Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wisdom no more

Just over 24 hours ago, I had a wisdom tooth removed, ending - I hope - a saga that's involved a long period of discomfort - and certainly one that doesn't help a freelance lifestyle. It's amazing the disproportionate effect one partly-erupted tooth can cause, and I've had months of toothache and infected gums before finally biting the bullet and having the nasty third molar removed.

Yesterday was almost euphoric. Having been promised cutting and stitches, the tooth popped out far more easily than expected. Of course these days, teeth are 'elevated' not pulled! My head was frozen from my scalp to my lower jaw so I was certainly feeling no pain when I returned home. By midnight, the drugs and pain killers were just about wearing off but I was in good shape. By 4am, with the first birds tweeting, I was still awake with a horrible dull ache radiating from the now empty tooth socket to a point just over my right eye.

I've achieved a lot less than I'd hoped for today - I'm tired but can't sleep but the pain killers are making me drowsy. Still, it's a very temporary thing and I'm sure I'll be bouncing back tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Capturing the authentic voice

Over the last few days I've been writing a number of statement pieces for particular characters within a couple of my clients. In each case, the person voicing the particular piece of communication has a distinctive style and particular way of communicating. Putting words in their mouth, so to speak, made me very aware of my need not to sanitise individuality ans to ensure that not only the content was authentic, but that the communication also captured the true voice of the speaker.

Years ago, I used to work for an Austrian lady who was well known for her ability to strangle the English language yet still get her points across in a vivid and memorable manner. Face to face, she was compelling. On paper, she was often hilarious but the point was made and the reader was always clear that this was a personal and passionate communication. However, she was promoted and gained the services of the organisation's external PR agency who started 'improving' her communications: cleaning up the English and applying the same bland urbane style that made so many of this organisation's public communications so un-memorable. Somehow, she lost some credibility and her pronouncements, which had been 'must read' just became part of the overall deluge of information swilling around the place.

Over the last few days, I've been working hard to try and capture the voice of those I'm helping - frankly with mixed success. In the end, it has to be the participant's communication and not mine, so where a couple of people have toned the edge down, I've had to acquiesce (though most of the authentic voice has been retained). But as I always say, I only draft the copy - those who have to deliver it must take my draft and personalise it. The more they can make it distinctively their own, the better it will be and the more credibility it will retain. A client has done precisely that this morning - building on my words but making them sound as though they genuinely come from her. It's much more her communication now than mine - and that's exactly how it should be.

As communicators, it's our job to give voice through the right channels to the people who really matter. There's no value in carefully crafting words if they lack authenticity - we simply won't make the right connections. Written communication should create a picture in the mind for the reader. That picture has to conjure up the speaker - not make the 'ghost writer' a visible presence.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Back in the saddle

Back to work properly this morning after a week and a half on a research trip in the US. Just 112 emails to respond too...and I thought I'd kept on top of stuff while I was overseas!

It was good to spend time absorbed in my research, though the trip threw up a number of points of comparison with the work I'm currently involved in.

While researching in the NASA HQ archive, I spent my first few days in Gallaudet University - the US' premier education facility for the deaf and hearing impaired. Everyone working in the conference hotel signed and many were themselves hearing impaired. Apart from being a very quiet place to stay, it also threw me a little to find myself as the minority communicator. I don't sign (and even if I did, I imagine I'd have learned BSL not ASL) and not everyone I was dealing with read lips. I was out of the swing of mainstream communication and had to work harder to be 'heard'. It made me reassess the way I communicate, and certainly will shape my thoughts on employee communication - and getting through to those hard-to-reach audiences, moving forward.

Last week I was right in the US heartland working at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. Some 160 miles west of Kansas City, the archive is in a small farming town, home to 6,700 people, 33 churches and, weirdly, about half a dozen petrol stations. I was immensely struck by the genuine warmth and friendliness of the people - a fellow researcher actually made the point that 'the beauty of Kansas is in its people'. Abilene is at the border of the flat lands: this is plains country; home to cattle and crops. It was a massive contrast to Washington DC and the issues that affected people were significantly different from the coastal fringe. Sure, the BP oil disaster was the lead national story, but what people were talking about was much more oriented to family and farming. There was also quite a lack of curiosity about other countries, other continents. People, in general, were fiercely proud and protective of Kansas first and the US second. Not too many had ventured over seas and their view of the world was very much coloured by their every-day experience - though a number worked for big organisations: the likes of AT&T and the US Government. Sometimes when we communicate out from the centre, we forget about what really matters and drives the mindset of our far-flung receivers. Sometimes culturally, we're more different than we let on.

Finally, a week looking at Presidential communications from 1957-1960 has reminded me that what goes around comes around. The fledgling NASA had all sorts of problems managing stakeholder communications. The Head of Comms felt his function was under-resourced while his boss felt the team was underskilled for the role they had to play. Not a lot changes, eh?