CEOs Need to Give Written Words More Thought

Have you ever noticed that many technology CEOs can’t write to save their lives? Not all of them, of course. Some are adept at written communication, but they seem to constitute the minority.

Even though I shouldn’t be, I am constantly surprised at how inexpertly CEOs compose and edit missives to their troops. Maybe they have no time for written communication, maybe they don’t think it’s important, maybe they’re juggling too many thoughts and responsibilities, and maybe some of them suffer from attention-deficit disorder. Whatever the reason or reasons, many of them are just not very good when it comes to putting words down on paper or on LCDs.

The latest email memorandum from Yahoo’s Carol Bartz is a prime example. Here it is:

I’ve had one! All the work, all the explaining, all the opinions!

I wanted to crawl into a hole and eat chocolate (and of course my knee boo-boo made me feel even sorrier for myself). Making the search decision and driving this much change for us was hard, but it is done.

So I am out of the hole, ready to attack the future. We are Yahoo! 581 MILLION PEOPLE came to us last month. Our audience increased 1.9% month-over-month, faster than the overall Internet population (1.2%).

Our job is to keep growing that audience with a great homepage, great media properties, great communications products and a great search experience. Match that with a compelling advertiser program and voila! We are the largest media property on the Internet.

So get out of the sugar low–we have work to do. Stop staring at our navels, stop arguing with each other. Stop debate, debate, debate, and let’s focus on the competition.

Let’s focus on a great Yahoo! Our average user is just trying to get through the day…looking to find out what’s going on in the big world and their own world. They want their Internet site to be great, and to work. They don’t care about how or about deals. They care that we are a trusted dependable site.

That is our simple mission. Focus on it!!!

It is enough to make one weep.

Thankfully, it doesn’t contain spelling errors, but nearly everything else about it is a prose disaster. Look at the prolific use of exclamation marks! Consider the juvenile narcissism: She spends the first three paragraphs focusing exclusively on her experiences and feelings rather than trying to communicate and identify with her readers. Then there’s that opening. Just what does that mean? Why begin a piece of written communication with something so tersely enigmatic?

The tone is condescending, snarky. It contains plenty of stick and precious little carrot. It is bullying and hectoring, but it isn’t remotely motivational. The message comes across as psychic therapy for Bartz, but I’m not sure what purpose it was meant to serve beyond that. In writing and sending it, what did she hope to achieve?

She contradicts herself, too. She implores her minions to focus on the competition, and then, in the very next sentence and paragraph, she commands them to focus on “a great Yahoo.” Finally, in an exceedingly patronizing way, she hauls the “average Yahoo user” into the frame. She portrays this archetypal user as one step above a knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing rube who’s just been received in Darwin’s waiting room.

Of course, the customer should be the focus. The people who visit Yahoo’s site should always be front and center in the company’s considerations. From what Bartz has written, though, I wonder whether she has sufficient regard for those customers to serve them well. She seems to think they are beneath her.

Look, CEOs out there, I can’t offer you bombproof advice on many matters, but I can tell you one thing with absolute confidence: Think before you write. Give it the time it deserves.

Because of your stature, your audience will actually read what you send them. What you write will have consequences, ramifications. Before you start typing, think carefully about what you want to say, how you want to say it, and what result you’d like to achieve. Choose your words carefully, with respect for the attention and time of your readers. Try a bit of empathy. It won’t hurt.

Finally, when you’ve finished composing the message, proofread it to ensure that the content, tone, and structure are right. Refrain from invoking exclamation marks unless you have exceptional cause to employ them. Indiscriminate use of them can make you look, well, a tad unhinged.

To summarize, it’s important to show respect — respect for the written word, respect for thought and articulation, respect for clear communication. Most of all, it’s important to show respect for your audience.

What’s the old saying? Ahh, yes, I remember: To get respect, you have to be willing to give it.

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