A Communications Train Wreck ...



I collect examples of dreadful communications.

Every large company at some point drives off the communications road of common sense and ends up as a piñata on social media.

When United Airlines baggage handlers “mishandled” a guitar back in 2008 and United refused to reimburse the passenger, the company had no clue that the parody video on the episode would gain 19 million views and counting:


And who can forget Toyota’s denials when a pesky gas pedal seemed to have a mind of its own? It took many consumers experiencing the discomfort of what I’ll call “unplanned acceleration” before the company concluded there might be something amiss.

I conducted a storytelling workshop yesterday and decided to dust off my all-time favorite communications debacle — an internal email announcing layoffs at Microsoft. Given this occurred a few years ago, I wondered if the guilty missive would still be on the Microsoft site. Give Microsoft “credit.” Rather than recast history, it’s still there.

It’s so bad on so many levels.

If you’re going to share bad news with your employees, don’t dress it up as a 1,111-word call to arms. The reader must wade through 855 words before coming to the news that’s on everyone’s mind, the company plans to eliminate 12,500 jobs.

What else is wrong? Glad you asked:

The start, “Hello there.” I suppose he’s trying to sound folksy, but it comes off as more of a “Hello out there … anyone home?”

How about a touch of empathy? The first paragraph reads:

“Microsoft’s strategy is focused on productivity and our desire to help people do more. As the Microsoft Devices Group, our role is to light up this strategy for people. We are the team creating the hardware that showcases the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences, and we will be the confluence of the best of Microsoft’s applications, operating systems and cloud services.”

It took me two minutes to rewrite the paragraph with human beings in mind:

“A decision to reduce our workforce is never an easy one. Still, winning in the mobile phone market depends on our ability to rethink and restructure our organization on an ongoing basis …”

By using the phrase “right size,” Microsoft guarantees anger, mockery or worse from employees.

What does “must be accomplished within an appropriate financial envelope” even mean? If you insist on phrases that nobody understands, save it for the quarterly earnings calls. Financial analysts expect this type of gamesmanship.

Cut the adjectives. Your employees don’t want to hear about “iconic tablets” when 12,500 heads are on the chopping block.

Here’s the crazy part and a point emphasized during the workshop. Microsoft hires smart and talented people. You don’t build a market cap of over $1 trillion with slackers happy with C’s. I’m sure the people who created this email included top performers.

So how did they end up with such a bad outcome?

Reconstructing the scene of the crime based on experience —

Writing by committee doesn’t work. And trying to appease multiple stakeholders — HR, PR, legal, the mobile business unit, the branding police — guarantees bloat. By the time you’ve made the compromises to satisfy everyone, you lose sight of the audience that matters: the employees on the receiving end of the email.




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