Working from one of our lovely clients’ offices this week, I was both amused and surprised to spot this sign as I walked through a set of wooden doors:

 
 

So surprised was I, in fact, that I stepped back to read it again – and promptly stood on the toes of the person behind me.

After a (very British) set of apologies exchanged on both sides – for something that was entirely my fault – I went on my way, but for the rest of the day the wording of this sign tickled me. It seemed to me to be a perfect illustration of a problem that I’ve encountered more than once throughout my career in marketing, and I’m sure it’s one you’re familiar with too – that of using words, but not actually communicating the important meaning which they intend to deliver.

Let’s break the issues with this poor, simple sign down, shall we?

  1. You can’t tell from the photo, but this sign was high up. Really high up. I’m quite tall for a woman, but even so it wasn’t in my eye line – I’d have needed another half a foot in height to properly be eye-level with it. Which is why it perhaps isn’t surprising that it has taken me three separate visits to this particular client’s office to notice it at all – despite it being stuck to almost every door in the building, I now realise.
     
  2. The wording. Oh, the wording. This sign was definitely written by someone who would never call a spade a spade when (to quote Bill Bryson) they could call it a manual earth-restructuring implement instead. Vision panel? Personnel? No. I despair.
     
  3. And speaking of wording – how about the wordiness? Think about how long you usually take to walk through a door. Now think about how long it takes you to read twelve unfamiliar, not-particularly-large-print words – and this whilst walking, and simultaneously trying not to smack into the very object the sign is telling you to beware of. I’d wager that even if you could read the whole sign in the time it took you to negotiate the door, you would not then also have the opportunity to check through the ‘vision panel’ about which the sign is so keen to alert you.

I could go on, but I won’t. “Poor little sign, what did it ever do to you, you big bully?” I hear the more anthropomorphically-inclined of my readers asking.

In actual fact, I’m very grateful to have spotted the warning, even if a colleague’s toes did get crushed in the process (Again – I’m sorry – J.G.). The placard provides me with a perfect illustration regarding communication, which is really pertinent to the internal comms work I’m doing at the moment for our client. A large part of the success of any decisioning project rests in the communication element – the technology transformation can only take us so far. The second key need is for us to be able to bring the rest of the organisation with us on the transformation journey – and sometimes they’ll come willingly, but sometimes it’s more of a voyage of suspicion where trust must be gradually won. In either circumstance, clear communication is absolutely crucial – whether it’s regarding our plan for the future, the new martech capabilities or the rationale behind the change.

However, in our industry, too often during major implementations internal comms become something of an afterthought in the rush to deliver the tech. We consultants work very closely with the immediate departments involved, day-in, day-out, and it’s easy for a shorthand to develop that the project team understands but that seems completely bamboozling for those not in the know.

When you go outside the immediate team to try to communicate strategy, often people you’re trying to explain concepts to will ask if they don’t understand something – but just as often they won’t. No one wants to risk looking stupid, particularly in front of colleagues, but that means it’s easy to assume everyone’s following you when in fact certain members of your audience are more perplexed than a goat trying to graze on astroturf (though hiding it better than the goat probably would). Perplexity leads to inaction, or worse, resentment; both total progress-killers. To keep moving forward, especially at pace, we have to communicate brilliantly, at all levels within an organisation – which brings me back to the sign, and the three lessons we can take from it:

  1. The sign was too high up. To be metaphorical for a moment, what level of detail is your audience ready for? Where do they need to get to, and how can you bridge the gap? It’s tough if there are different needs within one audience, of course (perhaps because some people have more experience, or differing roles) – but that’s not your audience’s problem to solve, it’s yours. Consider smaller sessions. Check with them in advance how ‘high’ their pre-existing awareness goes. Only then can you make most efficient use of the time without leaving people behind. Oh, and don’t assume your audience is just like you – I’d bet a good deal that the person who put the sign up for our client’s offices was a tall gentleman, who found where his eye-level was and affixed the placard accordingly. Even though his eye-level fell there, most of the rest of us are a little nearer the ground – as is often the case for a broader audience at the start of a transformation project. Start as low as needed, and work up.
     
  2. The words weren’t immediately clear. I expect the company that produced the signs do talk like this. It’s the same as describing a school as a ‘high-quality learning environment’, or a traffic warden as a ‘civil enforcement officer’. It is corporate speak – it makes those who use it feel good, because they talk the talk, they know the lingo. But the purpose that this sign is trying to fulfil is the exact opposite – communication should be inclusive, not exclusive; should bring others into our way of thinking, not keep them shut out because they are wondering (not to put too fine a point on it) what the hell we’re getting at. It’s always worth double-checking our communications for jargon – plain-speaking language is so much better, so much more compelling, and so much more effective at conveying meaning exactly where it’s needed.
     
  3. Lastly: the message was too long. When we’re communicating with people outside our immediate transformation project, we must not forget – their time is precious. We don’t always have long to grab and hold their attention. The onus is always primarily on a communicator to make the message engaging and relevant, not on the audience to commit every word to memory (even in a business context). It’s just my opinion, but I reckon I could improve the sign’s success rate by reducing by two-thirds the number of words used – from twelve, to four: “CAUTION: Is anyone there?” Granted, it gives the door perhaps a more plaintive air that the sign makers were going for – but it gets the message across. And before you’ve collided with the door, or the person on the other side of the ‘vision panel’…

On the subject of brevity, I should take my own advice. I’d say that all my learnings can boil down to one golden rule for communication, whether the comms relate to decisioning or any other subject: Our audience is in charge, which means we need to walk in their shoes. They are the arbiters of the success or failure of our martech-project-baby, which means when they give us their time to listen, we owe it to them to communicate, and to do it well.

Say what needs saying. Say it quickly, and clearly. And then stop (and take the excited, motivated questions which follow when we do our jobs right).


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Jenni Gill

Senior Consultant at Merkle|Comet

Jenni is a Senior Consultant for Merkle|Comet’s UK Strategy and Insights Team and holds an MSc in Creative Advertising. She has led Customer Experience and Digital Strategy projects across a diverse range of industries, from media to travel to financial services, and past clients include the BBC, First Group, Lloyds Bank, Aegon and AXA. Comet projects include the implementation of decisioning in the B2B space at Standard Life and assisting Royal London with a testing strategy for the business. In her spare time, Jenni acts as a freelance writer and editor.