To the letter

Last week I spent a day with members of the housing team of a local authority. We were looking at the letters they send out to tenants on a variety of subjects, ranging from noise to rubbish to gardens to lock-ups. Mostly standard letters, they had evidently been written in an era when the council’s officials saw themselves more as the staff of some kind of correctional facility than the providers of housing and amenities for rate-payers.

The word officious was coined to describe these letters. They were legalistic, finger-wagging, pompous and verbose. They shouted in bold, with underlining for good measure. They cited great chunks of legislation. They signed themselves ‘Mrs Jane Jones, Housing Officer’. They referred to people’s ‘garden ground’ and ‘flatted dwellings’. They were calculated to make the reader dissociate from the writer, where there was even a trace of a human voice to be detected in the first place. The chances of their achieving any kind of result – whether a tidier garden or cleaner stairs – were nil.

Happily, times have changed and my little group of letter-writers agreed that this was no way to be speaking to people in 2013. We had begun by watching a short film about empathy, then discussing the fact that empathy is at the heart of all good communication, that unless you are able to imagine how your words make your reader feel you will never connect with them.

By the time we came to look at the offending examples, the group was ready to laugh or groan as one at the voice their organisation projected through its letters. It sounded like something from the 1950s, the voice of some grim, bilious functionary in a cheap dark suit.

Soon we were pulling the letters to pieces and reassembling them in a more conversational tone. The mood in the room lightened as people began to see that something which, far from serving a useful purpose, had been an obstacle to the council fulfilling its obligations and them doing their jobs well, was falling away. Just this simple shift in tone would be enough to help start building bridges with some of their more difficult customers – and sound a welcome note with the more compliant ones.

But the shift offered more. With it, the writers themselves started to open up and become more forthcoming. I’ve seen it happen time and again when people are given permission to use a more natural form of expression. They grasp it with both hands and straight away apply it in every aspect of their communication. It is truly liberating and empowering. It’s one of the keys to personal authenticity – from which flows creativity, however you care to define it.

I can’t help but think that its opposite, business speak, management speak, jargon, whatever one wants to call it, not only gets in the way of good communication and human connection with others, but severely constrains its users. To put it another way, I believe that organisations that nurture or even default to language of this kind are denying the people who work for them their natural voices, and so cannot possibly be getting the best out of them.

Which is not a problem shared by a young man called Jacob Collier. My brother Simon, a fine musician as well as a professional photographer, sends me things that have made him smile from time to time. Yesterday he sent a YouTube link to the fresh-faced Jacob singing Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing. ‘Singing’ is a somewhat inadequate term for what Jacob’s up to. This 18-year-old genius performs a fabulously sophisticated jazz version of the song which he arranged himself, singing it in six voices, and playing all the instruments from double bass to multiple keyboards, guitars and percussion. It’s hard to believe that someone of that age could be such an accomplished vocalist, let alone arranger and instrumentalist as well.

I looked him up, imagining he had appeared from nowhere, having recorded it all in his bedroom. Not so. Jacob Collier is a musical prodigy, a child actor and chorister turned star of the Royal Academy of Music. He’s been working on his voice, literal and metaphorical, since he was a child. The truth, as my letter-writers know well, is that everyone has to work at it. The real skill is to make it seem as effortless as he does. Watch here and be amazed.

On re-reading this I realise I have just unintentionally but exactly replicated the characters I described last week, the critical old man and the free child. These things run deep.

About Jamie Jauncey

Author, writer, blogger, facilitator, musician, co-founder of Dark Angels and The Stories We Tell
This entry was posted in Business speak, Business writing, Creativity, Jargon, Language, Management speak, Music and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to To the letter

  1. Angus Grundy says:

    Hi, Jamie

    Another fine post from you, as ever. I do admire the way you connect events in your week with your key themes. So many bloggers, sooner or later, end up posting a grab bag of unconnected things. But your posts always go the heart of your core message of a few kind words. Hats off!

    I stumbled on Jacob Collier last month. Incredible, isn’t he?

    All the best, Angus

  2. Margaret Wright says:

    I too love this blog- the topics and the way its written. Finding your authentic voice is key as is using it. You deal with potentially quite heavy and depressing subjects in a deceptively light and readable way that is very skilful. Unlocking the power within an organisation in the way that you describe in this post with the housing people and recognising the link between this post and a previous one with the themes of the old man and the child shows great awareness and a touch of brilliance, not least because you are covering a potentially heavy subject about our underlying stories. On my list yet again for 2014 is to attend one of your writing courses and also ‘The Stories we tell’ .

  3. Thanks to you too, Margaret – I’d hate to feel I was depressing people! And we’d love to see you on one or even both courses!

    • Margaret wright says:

      Did not mean to suggest that you were depressing people, but depressing to think that we have organisations and people working in this way you describe in the blog ie before you work with them to free their authentic voice!

  4. Mike says:

    I don’t suppose you could share a couple before-and-after samples–with the names of people and companies changed–to illustrate the differences?

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