Recently I posted a question on my Trafalgar Communications Facebook page about the challenges faced by communicators today. One reader quickly answered with this: “Getting approvals. And editing by committee. We wordsmith out the heart of what we are saying.”
Oh, I feel her pain.
Many years ago, when I was working on contract at an organization, I learned a valuable lesson about the approvals cycle. After toiling away on a rather long newsletter article on a technical subject, I walked it over to the desk of a manager at the firm. (This was in the era before email.) Because he knew the subject matter so much better than I did, I was counting on him to verify what I’d written and to point out any spots where I might have led readers astray. He wasn’t at his desk, so I attached a little note to my draft. Something pithy and not very informative, like “For your approval.”
You can imagine my dismay when he sauntered over to my cubicle a few hours later and handed the copy back to me. “Do you think you need a comma here?” he asked, pointing to a paragraph in the middle of the page.
Arrgh. I had to bite my tongue and ask, “Um, was there anything else you had a comment on, related to the content of the article?”
Since then, I have tried very hard to let approvers know what I actually need from them. When I produce corporate newsletters, for example, I often send out an email something like this along with copy for approval:
Attached is an article on _________ for the June edition of the __________ newsletter. We are asking you as a subject-matter expert whether the information in this article is accurate, and if there is anything that should be added or deleted. Kindly email your comments directly to me. If you have questions about this article, please phone me or email me.
After all approvals are completed, we will be proofreading this article.
Thank you for your help!
In this way, I’m letting the person know that I don’t care about their opinions on serial commas or semicolons, but I do want to be sure that the article is accurate. In fact, some people are grateful to know exactly what we’re asking of them.
Of course, there’s always the person who wants to rewrite your prose just for the sake of tinkering with your style or grammar. Or they start nitpicking about capitalization of their precious title. (Sometimes in my emails, I let them know that we are following a particular house style, and what that means for their role as Vice President or vice-president.)
If you’re working in a multinational firm, you might want to let the approver know that you’re using U.S. or U.K. or Canadian (or whatever) spelling, lest they start changing all of your organizations to organisations.
To me, and probably to my Facebook correspondent, one of the worst things an approver can do is to suck the life out of your writing. Has this ever happened to you? After an in-depth interview, you’ve been able to include some warm and wonderful (and decidedly human) quotes from the CEO in an article about next year’s strategic plan. When the director of corporate affairs reviews the piece, however, he wants to change all of the CEO’s warm and wonderful language to corporate-speak. Suddenly, the article is loaded with “low-hanging fruit,” “paradigm shifts,” “leveraging core competencies” and “going forward.” (All phrases I abhor.)
What’s the answer?
In my experience, I’ve usually succeeded in holding my position when someone wants to stab a dull knife into the heart of an article. I remind them, kindly and gently, that we really want to encourage people to read this piece, and we’ve worked hard to use language – and actual quotes from the CEO – that will pull readers in.
If you’re the editor of the publication, or are responsible for news releases before they’re distributed, don’t you have the last word? I hope so. As an outside consultant, I will speak with the person to whom I report within the organization, and say, “Do I have your support on this?” Nine and a half times out of 10, she’ll say “yes.”
To recap, I think it’s important to be clear on what type of feedback you’re looking for, and to fiercely guard your integrity so that your writing doesn’t get churned into lifeless twaddle.
What do you think? What has been your experience with approvals? Can you share some tips?
P.S. In the next few weeks, I will be publishing more content around digital storytelling, and I think that this subject of approvals fits nicely into it, because if you can spin a good yarn but it gets cut to pieces in the approvals cycle, that’s a pity. Stay tuned!