The story behind Cisco’s language simplicity crusade

The story behind Cisco’s language simplicity crusade

Complex, verbose, self-obsessed, jargon-rich language is an insidious pandemic in the world of corporate communications. But should we accept it as a given, or wage a silent war?

Cisco Systems  chose the latter, and will share their battles and victories at an Oct. 29 Communitelligence webinar,  Change Your Business By Changing Your Words by Mark Buchanan, program lead for brand language at Cisco. In this Q & A, Mark talks about the why and how of Cisco’s brand language project, and offers a bit of advice for anyone brave enough to start the movement in their organization.

Isn’t trying to change the words a corporation uses to communicate to stakeholders a little like trying to impose world peace or end poverty? What gave you and/or your team the audacity to even start such an idealistic and daunting initiative?

We simply believed we could.

And, we know our people so we knew it would work. They care about our customers.

Mark Buchanan200That’s important, tap into what your people care about and prove you can make a difference for them. They may not care about words but I bet they care about results.

We made sure we had plenty of opportunities to prove our value – in Sales, Marketing and Communications, Operations, you name it. We make a point of getting results that matter to the business and telling those stories. That’s very powerful.

We made our trainings fun, inspirational, memorable. That made people want to be part of the change and got them talking.

We’ve had a great team, commitment, passion, and knowledge, with tremendous guidance, a lot of open minds and a culture that’s willing to take risks.

Corporate communicators are pumping out thousands of unclear, obtuse and bloated sentences daily on behalf of their enterprise. Though not lazy, some of us probably relate to Mark Twain’s apology: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” You’ve worked with a lot of Cisco employees to help them improve their writing. What do you think is the #1 reason for lack of clear and succinct corporate writing, and what is your #1 advice to help the cause of clarity and simplicity?

It does take longer to think about our audience and what matters to them. And say it succinctly. But if we don’t spend the time to get it right, if no one reads it, why do it at all?

But really, time is a convenient excuse. There are practical steps we can take that help. We’ve got teams getting much better results in half the time it used to take them to publish. I love that.

I’ll share how we’re doing it in my talk, but here’s one practical tip: before you start writing, ask yourself “What does this really mean and why does it matter?” Listen to how you answer the question when you are just answering for yourself. Trust your instinct.

Can you elaborate on how changing your words can actually change your business?

Sure. When we’re more deliberate, more intentional with our words, we can be more engaging, more inspiring, more persuasive. We can get things done faster. For less money. And make more money too.

I can show you how it works in Sales, Communications, Services, Legal, everywhere in the business. We can all do it. And when we do, it adds up to something transformative.

What’s the first bit of advice you would give someone reading this, or attending your upcoming webinar, who would like to start something like the simplicity movement you launched at Cisco?

Believe it’s possible. We’ve done amazing things with a shoestring budget and a tiny team. You can too. It starts with the conviction that you can make a difference.

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