The Argument For (And Against) Bad Writing

I spent my evening working alongside another manager at my restaurant counting every goddamn piece of thing in the store. Inventory counts suck regardless of your industry, but the quick service industry has it the worst. I’m estimating ketchup packets. This job has given me a ridiculous slew of skills that are not what you’d expect ranging from basic plumbing (I do not want to fix another toilet in my life), to negotiation, right through to precise estimation. Besides the point.

As I was wrapping up, the closing manager had noticed my scratch-written notes to myself that I took along the way to check through as I was inputting everything into the computer. These are the words that fell from her mouth,

“Your writing is really messy. You know, you should really work on that. It’s quite ugly.”

Excuse me?

I took extreme offense to this. Writing is something I have been doing for a very large chunk of my life, as with most people in a developed country. As a result of this, writing becomes a natural and subconscious skill; it is as effortless as breathing, really. To insult somebody’s writing is to insult their very being.

The pen is the bridge between your ideas and representation of reality, and the real world. This is a very powerful statement. It is as important of a bridge in comparison to your voice (which holds a similar function), both being outward-directed. Inward-directed bridges could be considered your eyes for vision, and your hands for touch. Again, these are powerful concepts; this is how a human-being interacts with the world and as such makes it spin.

So of course I take offense to this. The statement I had received about my penmanship is attacking not just my ability to scribble, but my ability to contribute. As an aside, “messy” writing is often linked to intelligence, quick thinking, mathematical literacy, creativity, and so on. Those are traits I’d love to be noted for.  (Plus, scribble writing is more fun.)

I do want to break this down into two opposing arguments, however. There is a need to be your own, to be an individual. There is also a place for tailored writing, as with other skills. Let’s go into them, and then throw some business applications on it.

The Argument for Filtered Messages

As stated, writing is a form of interaction. This statement did not specify the target of interaction. Societies are generated by homogenous groups of people, and as such maintain norms and constructs that are common between them. These norms are generally followed by anybody native to that society, but outsiders must interact within their lingo.

Throw an artist into a room of businesspeople and they’ll quickly realize that they are in extreme deficit of an array of short forms and acronyms. The reverse holds true as well. Hell, throw a marketing student into a room of accounts and you’ll see the same thing. These norms surpass more than mere language, but let’s focus on that for this discussion.

Given my incident at work today, if I were to be writing a message for one of my coworkers, maybe she’d be in the right (write? bad pun) to criticize my visual penmanship. If you were to look at the communication cycle, I’d be adding sender-related noise, disrupting effective communication. Being that I was writing for myself, I do not need to abide to norms pushed on by others. I’ll talk about the power of this in a bit.

The marketing implications: If you’re a brand, you gotta talk to people how they expect to be talked to. Communication strategies differ between age, gender, geographic demographics, but also between a variety of softer attributes. People who like Coke might need to be talked to differently than people who like Pepsi (what those differences are, well that’s the job of the brand manager and creative team). When it comes to communication, having your own voice is important (as I will discuss), however there are thresholds that must be maintained. Syntax and grammar are an example of this (and are even more important when developing international communications).

The management implications: The same thing. People are different from each other, and as such listen differently and require different communication strategies. I notice this at work a lot. We have an individual who manager’s coin as having an “attitude problem”. I have zero problems with the guy, and it’s probably because I communicate with him in a way that I show respect. By tailoring my communications with him, rather than blanketing them across all employees, I have experienced zero conflict and have probably contributed to his success as an employee.

The Argument for Unfiltered Messages

Unfiltered seems like the correct description of the contrasting message-type as you are not filtering it for someone else’s reception. In the example stated above, I was writing for myself so it was written largely from my subconscious. This is where the power comes in; an unfiltered message allows the pen to be an extension of your body and as such you can provide a pure impression of your vision or ideas onto the world. This is the stuff that drives innovation and creativity, the stuff that causes changes in the world. Maybe I’m getting a little over-the-top, especially when thinking of my incident from above.

The marketing implications: This is what companies are paying out millions to do. There are organizations that have entire positions, teams, and/or departments to designing a voice that is purely “them”, one that stands out and gets them noticed (and as such develops leads). You know when an advertisement starts and you know what company or product it’s for, before they announce it? That is this concept being successful (cc: Old Spice, Oreo). There are also many ways that this concept can unfold as communication mediums increase in variety as well as dynamism. (Old Spice clearly developed a voice through video. Taco Bell has an interesting Twitter voice.)

The management implications: This concept is what separates weirdos from societies – and I mean this in the best way possible. Unfiltered voices can create disruption in a normal environment and can fuel change and progression as a result. As a manager, it is important to not be a robot (unless you work with a bunch of robots, which I think is pretty cool); having a personal voice adds humanity and can bring you down to Earth. An excellent example is that of a stereotypical CEO, whom everyone below is afraid to talk to. You throw humanity in the mix, the odds increase that you add empathy. People will open up to you, and you will be a more successful manager.

The Argument (And Need) For Both

Here’s the tricky part, and the real truth of it: you gotta have both. Sometimes together, sometimes not, but both are required for successful organizations and managers alike.

As a brand, you still need to follow the norms of society at large, as well as the specific societies you’re targeting, else your message will not be understood. That being said, there needs to be a degree of differentiation for people to take notice and more importantly, care.

As a manager, you will not lead if you talk like the rest of the group. That being said, you need to maintain some ability to relate or else you’ll end up on Mars (again, which is okay if you run a business out of Mars).

Summary

This was as long-winded discussion over some mundane incident at work, but it’s definitely true. Nobody has the authority to say how you should be controlling your interactions with the world. Writing is one of those bridges, primarily an outward interaction.

Looking at both ends of the spectrum, you can have purely filtered or unfiltered communications. There are benefits and weaknesses to both, but the reality is that effective organizations and individuals need both. There is strength in balancing both, or switching between the two to arrive at your desired results. This balance changes good brands into great ones, and changes managers into leaders.

How do you speak? How do you write? Do you tend to fall to one side? Let me know.



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