Ripping up the writing rules

As human beings we’re conditioned to use “appropriate” language depending on our setting. In the bar, in a shop, when we bump in to someone on the street and, of course, in the workplace. We choose the way in which we speak, the way in which we interact based not on our conscious decisions, but instead on the way in which society has shaped us.

Similarly, our reaction to the language of others is also conditioned by our expectations of situational appropriateness. When something does meet with these expectations, we take note. Sometimes, with shock, surprise and maybe even joy.

If we want to create more human, more humane workforces, we must never forget the power of the words we use. We need to remember that we are conditioned to write, to talk to employees, to present ourselves in certain ways. There is no rule book, no code of conduct that exists that tells us we need to talk in this way. It’s just years and years of conditioning.

See what I mean:

“We are committed to being a flexible employer as a method of helping us to retain valued employees. We recognise that there may be times when you wish to take an extended period of absence in order to pursue personal interests or domestic duties such as caring for a family member.”


“We recognise the potential in all of our employees and that talent exists throughout the organisation. Analysis has already taken place across the organisation to map out current activities that support talent management and to identify strengths,weaknesses, opportunities and threats.”

And my personal favourite,

“Here at xxxx our ambition is to create the best environment for all our colleagues to reach their full potential. In doing so, we build the culture, capability and capacity to help the business meet its multichannel growth ambitions.

We are facilitating a simple, honest and human culture that is inclusive, collaborative and connected. Ensuring we work with the right structures and processes, to enable flexibility and a culture that values individual contribution, builds teams and minimises risk for xxx.”

Who actually talks like this? I doubt the author of any of these pieces would ever actually speak this way, yet when they put their work hat on, something else comes out. And the expectations of the recipients are met.

Changing how we think, how we act and how we speak is hard. We’re wired to be one thing and yet we want to be another. It takes commitment and it takes perseverance. But when we do, people are more likely to take note.

“We know sometimes you’ll need to take extra time off to deal with the things that happen in life, and that’s ok”

“We want to help you to use all of your skills and abilities at work”

“We’re trying to be the best we can be and to help you to do the same”

Here’s the challenge. As you’re writing this week, whether it is a policy, an advert, an email or announcement. Ask yourself whether you’re writing as you, or whether you’re writing as you’ve been conditioned. If it’s the latter, try switching it around. Speak like a human, not a Human Resource and see what the reaction is. You might be pleasantly surprised.

I. Am. Human.

Following the last two conferences I’ve spoken at, I’ve received the following unsolicited feedback,

“You don’t speak like an HR person”

On both occasions, I’ve assumed it was a compliment and taken it as the best bit of feedback I could receive. I hope I don’t look like an HR person either (no tissues in this cardigan baby) but there is always room for improvement.

The serious point here is that language is important. The words we use, the tone we use, the way in which we communicate both verbally and in writing. They matter.

I don’t care what the intention is, if the language sends out a different message. That’s what people infer.

You tell people what they can’t do. Why not tell them what you want them to do?

You tell people what will happen if they don’t behave. Why not tell them what will happen if they do?

We use a whole vocabulary that means nothing to the vast majority of human beings. A dictionary of terms that have been created to make us feel “strategic” as we “partner” with the business to deliver “value adding interventions” to maximise our “human capital” and drive “employee engagement”.

Or instead we could work with you to make this place better, you happier and the business successful.

But then. We might have to explain how.

Which would require us to think. And not produce another strategy document.

Which could prove tricky.

I am not Human Resources. I am human.