Say It With Straight Talk

The secret to effective communication is a simple one.

Queen Isabella was said to have washed only three times in her life, and only once voluntarily. That was when she was married. The other two times were at her birth and death. No wonder Columbus left to discover a new world. Why this olfactory analysis of history? Because this is the time of year when we are inundated with corporate annual reports, and in most of them the letter to the shareholders smells as wretched as Queen Isabella must have. One of the sad truths about malodorous things is that people tend to get used to them in time. But Ill never become accustomed to the public-relations pap I read in most annual reports. Every year tens of thousands of stale, vapid, and uninspired letters to shareholders appear in elaborate annual reports. They are printed on expensive paper whose gloss and sheen are exceeded only by the glitzy words of the professional PR writer who ghosted the message. They will be read by shareholders who dont understand them -- or believe them. Quite often they are hype. Sometimes they are dull. Some are boastful, others apologetic. And they are generally ambiguous. In my experience, the shortest distance between writer and reader is straight talk. Its also the shortest distance between you and your shareholders. Consider this statement: Your company came to an agreement with our labor unions to offer employment to minority groups across the board. The decision to enhance diversification was reached on the afternoon of July 6, 1996. Subsequent implementation was scheduled for the morning of August 1, 1996. The representatives of the minority parties to the agreement made a statement that, pending implementation of the agreed-upon policy, they would refrain from open discussion or official comment. It could be more simply stated: On July 6, 1996, your company agreed with labor to employ all minority groups effective August 1, 1996. Effective communication should be simple and direct, intelligent but not obtuse, interesting but honest. Your message should feature reality instead of hyperbole, fact instead of fiction, results instead of promises. Shareholders want green turf, not blue sky; insight, not hindsight. Your report should be partisan: zealously pro-shareholder. Too many annual reports are written for the investment community instead of for the shareholder. Its the old "bird in the hand versus two in the bush" strategy. You are chief executive, not chief curator. Your report should not be an artifact. It should be a performance fact. Because, in the final analysis, if there is no you (the shareholder) in your message, there may be no you (the CEO) in your companys future. I have known a lot of CEOs in my 50 years in business publishing. They come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and temperaments. Too few are comfortable with the written word. Most of them are better talkers than writers. More of them prefer to speak off the record than write for the record. As a professional writer -- and a speaker -- I deplore the lack of communication skills in most business executives. Its excruciating to listen to a chief executive read a speech written for him. Even with as skilled a communicator as President Clinton, I can tell when the teleprompter is relaying his words or those of a professional speech writer. The writers words often do not fit Clintons personality or character. And, therefore, they do not appear to be sincere or believable. The difference is even more discernible when the communication is written rather than verbal. Written words have no gestures, tonal emphasis, or body language to help communicate their meaning. They speak for themselves, and readers must draw their conclusions from the words alone. Most chief executives are busy people and lack experience as writers or public speakers. Therefore, it is important that the people you select to write your material know you intimately. Also, always insist on preliminary drafts so that you can edit yourself into the script. Your public-relations experts are not you. They arethe kind of people who would commit suicide if they could do it without killing themselves. They know 101 ways to make love, but dont know the Queen Isabellas they are trying to woo. Thats why I feel sorry for them, for your shareholders, and for me. And, of course, for King Ferdinand. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Publishing Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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