Writing with respect

Recently, I have been helping a firm improve some of its marketing collateral. They had a really great message for their clients and potential clients, but it was hard to see because there was an expected way of doing things. When we moved beyond that template, we could produce something that actually expressed the firm’s value (and values) more coherently. Looking back, I think the key was making sure that the writing was done with respect.

Respect for time

Major junction (A7/A1), Edinburgh Lawyers read and write for a living. For most of them, a ten-page marketing document is short and sweet, especially when it is on a topic that interests them. More often than not, clients don’t have the same interest. If the message can be conveyed in two pages, it should be. If the document can be structured differently so that the important material comes first, it should. (And you need to be really clear about the meaning of ‘importance’. That has to be judged from the perspective of the reader.)

Imagine your readers have only two minutes or less to decide whether they care about your firm. What do you want them to learn in that short time? Your answer to that question may mean that you have to push the things you find interesting to the back of the document. If so, you must.

Respect for language

I am ambivalent about jargon. On the one hand, it can act as a useful shorthand between peers. On the other, it can act as a barrier to good communication. The linguist Geoffrey Pullum calls it ‘nerdview’:

It is a simple problem that afflicts us all: people with any kind of technical knowledge of a domain tend to get hopelessly (and unwittingly) stuck in a frame of reference that relates to their view of the issue, and their trade’s technical parlance, not that of the ordinary humans with whom they so signally fail to engage.

So lawyers should avoid using a legal frame of reference in their non-legal writing. (I’ll leave clarity in legal writing for another time.) But this could be an opportunity to demonstrate a connection with your audience’s knowledge. If you can comfortably and genuinely use their technical parlance, you should.

This has to be natural. Only use the technical terms if your lawyers use them in their daily work. Many do. If that comfort comes across in the document, readers will get it. Any discomfort will push your material into the uncanny valley.

Respect for your people

Law firms like to put lawyer profiles on their websites. Most of them shouldn’t bother, because their standard template removes all the humanity by reducing people to their contact details and a lifeless account of career history and recent work. Sadly, this approach often finds its way into marketing material as well.

In my experience, asking people about themselves produces very different results. Let that come across to your readers. What does that partner see as the high point of their work in this sector? How did that associate get to grips with the  tricky issues in that recent transaction?

I have seen some firms try this approach in combination with a standard template, especially when they what to show the more human side of their lawyers. This can make people uncomfortable: perhaps they don’t want to tell the world what they do at the weekends. Leave the template behind and ask open questions. Let the lawyers write their own account. Interview them and let their story come through.

Above all, respect for the reader

Marketing teams often struggle to get the attention of their lawyers. That is one reason why they resort to standardised documents and templates — they save time and effort. The result is often sterile, and lawyers know that. That’s why they don’t play along.

On the other hand, lawyers often spend a lot of their own time and effort making sure their clients get what they need. This isn’t just because that’s where the money is. Many (if not most) lawyers actually get a kick out of helping clients. If they see marketing as having the same aim, they are more likely to take part whole-heartedly.

Being more respectful may produce greater variety in your marketing materials. That is a virtue, not a weakness. The firm’s character can shine through, and your readers can decide much more easily whether it’s a character they like. Don’t be bland, because clients don’t want to find out too late that they have instructed a lawyer who doesn’t fit their needs.

If this interests you, and you’d like to have a longer conversation, please get in touch.

…when we talk about knowledge

I can’t now find an online reference to it, so my memory will have to suffice. I recall reading many years ago about a study which suggested that waiting staff in restaurants tended to break more crockery when they were reminded to take care than when there was no such reminder. As I once washed dishes and made coffee in a wine bar, this made sense to me. There is a lack of trust implicit in a reminder, which might make one doubt one’s abilities and therefore lead to more breakages. An alternative explanation might be that the reminder causes people to concentrate on the wrong thing — a broken plate, rather than a plate conveyed safely to its destination.

I was reminded of this insight when reading Peter Bregman’s latest contribution to the HBR blog. His topic is diversity training.

Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.

At first glance, the first training — the one that outlined what people could and couldn’t say — didn’t seem to hurt. But on further inspection, it turns out it did.

The scenarios quickly became the butt of participant jokes. And, while the information was sound, it gave people a false sense of confidence since it couldn’t possibly cover every single situation.

The second training — the one that categorized people — was worse. Just like the first training, it was ridiculed, ironically in ways that clearly violated the recommendations from the first training. And rather than changing attitudes of prejudice and bias, it solidified them.

This organization’s experience is not an exception. It’s the norm.

A study of 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had “no positive effects in the average workplace.” Millions of dollars a year were spent on the training resulting in, well, nothing. Attitudes — and the diversity of the organizations — remained the same.

Reflecting on this, and the psychology of broken crockery, I wonder if we have a similar problem in knowledge management.

At the heart of what we do is a desire to make sure people can work to the best of their abilities, making the most of what is around them — their colleagues, documented know-how, internal and external resources. We want people to be able to find answers to the questions that arise in the course of their work as easily as possible so that they can concentrate on the important stuff — making a difference for clients, customers, communities.

But that is what they want as well.

When we talk about knowledge sharing, are we hinting that we don’t trust people to do their jobs properly? Even if that is unintended, might it depress performance anyway? (“If they don’t trust me to do the work properly, i’ll just do the bare minimum…”)

When we turn the focus on knowledge activities, do we run the risk of distracting people from their primary task — getting the job done. By concentrating people’s attention on not breaking plates, are more likely to get broken?

Or will our efforts just be ignored? Last week, David Griffiths drew our attention to an audit report on Nasa’s lessons learned system (LLIS). Despite investing $750,000 every year in adding material to that system, the audit found that it did not appear to be making a difference.

We found that NASA project managers do not routinely use LLIS to search for lessons identified by other programs and projects or contribute information to LLIS. Project managers we surveyed said the system is not user friendly and that the information it contains is outdated and generally unhelpful. We also found that Agency policy requirements regarding when and how to input information into LLIS have been relaxed over time, policy direction has been inconsistent, LLIS-related funding was disparate across the Centers, and monitoring of the essential Center-level LLIS process was lacking.

Essentially, NASA was getting on with its work without reference to the system. Underlying the audit, though, there appears to be an unspoken concern that nothing equivalent is being done. That is where knowledge management (or diversity training) is different from advice not to break plates. Everyone knows not to break plates. Not everyone understands how to find and use the knowledge around them or the organisational implications of failing to treat people with respect.

When things get more complicated than not breaking plates, we still need to help people find the right way to work. Peter Bregman’s suggested alternative to diversity training is an interesting one.

We decided to put all managers through communication training. It still fulfilled the requirement of the lawsuit. But it did something more. People learned to listen and speak with each other — no matter the difference — which is the key to creating a vibrant and inclusive environment.

As it turns out, it’s also the key to preventing lawsuits. The communication trainings I led for Bedia were ten years ago and they haven’t been sued since.

A similar approach would improve knowledge work — find something that people need to do, and which they know they find difficult because it is different in the work context than elsewhere in life — defining and scoping work projects, for example. Work on improving that, and see what difference it makes to knowledge development and use.

(Apologies to the late Raymond Carver for bastardising his work in creating the title for this post. As a penance I will re-read “Cathedral”, which is one of the greatest things ever written.)


Jargon or vocabulary?

The British news media appear to be unanimous in approving the Local Government Association’s call for less jargon and more plain English in the documents created by local councils. Unfortunately, in their quest for a story, they appear to have missed an opportunity to look critically at what the LGA is advocating.

In December 2007, the LGA sent to councils a list of “100 words that all public sector bodies should avoid when talking to people about the work they do and the services they provide.” That sounds like a sensible thing to do, doesn’t it? Well, yes — if the concern is that the language that councils use is making life difficult for people who want or need to use their services. If, on the other hand, their view is that all council documents should have these terms removed, then I would be worried that this advice could dilute the accuracy or effectiveness of those documents. What the LGA appears to have done is failed to make a distinction between documents for public users of local authority services and internal discussion papers, for example.

As a result, the 100 “non-words” include mutants such as “predictors of beaconicity” alongside comprehensible, but non-standard, terms like “core message”. Bizarrely, it also suggests that the phrase “most important” should replace “priority”. Why? Is importance more difficult for people to understand than priority?

Today, the LGA has doubled the size of the “bad words” list, and reiterated its demand for councils to use plain English. New on the list are words like “taxonomy” and “proactive” (neither of which need be used at all, according to the LGA). In fact, the alternatives suggested by the LGA can be just as cumbersome or confusing as the original word or phrase: can anyone tell me why the phrase “devil in the detail” is more acceptable than “cautiously welcome”? There are even inaccuracies: “privatisation” is not a synonym for “outsourcing” — an outsourced service can be provided by another public body.

Looking down the list, I see very few words or phrases that actually appear in my local council’s public documents. On the other hand, I am sure that many of them appear in their internal working papers or in documents that deal with technically complex matters. I think that is perfectly acceptable.

The point about jargon is that some of it is actually useful. It may be used to exclude people from understanding something, in which case it should be shunned, but often a simple word or phrase encapsulates an idea or concept economically in a way that is acceptable to all those who use it. For many years (and possibly still) people at IBM maintained a dictionary of their jargon. The 1990 version of that document ran to 65 pages, but not one of the words or phrases in it could be defined by a simpler word or shorter phrase.

I think many organisational activities (including knowledge-related work) depend on good outward communication as well as effective internal discussion. It is clearly counterproductive if the language we use in our outward communication exclude people who need to know about our work. On the other hand, use of a rich technical language and vocabulary can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our work. Branding everything unusual as “jargon” and calling indiscriminately for its banning is pointless and two-faced: the LGA illustrates the hypocrisy in its use of a number of the hated words in its own mission statement.

Prescriptivity and appropriateness

One of the links in my blogroll is to Language Log, which is home to some of the most rigorous blogging on the internet. As its name indicates, it deals with language and linguistics, but in the broadest possible sense. So its authors have taken on sex differences and biological determinism, science journalism, lolcats, and legal language. However, one of the best posting categories is “Prescriptivist Poppycock.” When you need a break from pedants whingeing about split infinitives and dangling prepositions, this is where to come.

David Crystal’s book, The Fight for English (subtitled “How language pundits ate, shot, and left”) is also an attack on prescriptivist poppycock. In it, he describes how language pedantry developed during the eighteenth century, and outlines how an understanding of appropriate language can help people to understand grammar and language generally. (A point completely lost on this Amazon reviewer.) This is why appropriateness matters:

One of the aims of education, whether by parents or teachers, is to instil appropriate behaviour. If we behave inappropriately, we risk social sanctions. Language is a form of social behaviour, and it is subject to these sanctions as is everything else. The main aim of language education has thus to be the instilling into children of a sense of linguistic appropriateness — when to use one variety or style rather than another, and when to appreciate the way in which other people have used one variety or style rather than another. This is what the eighteenth-century prescriptive approach patently did not do.

When he turns to the history of grammar teaching in the UK, Crystal’s reduces his argument to a simple analogy. (Until the mid-1960s, English language teaching in the UK depended heavily on prescriptive texts. After that point, virtually no grammar was taught as part of the school syllabus. From the 1990s, following a period of intense academic study of English language and grammar, the National Curriculum for English incorporated language teaching that (a) balanced the study of language structure and the study of language use, and (b) aimed to instil a sense of language awareness in children.) The balance is important:

The basic problem [with historic English teaching] was that there was no means of relating the analytical skills involved in doing grammar to the practical skills involved in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The grammarians argued that there just had to be a connection — that any child who learned to parse would inevitably end up being a better user of its language. But there was nothing at all inevitable about it. And there was an obvious counter-argument, best summed up in an analogy. I have a friend who is a wonderful car mechanic, but he is a terrible driver.

The analogy is worth developing. To be a good driver takes a lot more than knowledge of how a car engine works. All kinds of fresh sensitivities and awarenesses are involved. Indeed, most of us learned to drive with next to no understanding of what goes on inside the bonnet. It is the same with language. …[S]omething else has to happen if children are to use a knowledge of grammar in order to become better speakers, listeners, readers, or writers. A connection has to be made — and, more to the point, demonstrated.

Reading this passage, I was reminded of something else I read today. In the Anecdote blog, Shawn Callahan quotes a passage from John Medina’s book, Brain Rules. Here are the first couple of sentences:

Any learning environment that deals with only the database instincts [our ability to memorise things] or only the improvisatory instincts [our ability to imagine things] ignores one half of our ability. It is doomed to fail.

I had intended to write about this anyway, because it struck me that an approach to legal education (and, by extension, KM) that focuses on things like transaction processes and prescribed documents (held in databases) does not help to develop the creative and improvisatory instinct in lawyers. I have a feeling that many lawyers find improvisation difficult (please excuse the generalisation), and so they are happiest with KM that creates know-how databases and precedent banks. Such an approach does not actually serve them as well as they think it does.

As for the legal education point: a story from my wife. She is a corporate partner, with 20 years experience. A couple of years ago she was leading a very complex transaction, but the other side was represented by a much more inexperienced lawyer. More significantly, it was clear that this lawyer had been taught some standard transaction processes and had not developed enough imagination to see that the clients’ goals could be more readily met by diverging from the standard. Because of this, my wife and both sets of clients were frustrated until the other lawyer finally gave up on her approach and caved in. At this point, I am not privy to the details, but my guess is that the result of this change of heart was not particularly beneficial her client. At the very least, her intransigence will have prolonged the deal and increased its cost to both parties.

Prescriptivism may be dying out in the British educational system, but it is alive and well in law firms. In the current climate, how long will clients stand for it? And what are we doing to connect lawyers’ database instincts with their improvisory instincts in order to give them the understanding to become better advisors?