How to change a bullshit culture without losing your job

Painting: Édouard Detaille via Google Cultural Institute

It’s just no fun if you’re the only one in your organization dedicated to clear, bold communication. Don’t stop there, spread the word. Here’s how to do it effectively.

If your company, department, or workgroup doesn’t put a premium on clarity, it’s your job to change it. Remember the Iron Imperative:

The Iron Imperative: You must treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.

If you truly believe this, then why stop with your own writing? Your organization will make great strides if clarity becomes a core value. Then you can all spend your time being productive instead of parsing blather-laden emails and documents. Organizational change is a big job, but it’s worth it. Here’s how to get started:

  • Recruit powerful friends. Writing clearly gets you noticed. Pay close attention to who’s noticing you. It could be your boss, an HR person, the manager in the next cube with 12 years seniority, or the senior VP who shared some kinds words at the quarterly department lunch. Ask them to support your effort to change the culture of communication, then bring them a plan.
  • Focus your effort. People who attempt to change everything end up changing nothing. Limit your scope; pick your battles. Focus on mass emails, training classes, or PowerPoints. Root out jargon, limit word counts, or improve graphics. Choose a team or department where you have managerial support. For example, you might propose to “Reduce jargon in all emails that people in the product management group send to at least five other people.” It’s easier to succeed like this than to quixotically take on the whole culture at once.
  • Prove your worth. Gather some statistics. “Our workgroup produces 200 reports per year, and 20% of clients say they are too long.” Or “Office workers spend 14% of their time on email.” Then show how your proposal will help. People want to believe that it’s worth it to clear the bullshit, but if you’re spending time on it, your bosses will expect proof that the time will not be wasted.
  • Create a plan with measurable results. How will you spread the word: meetings, emails, training, social media, Intranet? Will you recruit volunteers into an army of irregulars? What stages will your program go through? How will you measure results? Unless you’ve got clear goals that managers and collaborators can get behind, your effort is just a hobby, and unlikely to succeed.
  • Collaborate. Your friends and colleagues aren’t just pawns in your scheme. They’re teammates. Listen to, build on, and amplify their good ideas.
  • Know what not to change. If your senior management just rolled out a new strategy, it’s probably filled with buzzwords like six sigma or customer experience. Those are not the jargon words to take on. If your senior VP bloviates like a politician, perhaps her emails are not the ones to single out for opprobrium. As the serenity prayer says, you must acquire the “serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Bullshit fighters who lack that wisdom become roadkill.
  • Build on your successes. It took six months, but you purged most of the jargon from your reports. Have a glass of champagne, then take on passive voice, or confusing graphics, or weasel words. Or move beyond reports to emails and blog posts, or beyond your department to the whole division. There’s always more bullshit to fight. Only wimps rest on their laurels.

Thanks to Louis Biggie, who inspired this post by championing the cause of plain, clear writing within his organization, Johns Hopkins University.

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  1. Some really good ideas in here. Personally I think you could write a whole book on this topic. It’s something I’m constantly thinking about and struggling with.

    I worked within an government organisation in the UK that had a whole team devoted to trying to change it’s writing culture to plain English. They met incredible resistance and AFAIK were not successful (although they made some small gains I believe).

    One thing that often gets neglected is that it takes TIME to write well. I.e. lots and lots of revision. Crap writing is usually a result of lack of revision.

    However, organisations don’t always set aside time for this. In fact I’ve never come across an organisation that said to me “keep spending time on revision until it reads beautifully”. Other factors drive timelines, and writing quality is not usually one of them.