Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Business Getting Soft?

Five Pieces of Weak, Confusing Patter to Ban from Your Language

President Barack Obama has been criticized of late for weak messages and language. This doesn’t surprise me: he’s a 21st-century politician in an industry (politics) that’s fast reaching its nadir.

What does surprise me – and scares me – is the growing number of business people who regularly use weak, unnecessary language or patter.

“Patter” is language that fills in the breaths between statements and questions. Patter appears to be on the upswing, probably because we have so many bits to fill – hence its extensive use in social media. But just because the bits are there, you don’t have to fill them.

Here are five pieces of patter that you should exorcise from your business language:

“Just Saying”: As opposed to what?

“IMHO”: If you feel unqualified to offer an opinion, then don’t.

• “My Two Cents”: If your opinion is really only worth two cents, then why say it? And why admit to it?

“Oh, and” (often followed by “did I mention?"): Did you really forget to mention it? If so, was it because you don’t think clearly? Or because it was an afterthought? Many people seem to use “oh, and” and “did I mention” to set off the most important item in a list. This makes no sense to me at all.

“Kind of,” when used to obscure what it refers to (“we were kind of confused”), not distinguish it (“Kate Moss is a different kind of cover girl”)

In business, “kind of” is a pox on precision. It calls into question the truth of whatever term it modifies, as well as the knowledge and seriousness of the speaker. The phrase is cropping up in many executive quotations in news stories, making me wonder if reporters’ word processors have a macro that automatically inserts it into quotes.

“Kind of” is particularly deadly when it describes a corporate action or financials. It makes me wonder: “Doesn’t the speaker know how much, or how little?” “If he means ‘approximately’ or ‘estimated,’ why not say this, instead of using the verbal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders?”

Here are two recent examples:

Example 1: “When [former Walmart CEO Lee] Scott was thinking about what qualities his successor should have, he saw a match with [new Walmart CEO Mike] Duke’s skills. ‘I kind of thought -- and I think the board thought - that the company could be better managed,’ says Scott, who is careful to say that it was the directors who picked Duke for the job, not him.”

Example 2: “Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company, wanted to increase its visibility to U.S. investors but worried about associating with over-the-counter offerings, says Thomas Kudsk Larsen, head of investor relations in North America. The OTCQX designation addressed those concerns, and the company started trading there in 2007. ‘By segregating out high-quality companies, we kind of get away from the reputation of the Pink Sheets,’ Larsen says.”

Perhaps by using equivocal patter, business people hope that they won’t offend anyone. (Offending anyone is the third rail in our Post-Crisis world.)

True, if you wallpaper your business speech with weak, equivocal patter, you probably won’t offend anyone. But I can almost guarantee that people won’t remember you – or the points you are trying to make.

Perhaps this is the idea?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Reluctant CEO Blogger

When Blogging, CEOs Should Do it Right or Not Do It at All

There’s been a lot of debate about whether CEOs should blog. The CEO’s main job is to allocate and optimize resources – including his own time – to meet the company’s goals. So, why don’t more companies apply this criterion to CEO blogs?

In my travels as a marketing consultant, I have encountered some CEOs who start blogging and using other social media merely because it's trendy - not because it's central to their business strategies.

The thinking usually goes something like this:

“The people at [my company] have finally persuaded me to share my ideas via social media. So, I'm now blogging about [subject]. Here goes."

In situations like those above, it seems as if the company has no clear goal or strategy – other than to jump on the blogging bandwagon. The company also does not have a well-thought-out plan: the CEO seems unsure about what to do, how to do it, or why he’s doing it. Precious resources – starting with the CEO’s time – are being allocated to a project of ill-defined value.

My opinion: this CEO should not be blogging.

In contrast, meet my long-time colleague and client Guy Hoffman. A former software entrepreneur, Guy is founder and CEO of U.S. HomeTeam, a company that offers new property and casualty (P&C) insurance products that make more profits for carriers and agents while providing more choice and value for consumers. The goal is to make everybody involved in the insurance transaction a winner – hence the use of “team” in the company’s name.

The P&C insurance industry being pretty resistant to innovation, Guy started his CEO blog, “Insurance Matters,” to help educate consumers, carriers, agents and service providers about the value of change. The blog talks about the importance of insurance in a good personal financial plan – something that most consumers don’t spend much time thinking about – and about the constraints of current products.

Equally important, the blog communicates the company’s Conscious Capitalism philosophy. It shares the company’s purpose and the culture it is building to achieve that purpose.

Guy writes the blog himself: it sounds like him and is authentic. He has a regular editorial schedule, and he SEOs his topics and blog headlines. His team promotes the content through the company’s social-media program (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn).

The blog is attracting followers and fans, and it’s generating click-throughs – albeit a bit more slowly than Guy would like (not a surprise given the subject matter). However, Guy knows he’s creating a body of content that keeps his Web site fresh and the company well-represented in search engines, while having other potential uses. The blog is cathartic and stimulating for Guy, helping him create a dialog with the industry and shape his ideas for new products, markets and customers. In short: the blog is meeting his business goals.

Before sending your CEO off to blog, I recommend the following:

Have a goal. Know what you are trying to achieve, who you are trying to reach, and why.

Make an honest assessment of your CEO’s potential as a blogger. Does he have the time? Does he have the willingness? Can he and will he contribute substantively to the growth of a blog, which is a long-term proposition?

Have a plan, including:

• an editorial mission and guidelines, including what the CEO will and will not write about.

• an editorial calendar, defining how frequently you will publish. (If someone must edit or approve the CEO’s blog articles before publication, remember to build this additional time into your calendar.)

• an editorial “machine,” for identifying timely topics that the CEO may want to blog about. This machine might include Google alerts, a marketing assistant who monitors the Web and forwards news and articles, or both.

• a promotion plan, for promoting the blog on social and traditional media – including other blogs that your CEO may want to follow and comment on.

• a policy for how you will handle comments on the blog.

• a simple measurement program.

Have the first several posts written before the blog goes online. This will enable you to get off to a strong start while the blog gets established.

Remember that the best CEO blogs are those that reflect the personality of the CEO and the brand characteristics of the company – and bring both alive in a natural, authentic way.

If you don’t have a clear understanding of your goal and your ability to meet that goal, do not proceed.