By Susan de la Vergne
I was driving through Northern California a few weeks ago and was just outside of Stockton, near Sacramento, when I realized something was seriously wrong with my car. What had been an occasional problem shifting gears in my little five-speed manual was suddenly no longer an occasional problem. The car had become absolutely unshiftable.
I managed to limp off the freeway and slide into a Chevron station. I pulled out my cell phone to call a tow truck…and realized I had no idea where, exactly, I was. So I went inside the Chevron station and waited while the lone man behind the cash register finished what he was doing. Then he looked straight at me, and I said, “My car just died and I need to call a tow truck. Where am I?” To which he replied, “Pump number?”
It’s easy to think he was a disconnected airhead just going through the motions. Could be. But I know I’ve done the same thing myself — asked a question about something that was clearly explained in a sign right in front of me I didn’t read.
It’s more likely that the man at the gas station is, like the rest of us, so overwhelmed by the number of messages that come at him — constantly! — that he just glazed over. When yet another message comes our way, we often do that. We duck, deflect, ignore, assume — anything to keep from having to process another bit of news.
We’re bombarded by messages — by some credible accounts, more than 3,000 a day. If you don’t believe it, look around you. How many signs, ads, branding symbols, notes, book titles, pop-ups, email notifications (ding!) are coming at you right now? Take a stroll down a grocery aisle and inventory the labels, signage, t-shirt messages, and even blaring TV infomercials that are all vying for your attention.
No doubt you expect that work-related messages and information get a higher priority than labels and t-shirts. But even if that’s the case, there’s still a noise level surrounding us all the time that even the worthiest business communication struggles to surmount.
We need to penetrate the din. But how? If you were to listen to advice from marketing (and please don’t), you’d be repeating and restating yourself, exploiting every online outlet, basically doing anything to make yourself loud enough to be heard.
That makes some sense for marketing, but not for you. You want people to pay close attention to your content. You’re not just asking them to respond to branding or connect with the company and its products. You want your audience to get close to technical detail, to connect strategy with discovery, and to apply technical expertise to the vagaries of planning and risk management. That requires a different approach.
Penetrating the Din: Three Techniques
First, intercept inattention. Knowing that it’s likely your audience is on overload, intentionally redirect them from their glazed-over state to your message. For example, I could have intercepted the gas station guy’s inattention by saying, “Hi. I don’t need gas. I have a totally different request,” to which he’d have either said, “Huh?” or “What do you need?” Either way, I’d have intercepted his inattention. Then when I asked for the station’s address, he wouldn’t have asked me what pump I wanted gas from.
Let’s leave the gas station and head into the meeting room. Let’s say you walk into a meeting, ready to present project status to a roomful of stakeholders. Everyone is late getting to the meeting, including you, and you have only 30 minutes anyway, and almost everyone’s attention is elsewhere — checking phones, looking at laptop screens, or staring around, vaguely distracted. You could just plunge in and display the updated Gantt chart and hope for the best, or you could intercept their inattention by doing or saying something designed to shake them by the shoulders a little (figuratively, of course).
If I were leading that meeting, I’d intercept their inattention by doing absolutely nothing. Instead, I’d let everyone’s attention wander around the room aimlessly for a minute or two (what’s another minute when we’re already off to a late start?) until they noticed the silence and inactivity. That’d intercept their inattention!
Or I’d say something they didn’t expect — “Did you know that multitasking is overrated?” or “This project is going to save the company $10 million and I’ll show you how” when everyone knows this project can’t possibly do that. Anything to tune them in before plying them with yet another PowerPoint presentation.
Second, freshen up! Nothing inspires glaze-over more than dull, tired, overused ways of saying things. I know I’ve said that before in this column, but repetition is good for the soul: stale, trite language disengages your audience. How many times can we “peel the onion”? How many things can we “wrap our heads around”? Does “rubber meets the road” make you think of anything rubbery or road-like? The first time you heard it, probably so. The tenth or hundredth time, not. Every single one of these phrases probably leaves you tepid: Boots on the ground, the $64,000 question, two cents, all over the map, drink the Kool-Aid. Or how about touching base when we circle back at the end of the day?
One way to shake loose from these tired conventions is just to change one word. How about if we put slippers on the ground, ask the $4.98 question, and put in our two quarts?
The point is, if you’re trying to be heard above the rest of the noise, don’t sound like the rest of the noise.
Finally, keep it lean. Leave out superfluous words. They just murk up your message and leave your already-overloaded listener/reader with the added job of trying to figure out what you’re getting at. Just get to the point.
An example of the superfluous:
To determine the necessary steps to perform in order to facilitate a successful conclusion, we will conduct a meeting of selected experts.
(I glazed over just writing that.)
The lean version:
We will consult experts and ask them what steps to take.
I don’t know whose idea it was that business communication must be convoluted or it’s not presentable. Nothing could be further from the truth! Just be direct and straight —especially important when you’re trying to get your message both heard and across.
“Verbiage” – Please, No!
That sample of superfluous writing above is an example of “verbiage,” a word that means extraneous, unnecessary, evasive language. It’s unfortunate that “verbiage” has in recent years become a popular word in the workplace — “add some verbiage here” and “put more verbiage there,” as if that were a good thing. Verbiage is bad writing. So the next time someone you’re working with offers to “add some verbiage to this part of the document,” beg him not to. “Verbiage” doesn’t just mean words or text; it means an overabundance of poorly chosen words. If there’s one thing business writing does not need, it’s that.
The Noise Level Persists
Because the noise level isn’t going to be dropping any time in the near future, effective writers and speakers are simply going to have to find ways to communicate in spite of it. Ignoring it won’t work, I’m afraid. Instead, expect that the many messages surrounding us all the time will continue to distract your audience and interfere with what you’re trying to accomplish.
Anticipate, then intercept inattention. Once you have their attention, freshen up — use language that’s not tired and re-cycled. And once you’ve found those engaging terms, be direct. No padding. And please, whatever you do, no verbiage.