Remember your high school's vice principal? Poor guy, he was tasked with trying to keep order in a cauldron of angst and hormones. And the only tools he had to work with were sticks, not carrots: The Tough Talk. Detention. And the nuclear option: Suspension.
While it was true that the vice principal (eventually) got people's attention, no one would say that the man was a role model of compelling communication.
That's because, especially when we reach adulthood, we don't want to be yelled at. We're over being reprimanded. We feel like they've earned the right to avoid authoritative figures who wag their fingers and admonish us to "Do The Right Thing Because I Said So."
Since this is all true, why is so much communication unfriendly and scold-y? (Yes, I know that's not a word, but even English majors can invent language now and then.) Consider these real-life examples:
- The email from Human Resources alerting you about a pending enrollment deadline. Rather than being a friendly reminder, this message is filled with dire warnings that shout about WHAT HORRIBLE THINGS WILL HAPPEN IF YOU DON'T COMPLY.
- The letter from your power company telling you that it's time for the company to replace your meter. "YOU MUST CALL NOW TO SCHEDULE AN APPOINTMENT" it reads, and you have this rebellious thought, "Do I? Do I really?"
- The company meeting where leaders lament poor customer service scores. Rather than ask employees what the problem is, leaders use dozens of PowerPoint slides to present data to make their case that WE HAVE TO CHANGE RIGHT NOW OR BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN.
If communication were a food group, all these examples would be vegetables--or, more specifically, kale. Yes, you may eat kale because it's good for you, but does anyone really enjoy it? I mean, do you crave kale? Consume it as a reward for surviving that parent-teacher conference or half marathon?
No, you do not. Instead, you stop at the convenience store, stride purposefully over to the snack food rack and buy a fabulous twin pack of Twinkies.
If you're a rabid Twinkies fan, you lived through The Dark Time: the eight months when Hostess Products went under and no Twinkies were made. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, "When retailers learned the snacks would be returning in 2013 after eight months off the shelves, they placed orders for 50 million Twinkies, nearly 40 million Hostess CupCakes and 6 million bags of Donettes within the first two weeks."
Why do people love Twinkies so much? Because they're sweet and yummy and comforting, of course. As Wall Street Journal writers Annie Gasparro and Julie Jargon explain, "Hostess's staying power says as much about Americans' relationship with food as it does about its owners' strategy. People might try to eat healthy most of the time, but they still want to treat themselves. That dichotomy not only fueled sales of kale and quinoa but also led to the cupcake and Cronut and made a taco shell fashioned from a Doritos chip Taco Bell's best-selling product ever."
Which brings me back to communication. Yes, there are times when you need to communicate an important message that your audience should know. But instead of channeling your kale-eating vice principal, try role-modeling Hostess. Adopt a friendly voice. Eliminate the authoritarian tone. Try a little self-deprecating humor. Be short and sweet.
And, most importantly, connect on a human level. We may not all eat Twinkies, but in communication as in the kitchen, we deserve a little indulgence.