Occasionally I’m invited to decision making meetings. Sure, we call them “strategy meetings”, or “product launches”, or even disguise the meeting as “training”, but the effect is still the same. We get together and decide shared language, action items, and divide responsibility. These decisions will shape how each person understands the work and shapes future conversations. Each meeting is a great spectacle of rhetoric. Each person vying for time or resources. The best course of action is determined by how each department brings forth their own understanding.
What’s more interesting is the follow-up conversations after each person breaks. After working several jobs in widely ranging industries, I’ve found that these post meeting conversations are quite common. Here’s some examples:
“Carl’s idea was very front of the house. They have no idea how we cooks do things back here”
“Did you hear Becky’s comment? What a university administration thing to say about instructors“
“Of course they think like that! They’re in product!”
“You know, they’ll never know what us in community development go through for the company”
“You don’t want to upset sales and outreach. You’ll never get anything done without them”
“Now before you go to the IT Department, you’ll need to know the secret password”
Really, besides the last one, I’ve heard them all in different ways. On the surface, these post meeting conversations seem like tribalism or simple venting. Sometimes they serve only to separate one group from another. Whatever they may seem like, I’ve found some useful rhetorical value that might make those conversations easier. Namely, deciding what words to use.
What do you call the act of taking someone’s blog post and putting it on another site? Syndication? Aggregation? Re-posting? Well, depending on who you’re talking to those terms mean the same thing or something completely different.
Really, language is about goals. In a meeting last week with a client, they kept using “syndication” to mean “email newsletter”. They are very focused on creating a worthwhile publication. In a different meeting with a different client, “syndication” meant, “a part of the longer process of sales”. Now, they didn’t come out and say exactly that, but how they addressed the topic and what questions they asked made me understand the disconnect in understanding.
Internally, departments will choose language based on education focus or leftovers from legacy employees. For instance, I’m writing on a blog “post”. Publishing might call this an “article”. Marketing might call it “content”. Sales might call it “collateral”. They really all mean the same thing, except with differing goals based on their department.
A minor point about legacy. Try to not get sucked into the poor rhetoric of “we have always called it that”. That’s just someone’s comfort zone or insecurity. If words need to change to get on the same page, change them! Just don’t expect that all groups need to have the exact same word usage, they just need to know how to translate.
Understanding Action Items
There’s nothing more time wasting/embarrassing than being asked to do something, but you don’t have a clue what you’re supposed to do.
“Take the flange and place it…”
“The flange, the flange. Now, your going to take the flange and…”
“What’s a flange?”
Really hard to keep up with a task if you don’t have the same language. The greater the technical knowledge the more you’ll have to define your terms. In a meeting, you might not have time to define everything. This is where going back to the goals help.
Here’s a recent example that I came across:
Context: Company A is starting a newsletter that shows all their new blog posts for the week.
Goal: They want to get more people engaging with their content, presumably to build a name and drive sales.
The Question: We were asked if it was possible to “import the user contact list from another website and add them all as subscribers to the new newsletter”.
We had to stop and redefine “subscribers”, “engagement”, and the unspoken word “consent”. Reminding the client about their goal of “higher engagement”, we suggested that it would be better if users could sign up to be subscribers. The client knows what steps need to happen for a user to become a subscriber then to become a customer, but doesn’t understand that the process needs to happen naturally. Forcing a user into a “subscriber” position is a cause for disaster. Mixing the word “user” and the word “subscriber” was at the heart of the misunderstanding.
I’ll start off with an example I’ve already used in this post. One of the most confusing sentences I’ve ever heard was, “Publishing is in charge of all the articles, but marketing is in charge of all the posts”. It turns out they meant, “Publishing is in charge of all the blog posts written by people outside the company, but Marketing is in charge of all the blog posts coming from within the the company”. “Article” is the client facing word for a blog post.
While many companies have the luxury of creating definite lines of ownership, small companies have to constantly cross over those lines. Take Support/IT for instance. At my company, we hold an unwritten policy of “See something, say something”, but often enough it comes out at “see something, do something”. It’s not uncommon for publishing to fix an author byline or for management to jump in on a support ticket. Heck, even our lead designer knows how to fix a whole slew of issues and does so readily! Brian is awesome like that.
Point being, it’s rare for anyone at my work to say, “oh that’s [fill in blank]’s department, we don’t do that”. If your word choices are mixed, this can cause some interesting issues in dividing tasks, and ultimately, responsibility. We have to work through these issues constantly. We’ve all made efforts to ask questions and clarify what one another means. It can be a tough habit to make when you come from a sizable University or Company, but it’s essential anywhere else.
I wonder constantly what people think of my opinions. I wonder if they say, “What a product thing to say” or “Don’t mind him, he’s the business analyst”. In any case, it doesn’t matter. I’ve come to expect certain thoughts and opinions from others. This doesn’t mean I can’t be surprised. Just as long as each group can understand each other I’m happy.
Remember the old saying, “a spade is a spade, unless it’s a shovel”. People are going to confuse words all the time. It’s your job as the rhetor to make sure everyone is on the same page and moving forward. Sometimes that means you need to push for specific words to use. Other times, all you have to do is remember the different words for others and clarify them when needed.
I hope you enjoyed reading and have found something useful to add to your everyday rhetoric repertoire. If you need me, please email or call. I also want to say please stay safe during this time.