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Chamber Executive Article Archive

Stop Making Noise



By Mick Fleming

Spring/Summer 2013

I was out to dinner recently with old friends and family—adults and kids. My 2½-year-old granddaughter, Lilah, sat contentedly in her high chair next to the large table for eight, seemingly oblivious to multiple conversations as she played with her fruit slices and tasteless organic crackers. 

About 20 minutes into the meal there was a gap in the conversation and little Lilah seized the opportunity. In her squeaky voice, she asked, “Pappa, what are you talkin’ about?”

A moment passed, we all laughed and then I was peppered with variations of the same rhetorical question: “Yeah, Mick, what the heck are you talking about?” 

Everyone had been blabbing for nearly half an hour, but to astute Miss Lilah we hadn’t really said anything that rose above happy noise. Since that dinner, I’ve been catching myself in mid-utterance, wondering: “Am I saying something or just making noise?”

I also ask that question when I’m reading chamber newsletters, magazines, press releases and web content—all the stuff that streams into our office. I encounter the same phrases in the same contexts across so much of chamber media. “The chamber was thrilled to welcome. . . the opening of this new establishment signals renewed . . . two hundred people were on hand for the awards ceremony, which honored a true champion . . . the chamber advised the committee chairman of the importance of senate support . . . membership gains were solid in March . . . the chairman thanked the outgoing officers . . . “

Not a criticism; just an observation. Heck, ACCE is not immune from exactly the same kind of content. It’s the bulk of what’s produced by almost everybody in every industry and profession. Still, I’m feeling a bit like Lilah at the dinner table. What are we talking about?

If we really want people to read our stuff, perhaps we should remove the trite language and insert more truth and surprises. Wanting to be positive whenever possible doesn’t mean we have to be boring and predictable. “The senator blew us off last week when we tried to make the case for transit investments.” Or “Several directors we publicly thanked during the dinner seemed surprised. They appeared to have forgotten that they were on the board.” Okay, those were a little strong, but you get the idea.

Can chamber communications transcend the shopworn? They can and they must. There’s too much competition for hearts, minds and eyeballs to allow the important messages you send to be considered “yadda yadda” chatter.

So, how do you produce what Frank Luntz calls “words that work?” What do you do to get your messages read without a yawn, your broadcast emails out of spam folders, your positions noticed and your speeches quoted?

FIRST: Tell the truth when it might not be flattering. Of course you don’t want to be known as the local buzz-killer, but if your readers know you publish only the congratulatory and positive, they won’t scan deeper than your headline. Once in a while, tell readers about your disappointments. Maybe a speaker you promoted was not enlightened, or the important meeting with state officials was merely a grip-and-grin photo op. If you speak plain truth—even occasionally—your messaging will be more real, and readers will pay more attention.

SECOND: Announcing that someone won the small business person of the year award is fine, but color that story with actual details of the winner’s struggle for business survival and the attainment of business excellence. Convincing your legislator with overwhelming statistics about the fall-out expected from her labor bill is fine, but telling her the story of a plant manager who must fire three people in order to pay the new workers’ comp expense is even better. Provide the statistics after you get her attention with a true story about real people.

THIRD: Lighten up! Encourage playfulness and humor where possible in headlines, subheads and stories. Remember, it’s a fine line between edgy and bad taste. Everyone’s skin is thinner than you think it is, so if you’re wondering whether you should use humor to pick on someone, don’t.

FOURTH: Hire a part-timer under 40 who is not from the chamber world to provide advice and proofing. It’s an easy way to reduce chamber-speak and spark some life in your communications. Both parties have to be thick-skinned. Assume positive intent from the very beginning of the relationship. The chamber must be free to push back on wacky ideas without the outsider giving up on them, and the original drafter from the chamber team must avoid defensiveness and sensitivity to criticism.

FIFTH: Brevity is best. Always.

Like your members, Lilah loves a good, quick story about someone she knows, especially if something funny happens to that person. (Another tip: she doesn’t like books when the pictures are too small.) Obviously, your goal is not to get Lilah to pay attention to your message. Or is it?

You’d like to appeal to a younger audience, and there is plenty of noise at your “table” every day. When you’re 2½-years-old, you don’t pay attention to blather, and you never lose the ability to tune it out. Lilah’s attention span is actually longer than that of your longtime chamber member relaxing on the couch and reading your broadcast email while watching Sports Center. Make sure you’re saying something to that member and not just adding to the noise.

Onward.

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