Immigration

It’s an interesting set of metaphors being bandied about for the demographic explanation of technology adoption.

Technically, I fall into the “digital immigrant” category, solely based on the year of my birth. In today’s business climate, that could be viewed as somewhat unfortunate.

Unfortunate because the notion of “digital immigrant” versus “digital native” is one of ageism, simply masked as an assumption over technological understanding and adeptness.

A digital immigrant is deemed to be someone who grew up in an era wrought with questions over “how did you ever manage” and “were televisions really that big” (in terms of physical depth, not screen size). A digital immigrant is someone who, through the passing of time, was forced into accepting the integration of modern technology … apparently.

In surreptitious terms – old.

A digital native, naturally, is deemed to be someone who has grown up with technology, and incorporated as part of their very existence. Sort of, “what was the world like before they invented colour” and “what do you mean you had to get up and change the channel”.

In less than subtle terms – young.

As the son of an actual immigrant, I take offence to the associated belief that simply due to the year of my birth I’m somewhat technologically unable. And, as the “digital immigrant” father of two “digital natives”, I take offence over the assumption I’m somewhat technologically challenged because of my age. Even more so when I’m sitting in front of some newfangled piece of technological confoundery explaining how it works … to the digital natives.

The creator of the terms, Marc Prensky, has repeatedly had to roll back his initial perspective on digital “immigrant” versus “native” as more and more light was shone on the idea that it could be used as a method of ageism.

https://www.fastcompany.com/3059834/the-not-so-hidden-age-bias-in-recruiting-digital-natives

When we reflect on history, we can see that many a great country, and business, was built on the backs of immigrants. Through sweat and toil, they were the ones who broke ground and laid a foundation where no precedent had been set. They created, failed and succeeded without the YouTube DIY videos and Google.

Without immigration, there would no … us.

Of course, having recently spent a year as an actual immigrant – sort of a citizen with a flimsy claim to citizenship in the land of my ancestry – I had the opportunity to further experience what it was like to be discriminated against. Despite my ethnicity and passport, it was my accent that would be first met with disdain – but only until those with judgement in their hearts and ears learned that my nationality was not the one they suspected it to be. No, once discovering that my vocabulary was imbibed with “eh” rather than “huh”, I met with an embracing acceptance.

When we look at the rapidly evolving digital world, we need to recognize that the whole concept was built by the so-called digital immigrants – brilliant individuals who had no precedent to go on, developing technology that had no track record, or blueprint.

This was the generation (is the generation) that had to learn to adapt fast, and innovate even faster – and continues to do so today. Technology wasn’t something that was handed to them with a three-year unlimited texting and 5GB data plan, no questions asked. This was the generation that had to toil in the soil in order to make it that easy.

As executive vice president of Center for Human Capital Innovation Anne Loehr wrote in her Fast Company piece:

“Companies that advertise job openings for ‘digital natives’ may think they’re simply appealing to the most tech-adept candidates out there. But they aren’t. When an older worker – even someone in their late thirties – spots that term in a job listing, they’re likely to think applying is a waste of time. This is a loss for organizations.”

Cameron Wood

 

 

Why I hate “wordsmith”

There’s a trend out there, as people whose primary skill is the English language, to label one’s self as a “wordsmith.”

I hate that phrase.

Ok, maybe not “hate” … but as a personal rant, I feel it reduces the communication process to a transactional event, rather than reinforcing the importance we bring as professionals. It’s something I equate with the outrageous belief held by some business partners that communication professionals primary role in the marketing process is to take their content and “just make it pretty.”

Image result for blacksmith clipartAlthough in keeping with the current inclination toward trying to present how we all earn our living as being, somehow, more “hip,” the wordsmith label hardly begins to cover the value of what we bring to the world of communications.

There was a time, not long ago, when audiences weren’t as savvy as they are today. A time when corporate PR-stories-disguised-as-fact and news media hadn’t tainted readers’ impressions of messaging and turned everyone into a cynic. A time when “fake news” was reserved for the annual end-of-term comedic missive from the student newspaper staff.

In today’s world, our audiences are bombarded with messages, communications and call-to-actions at almost every turn during their waking day. From overflowing inboxes to constant yammering on social media, they have to navigate between what is important and what is noise.

While “wordsmith” to some implies a degree of literary craftsmanship, I believe we’re more than just writers in this era. I’m not here to metaphorically “put the shoe on your horse.” I’m here to help you understand what you really want is the “best of breed” – a beast that comes out of the gate strong, a runner that leaves the others far behind, and a champion that will go unmatched throughout its career.

As professional communicators, we need to be human psychologists, behavioural scientists and master strategists. Our business partners may think they only need us to deliver the written word, but we must constantly remind them of the valuable insight we provide on how our audience interprets what they read.

We need to know how to produce a message that will resonate and generate the action we want from the audience – and when we need to execute in order to produce those results. This goes beyond simply “make it sound right” and “make it pretty.”

In the grand scheme of things, what we produce is often the most significant contact the audience has with our organization. Their perception of what we have to offer is influenced dramatically not just by what is being said, but how it’s being said and how they interpret what is being said.

Wordsmithing sounds a bit too grandiloquent for the importance of what we do.

Cameron Wood

Splitting up with Justin

Ok, full transparency … I’m not even close to being a fan of our current Canadian Prime Minister. While I could go on at length over the many reasons why, my intention here is to not get into politics.

Without getting into the politics of politics, something popped up recently that I noticed. And for a miniscule shred of time, I felt sorry for Justin Trudeau.

Image result for frustrated Justin Trudeau"To be fair, there is a great school of thought in Canadian society that believes he is not a very strong communicator. There’s social post after social post highlighting some of his speaking gaffs and personal presentation habits (the ums, the uhs, the stopping short, etc.).

Now, to my point…

I had the opportunity to see a portion of some speaking notes that had been prepared for the PM to address an issue with Canadian government’s IT infrastructure. It’s somewhat well-known that our country has more than a few issues with the current technology – and the costs associated with repair and/or replacement. Just ask any federal civil servant about their payroll.

What caught my attention was this:

“The complex array of existing programs and services means that future program changes, to continue providing Canadians with programs and services they expect when interacting with their government, will need to account for pressure on legacy IT systems, which are facing rust-out and critical failure.”

No wonder people have less than admirable thoughts about his speaking abilities. I’m feeling like most of those pauses and verbal hesitations we criticize him for are because his tongue is trying to wrap around what his brain is reading.

Although covering the required technical elements – this statement is broken just as much as our IT systems. Frankly, it’s running on more than the Canadian relay team.

And while political speak is designed to baffle and beguile – it serves little justice to the individual having to make the statement.

“Rust-out” … seriously? The cynical side of me is somewhat willing to accept that the government actually owns and operates systems with high iron content, current steel tariffs aside.

But the writer of the above is also breaking the train of thought – the heart of the subject – with a misplaced addition in an effort to add context and connect an audience to the issue.

“…to continue providing Canadians with programs and services they expect when interacting with their government…”

Maybe the comms team felt it was important to draw Canadians onto the rusty floorboards of the issue? Perhaps Justin will be introducing a new program to remove iron stains and produce whiter whites?

How about more clarity and even flow – and not just for the sake of the PM’s communication reputation.

“Canada’s legacy IT systems are nearing critical failure (straight to the critical point, no weak analogy to corroded metal). To continue providing Canadians with programs and services they expect when interacting with their government (drawing in the taxpaying voters), future program changes (the political dosh shows up here) to the complex array of existing programs and services will need to account for pressure on those legacy systems (highlighting the risk of failure – and providing the government with a clear ‘out’ as to why future programs are not enhanced as promised).”

Like any leader, our Prime Minister is in the business of building trust. It might be just my little rant, but I’m not confident his communications team are focusing on that as much as they are clinging to the old school approach of bafflegab.

Cameron Wood

Do they really ‘get it’

There’s been an alarming trend over the past several years – or at least, alarming to the professional communications world:

Our audiences’ are losing their grip on reading comprehension.

It would be easy to point the finger at the multitude of technological devices and platforms we have at our disposal. Equally so, in some regions, it would be easy to suggest our academic environment is letting them down through standardization and teaching to the level of the lowest intellect in the group.

But regardless (an aside – just for fun I was almost tempted to say ‘irregardless’) of all the reasons why literacy is in decline – including some of the blame on us in the communications business – it’s still important to fully understand where our audience is at in terms of “getting it.”

Image result for literacy clipart"Studies show most of the people we reach with our work have a Grade 8 level of literacy. This is generally where most standard writing in our lives tends to sit – popular novels, newspapers, websites, etc. The Huffington Post is said to deliver content at a Grade 7 level of comprehension, for example. Think about it terms of simplistic sentence structure. Add to that, the idea of shorter phrases and simpler vocabulary.

A lot of communications professionals will have heard the phrase “plain language” in their careers, and hopefully managed to control their recoil in dismay. But what all this means is that “plain language” is going to hit at a level most of the audience is going to understand. It’s going to focus on delivering that message at the Grade 8 reading level.

We’ve all encountered corporate-speak, and the insidious habit some managers have of using words and convoluted structure to sound as if they are coming from a few job grades higher than where they actually sit on the corporate food chain. Or legal doctrines wrought with archaic expressions and multisyllabic words designed to baffle and beguile.

A lot of the work I do is in the financial services sector. It’s an area where communications professionals need to compress complex concepts into easy-to-understand messages. It’s a challenge when you consider most of what we’re doing is asking people to give us money for an almost intangible product. Investments, insurance and benefits are not items a consumer can hold, like a new cell phone or snazzy outfit. We ask people to buy a vision – an idea of a better, healthier life in the future.

It’s important to understand where your audience is at in terms of understanding the complexity of these transactions – and not just from a compliance and transparency perspective. The challenge in this, is also trying to convince your business partners of the need to position messaging to meet that comprehension level.

For folks like us, this is just another way in which we bring real value to the task at hand. We need to know how our work is being received by the audience, and what measurements are in place to continually find success with getting them to understand and act accordingly.

Of course, you may have caught on by now that my personal writing style tends to be a bit more … verbous. But, as a “crotchety old guy” with an English degree, I also see it as a personal mission to ensure some higher degree of language survives in the great dumbing down of the 21st Century.

Cameron Wood

A great resource:

“Developed by Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid, the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores are the most widely used measures of readability … For most business writing, a score of 65 is a good target, and scores between 60 and 80 should generally be understood by 12 to 15 year olds.”

https://www.webfx.com/tools/read-able/flesch-kincaid.html

North star? We’re not sailors

As a communications professional in a large corporation, it’s safe to say, I never knew what was going to land in my inbox for repair and rewrite.

In my career, I’ve had the benefit – and occasional misfortune – of being exposed to those dear executives who are truly lovely people and inspirational leaders but have a challenging sense of how to communicate with people on a broad, organizational sense.

You know the ones I’m talking about: the leaders who love to confuse and befuddle with corporate-speak that discloses almost no comprehensive information – as if they’re afraid of either misspeaking or disclosing too much information. The content offered up when they’re pressed leans towards the non-committal, safe and free from any substance that may be held up as “fact” should a debate occur.

One popular term that seems to surface these days is “north star” … as in, the shining beacon in the midnight sky by which salty ol’ sea dogs and pirates would navigate their course. Polaris, the brightest star in the constellation of Ursa Minor; not to be confused with “the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.”

North star – AKA another entry into business jargonism.

Now, for those unfamiliar with the high seas or lofty-ambition lingo, a company’s “north star” is meant to be the central vision under which they navigate their place in business. As if to say “Our north star will give us the point to guide our purpose.”

But rather than explain that purpose and strategic direction with clarity, some prefer to roll out analogies that are intended to sound inspiring and innovative with higher-than-my-pay-grade language. Unfortunately, the audience to which they’re speaking is often left wondering who gets the parrot and the eye patch.

For as long as business has been a central component to our economy, corporate jargon has been bandied about with flare and confusion. Today’s employees and customers want messages that are clear, concise and focused on their level of comprehension.

Ignoring that fact may just leave you – and your company – adrift in rough seas.

Anchor points:

    1. Resist the chronic use of higher-than-my-pay-grade corporate-speak.
    2. Always keep the message’s purpose at the forefront.
    3. Know what the audience is wanting from a leadership message – clarity and meaningful content.
    4. Trust doesn’t come from fanciful words and eloquence – it comes from comprehension and transparency.
    5. If they don’t get it, they won’t buy it.

 

Cameron Wood

Order’s up!

Growing up, one of the restaurants I liked to visit with my family was an old ‘greasy spoon, Mom ‘n’ Pop’ operation in my hometown. We’d go there for their self-propagated “world’s best breakfast.”

I have my doubts the claim was actually verified, but one does wonder exactly what criteria is required to make such a statement. Frankly, there are limits to the culinary craftsmanship for eggs and bacon.

Every town had one of these joints, where the old school food order carousel sat in an open window between the kitchen and the servers’ station. Orders were barked in code and then the server would jam a slip of paper into a clip on the carousel and spin it towards the cook.

In that setting, where the customer’s expectations of the experience were low, this particular methodology worked. There was no delusion you were going to receive a Michelin 3-star rated comestible adventure.

When I first entered the world of professional corporate communications, my leader offered this straightforward advice: “Don’t be an order taker. We’re more than that, and we have to demonstrate our value.”

My immediate thoughts went back to that kitchen carousel, with the little white slips going around and around. The customer experience in that greasy spoon wasn’t much more than order-in, order-out. Almost production line quality and little personalization; with the exception of your toast preference and the degree of destruction your eggs would meet on the grill.

In today’s complex business world, we can’t afford to be like that. As communicators, we need to have a deep understanding of what motivates an audience to act. We need to direct, counsel, advise and challenge in order to demonstrate the value we bring to the table.

Demonstrating strategic value

1. Provide solutions
Communication needs to be a two-way process if it’s going to be valuable in today’s noise-filled business climate. It’s too easy to fall into the “telling” trap instead of working towards a productive “engaging” environment.

Are you bringing alternative, proven tactics to the communication need? Understanding that there needs to be an answer to “why are we bothering these people” and a rational call-to-action beyond more corporate propaganda should be part of engagement approach. Audiences today are bombarded with messages, yours needs to stand above that noise.

2. Provide insight
One of the biggest pet peeves I hear from business partners is how communicators often come across as the “naysayers.” They’ve worked with people who are resistant to the ideas put forward, but don’t offer alternatives or suggestions.

To address the “spit this message out … after you fix my grammar” approach we’ve all seen way too often from our business partners, we need to be the thinking mind in the conversation. By providing insight on what your audiences’ needs are – and an approach to engaging with them to produce the action required, you demonstrate that you’re not just a “wordsmith.”

We’re not “wordsmiths.” There’s an app for that. We’re communication professionals with knowledge and insight beyond three syllables.

3. Deliver on your knowledge
To be an effective communications professional, you need to know a lot about your craft, it’s constant evolution and effective tactics. BUT you also need to know your audience, inside and out. Much like that restaurant server from the greasy spoon, who knows you prefer your eggs over-easy as opposed to sunny-side up. To gain the confidence and trust from your business partners, you need to deliver on what you say.

Being an effective communicator means to be a dedicated researcher and student of human psychology. We need to understand how people interpret what they read, at what level of comprehension – and on what platform they want messaging delivered. Sometimes this means veering away from the traditional ‘digital’ go-to of email. Sometimes, it might even mean (gasp) … print.

Knowing how your audience engages with you is a vital component of our value. Only then, can we step away from taking orders and begin delivering on our promise as a strategic partner.

Cameron Wood

Social media scions may say different, but…

A few years ago, a co-worker and I were invited to the launch of a new tool our employer was introducing to increase the corporate product marketing department’s ability to communicate with the field. The digital tool was designed to serve as an internal “chat platform” – allowing the ability to share secure conversations with the same “sexiness” of the 1990s’ Internet.

Yeah, we were skeptical … as we should be as communication strategists.

The communications team had not been invited to provide any insight into the implementation process, nor were we going to be required to provide any ongoing guidance or support.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine,” we were assured when we raised obvious concern to the absence of our expertise.

Imagine our thoughts as we sat amongst the chattering crowd during the live-demo and launch. Gaggles from product marketing, sales support and field sales were all chomping at the bit to see how this new digital marvel was going to break down the barriers that existed in an old world corporate environment.

I imagine it wasn’t unlike the commotion from the viewing throngs at Kitty Hawk when the Wright brother’s soared into the great blue sky, or the astonishment at Signal Hill when Marconi sent his “S”.

The sanguineness in the room reached a virtual vertex as everyone waited, honest excitement in their eyes as they stared at the live feed on the big screen at the front of the room. The exalted privilege of the first real message had been awarded to the Vice-President of Product Marketing; the atmosphere pulsed in absolute anticipation … what would he say?

Then it hit … and it hit BIG. From across the digital void, the message spilled forth onto the screen; carefully crafted words from a highly respected executive.

And the spelling mistakes.

And poor grammar.

The sales people were enthralled, the marketers reveled at the endless possibilities this marvelous mechanism now presented; unencumbered messaging had arrived!

We communications professionals, however, silently wept. They may have found a way to force a dinosaur of a corporation into last century technology – but blew credibility in the process.

While we shouldn’t been seen as proofreaders – or in this case, “chatroom posters” – we do need to be seen as providing vital support in the expansion, stability, trust and credibility of our brand AND our senior leaders. We are champions for our corporate image – and nothing will diminish that like poor communications.

Our handheld world, with the abundance of digitally-enabled gadgets, has created a serious lack of proper grammar and spelling. In our race to erase communication obstacles, we’ve dumbed down our language skills and scorned what our elementary school teacher worked so hard to instill in us.

Spelling and grammar count.

 

The Journey Begins

asphalt-bitumen-empty-road-1197095.jpgThere’s a whole collection of cliches that can be used to describe what happens when people of a certain age – particularly men – reach a moment in life when they begin to evaluate their lot in life.

Some of those cliches call it “midlife crisis”. I guess, because those people who subscribe to the idea believe these moments of self-reflection, questioning and doubting rear their ugly heads in and around that stage.

It might make sense on the surface, but for some of us, there’s no crisis. There’s no critical crossroads requiring intervention or fire suppression.

No, for some of us … or for one of me … it’s an age when the re-emergence of freedom becomes evident. It’s the age where some of us have managed to get our offspring to that momentus dawn of adulthood and their own independence. An age where those precious legacies no longer rely on us for the basics of life – and have the bravado to pontificate that they can “look after themselves.”

Freedom – and the familiar aroma of adventure. Adventure, or middle-aged lunacy; either way, it’s the point where you actually ask yourself “how many moments are left in life when I’m scared to death.”

A time when, for some of us, the road less traveled seems like a good idea.

This is the ongoing story of my road.