Have you ever been in a situation where you take a step back and look at your company’s communication efforts and you feel that it’s just not very good — without being able to put your finger on exactly why?
In situations like this, most of us remain quiet. First of all, we have the fallacy of tradition; if your company’s been doing something for ages, then it must be working well. Secondly, we should all be careful of bringing up criticism when we don’t know exactly what’s wrong. Plus, as a communication professional yourself, you might have contributed substantially to whatever it is that’s now rubbing you the wrong way.
In this digital era of ours, it’s easy to get carried away by wanting everything to quantified. Instincts are not to be trusted, the paradigm suggests. While I agree with this approach in general, there are more to qualitative communication approaches than just “gut feelings”.
In corporate communication, there’s such a thing as a “textbook approach.” You can do everything by the book (as in “no-one will get fired over this”), but the output might still be poor. The communication might look good with delicate font-pairings and glossy tones, however, the actual messaging is often cringe-worthy. And, if you’re anything like me, you might find it fascinating that so many talented (and well-paid) people have amounted to something that is so bland.
What’s wrong here? Where did it go wrong? Or… are you just not seeing the emperor’s clothes? The actual problem, as it stands, is surprisingly basic.
Unlike many other creative professions, corporate communications have somehow phased out the importance of having great taste as an actual skill.
The ignorance of what constitutes great taste in communication is peculiar, because it’s not at odds with the textbook approach, the same approach that we in corporate communications love so much. We all have our tastes in everything from movies, music, and books to interior decorating, car design, and vacation spots. While our tastes generally differ, there will always be professionals with refined (and sometimes genius) tastes that are literally shaping the world around us.
But in corporate communications, we seem to have shun the idea of great taste in communication completely.
Having worked as a consultant with corporate communication, I’ve told CEOs that their strategies are plain wrong, I’ve told marketers that they’re hurting their brand from shortsightedness, I’ve told communicators that they’ve spent huge budgets on unnecessary activities. All of this has been quite okay — after all, my clients pay me to tell them the truth. However, tell a communications department that they have a poor taste in communication and you’re out faster than anyone can slam open the door to the main entrance.
In brighter moments, I think that all of this corporate cringe is because we’ve never really had this conversation. On darker days, I sometimes wonder about whether or not this could be the result of a industry-wide shortage of great taste.
From a personal perspective, I feel strongly about this. If your corporate communication is brimmed with platitudes and uninspired, stale, and corny phrasing — shouldn’t that matter? Each and every activity might be properly measured, but that doesn’t really mean much if such efforts aren’t compared to a baseline of communication activities that are… well, not corny?
You say that it works fine and that it moves your business forward, fine, but the way you speak to the world makes people cringe. Wouldn’t you want to know?
Now, this is where I turn into a coward. To make my message on corporate cringe clearer, I should include a number real-life examples to illustrate my point. But that’s the one single thing that I can’t do. As a corporate communications blogger, I can criticize everything from failed marketing campaigns to mistakes in crisis communications. But I can’t make a list of companies putting out corporate communication that is bland and cringe-worthy; it would likely make me an outcast.
However, I can explain what types of corporate cringe that I’m referring to:
1. Corporate communication that is exaggerated to the point of tone-deafness. “No, people aren’t really that happy on account of your existence. And they aren’t really that devastated ion account of the type of problems you solve.”
2. Corporate communication that makes ridiculous claims that no-one believes in anyway. “No, you’re not a leading-, revolutionary-, innovative-, or game-changing company. You’re only diluting our common language.”
3. Corporate communication that is unintentionally dorky. “No, it’s not cool — and it never will be — cool to say that you’re cool. That’s just not the way that works.”
4. Corporate communication that is using a sleazy marketing voice. “No, you didn’t just save the planet, so please stop patting yourself on the back so furiously.”
5. Corporate communication that is telling people what they think. “No, I’m not really loving your new products — and I think you should settle for ‘moderate enjoyment’ if truth is of any importance.”
6. Corporate communication that is simply trying way too hard. “No, screaming louder and making stronger and stronger claims won’t make me care more about what you’re saying. If you’re that great, why do you have to try so hard?”
7. Corporate communication with a bland tonality. “No, that doesn’t really reads the way you think it does; it reads as if it was written by uninspired middle-managers who somewhere along the way lost touch with reality.”
The way out of this dark tunnel of mediocrity and corporate cringe is straightforward:
If you have a colleague who happens to be blessed with a good taste in communication, let him or her have their say. If they aren’t afraid to put a stop to corporate cringe, they will. And you’ll all be better off for it.