Communicating Change

by Rus Slater

The language of change

For all our ‘transmissions’ of information, we need to remember to get our message across in real language. This means language that the audience will understand and relate to.

Use English, not management speak.

Plans are usually sketched out in management speak, with the benefits of proposed actions framed as advantages to the organisation, since this helps sell the proposals to management internally. The same information is then used, often with the same slides, to sell the change to employees. Without the same strategic insights as board members, and access to the same market and organisation data, employees often find plans hard to follow, tendentious or simply baffling.

In presenting change, communication needs to change from management speak to plain speaking.

Bill Quirke

Evolution, not revolution

Management speak is often the language of revolution; paradigm shifts, turn-arounds, re-engineering, blue-sky thinking, helicopter views, strategy and so on.

But change is often best couched in terms of evolution rather than revolution. People, in general, prefer the former.

Example

When word processors were introduced to the world by IBM, their sales team’s message, which was passed on within clients, was ‘big change; revolution in design; this will change all your work practices...’

The client secretarial pools rebelled, often sabotaging the introduction of word processors.

After a re-think, the message that worked was ‘this is a typewriter with a much easier way to correct mistakes’. It sounded like life as usual, but better. This is more palatable than the uncertainty of change.

Where you are not using English

Translating change communications into different languages can be difficult and it can be time consuming to get right. But can we simply rely on technology to provide an accurate translation?

Andrew Zielinski and Julia Petropoulos, co-leads of the Communications and Engagement practice at management consultancy Molten, coordinate a lot of translation as part of client change programmes. ‘We advise against doing a machine translation – it’s much better to do no translation at all than to risk inaccuracies and mixed messages.’

Here is some practical advice on translating change communications.

1. Translations need to convey an understanding of business

Employ a translator in the relevant office, so that any translation work you’re doing gets the meaning of the intended message across and is not just a simple translation of the words. A translation should be more than a version of your communication in the local language. It must also convey accurate business understanding. Try to use some of your own people who are involved in the project as well as a professional translator. You should then get bi-lingual locals to review that outcome, and refine the translation to get the right meaning across for each level of management and staff.

2. Adapt your style to the culture and don’t take shortcuts

In a big telecom provider, there were a number of situations where communication was being translated from German into English. Inherently, the German language is more direct and ‘You may do this...’ translates as ‘You must...’ So, where there were any sensitive organisational changes, a direct translation would instantly cause resistance in the UK.

There’s no quick way to manage translation and it’s not advisable to take shortcuts. Rather than translate back to the original language as a test, many translators prefer to make sure that, whatever the starting language is, the tone is right from the outset. It’s important to check the tone and organisational meaning.

3. Always have local people review the translation

Communicators need to be aware that when they’re translating, for example, a CEO’s message into several languages, many employees in the organisation will be bilingual. This means they can spot instantly what’s missing or different. Effective translation requires always having local people with local understanding to review the communication, particularly in these cases.

Unfortunately, translation does hold things up. A lot of the time we’re in a position where we need to communicate very quickly, so we therefore have to make a rapid decision about translation. Sometimes, material will just go out in English. A translation certainly adds time, in terms of not getting the communication turned around so quickly. But it’s still better not to do a machine translation – it’s much better to do no translation at all than to risk inaccuracies and mixed messages.