posted 20 Nov 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 4
Lessons from literature
Using genre techniques in internal communications
The traditional nature of corporate communications often fails to inspire employees, with most companies relying on dry, turgid doublespeak to get their point across. Lynn Shepherd and Philip Mann explore the range of techniques open to CEOs looking to engage their workers with language that is at once more authentic, more convincing and more involving.
“[Story] is immensely old – it goes back to Neolithic times, perhaps to Palaeolithic... The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping round the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. The [storyteller] droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next they either fell asleep or killed him.” (E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 1927.)
E.M. Forster may not be as reverential of the origins of story as its modern enthusiasts are, but he agrees with them on one thing: storytelling is immensely old. Stories have been told for thousands of years, not simply to entertain, as Forster suggests, but also to inform, share experience, pass on collective beliefs and create a sense of group identity. And if Forster is rather disdainful of storytelling, can you imagine his reaction to the even more primitive techniques of the internal communications or public relations officer? Probably the same one meted out to the tribal storyteller by the shock-heads round the campfire. Because Forster agrees with contemporary story practitioners on another important aspect of story: it is immensely powerful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the old and tested skills of narrative are being adapted for a new and specifically corporate context.
As discussed elsewhere in this issue, using narrative within organisations allows managers and leaders to understand and interact with the ‘water-cooler’ networks within their companies and effect positive and sustainable change. But even the most zealous champion of story will accept that informal narrative cannot entirely replace a company’s usual battery of formal communications: its intranet, in-house magazines, staff announcements, newsletters and team meetings. Not only are these very blunt instruments in the hands of even the most skilful practitioners, what’s worse is that they themselves are often one of the principal causes of cynicism and low morale inside companies, being seen by staff merely as the mouthpiece of shallow corporate propaganda. But knowing this, what can you do about it? How can you ensure that the enhanced insight gained from narrative is delivered in an equally flexible, responsive and – dare we say it – inspiring way?
We think the answer may be another set of old skills adapted for a new context; skills that Forster would certainly have understood and endorsed: the principles, uses and applications of genre.
What is genre?
A dictionary definition of genre is: “A literary species; a particular style, especially of literature, art, music, etc, recognisable by its particular subject or form.” We are going to concentrate on the part of the definition that describes genre as a “particular style recognisable by its particular subject or form”. In other words, for our purposes, genre is essentially a way of classifying different types of written communications according to their purpose, their subject matter and structure, and the role of the storyteller in relation to the audience. And the reason why this is relevant to communications inside organisations? Because an understanding of genre is almost as fundamental to the evolved human condition as an appetite for story. When we listen to a storyteller, we are waiting, just like Forster’s Neanderthal shock-heads, to find out what will happen next; likewise, when we pick up a book or magazine, or hear a broadcast, we are responding almost unconsciously to a series of sophisticated generic indicators.
For example, look how many signposts there already are in the following opening sentences. It says: ‘Once upon a time...’; you decode it as: ‘Fantasy taking place in a distant and imaginary place and time; aimed principally at children; may well have a moral relating to the ultimate triumph of good over evil.’ It says: ‘Malaria is a major public health and socio-economic problem in many rural areas of Africa...’; you decode it as: ‘Factual; serious; conveying facts but with a possible suggestion of some campaigning or consciousness-raising objective.’ It says: ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like...’; you decode it as: ‘A life-story; direct and informal in approach; likely to be entertaining; could be fictional or autobiographical.’ It says: ‘It’s been a challenging year, but we have made good progress on our strategic objectives...’; you decode it as: ‘Corporate-speak; dull; unlikely to be a recognisable or honest version of what really happened.’
What percentage of corporate communications fall into the last category? 80 per cent? 90 per cent? And yet it’s easy to see that this is not inevitable; that it would be possible to use conventions and techniques from other genres and thereby elicit an entirely different response.
The traditional nature of internal communications is often described as an attempt to affect what employees think, feel and do. In other words it focuses on the different responses to be achieved. The problem arises because the means used is almost always exactly the same. We come at the question from the opposite direction, concentrating on the right medium for each message. We therefore use a completely different genre depending on whether the aim is to inform, to involve or to influence. So what are the main characteristics of these three categories?
The most illustrious ‘literary species’ that falls under this heading is the history: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome, for example, were attempting to do the same thing – albeit on a grander scale – as their modern descendants, the news bulletin and documentary. The conventions and characteristics of an informing genre are designed to form the reader’s opinion and if necessary change the way he thinks about the subject in question. If you look closer you can see how an informing genre does this. The subject matter concentrates on conveying facts. The language used is usually neutral, thereby giving the appearance of impartiality and authority. The narrator will normally be either absent (ie, in the third person) or self-effacing. And the structure of the piece is always carefully composed, designed to appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions.
Most of us are more exposed – and therefore more attuned – to involving genres than any other. Novels, soap operas and feature films all employ the basic conventions of the involving genre to engage us with their story. So how do they do it? Compared to an informing genre, the language here is heightened. For example, there is more use of imagery and of adjectives (like ‘lousy’ in the extract from The Catcher in the Rye quoted above). Likewise, the narrator is much more visible, whether they are talking in the first person, like Holden Caufield, or writing in the third person, as with the novels of Thomas Hardy or, for that matter, John Grisham. And finally, in terms of structure, an involving genre is as well wrought as an informing one, but whereas a history or a documentary is assembled on the basis of logic and fact, an involving genre is organised quite unashamedly as a storyline, as a plot determined by human emotion and interaction.
Influencing genres are the most ambitious, endeavouring, in standard corporate parlance, to ‘change behaviours’. These are all manipulative genres, in which the narrators may appear to be direct and informal, but always remain acutely aware of their ultimate purpose. The language they use is instrumental and carefully chosen, using words deliberatively to provoke the response they want: the sermon exhorts, the party political broadcast appeals, the fable instructs and the advert lures.
Using genres in corporate communications
The problem for companies is that they have a lot of practice in conveying information and they usually do it well. As a result almost everything that is broadcast from most corporate HQs tends to fall more or less into the informing category; it’s a safe option, you can knock up some speaker notes and some glitzy slides, and even the most inept communicator can make a fist of it. Or appear to; using an informing genre in the wrong context will never cause a riot, but it will almost certainly contribute to cynicism in the long term. Presenting the details of the latest pension scheme with a set of bullet points and bar charts is fair enough, but that approach won’t work if you’re announcing a merger that will test your staff’s emotional commitment to the limit. And if you want to persuade people to change the way they work, a process flowchart is not the most convincing means to do it. All this seems obvious enough when it’s written down, but how many times have we all seen CEOs fall into this trap and then watched them berate their communications people when the response they get is decidedly chilly?
Of course, some CEOs are natural storytellers, charismatic leaders who can capture the mood of a room and appeal directly to hearts rather than minds. Those with this gift use the conventions of genre instinctively, without needing to be taught. Those who are not such natural orators retreat back to the safe ground of the bullet point and the pie chart. The same is true of corporate communicators when they write speeches or compose articles for the intranet or in-house magazine. But the point about genre techniques is that they can be learnt and exploited. You can appeal to different audiences by using different narrative genres. You can combine features and techniques from the three categories of genres. You can surprise your audience, reinforce their shared experience and beliefs, challenge their assumptions, intrigue and excite them.
So how can you do that in practice? The following short example gives a quick idea of the range of possibilities genre can open up. Remember that dreary piece of corporate results-speak we encountered earlier? Well, no-one is pretending that you can magically turn a sow’s ear like that into War and Peace, but if you use some of the basic conventions of genres like the novel or autobiography you can begin to make it into something more authentic, more convincing and more involving. You can do this by bringing out the narrator’s personality and having him relate how he felt about the events of the year; you can make the language more vivid and accessible, adding imagery that brings the narrator’s experiences to life; and you can structure the piece as a story, in which events are driven by people.
“It has been a challenging year, but we have made good progress on our strategic objectives. Since our reorganisation of the French business last year, profitability has improved and sales volume has grown, particularly in the childrenswear division. Marketing spend has remained focused behind our key brands and we are expecting continued good growth in the next six months.” Or:
“I have to admit, there were times in the last year when I asked myself if we were on the right track. It was a huge risk closing the factory in Lyons and you all know what a hard time we had explaining our reasons to the people who worked there. And I know how they felt – I used to run the French business and I spent three years trying to make it work. So closing the place was almost like cutting off my own arm. After that things had to get better. We had a few hairy weeks, but sales did eventually start to pick up. And then, of course, Mark’s team came up with those fantastic new children’s designs and the agency developed those great TV ads for them, which got a universal thumbs-up when we tried them out on our own kids. I think we’ve got the right approach now when it comes to advertising and we’re going to do more of the same in the next six months. So, things are still tough, but we’re getting there.”
No prizes for guessing which of these two storytellers would be more likely to keep Forster’s Neanderthals at bay round the campfire.
Philip Mann is a communications consultant and director at Bamber Forsyth, part of the Cordiant Communications Group. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit: www.bamberforsyth.com