3 Ways Corporate Writers Can Avoid Becoming Institutionalized

June 13, 2010  |   Posted by :   |   Copywriting,Corporate Writing,Slideshow   |   6 Comments»

It’s what the best corporate writers fear most: Becoming so influenced by the ways of the client (or employer) that you lose your objectivity. You’re no longer looking from the outside in–discovering opportunities and obstacles that no one else can see–and then creating the most effective corporate writing solutions. Instead, you’re being blinded by the idiosyncrasies of corporate culture. You’re losing your perspective and begin to question the value of original thinking. You fear that thinking outside the box may indeed put you outside–on the street. In a word, you’re fast becoming institutionalized.

Take heart: Here are three ways corporate writers can maintain their objectivity:

  1. Think of your boss as your client. It’s the freelancer’s perspective, and it gives you an instant dose of third-party distance. When you see your employer as your client, you’re better able to uncover the right-angle thoughts that solve the toughest marketing problems. Instead of, “What should my company do?” ask yourself, “What should my client do?” It’s a subtle, but very powerful, difference. Try it.
  2. Don’t focus on failure. I have a Fortune 50 client who has a problem with perfectionism. No matter how well the company’s doing. No matter how stellar an employee’s performance. It’s never good enough. This company commands nothing less than zero errors. Great for a machine–not so great for a human being. Don’t believe that ‘you’re only as good as your last job.’ That sets the bar way too high and allows precious little room to learn from the occasional error. You are the sum of all your work. Make a mistake? Move on and live to fight another day.
  3. Stay hungry. This one is toughest of all. But the best corporate writers know it matters most: Be endlessly curious about the company you work for. A writer’s curiosity. Learn everything. Get engaged at every level. Don’t assume your boss knows all the good things you’re doing: Make sure she does. And above all, learn to recognize what’s important. Not one in 100 corporate writers know how to do this. And the secret isn’t to have more talent than your competition (although it helps). No, the ‘secret’ is to simply work harder.

I’ll close with a distinction another writer makes, which perfectly illustrates what I mean by becoming ‘institutionalized’: “A corporate writer will look at boilerplate copy on a news release and see whether it’s still pertinent; a corporate ‘copier’ will use the same old boilerplate because ‘it’s already been approved by legal.’ Which are you: a writer or a copier?”

If you’re becoming a ‘corporate copier,’ fight back. Try these three ways, and let me know how you’re doing.

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5 Comments for this entry

  • Stacey King Gordon

    June 14th, 2010 on 4:29 pm

    Great post, Andy. It’s so easy to fall into this trap. One of my biggest clients is the company where I worked as an FTE for five years, and I suspect that they hire me expressly because I already “speak the language.” I’ve really tried to shake things up and educate them about the need to communicate with more clarity (*and* personality) to their customers. It’s not always easy, but I feel like it’s my job as their writer, and I’m in the unique position of being able to offer this guidance as an outsider who’s also an insider!

    Stacey

  • Joanne Grey

    June 14th, 2010 on 6:39 pm

    Thanks, Andy. It’s astounding how companies value innovation and creative writing – until you present an idea that challenges traditional processes.

    Great post!

  • Andy Bartling

    June 15th, 2010 on 7:21 am

    Writer Insider Note: I received the following comment from a member of Linked In’s UK Marketing and Communications Group:

    “I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of your article, Andy, and it’s no less true in Europe. I have identified several root causes of the ‘institutional approach’.

    Over the last ten years I have worked with many governmental organisations. The bureaucratic style of writing in their reports, and on their websites can be pretty diabolical at times. This applies to the largest – the UN, the European Commission, Whitehall departments – down to our smallest local authorities in the UK.

    Consider a new member of the institution’s staff. He or she is anxious to blend in as a valued member of their new team. Naturally they will do their best to emulate existing writing styles. Some may arrive fresh from university and will have brought a ponderous bloated academic style of writing with them.

    As for the organisations, many are waking up to the fact that our forthcoming public spending cuts will mean that much greater efficiency will be needed. That well written ‘self-help’ website content can cut the workload for front line staff.

    But it can be an uphill task transforming 50 years’ of established practice. You will also find many staff who complain ‘We know the style is bad – but we are not allowed to change it’.

    When I have been invited to carry out web writing training, I am usually there because the communication department has recognised the problem and resolved with senior management approval that the money must be found and it has to be addressed.

    But things are not all bad. Many local UK authorities especially have been seriously addressing these issues in recent years. Some have gone on to receive recognition for their communications. Our website confirms clients that have achieved this. For the communicators involved it can be a very rewarding process.

    Looking at the image on the home page of your website, perhaps a few mass prison breaks are what’s needed!”

  • Malcolm Davison

    June 15th, 2010 on 7:43 am

    Thanks for reproducing my Linked In comment. Institutional and academic writing styles have long been a hobby horse of mine. My biggest concern is when the organizations just don’t seem to recognize the problem themselves – and don’t call in experts like yourself to remedy the situation.

    Malcolm

  • Alice May

    June 16th, 2010 on 4:54 am

    “ponderous, bloated academic style” – very, very funny, and very, very true!

    Nice, one, Malcolm.

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