Leaping the biggest hurdle to creative communication

This article was my last column in IABC’s Communication World. I’ve retired that column, to focus on Low Hanging Fruit.


The obstacles to being creative inside an organization are many, varied, and tough to overcome . . . but it all starts with taming the approval process

Writing for organizations is hard. Being creative inside organizations isn’t easy.

Sometimes, it seems as if everything is set up to prevent us from creating the kind of content that people will actually read and pay attention to.

A recent informal survey of communicators at one of my writing seminars revealed six common barriers that people face as they labor to create better content. In no particular order, here they are:

1. The approval process
2. Fear of creativity or “doing something new”
3. Audiences who don’t care that much about our stories
4. Internal clients with the wrong agenda
5. Lack of access to important people
6. Boring subject matters

On their own, any one of those things can suck the creativity out of even the best communicators. Taken together, they can suck out your soul. But out of all of them, the hardest one to deal with is the beast at the top of the list: The dreaded approval process.

Which is a shame, because approval processes are supposed to be good things. They are supposed to exist to keep people out of trouble and to make sure we get our facts right. The approval process should, more than anything else, be a fact-checking process.

But it’s not. Instead, most approval processes turn into a group editing exercise. It’s writing by committee. Everybody gets to take a crack at the article: Subject matter experts, managers, executives, HR, legal, compliance . . . everybody is lined up with red pens and their own agendas.

Try to imagine this conversation taking place inside an organization:

Scene: An architect’s office at a major construction company’s headquarters. An architect sits at his desk, poring over a set of blueprints for a new building. There is a knock at the door. It’s the corporate communicator.

Communicator: “Uh, Ed? You got a minute?”

Engineer: “Not really, Bill. What’s up?”

Communicator: “Uh, it’s Phil, actually. And I was just wondering if maybe I could take a look at that blueprint for a second.”

Engineer: “Why would you want to do that?” You can’t run anything about this project in your newsletter yet.”

Communicator: “I know. But I think I have some suggestions for you on how to improve it. See, in fourth grade, I won a statewide Lego competition. I built an entire Hobbit village. I think I can probably give you some good advice.”

That conversation would never happen, right? And yet once the story on the new building is written, and it’s given to the architect for his “approval,” he’ll feel qualified to change the headline, tinker with the lead, massage the quotes, and otherwise butcher the article and render it almost unreadable.

Why? Because everybody can write! Everybody took writing classes in high school and college! Everybody can do what we do, right?

WRONG!!! And we need to start saying that out loud. We need to start sticking up for what we do. We need to have confidence in our expertise, and our talent. In short, we need to take control of the approval process and make it work for us, rather than against us.

I know, I know. It’s easier said than done. And maybe you’ll fail if you try. But the problem is, too many communicators have given up on even trying. They assume it is what it is, and let whatever mess the approval process churns out be the final version. Even though we know it’s a version that nobody will either a) read; or b) understand.

That has to stop. And it’s up to us to turn things around.

Putting the approval process to work for you

In our “Write & Rewrite” webinars and customized writing seminars that we do on-site at companies, my partner Jim Ylisela (the “Rewrite” half of “Write & Rewrite”) and I always carve out time to talk about the approval process.

And after talking to hundreds—if not thousands—of communicators over the years about the topic, we’ve come up with some practical advice that has worked for people in various organizations.

Now there is no guarantee that any of it will work for you. But it’s worth a shot. Here are two of the best pieces of advice we’ve heard:

1. Do more on the front end, so there’s less work on the back end. The idea here is to avoid the “shock syndrome” that conservative corporate people get when they see something different or new or, God forbid, creative.

If you’re going to take a different approach to something, let people know in advance. Let’s say, for example, that you have to write an article about a safety program. But rather than focus the story around the program itself, you’re going to focus the story around one person’s experience with the program. How it’s helped that person stay safe, maybe. Or how, by not paying close enough attention to the program, the person was nearly hurt. Or maybe he or she was hurt.

Now, this might upset the lawyers. It might upset HR. It might upset the manager of the person you’re profiling. So go talk to these people in advance. But when you do, remember these two important things:

A.  Build a business case for doing it differently. You’re not being creative just to be creative. You want to build awareness of an important new program, and your expertise in the field of communications tells you this is the best way to do it. The end goal is to help the organization, not just to tell a good story. Hammer that point home.

B.  Remember that you’re not asking for permission. People will say no to a concept before they ever even see the article. You’re the expert in your field. You know the best way to achieve the objective you’re trying to achieve. You are simply alerting the people who need to see the article that you’re doing things a little differently.

Now, they still might freak out when they see the article. But maybe they’ll freak out a little less. And maybe, just maybe, they won’t freak out at all.

2. Define roles and tasks, so everybody knows what they’re supposed to do. For some reason, many communicators fail to do this. And since nobody knows what their role in the process is, they assume they are supposed to hack away at the article with a red pen.

In any given piece of content, three things need to be “approved:” 1. Facts. 2. Tone. And 3. Style.

Checking facts is the role of the subject-matter experts—you know, the architects and engineers and marketers and salespeople and doctors. But that is their only role, and they need to understand that. They’re not there to mess with tone, style, quotes, headlines, leads, or any of the other story elements that fall into your area of expertise.

Checking tone is where managers and leaders come in. They can help you determine if the overall tone of the piece is suitable to the corporate culture and the audience you’re trying to reach. But you have a say in this, too! If, in an effort to adopt a certain “corporate” tone, leaders keep stripping all the voice and personality out of your content, then you need to step up and fight that.

Finally, checking the style is up to you. The grabby headline; the compelling lead; the quotes that sound human; the conversational style of the writing. These are our blueprints. These are our tools.

Getting these elements right is your contribution to the process . . . and it’s an important one. And one you need to fight for.

By doing a little more work on the front end of the process, and by clearly establishing roles (and making sure people stay in those roles), you can take back control of the approval process.

It won’t be easy. It might not happen right away. You may step on some toes and get your own toes stepped on . . . but the alternative is to let things go the way they’ve been going.

And that’s no alternative at all.

Sign up for Write & Rewrite’s latest webinar: “Storytelling: Bringing your organization’s stories to life,” on March 15th.

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