Book report #20 (2022)

We, Me, Them & It, by John Simmons. Pub 2022. Original version published 2001.

I’m in the midst of developing materials for an upcoming course on leadership and communication (part of Research Management and Communication at Mohawk College), and a random suggestion for this book came up in my searching for sources. As it is focused on business writing and especially marketing (an acknowledged Achilles’ heel for me), I thought it would be useful for both goals – completing the course and improving my own marketing.

The various entities referred to by the book’s title are the four perspectives to consider in business writing: the organization, the individual, the audience, and the product. These can each have various levels. “We” might refer to the company as a whole or just a team within it. “Me” generally refers to the individual writer, the person or persons tasked with generating the copy and messages. “Them” are often the customers but more generally the audience – the person or persons that the messages are directed at, or those that “we” want to communicate with. “It” is the product or message we want to get across.

The overall aim of the book seems to be that establishing a tone of voice for an organization helps the individual writers within that organization to be clear and consistent in their communications with each other, within the organization, and with the audience (generally, the customers but other stakeholders as well). This is not a how-to but more of a philosophy and a recognition that building that tone of voice takes time, effort, focus, and skill.

Until reading this, I would have assumed that the “it” should be considered first – what it is that you want to tell people – but I can see from this model that understanding we, me, and them are important to focus on first because those tend to be more consistent and help to establish that tone of voice for all messaging.

The key takeaways for me from this book:

  • Communication is hard; good communication is really hard. It is not just about writing clearly. It’s about communicating human to human. With “we, me, them”, we are reminded that all of these are human beings. Corporations do not speak. Audiences have multiple sets of ears, eyes, perspectives, and expectations. And writers have individual voices and ideas. The purpose of a tone of voice is not to have a formula for how to communicate but to have a set of principles that help the writers with messaging.
  • When we can write well, it reflects that we are thinking well. This aligns with the reverse message that I also believe: to think well, we need to be able to write well.
  • A good way to test whether your writing is delivering what you want is to read it out loud: does it sound like you expect? This is something I often do with my own writing. Related to this: always remember the reader (“them”) and what you want them to get out of it – the it. If the writing is poor – boring, confusing, inconsistent – no one will read it (or even if they do, they won’t understand it).
  • Consider the tone of voice framework like the rules that are applied to narrative or poetry. Those structures are useful. Telling stories well (an important approach to business writing) gets them read by the audience and gets the messages across. With poetry, the structural constraints can provide a consistency and encourage creativity and playfulness with language that would otherwise be staid and boring. (Poetry also benefits greatly from being read aloud.)

This focus on tone of voice reflects the importance for companies (and individuals) to document their mission, vision, and values (MVV), for those are the things that lead to that voice. The MVV must also be real, and I agree with the importance of both having MVV and being authentic about them. As the author states:

“There’s a terrible danger in putting words together in combinations that give a veneer of management consultancy respectability – but actually they mean very little.”

Replace “management consultancy” with whatever the purpose of the company is, and you have the same effect. MVV statements have very little value when they are not real or meaningful, when the company stands for something quite different or, worse, has no intention of living up to them. It’s little wonder that an organization that uses the word “respect” as one of its values but is unabashedly disrespectful of employees and clients would have difficulty communicating clearly or staying on brand and message. Garbage in, garbage out.

For my own business, I’m both the “we” and the “me”, which provides some luxury around defining the tone, but doesn’t mean I don’t need to establish MVV and a tone of voice. It could be that my difficulties with sales and marketing come from a lack of clarity or specificity about what these things are. Sure, I’m the one doing all the writing, so the voice is definitely mine, the “we” and the “me”. But since I’m an individual, and my writing is affected and influenced by my emotions, mood, perspective, and knowledge and understanding, it may be inconsistent or unclear from story to story, and therefore not reflect the “we” that I want to be. I also have different “them” or audiences (colleagues, clients, world-at-large), each of which might need their own tone.

Perhaps the most important message from the book, and from most writing guidance, is this: doing it makes you get better at it. Writing well requires that you do a lot of it, and that you keep the various elements of we, me, them, and it in mind throughout. Ditto for thinking.

Writing as a communication tool is subject to the overall definition of communication: that the message goes from the sender to the receiver, and the receiver replies with acknowledgement and understanding. So, not just writing lots, but sharing it and getting feedback, testing whether the messages are heard and (ideally) enjoyed.

Note: As a devotee of the Oxford comma, I had to suspend my beliefs while reading, starting with the title and continuing throughout the book. The author clearly believes the Oxford comma to be superfluous, a sin I won’t hold against him (much).

Fate: I’ll be hanging on to this one for a while, as I do intend to refer to the model as part of teaching communication.

4 – a book published in 2021/2022
5 – a book about language (or how to use it)
25 – a book by an author whom I’ve never read

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