focus-group-moderator voice.

“It means if you just give the manager all fives across the board, they’ll leave you alone,” she told me. “If you give him lower ratings, they’re going to start messing with you.”

Of course they are! Who wants someone from corporate to come nosing around, trying to fix your work group when it isn’t broken to begin with?

That’s why I’m so suspicious of those engagement surveys.

Now, I’m not saying communicators can’t do a whole lot to influence engagement. That’s what I’ll be talking about in Warsaw.

There are tons of things communicators can do to drive engagement . . . and none of them have to do with expensive engagement surveys that can be misleading at best, and completely off base at worst.

Next month, I’ll talk about some of the ways communicators can influence engagement. So stay tuned.


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Planning Strategy Quick Tip

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when it’s time to write a communication plan. Cindy Crescenzo shares an idea to help you create a plan that is relevant and realistic.


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Infographics are a great way to get the attention of people who have no attention spans anymore

A lot of information in a small package

Infographics are a great way to get the attention of people who have no attention spans anymore

Infographics are taking the corporate communication world by storm.

As attention spans get smaller and smaller, communicators are struggling with how to present complex information in easy-to-digest formats. And a good infographic can often be the answer.

Lori MacKenzie and her creative team of communicators and designers who work for the city of Aurora in Colorado, found this out when faced with the challenge of trying to communicate the city’s total compensation plan to employees.

They wanted employees to understand that total compensation goes a lot further than just salary—and also show them how the city’s compensation plan compared with other organizations in the Aurora area.

Employee compensation posterTo capture all that information and convey it an easy-to-understand format, she partnered with HR to get the data, and then graphic artists to come up with the design. Though it’s too early for any hard measurement numbers, she has gotten great anecdotal feedback from people who appreciated the information and the way it was presented.

LHF asked Lori a few questions about the process, and the lessons she learned.

LHF:  What was the creative process like? Did you provide an outside agency with the data, and they came up with the infographic? Or did you do it in-house?

LM: Everything was done in house from start to finish—including printing. Our communications team met initially with human resources to get the data and then we worked with our graphic artists to brainstorm and come up with the creative design.

LHF: Do you have any measurement numbers on whether or not it worked? Even anecdotal evidence? What kind of feedback did you get?

LM: We don’t have hard numbers, but we did receive feedback. Employees definitely read the information and found the format to be eye-catching. A few employees who are unhappy about the fact that raises have been minimal for many years didn’t like the fact that we were pointing out the total value of their compensation package, but at least we know they read it.

LHF: Why did you do it? How did you know there was a need for this information?

LM: As I mentioned, salary increases have been fairly slim (or non-existent) for many years. However, at the same time, the city has continued to absorb increased costs for our health care benefits. We are also fortunate to have paid vacation time and sick leave, and a solid defined benefit retirement plan. There was a need to help employees truly understand the entire value of their compensation package, and not just their salary.

LHF:  Why the infographic approach, instead of the standard article/poster/brochure? And where did this appear? How did people see it?

LM: We had some success with a report to the public we produced earlier in the year as an infographic. We thought it was important to do something like that for our employees that cut through the clutter of standard internal memos and handouts. We printed posters that were hung in all employee break rooms at all of our facilities throughout the city. We also posted the piece on our employee intranet.

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