What is the role of the corporate editor? It’s not to be the “voice of the people” or a management mouthpiece. It’s to be a translator

What is the role of the corporate editor? It’s not to be the “voice of the people” or a management mouthpiece. It’s to be a translator

Steve Crescenzo

As corporate editors, we sometimes struggle with what role we’re supposed to fill in our organizations.

Are we supposed to be a champion of the people? Are we supposed to rise up and bite management’s butt from time to time, to let them know that the employees are not happy? Or are we supposed to be management’s mouthpiece? Should we be beating bored, cynical employees over the head with the company line, burying them in enough visions, values and mission statements to fill an industrial-sized Dumpster? Maybe we are supposed to be the company’s social director, keeping track of the various promotions, new hires and service anniversaries?

The answer, of course, is that, depending on where you work, you probably have to be all of those things, in varying degrees.

But none of them should be your primary role. Your primary role as a corporate editor is to help employees help the organization succeed. And you don’t do that by burying them with values statements or by listing promotions and service anniversaries.

How do you do it? One sure way to help employees help the organization is to be the one thing that every company needs: a translator.

Slicing jargon out of the conversation

Here is one indisputable fact of life in the business world: Every group has its own jargon, a lexicon that only people with a background in that area of expertise can understand.

Accountants have their jargon, marketers have theirs. Engineers, salespeople, nurses, truck drivers, operations folks–they all speak their own private little language, loaded with acronyms, terms and phrases that nobody else in the organization understands.

Have you ever heard two human resources professionals talk to each other? It sounds as if they are speaking one of the Elvish languages from The Lord of the Rings. And what about IT? I once stumbled into the wrong conference room, heard three IT people having a conversation and thought they were foreign exchange students on some kind of internship.

Our job, as communicators and as corporate editors, is to translate those different languages to the rest of the organization. We need to be the bridge between our various content experts and employees. Because the more employees understand how the different factions of the organization work, the better position they’ll be in to help the organization succeed.

The problem with being a translator, of course, is that we have to understand what the content experts are saying in the first place. And that can be tough, because we’re not experts in their fields. We don’t go to the same conferences they do; we don’t read the same books. Simply, we don’t know the language.

That’s why the only way to slice the jargon out of their speech is at the very beginning of the process–during the interview.

Fighting human nature

If you walk out of the interview without a complete, jargon-free grasp of the topic at hand, you have failed.

There is no way you can write a good story that everyone at all levels of the organization can understand if you don’t understand the topic yourself. That sounds obvious, and yet it so rarely happens. And I know why. During the typical corporate interview, human nature takes over on both sides. The writer doesn’t want to look like an idiot. When the content expert starts spewing all his usual jargon, the writer doesn’t want to interrupt and say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

So instead, the writer copies down all the jargon, nods as if he understands, and then has no choice but to use all the mysterious words in the story.

On the other side of the corn, the source is the expert. He wants to sound like he knows things that nobody else knows! That all his education and experience hasn’t been wasted. So he starts using words that only a true expert would use–or understand.

The result is gibberish. It’s JIJO–Jargon In, Jargon Out.

As a corporate writer and editor, you need to do two things:

1. Check your ego at the door. Don’t worry about what the source thinks of you. Don’t leave the interview room (or hang up the phone) until you have a complete grasp of the topic. (See “Two Phrases That Can Help You Be a Translator,” above, for more tips on how to do this.)

2. Get the source off his soapbox and into the classroom. Get him to think of himself as a teacher, not an industry expert. Say things like, “Boy, you sure do know your stuff. But it’s so complicated, and you’re so smart, the real challenge will be explaining it to employees. Do you think we can do that?”

If you are willing to set aside your own ego and get your source out of preaching mode and into teaching mode, you stand a pretty good chance of translating that person’s jargon into something everybody will be able to understand.

Two phrases that can help you be a translator

I’ve conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews with content experts in my career. Over the years, I’ve learned that, as a writer, you have to check your ego at the door and admit to the person you’re interviewing that you have no idea what the topic is about.

I use two phrases to do this. The first is: “What do you mean by that?”

When an HR person says to me, “Compensation vehicles such as stock options, deferred compensation and performance-based incentives align rewards with shareholder interest, and the company’s success with these programs will likely inspire others to adopt multifaceted compensation structures,” I look that person right in the eyes, let a little bit of strategic drool escape from the corner of my mouth, and say:

“What do you mean by that?”

The content expert will usually rearrange the jargon and spew the same thing back at me in a different way–at which point I will begin to bang on my head like Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rain Man and say:

“What do you mean by that? What do you mean by that?”

After about 30 minutes of this, the source almost always breaks down and starts talking in terms I can understand.

Now, I have to admit that I have done interviews where the “What do you mean by that?” trick didn’t work. When that happens, I pull the big club out of my bag. If the content expert insists on talking like a consultant no matter how many times I ask him to talk like a real person, I’ll lean back and say this:

“Listen. Pretend I’m an idiot.”

The source will say: “What?”

And I’ll say: “Pretend I am the biggest moron you ever met. Explain this to me in terms that even an idiot like me can understand.”

That usually gets sources to think in a different way, and to start explaining things more clearly. But invariably they get off track, and I have to say:

“Wait a minute … remember, I’m an idiot.”

Of course, more than once, rye had a source say to me, “You know, you really are an idiot.” But to me, that’s a small price to pay for coming away from the interview with a complete understanding of the topic.–S.C.

Steve Crescenzo is a senior editor at both Ragan Report and the Corporate Writer and Editor newsletter.

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