I and Thou
You can write with joy, efficiency, clarity, kindness, and style… while you support your organization’s image and reinforce its brand… or you can bumble along, communicating awkwardly, putting off writing tasks or paying people like me $60 an hour or more to do them for you.
Whether you are writing to
- tell a story,
- answer a question, or
- solve a problem,
if you begin with respect for your reader (or listener), the job is half done. It really is that simple.
The flip side of helping is hostile. I’m not going to use this space to explain why we don’t need more hostility in the world or why companies perceived as hostile tend not to thrive. Let’s agree to agree on those points and move on.
You keep your readers at arm’s length—or worse, put them off altogether—by being
I have been asked, as a marketer, to be all these things—to concoct a stew of jargon, half-truths, smoke, and superlatives and feed it to a skeptical public—usually to sell a product or service that was touted as “exciting” but barely achieved “ordinary.” In my experience, through dozens of marketing campaigns, we were more successful when our promises were realistic and our products were outstanding.
Tell the truth
I have sat in on a least a dozen meetings whose purpose was to design the message that callers hear when they are placed on HOLD. In these meetings, very little attention was given to the text. We spent much more time listening to different speakers and registering our opinions: Should the voice be masculine or feminine? High or low? Soothing or animated? How many different messages should we record? Should there be music between them? What genre? Jazz? What sort of jazz? Be-bop? Cool jazz? Swing?
While we were parked in meetings, minutely critiquing various voices (Too squeaky. Sounds angry. Slight lisp), we failed to notice that the message itself was plainly, obviously, patently a lie. We knew it was a lie, because if it were not a lie there would be no need for it, no justification for its existence, no meetings to evaluate tonal qualities and calculate the optimal length of time between repetitions.
What was that message?
Your call is important to us
I heard this message at least thirty times just this morning, during two calls to the optical department at Shopko. A few months ago I got a new prescription for bifocals. Last week I received the frames I ordered from eBay. I called my regular eye clinic about filling the prescription, but the optician told me that my insurance is no longer accepted there. “Try Shopko,” he suggested.
Called Shopko, spoke with Stacey, and learned that Shopko would indeed fill my prescription, at no charge. Hurray. Open seven days a week. Hallelujah.
Darn! Forgot to ask whether I needed an appointment. Called back. Stacey must have gone to lunch and everyone else was evidently “busy helping other customers,” because I was placed on HOLD. Not to worry, though. My call was important to them.
My call was, in fact, so significant that they felt compelled to tell me so every ten or twelve seconds. Due to a glitch in the recording, sometimes two voices at once told me how much they cared. Call me cranky, but after five or six repetitions, the more times they told me I was important, the less important I felt.
The missing link
After all, I thought my call was important to CenturyLink last week, when I reported that my Internet connection wasn’t working. I spent the better part of four days on HOLD with CenturyLink, and they told me my call was important to them, too—although they wouldn’t mind at all if I were to hang up and conduct my business online. I’d still be important.
The first automated voice you hear when you call CenturyLink is probably familiar to anyone who has had a “land line” in the past twenty years. I call the voice “Kirk,” because he sounds like someone whose name might be “Kirk”—wholesome fellow, crew cut, recent college graduate who was vice president of his fraternity and the one male cheerleader on the squad. When I call CenturyLink, Kirk always answers, just as he did when I called Century Link’s predecessors, Qwest and US West.
Kirk is on duty 24/7, and I think the long hours are taking their toll, because when I finally get through to a human representative and my call gets dropped—which happens fairly often—and then I call back, Kirk remembers nothing from our earlier conversation and I have to start at the beginning.
Even though I pushed “2” for “internet repair” as instructed, Kirk urged me to take advantage of CenturyLink’s “automated options” available at centurylink.com, replete with advantages, such as (a) no waiting, and also (b) no waiting. “Kirk,” I say, a little sternly, “you’re not paying attention.”
In the course of more than two dozen phone calls over four days, I was given these assurances:
Statement / Repetitions
Your call is important to us / 96
We’re sorry you’re having this problem / 21
We’ll solve the problem immediately / 10
They threw thousands of words at me, with content meant to reassure, but the context said otherwise. Eventually I got connected to Sean, and my call was important enough to him that when we got disconnected he called me back, and he had excellent news: A human repair person would come to my home the very next morning.
As kind and helpful as Sean was, I was not inclined to believe him, but I got up early, dusted the modem and the shelf it sits on, and cleaned the bathroom, just in case. At 10:30, just as I was calling CenturyLink to report a no-show, there was a knock at the door. Could it be…? It was! CenturyLink Human Repair Guy Mike was standing in the hall, brandishing his tools and looking competent. Within ten minutes, the problem was solved and I was back online, nominating Mike for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Twitter: Nobody home
Companies such as CenturyLink pay marketing firms great sums of money in an exercise called branding. They develop graphics, taking great care with fonts and logos, labels and emblems, ads and promotions. They want to be perceived as sleek and modern, high-tech, state-of-the-art, competent, efficient… or warm and friendly, accessible, “service-oriented.” Whatever style they want to project is incorporated in their visuals… but all it takes is one customer’s experience with a disgruntled employee to erase the desired perception and replace it with “snarly.” Brand identity is reinforced or undermined not only by how customers are treated but also by employee satisfaction and the company’s relationships with its vendors and strategic partners.
As damaging to your brand as an owlish employee can be, even worse is no interaction at all. If a company makes no one accessible to outsiders, that company is making a statement: We don’t like you, we don’t care about you, now go away and let us get back to our geekery.
Mark my words
I want to go on record with my prediction that the social-media phenomenon Twitter is not long for this world. The folks at Twitter have better things to do than talking to you about their screw-up with your account. If you’re going to have a problem with Twitter, it had better slide neatly into one of six or seven common categories, such as “can’t log in” or “forgot my username.” Otherwise, Twitter customer service consists of a very short loop. If your question isn’t answered on the page you’re routed to, they send you back to the list of ordinary problems that aren’t yours.
If, out of desperation, you choose “my hashtags aren’t working”—just so they’ll give you space amounting to one hundred and forty characters to explain that hashtags aren’t really your problem, it’s that your account has gotten tangled up with someone else’s and when you post to Twitter your tweets show up on the other person’s Twitter feed—then Twitter emails you instructions for the proper use of hashtags.
In more than an hour spent scouring the Web for advice from people with a similar dilemma—and they are legion—I learned that it is virtually impossible to talk to or even chat online with an actual Twitter representative. There is, however, a small industry developing around Twitter’s arrogant unhelpfulness: Starting at $20, some enterprising individual, presumably with inside information, will try to get Twitter’s attention. It strikes me as being a little like asking one of the lesser-known saints to intercede for you because God’s busy elsewhere. Twitter, are you listening?