MICROSOFT EXECUTIVE FLUNKS COMMUNICATIONS 101
I remember the first time an executive asked me to bury bad news beneath a pile of buzzwords. He said, “Melissa, I want you to craft this message so that our readers won’t have a clue about what we’re telling them.”
I point-blank refused. Then I spent the next hour explaining to him why such a request would result in CEO suicide. Fortunately, he saw the light and allowed me to craft an authentic message that offered his employees the dignity they deserved—and preserved his reputation.
If only Microsoft’s executive VP Stephen Elop had received and heeded the same advice.
Instead, he did the unthinkable: On July 17th he sent thousands of employees a heinously botched memo about pending job cuts and made himself the laughing stock of Internet news feeds and social-media posts everywhere.
What makes Stephen’s message so bad? Well, let me tell you.
First, people aren’t stupid and they know a pig wearing lipstick when they see one. No matter how many times a leader writes the words “strategy,” “plan” and “focus” (39 times to be exact, for Stephen), readers aren’t fooled. As quickly as you can say “corporate speak” they’ll skim through every last piece of jargon until they find the truth. All the while, cursing the name of the person trying to sell them an expired bill of we-care-about-you goods.
Rather than get to the point in the first sentence, Stephen’s message rambles on for eleven paragraphs before he admits, “We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 factory direct and professional employees over the next year.”
Thank you, Stephen, but we could have done without the 10 paragraphs of obfuscation.
His second—and even more grievous error—is his complete lack of humanity. In all 1,111 words, he never once refers directly to the reader. Shockingly, he NEVER uses the words “you” or “your.” There’s no mention of “how hard you worked” or “how valuable your contributions are” or even “how difficult this news must be for you to hear.” Nothing. His message, in fact, reads with such third-person indifference, it feels like an obituary written for someone with zero friends or family.
No one will go down in the trenches with you, Stephen, if the best you can do is lump all your hard workers into a nebulous “team” that gets shipped off the island without a personalized thank you or goodbye.
The third mistake worth noting is his incomprehensibility. Because I don’t want to bore you with his entire dissertation of meaningless phrases, let me offer this example:
In one paragraph he writes, “As part of the effort, we plan to select the appropriate business model approach for our sales markets while continuing to offer our products in all markets with a strong focus on maintaining business continuity.” Just for fun, I challenge you to read that sentence out loud without taking a breath—or laughing out loud. Second, try to find any semblance of clarity anywhere in the sentence for the reader. That’s even harder to do.
Stephen, please be clearer, offer a concrete example and banish at least six buzzwords. Here are my picks of the latter: effort, plan, model, approach, markets and focus.
And there’s so much more he could have improved on, starting with choosing a better medium, such as an in-person management cascade. But until this leader sees how critical tone and clarity are in any message, it won’t matter if he sends a singing-canary telegram, he’ll still be at risk of failing.
Before you act…
Spill the truth as quickly as possible; save the strategic explanations for later, when your reader or audience is more likely willing to listen. Speak or write in plain English and be considerate, taking time to connect with your audience and thank them for a job well done. Your productivity levels and reputation as a leader depend on it.
Want to read Elop’s disastrous communiqué for yourself? Here you go.