Just say no to sugarcoated communications

Got a bad taste in your mouth? Maybe it's from all those sugar-coated messages you keep getting

Sugar-coated messages are in bad taste. In survey after survey, people ask for straight talk on all issues. They don’t want artificially-sweetened words that supposedly will help the medicine – that is, the tough messages – go down.

When you sugarcoat communication, you’re superficially making something attractive or palatable. That’s inauthentic, which can cause more problems than the proverbial putting lipstick on a pig.

Sugarcoating also can be confusing or even misleading. It’s hard to figure out what’s going on when companies spin convoluted webs of information. The obfuscation insults your intelligence, wastes your time, and shows disrespect. This is the exact opposite of lean communications principles that add value to the reader.

Plus, when you sugarcoat, you’re encouraging the Silent, Sugarcoated Moose to get comfortable and take up residence. The Silent, Sugarcoated Moose is a mutated species of the “moose on the table” or the “elephant in the room.” Everyone sees and knows about the moose but no one says anything. And everyone continues to ignore it when others try to put a positive spin on negative news. Or, the attempts to silence the moose and everything around it feed the rumor mill and start to hurt productivity, relationships and trust.

Straight talk that’s not sweet or sour is the way to go. Straight talk is direct, clear and responsible. And as a result, it shows respect. All are solid lean communications principles.

Here are three ways to practice straight talk are:

Share the facts. Don’t hide them. For instance, a couple of organizations recently wanted to hide the truth or at least not showcase it. One of them has higher IT project costs than the industry average. The other has higher invoice processing costs than the industry average. Both companies are taking actions to reduce their costs over time. And both were hesitant about saying that their current costs are above what their competitors are paying. But people will understand the need to get costs in line and more than likely will support the required actions to do so.

Explain diplomatically. Don’t use flowery language that’s a backhanded criticism when you give your rationale. Instead, clarify the circumstances you’re now in. For example, in these organizational situations with high costs, the companies did some benchmarking and discovered their costs were out of line with what other companies are spending, which makes them less competitive. Now that they know this, they’re going to take some action. That sounds sensible.

And certainly don’t do what a board chairman wanted to do: he tried to declare a board member “Out of order!” for trying to introduce a new business item at the wrong time. The chair could have been more respectful and discreet by asking the board member to wait until an appropriate time to talk.

Be timely. Don’t avoid sharing the information or bringing up a difficult issue. What you ignore becomes more so. As the situation festers, you’ll get more irritated and you’ll run the risk of making things even worse. So set aside time sooner than later to deal with the issue. Remember, the longer the Silent, Sugarcoated Moose stays around, the stinkier he gets, which can hurt your reputation and credibility.

What if the message you need to deliver is especially difficult? Here are some other tips:

Get to the point immediately. Don’t bury the message. It’s okay for dogs to bury their treasures, but not for individuals who want to convey information and be perceived as being credible. For example, in a five-paragraph letter I recently read, the meat of the letter, which contained the difficult message, didn’t start until the third paragraph.

Take responsibility. Don’t hide behind the passive voice and inanimate objects. For instance, avoid wishy-washy phrases such as “we recently were notified,” “your rental vehicle incurred a violation,” and “we believe in following up with customers on occasions.” Also, be careful of PUNG words (probably, usually, normally and generally) that dilute your message.

Clearly explain what actions or options are available to your customer/reader. Be explicit and precise so you don’t leave any room open to interpretation. If everyone who reads what you write has a different interpretation, you’ve got a problem communicating.

Provide a name of a contact. Encourage your customer/reader to contact a real person who will help them. Show that you’re a real human who’s available.

If you can’t say or write something well, rent writing or editing help. Or, if that’s beyond your budget, at least test your difficult messages with willing individuals in advance. Better to get feedback from friends before you send a message that makes enemies.

Why is it so important to avoid sugarcoated messages? Bad messaging often adds insult to injury, especially if the reader/customer starts to question the underlying substance of the message. And when that happens, you’ll need to much more than sweet talk to regain favor.

Liz Guthridge is a results-oriented, award-winning coach, consultant and trainer and founder of Connect consulting group.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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