Changing words changes everything, well almost

Fri 03 May 2019

Changing words changes everything, well almost

We live in a world where words can be shortened to an extent which relies heavily on the interpretation of the reader, used to obfuscate, obscure, confuse and mis-direct in efforts to avoid accountability or, more happily, achieve positive impacts through clarity, accessibility and, yes, folks, that old chestnut with the bad press and history of mis-understanding and mis-use, ‘empathy’.

Words have power and the choice of words used by organisations to express themselves internally and externally can have impacts on operational efficiency as well as external relations and perceptions.

Take, for example, the major home energy supplier which writes to its customers using increased size in its first line, red ink and bolded text. Its first two lines run as, ‘Action required’ before the salutation and then immediately after the salutation, ‘We need you to take action’. The company is asking for nothing more than a standard, routine quarterly meter reading to be provided by its customers.  

However, it chooses to make this request in a way where the language, and presentation of that language, conveys something of the underlying values of the business. In particular, the words reflect the way in which that business regards its customers. The subsequent explanation for the request does little to mitigate the impact of the appearance of those first few words on the reader.

It may be a deliberate policy or the result of unthinking language choices influenced by organisational culture or leadership. Whatever the reason, the real question is this, “How will our customers react and feel about us if we write to them in this way?”.

That was the question posed and answered by the body responsible for the integrity of the Registered Charity sector, The Charity Commission. Following a leadership change, the commission began to explore and understand the effect of the words it uses when communicating with its broad range of stakeholders.  It also recognised that choosing the most effective language internally could have an impact on efficiency and the quality of work.  

We know this because The Charity Commission asked Dods Training to develop a bespoke programme to support staff make the most of the opportunities this change could bring.

The programme was a highly focussed and intense half-day experience which was flexible enough to work with staff at all levels, who had varying degrees of skill and who worked across a range of functional areas of the organisation.

Feedback from the delivery of a number of sessions over two months suggests that the strategy has wings and is demonstrating immediate impact and potential for further benefits. 

One team leader said, “This training was really useful for myself and my team, and gave some good tips to consider when reviewing guidance in the Commission”, and “I feel the training will greatly assist caseworkers”.  

Further efficiencies are expected from reduced call rates to helplines seeking clarification about the content of written communications, “the idea of cutting quoting the text needed by the reader (instead of inserting hyper-links) or referring them to specific paragraphs will result in less queries coming back into the Commission for clarification”.  

And finally, “it was so informative and useful it could have easily lasted longer”.

Clearly, some organisations are already drawing benefits from having a clearer understanding of the language they use. This helps to maintain effective stakeholder relations, achieve internal efficiencies and meet business objectives.

So, are is your organisation an energy supplier or commission type? Not sure? You could start by looking at the language choices you currently use and ask the question, “How will our customers react and feel about us if we write to them in this way?”. 

You will find words which you want to change; I guarantee, well, almost.  Good luck.

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