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In arguing for why good writing is important to help a company seem credible and trustworthy, it’s often useful to look at the opposite of good writing – and SPAM messages are rife with this!
What’s interesting in the case of notices proporting to be from financial institutions is that it’s clear that the writers are using a voice that tries to sound very official and serious … just like they think a bank would sound. But the stand-out errors in them start to chip away at that vaneer pretty efficiently.
Even people who don’t edit people’s writing for a living will pick up on even minor gaffes and start to feel less invested in a message that was unsolicited to start with (and which may not even be from a bank we actually deal with).
To illustrate, here are three of the most odorous SPAM messages that have landed in my Inbox lately (well, of those I actually bothered to open and read …). Included are < my notes in carets > on just what makes them so pungent:
SPAM Message #1
This is an Alert to help manage your online banking access. < the alert is so important that they’ve capitalized it! >
Dear Bank Of Montreal customer < The bank must be important if they spell the word ‘of’ with a capital O >,
Bank Of Montreal Online Security has been receiving complaints from our customers for < complaints for? > unauthorised uses of Online Banking Accounts. As a result we are temporarily shutting down some selected Bank Of Montreal Online Accounts perceived vulnerable to this, pending till the time we carry out proper verification by the account owner < ‘pending till’? >. Bank Of Montreal is committed to ensure the safeguard of each customer personal information, making sure only authorised individuals have access to their accounts. <Whoa, you can tell this one was not written by an English speaker. >
As a first step to have Your < I must be divine, since they’ve used a capital Y >Bank Of Montreal Online Access reactivated please verify your identity by using the link provided below:
http://www.bmo.com/fraud.prevention/account/verification < This link actually takes you to one starting with ‘amourtoujours.net’ >
These instructions are sent to and should be followed by all Bank Of Montreal clients,to avoid service deactivation after the verification is completed < ‘are sent to and should be followed’ – nice use of the passive, and those nice mega-nouns ‘deactivation’ and ‘reactivation’ all in one sentence! >. We apologise for any inconveniences and thank you for your cooperation. . < Oops, they’ve left an extra period here! And don’t we spell it ‘apologize’ in Canada? >
Customers Support Service. <Well, they do support multiple people … >
SPAM Message #2
Dear Bank Of Montreal Customer:
BMO Bank Of Montreal is hereby announcing the New Security Upgrade. < Sound the trumpets! They’ve announced the Upgrade! >
We’ve upgraded our new SSL servers to serve our customers for a better and secure internet banking service < Was it not secure before …? >.
It is very important that you update your account information & other personal information < I’m not sure I’d give any personal info to someone using an ampersand to preface it >, please follow the link below to update your account then ‘Sign In’ to submit your request.
Click Here To Update Your Account < When you hover your mouse, it shows the URL: <http://autozap99.ru/… >
100% Online Banking Guarantee < also links to a bogus URL >
Bank Of Montreal
© 2011 offered by BMO Bank Of Montreal, N.A.
< Well, it must be a professional message if they’ve copyrighted it! >
SPAM Message #3
From: C.I.B.C. – Accounting Services [email@example.com]
Subject: CIBC Business Banking – Statement Summary Report – ’03/01/2012′
< Don’t they know how to spell their own name? >
DEAR CIBC BUSINESS BANKING CUSTOMER < Great, now they’re shouting at me. >
Kindly download the attachment to view your new account summary and confirm recent transactions on your account. < Nothing about why would I do this …?>
CIBC Financial Services < Wait, I thought the message was from Accounting Services. >
As this e-mail is an automated message, do not reply to this email.
No virus found in this message.
Checked by AVG – www.avg.com
Version: 2012.0.1901 / Virus Database: 2109/4742 – Release Date…
< Well, nice to know they’ve gone through the trouble of scanning this message before sending it. They must be trustworthy – look at all that technical info! >
So what’s my point?
We all have laughed about the awful SPAMs we’ve received. But they hold some very good lessons about how we can miss with our own customers if we’re not careful: with inconsistent spellings, bad punctuation, incomplete or uneven information, a tone and flow that doesn’t sound natural . . . the list goes on.
It’s something to think about the next time you’re writing an important message on behalf of your business.
While the above examples use the names of two major Canadian banks, I only leave them in because some of the errors have to do with using those brand names incorrectly or inconsistently.
Had those messages actually come from actual financial institutions (FIs), they would no doubt have been much better-written. And as fraud-prevention folks always say, a legitimate FI won’t contact its customers by broadcast email anyway.
Back in 2003, I wrote a grad school paper that analyzed the flaws of e-mail communication: how our content and tone can lead to people getting a different meaning than what we intend – and how the results can be disastrous!
Now, that was back when we didn’t yet use handhelds to converse with friends and colleagues. We were still mainly using online Webmail or some kind of ‘e-mail client’ such as Outlook.
So we still hadn’t established so many of the conventions we now use to send words across the ether: No emoticons, shortcuts for txtng or little graphical additions to clarify our intent. We had to rely much more on the tone of our messages to ensure we got across the way we wanted.
What’s this got to do with the Save button?
Through much embarrassing trial-and-error of my own, I’ve learned something about e-mail: One should never fire off a hastily-typed message about something important right away.
Okay, maybe you’ve got one of those jobs where you barely have time to pee, let alone think through every important message before hitting Send. But really, even (and maybe, especially) you will benefit from making the Save button your friend.
Anyone who’s lost a long document because they didn’t save their changes can tell you that the Save button is aptly-named: it even saves your *ss if you’re working under a tight deadline!
Save is your friend, before you click Send…
The same goes for e-mail. Taking a few more seconds to review your message before clicking Send will help you catch more than just typos – you may also often find that you’ve forgotten to enter something critical that would really have helped them understand better. And if you’re like me, you may also realize that you’ve included far more info than they need or can use at that time.
So see if it works for you. Here’s how:
- Blast out your message, fingers a-flying.
- Click on Save (and minimize if you need privacy)
- Go get a tea or your chosen consumable.
- Come back and re-read, with a refreshed focus.
- Edit as needed. Then – and only then – click on Send.
After repeating these steps a few times, you may also find yourself reconsidering whether to send the message at all (really!). It could be that you actually don’t need to respond until you have more time or information. And after all, with all the info we don’t need that we all already receive, this could mean you’re doing someone a favour by not sending it.
In between the time I’m spending with my infant son, I’ve had the chance to deliver several workshops. As ever their objective is to help people communicate more clearly and ensure their meaning reaches their intended audiences.
A prominent tool that – many will agree – can suck up a lot of time is PowerPoint. It’s now practically mandatory to truck a laptop along each and every time we will be addressing a group. Your audience will simply expect to brace themselves for the obligatory round of slides.
And possibly, if you’re nervous, unprepared or dispassionate about your topic, they’ll also expect to have to jar themselves awake while you read pretty much verbatim their contents. How many times have you sat sweating and groggy at a summer post-lunch meeting, only to find you’re faced with another one of these presentations?
Well, bloggers, authors – heck, even the upper ranks of the U.S. military – have begun to advocate for a return to the kind of presentations where it’s the information and the speaker that need to be compelling, and not the number of fonts, effects and colours you can slap up there onscreen.
If you, like me, are of like mind that we have moved too far toward Death By PowerPoint, keep clicking to read more on how and why this has happened.
Godin, S. (May 27, 2010) Really Bad PowerPoint. Known marketing and business writer Seth Godin discusses the drawbacks of PowerPoint, and proposes his somewhat radical approach to using it (including limiting the number of words per slide to six).
Kawasaki, G. The 10 20 30 rule of PowerPoint (June 8, 2010) in Presentation Magazine. This writer says “a PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.” Some good reasoning and links to a host of other views on how to make memorable presentations.
New York Times, (April 27, 2010) We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint… Read about the number of high-ranking U.S. Military officials who are questioning (in some cases, banning) the use of PowerPoint in their meetings and strategy sessions.
Norvig, Peter (May 27, 2010) Gettysburg Cemetery Dedication in PowerPoint format. Tufte (see below) used this as a spoof to demonstrate how the constraints of the PPT can sap the life from otherwise compelling content.
Reynolds, G. (October 13, 2005) Steve Jobs’ presentation style…and all that jazz. In PresentationZen blog. Check out this article and others in the blog for insights on what makes for a good presentation (and how to get his 2008 book).
Sierra, K. (June 8, 2005) Stop your presentation before it kills again! in Creating Passionate Users.
And one book…a bargain at $7!
Tufte, Edward R. (2nd Edition, 2006) The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Connecticut: Graphics Press LLC (More on Tufte’s website, including ordering information…).
What is it that makes a document ‘plain language’? Is it that the writers use hundred-dollar words instead of million-dollar ones? Is it that the font is bigger and easy to read? Is it that the finished document tests at the Grade 6 level, rather than reading like an academic research paper or a wordy legal contract?
It’s all of these things, and so much more.
My first few years as a plain language editor focused on taking all of the information in a document, then editing it – often sentence by sentence – into language that more people could understand. I also added basic elements of design, organization, formatting and layout to make the document easier to navigate.
The end result was certainly better than the original – but was it really going to be effective?
Lessons learned from the trenches…
Again, clear writing should for certain show attention to all of the above elements. But to communicate the message you want to send, you also need to observe appropriate boundaries.
By way of demonstration, witness some of the hard lessons learned from seeing
the messages I’d so carefully crafted miss the mark:
- Sometimes telling it like it is only makes your message sound more harsh or negative. Often writers balk at even releasing the information once they see how someone might interpret the plainer words. Then you have to strategize about how to say something without reaping unwanted negative feedback.
- Similarly, when it comes to protecting the image of a company, sometimes information that is too plain can open the business up to undesired negative attention. For example, publishing a photo of your CEO reveling at a company event may make her look more approachable and human – but it can also open her up to criticism for letting it hang too loose during business events.
- Information that is very easy-to-read may end up being way too long, since often it takes more words to say things plainly, and more space to separate ideas into manageable units. If this drives up budgets, or makes the length discouraging for readers, you may have to split your piece up into separate, more focused units.
- It makes no sense to rewrite anything in plain English if it’s not the information the reader needs. Often, you need to go beyond simply rendering same the information at a different grade level. Does your information transmit the key messages you want people to get? Does it state or inspire the actions you want the reader to take after they read it? If not, you may have to go back to square one.
- Your message may be very clear, well chosen, the right length and tone – but if not delivered using the suitable medium, it might not get read. Or, it could be read differently than how you intended. For example, it’s never a good idea to use e-mail to try to resolve conflict or announce major change* – your over-attention to formality and tone may make you sound overly-apologetic, not credible (assuming people can find your message among the scores of subject lines in their Inboxes).
Clear writing experts usually encourage a field test to make these situations less likely. But practical (i.e., budget and time) concerns intervene more often than not to make that last step a challenge. Fortunately, experience does have a way of giving communicators the ongoing feedback that improves their results over time.
Clear, useful information accounts for much more than simply functioning as a direct ‘translation’ from one type of English to another. Trust someone with the experience to know how to transmit your message both plainly and effectively.
To learn more about what plain language is, where it’s important, and who provides these kinds of services, visit the website of the Plain Language Association International.
* For more on choosing the right medium for your messages, see advice from U.S. experts in The Larkin Pages: http://www.larkin.biz/larkin_pages.htm.