Essays on Technology and Culture

Some Thoughts on Corporate Communication

Part of my job involves creating copy and press release for our company—as well as reading other companies’s PR and communications. It has me thinking about things that make for good communication from a company, and things that don’t. In the interest of positivity, I’ll phrase these as “Dos” rather than “Don’ts,” because nobody likes to be told what not to do.

1. Keep it short and simple

This is essential. Reading a long, drawn out, rambly, and complex story about anything is a recipe for losing a reader. In any communication to a wide audience, keep it short, snappy, and simple. While I’m prone to lexicographical whimsy and complicated prosody on my personal site, that’s my voice. The ten-dollar words, and complex sentences go out the window when I’m writing something for work.

Use short sentences, short paragraphs, and simple terminology (where appropriate). I’m not saying to go all Dick and Jane on your reader, but sometimes an exercise in simple language like XKCD’s “Up Goer Five” can help clarify your message. Instead of “We’ve refactored our technological processes to increase user engagement,” try “We updated our website to make it easier to use.”

2. Use the active tense

Is there anything worse than reading something from a company that’s in the passive voice?

“WidgetCo would like to express its regret over the industrial accident that spilled one-hundred gallons of marshmallow fluff last week. WidgetCo has been made aware of the causes of the accident, and has sought to address them.”

Yes, I’m sure WidgetCo would like to express its regret, but it’s not. It’s only expressing its wish to express it. They “have been” made aware, though they may not still be.

Let’s recast this with the active tense:

“WidgetCo apologizes for last week’s industrial accident that spilled one-hundred gallons of marshmallow fluff. We know the causes of the accident and are addressing them.”

It’s not great, but this shows WidgetCo is being direct and active in apologizing and addressing what caused all that marshmallow fluff to spill.

On the web, when asking a user to do something, a short, imperative statement is critical. For example, our product rolled out a feature to help users complete their profiles, in the form of a progress bar and suggested actions. The section on the page was originally titled “Your profile completeness”. Aside from being complex, it didn’t exactly call anyone to action. It was simply: “how complete is your profile.” By changing it to “Complete Your Profile,” the action was clear, as was the intent behind the progress bar.

3. Be personable

This ties in a lot with two, but there’s a difference between boring corporate-speak that ignores the reader, and interesting copy that interests the reader. For example:

“WidgetCo’s SystemX allows users to communicate effectively across multiple platforms and networks.”

Snore. Nobody talks like that, and while it’s moderately direct and clear, it’s talking about a user instead of to a user.

“WidgetCo’s SystemX lets you reach out to your friends no matter what software they use.”

Boom. It’s longer, but the words are shorter and it speaks directly to the reader. “This lets you do that.” is a good formula to use, assuming “This” is clear, and “that” is simple.

4. Have a personality

Don’t be afraid to lighten things up. Many great new technology companies have elements of their communication and presentation that are playful and fun, which is a huge improvement on the personality-free, faceless communications we associate with big, personality-free, faceless corporations. Sadly, when those big personality-free, faceless corporations decide to try having a personality, it’s when they’re trying to sell you something.

You don’t need to sell something to have a little fun and make your customers smile. A little bit of informality, a little bit of humor, and a little bit of cleverness all go a long way to defining how you communicate and how people respond to it. This is a balancing act, of course. When telling someone bad news, surrounding it with jugglers and clowns is only going to hurt you. Context is key with everything.

These are just a few thoughts from my experience writing for a business. All of these take time and practice. All of these, too, can be wrung out by any sort of bureaucratic structure that isn’t all on the same page about how you communicate. [1] This goes beyond writing well from a technical standpoint. These are matters of voice and presentation that often get lost in attempts to be either all things to all people, or cover-your-ass desperation. If you trust your own ability to communicate, and do so honestly, and clearly, the ideas in this post extend naturally.

  1. See, for example, banks and government agencies.  ↩