Leaders – Just. Be. Real. Use real words.

An overly packaged idea becomes part of the noise.

No matter how valuable your message, as soon as you “package” your vision, idea or change initiative – as soon as you wrap your message in big words and put a pretty bow on it – you become part of the noise.

Employees are people, and people want real. Real food, real relationships, real connection. We’re bombarded with fake. Everything has become so photo-shopped, hyped and packaged that it’s hard to trust anything anymore. When something labeled as “healthy” has 30 grams of sugar – and all of it high-fructose corn syrup – it’s no wonder we’ve taught ourselves to look beyond the glossy packaging and read every label.

So when you have an important message for your workforce – something motivating and inspiring – something that should drive high performance – but it comes out in a pretty package, with shiny $100-dollar words, it’s no wonder employees raise the bullshit flag and dig in their heels.

When “do your job well” becomes “driving a high performance culture,” or “focus on giving the customer what they want” becomes “securing customer advantage,” your message is lost; your employees feel even less connected to you, and you lose their trust.

You can’t use big words to try to “policy” your way out of a culture issue. Consulting firms are great at finding root causes, but the 500-page plan that follows, brimming with professional hyperbole, puts the focus on rhetoric, rather than issues. Leaders feel like they’ve done something, when in fact, after a few attempts at “communication campaigns,” the document is most likely to live on a shelf gathering dust.  More noise.

Employees see you avoiding or sugar-coating bad news. During the recession, I saw a lot of companies pretend there wasn’t an economic crisis. They cancelled holiday parties without saying why; they cut benefits, then over-hyped the new plans as though employees weren’t smart enough to see they were getting less; they quietly laid people off and either pretended it didn’t happen or gave it fancy names like “right-sizing.”

Putting lipstick on a pig only gets you an angry pig. Employees lose trust when messaging doesn’t match reality, and rather than being empowered to be part of the solution, all they could do was complain about the erosion of benefits and a lack of trust.   Morale plummeted.

Shift to honest, clear, plain language. The advertisers in “Crazy People” (1990) were onto something with their truthful ads like, “Volvo. They’re boxy but they’re good.  People see honesty when we call something what it is, and that increases trust – and the likelihood that they’ll listen to what we have to say.

When you speak to employees, use plain language to connect with them. This means speaking to employees with clarity and honesty. It means using everyday words that everyone, at every level, will understand. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Don’t use an entire paragraph to say something that could be said in a sentence. Use plain language, and you will significantly increase the likelihood that they will hear and understand you.

So here’s how plain language might have sounded if leaders had directly addressed the economic downturn:

The economy is in a tough place right now, for us, our competitors, and our customers. If we don’t cut some things, the company won’t survive, and we’d rather cancel a party than have to cut your salary; we’d rather reduce some benefits than have to lay someone off; [or if you’ve had layoffs already: it was better to make the tough decision of laying off a small number of people than to risk having to close our doors altogether.]  We’ll get through this together. It won’t be easy, but I know we can do it if we all work together to do what we can to cut costs.

Will the people rejoice? No. But will they recognize the challenges as something they’re hearing in the news? Yes. Will some still complain or leave? Again, yes. But most, hearing the truth, spoken plainly and with compassion, will consider how they can be part of the solution, and that’s a message that could have had people conserving paper, turning off lights, and minimizing other unnecessary expenses, rather than searching for the nearest exit.

Next time you’re tempted to package your message, consider the following tips (or use this free template):

  • Remember you’re communicating with people. Real people.
    • As a real person yourself, take a hard look at the words you’re using.
    • Don’t use phrases you wouldn’t use in real life. Is your daughter’s dead fish just nature right-sizing the fishbowl? Is your grandfather’s move to a nursing home, just your grandmother right-aligning the family?  Of course not.  Be real!
  • Understand the perspective of your audience.
    • What will this mean to them?
      • What do they worry about?
      • How might this new message increase or decrease their fears?
  • Check your understanding of their perspective by talking directly to a sample of your target population.
    • If you’re a senior leader, your well-meaning direct reports are filtering what they hear.
    • You’re going to have to reach down into the organization to find out what’s really going on.
  • Be open to changing your mind.
    • Don’t be so wedded to your message that you can’t consider other perspectives.
    • Communicate in a way that opens dialogue, rather than shutting it down.
  • Use plain language to communicate your message.
    • Don’t try to make yourself sound smart. This is about the people and the organization. It’s not about you.
    • Help employees identify with your message by speaking to their point of view.
    • Balance reality with optimism. Be honest, but put the situation into the context of challenges and opportunities, rather than resorting to “burning platform” admonitions.
  • Do not allow your subordinate leaders to package the message.
    • This means no snazzy slide shows or glossy prints.
    • When you communicate it to them, use language they’ll understand and have them explain it back to you in their own words to make sure that they get it and that the words they use will be relatable by the next level down.
    • Coach your subordinate leaders to use plain language as they communicate the message to the workforce.

And, finally, you need to make sure that’s what actually happens. We’re comfortable with slides and big words, so don’t be surprised to discover that despite your best efforts, your subordinate leaders cling to old ways. Gently pull them back, but insist that they communicate using plain language.  In an upcoming post, I’ll also talk about the need for leaders to own the message.

Share your best stories in the Comments below – the good and the bad – the best plain language you’ve said or heard and the most obfuscated, ponderous torture you’ve endured.

Carol Robert is a coach, instructor and organizational culture change agent. Her workshops, coaching and hands-on organizational interventions have helped hundreds shift their behavior to find success in their work and more joy in their lives. Get her free “Plain Language Leadership: Converting Buzzspeak to REALspeak” template to transform the way you motivate employees.