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The Deadly Sins of Corporate Communications - and How You Can Avoid Them

13/09/2013 14:00 BST | Updated 12/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Let's face it, corporate communications can be pretty awful. Advertising aside, much of it is dull, one-paced and riddled with jargon. But it has always been a mystery to me why that should be so. The people who write this stuff are almost always bright, educated and well-informed, but it seems that the minute many of them sit down at a computer screen a red mist of tired business-speak descends, and we end up with the same old same old: "It has been a challenging year", "We have made good progress against our strategic objectives"...

But it doesn't have to be like that. I've been toiling in this particular field for over 15 years, so here, for what it's worth, are five ways to avoid the deadliest - and dullest - sins of corporate communications.

1. Junk the jargon

There are two different culprits here - the under-thought and the over-used. The first, if you'll forgive me, is just plain laziness - there really is no excuse any more for the likes of 'leverage', 'deliver', 'behaviours' (plural) or 'platforms'. Unless, in the latter case, you happen to be First Great Western. And by the time Private Eye has devoted a whole column to the lampooning of a word like 'solutions', it's high time to ditch it altogether (my all-time personal favourite here was 'lingerie solutions'. That's knickers to you and me).

As for the second category, this can be all the more insidious because it so often starts with good intentions. People want a quick way to capture important ideas, and the result is phrases like 'vision and values' or 'core competencies'. The trouble is, these phrases are then repeated with such relentless and implacable monotony that they quickly lose whatever impact they might once have had. And as a result, the ideas themselves start to generate at best boredom, and at worst cynicism.

In most cases there's actually nothing wrong with the ideas - it's the language that's long past its sell-by date. So how about trying real words like 'ambition' or 'ethos' instead of obsolete ones like mission and values? After all, you'd never talk about 'core competencies' or 'strategic direction' down the pub - you'd say 'the skills we need' or 'where we're going'. In fact that's the best advice I can give on this one: start out by not writing anything at all; say it first. And then write that down.

2. Bin the spin

One definition of spin is 'selling when you should be telling', and it can bedevil corporate writing as much as the political variety. But these days we're all so over-exposed to the written word that we can sniff out insincerity at thirty paces: authenticity is at a very high premium.

So play it straight. Which means setting out the facts as clearly as possible and ensuring that the words themselves are straightforward, not sleight of hand. For example, far too much corporate communication falls back on the passive voice ('profits fell', 'sales suffered') as if it all happened by itself with no human agency involved. And the same goes for anything you draft for the Chairman or CEO: it's time for them to stop hiding behind the grammatical fig-leaf of the third person. All those in favour, say 'I'.

3. Find a distinctive voice

This is easy to say but very difficult to do. And yet we can all recognise a distinctive verbal style when we hear or read it. No-one would ever mistake a Delia Smith cookery book, say, for one by Jamie Oliver.

You need to find a way of writing that captures the character of your particular brand or business. But be warned, what I said just now about authenticity applies even more here. Your tone of voice needs to be a genuine reflection of who you are, not some construct of the marketing department or delusion of the executive board. Because if there's the slightest degree of disconnect you'll get found out, and those inside the company will spot it even quicker than those outside.

So don't go for a chatty streetwise style unless you're a genuinely chatty streetwise brand. There's nothing more instantly phoney than a big corporate monolith trying to talk like One Direction.

4. Tailor to your audience

You can only create a recognisable tone of voice if you're consistent in how you write, which can pose some practical challenges in a big organisation. But you also need to be able to adapt how you sound to the people you're talking to, and what you need to achieve. Writing for the City, for example, is very different from writing for employees. In the latter case you need to have a lot more passion and colour in your language, because without that you'll never fully engage them. Though in my experience most big companies are as wary of adjectives as they are of emotions, which is why so many employee newsletters and magazines are the linguistic equivalent of beige emulsion: impossible to object to - or be inspired by.

The City, by contrast, is a good example of the value of specialised language. The investor community has a vocabulary all its own, and you have to use that vocabulary with skill and precision if you're going to communicate effectively with this small but crucially important audience. But be careful of cut-and-paste syndrome: don't ever allow copy written for this group to leak out into more general material, because that's the moment when specialised language (a useful tool) turns into impenetrable jargon (anything but).

5. Tell a compelling tale

The most basic form of human utterance is the story. Primitive tribes use stories to share knowledge, create a sense of identity, and pass on the collective memory. Companies are the same - however good your induction processes are, it'll be the stories told round the water cooler that will teach the rookies what it's really like round here. And knowing that, you can harness the power of story in the official as well as the unofficial communications network.

So think about sequence and consequence. What's been decided and why, and what's going to happen as a result; where the company wants to go, and the challenges it's likely to face in doing that. After all, even an annual report is a story of sorts - battles fought, problems overcome, and victories achieved. It may not be Game of Thrones, but it doesn't have to be the EU Working Time Directive either.

It really is possible to produce corporate communications that actually communicate. It's not easy, and you'll be caught between the irresistible force of 'we've always done it this way', and the immoveable object of fifteen rounds of tedious approvals that will slowly bleach out any interest or readability your bold first draft might once have had.

But it's a fight worth fighting to take on the massed ranks of the bland, the bullsh*t, and the binned-before-reading. I should know. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, I used to write that awful stuff myself...