Writing for the wrong audience

Today, we have the debut post from the other half of Doris and Bertie, David Pollack.

I don’t know about you but, whenever I pass a construction site, I always ask myself if they’re doing all they can not to kill me. Often, just to be sure, I cross the street. Well, imagine how happy I was to see this.

Isn’t it reassuring to know that the nice people at Balfour Beatty will achieve zero deaths. I mean, as achievements go, it’s a biggie.

But really, what were they doing before the health and safety department decided that zero deaths was one of the company’s Core Attainment Strategy Objectives? Were they actively trying to kill people?

As reassuring as this poster is, the diligent student of bad copy will still be left with some niggling doubts. Take ‘Zero ruined lives among our people’ for instance (at least they avoided the egregious “amongst”). Do their people include members of the public? Sounds like Kill Joy Corporate Lawyer sent another urgent email:

“Not sure we can say we won’t ruin any lives. Not, at least, until any members of the public take residence in these balsa-wood rabbit hutches”.

And what’s with the mathematical “Zero”? The words “No harm” probably didn’t sound corporate enough. But of course, that’s it. Their wanting to sound more corporate has inadvertently tipped their hand. It’s like a weak spot, a poker tell. They don’t consider us as human beings, we’re numbers on a balance sheet.

Now, before you all start calling me a cynical old curmudgeon – I admit, I’m pleased Balfour Beatty are concerned with safety. But I just can’t help being a little suspicious when they have to advertise it with an enormous war headline that stretches forty feet down a busy south London street. Couldn’t they have spent the money on more safety measures. Or are they more interested in appearing to be concerned with safety? Ok, I’m cynical.

They didn’t stop at telling us they are not going to kill us. They went on to explain how.

‘Tracking’? Tracking what? Wild boar? All this woolly list of gerunds does is neatly demonstrate that they emphatically do not know ‘how we’ll get there’. In case anyone from Balfour Beatty is reading this, here’s my suggestion. Instead of the list, why not demonstrate how you’re trying not to kill anyone. For example:

“Our scaffolding is checked every morning by a professional scaffolder to make sure the structures are completely secure. This is to prevent any loose pieces of corrugated iron flying off in high winds and scything their way down a busy pedestrian street like giant flying razor blades.”

I bet that would make you feel far more comfortable than being told their safety people are ‘involving’.

Satisfied that they’ve convinced us we’re not going to die, Balfour Beatty go on to describe the planned building. (Brace yourself: if you’re like me, the following piece of vile corp speak will send seismic shivers up and down your spine as you bristle with professional outrage).

For “Committed to preserving heritage” I read, “The building is listed so we’ve no choice but to renovate it at great cost (to the subsidising tax payers). What we would have liked to do is knock the whole thing down and erect an enormous glass cube that would be of no use to anyone”.

And please, who ever found an office ‘environment’ inspiring?

All in all, the whole thing comes across as a breathtakingly patronising box-ticking exercise that does more to flatter Balfour Beatty’s top brass than to allay the concerns of the public. That is, it’s written for the wrong audience.

A final thought: Imagine how ugly the finished building is going to be if it’s as pleasing to the eye as their copy is pleasing to the ear.

7 Responses to “Writing for the wrong audience”

  1. I think the three Balfour Beatty posters are an affront to anyone’s intelligence, an affront to the language, and pretty much how a totalitarian dictatorship might communicate ‘at’ its downtrodden minions.

    So I think it’s a great post, David.

    The first Balfour Beatty poster is just downright ugly language, leaving aside the crude propaganda thrust of it.

    The other two (the middle one especially) are great examples of the worthless, meaningless, abstract management speak we have to deal with day in, day out. I’m sure any member of the public who wished to give this a moment’s thought, or indeed any media commentator, would agree with your points.

    However, if you were to confront Balfour Beatty’s comms people with your views, I am just as sure they would comfort themselves by regarding you as a one-off crank, a loose cannon, an oddball nutter, who doesn’t understand ‘stakeholder engagement’ in today’s world. Though when they go home at night, I think they secretly know you’re right. But they can’t do anything, even if they’re surrounded by other people who secretly know you’re right, because none of them wants to step out of line and be the first to say so.

    So what’s the answer? How can we all get together to try to help Balfour Beatty’s comms people (and all the others like them in businesses up and down the land) understand how bad this cancer is, and help them fight it rather than feed it.

  2. Such messages fail because they stress the negative aspect of their work and bring it to people’s attention, even while trying to tell a good ‘story’ about it.

    It’s similar to Homer Simpson, with his “Not Insane” tattoo across his forehead.

  3. ‘How we’ll get there’? Do they mean they are killing people at the moment? Hence the big poster to show us how worried they are about it.

    I’m reminded of the Paul Eddington’s reply when asked what he would like as his epitaph: ‘He didn’t do much harm’.

    Now that’s what you call a corporate onjective.

  4. Well exactly.

    “We will…” on the opening poster confirms they are ‘not there’ yet.

    “How we’ll get there” in response confirms without doubt that they are currently causing harm, deaths, injuries and ruined lives.

    I guess we ought to tell them? Any volunteers for the weirdo crank member of the public role?

  5. Thanks, everyone. It’s comforting to know it’s not just me. Are we really the weirdo crank members of the public? Working in communications probably makes us more sensitive to language. So I would like to know what the general public’s impression of this stuff is. My guess is they’ve become inured to it.

    Richard, I love the idea of corporate communicators getting together in self-help groups to share their experiences. Maybe we could call it corp-speakers anonymous.

    I’m pleased to say there has been some criticism of my post during the ensuing twitter debate. Ali Turnbull has summarised and commented on it on her excellent Fit to Print blog this morning. And I’ve included a response to the criticism: http://www.fit-to-print.co.uk/health-and-safety-–-how-creative-campaigns-can-backfire

  6. David, I did quite a lot of work from 2006-2008 on the benefits of copywriters, corporate writers and writing agencies collaborating in certain ways (even though they are notionally competitors). Maybe something like a trade association to help clients understand writing, and to provide support to writers in the face of unreasonable client behaviour? I had mixed reactions – everyone seemed to like the idea but some just couldn’t get past the mental hurdle of collaborating with competitors.

    However I put it all on the shelf from about Sept 2008 when the financial crisis really took off and staying in business became all hands to the pump.

    Maybe one day I’ll return to it – should be easier to put the word around these days?

  7. Steve says:

    Regarding the first poster, I read the claim of “zero ruined lives” to be far more broad-reaching than intended.

    Example: say I work double shifts on the construction site because, well, due to the crisis the corporate managers that be found out they could make do with half the workforce doing twice the work – and happy to have jobs! Because I’m not home enough, my wife starts having an affair and I start drinking to cope; one day, drunk, I walk in on the lovers and bludgeon them to death with the hammer I’ve taken from the construction site. Now I’m in prison awaiting trial – would the company take credit for its role in ‘ruining’ my life, or would it sit behind its other, unstated value that we are all responsible for our own actions, no matter how much ‘responsibility’ the working environment could have made on the situation?

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