March 7, 2012

Communication - The Other C-Word

Communication is the center of everything. It’s how things get done and how we progress as societies in our relationships and businesses. Some of us do it well; some have to practice. And business communication, with it structured approach and widely accepted code of what’s considered right and what’s considered wrong, has a unique style of its own. You may not notice it, but we all have been caught by this communication train that demands that we end our letters or emails with Sincerely, that we respond with a full paragraph when a single sentence gets the message across, that we incessantly use exclamation points, and that we leave voicemails that are as exciting and formal as dry toast. Be honest. Especially with the various platforms we are using that lack human connection, we constantly give false pretenses, we dance around our explanations, we respond vaguely so that by the time our reader is done, they have no idea where they stand. We keep our doors open. We call this effective.

The Formulaic Plunge into Political Correctness

The other day I came across an email that made me stop and think about this whole thing called business communication. I have been dabbling with the idea of using product giveaways as part of my marketing strategy and when I started planning for a future article that highlights the TOMS shoe company, whose business model is built around giving, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get the ball rolling. I reached out to their media contact with my pitch. This is a shorted version of the letter I wrote them:

My name is Brandy Gonsoulin and I am the author and manager of a blog,, which is a business and marketing bi-monthly web publication that focuses on creating market relevant content focused around great ideas, business models, and marketing campaigns. The blog has an average reach of about 200 visitors per month with an equal split between new and returning users and has a dedicated subscription base of 35 readers who directly receive updates on newly published content. I am developing an article that focuses on TOMSs unique and innovative business model and I would like to offer my readers a TOMS product giveaway . . . The purpose of the article is to highlight a different approach to the non-profit model, provide a successful case study, and continue the conversation that Inc. Magazine started in its May 2011 issue in an editorial titled, "The Social Entrepreneurship Spectrum". A product giveaway to my existing and new readers would be a valuable marketing channel for you as a brand at minimal cost and effort. . . . Blah, blah, blah.

They responded quickly (which I give them kudos for):
Hi Brandy -
Thank you so much for your interest in TOMS. Unfortunately at this time we are unable to participate in giveaways or reviews. Best of luck with your blog.

Keep Giving!

Not bad right, but since I was suspicious that they were not telling me truth I Googled the phrase, “TOMS product giveaway”. (And by the way, what does keep giving mean, you're supposed to be giving, I'm writing . . .anyway). I wasn’t shocked when the first page in the search was for nothing other than a recent TOMs shoe giveaway featured on a blog. Of course I felt slightly rejected; I felt like I had made a fair enough case and yeah my numbers aren’t that high (but my mom thinks I write the best blog ever). Nevertheless, I’m also a rational person. This blog’s stats compared to mine told the story. They had a bigger audience. In the business world as in life, it doesn’t make sense to waste your time and resources on channels that won’t give you a return. I got it.

But, why couldn’t they just say that?
Did they think I was that sensitive to hear the word no? Were they afraid that honesty would send me into brand dislike? Did they think I would go on a PR rampage? To give TOM’s the benefit of the doubt, maybe they really didn’t have any product to giveaway (Riiighht) Or maybe the media contact just didn’t have the time to construct that sort of response and the formula was much easier, I mean I should at least be happy that I got a response, right? Yes, right. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ve gotten so good at the standard business jargon that we’ve actually become trained to communicate to each other unauthentic-ally, and the result is a nicely packaged pile of bs lie that we’re not even aware of.

Here’s how I would’ve like that response to read:
Dear Brandy

While we appreciate your interest in a product giveaway, we receive multiple requests and we need to focus our limited resources for giveaways to channels with a large following whose topic and audience are more relevant to our media and PR strategy. Please check in with us in the future as you grow and expand your audience. We wish you luck.
Sure a response like that takes a little more thought to craft and some people might think that sounds a little direct off the tongue (which that's a completely separate post entitled Where Did Our Balls Go? - The case against sensitivity), but doesn’t it give the listener a solid response and a place to identify where they stand verses swimming in sea of confusion. Who wants to be confused?

The fact is, communication has been evolving this way for many years and it won’t change overnight, but I dare you to try it, to defy what we have been taught by each other, to resist the urge to be sound enthusiastic when we don't mean it, to step out on a limb and be honest with the conversations you’re having. If we could stop being afraid to upset people, if we can have just one uncomfortable, transparent moment and say what’s truly behind our decisions and motivations and that uncomfortable moment turns into more and more less uncomfortable moments, imagine what we could do for communication, for our relationships, and ultimately for progress.
It's not easy, but how many times have you lied today?

Thanks for reading!

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