To be honest with you…now that’s a phrase you hear too often, and I’m sure I’m guilty of it myself at times. How ridiculous though; does it mean that at any other time you’re not being honest with me?!
Truth and trust
How much do we trust in what we read? Trust and truth go hand in hand, so if we read something we later discover to be untrue, we lose trust in that particular source. If a website publishes something that isn’t true, even a seemingly small and trivial thing, we are unlikely to trust anything within that site. The same goes for any other communications, including marketing, which can have serious consequences for businesses and brands.
“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”
There’s such a thing as too much honesty
Of course, being truthful doesn’t mean one has to tell the whole truth, and it’s important to be discerning when communicating, especially if it’s to a wide and powerful audience.
Take Gerald Ratner, Chief Executive of a highly successful jewellery empire during the 80s. Everyone knew Ratners was a budget chain, and that was the reason for its success. That is until Mr Ratner decided to be too honest and announced to the Institute of Directors that:
“People say, ‘how can you sell this for such a low price?’
“I say, ‘because it’s total crap.’
That single comment, despite being something consumers already really knew deep down, destroyed the chain’s reputation overnight, and the company almost collapsed.
Most people consider themselves to be honest, and I think that the majority of us are naturally and instinctively honest, even if we don’t necessarily mean to be! It is said for example that a novelist’s first book almost always contains a great deal of autobiographical truths – even if they are cleverly, and perhaps unknowingly, disguised.
We can use the same approach for communicating sensitive or volatile information. It’s not always appropriate to be completely blunt, but by hiding a harsh truth within carefully crafted words, we can get the message across gently, minimising any negative reaction and enabling the reader to digest and reflect on the information more positively.
Opinions and facts
“The truth is never pure and rarely simple.”
There are very few absolute truths. The majority of what we read is at least loosely based on personal opinion. Some things of course are facts, but we must be careful in our communications to ensure that our opinions are not portrayed as such. When we say “I think…” or “in my opinion…” we are letting our readers know that they can trust us. We are saying we may not be certain of the absolute truth, but this is an idea for them to consider.
People often respond better to ideas than they do to facts. They don’t always appreciate being told something, but ideas give them the freedom to think for themselves. Such careful comms can manipulate people into agreeing with you – by giving people a truth in the form of an idea, you are allowing them to think for themselves, enabling them believe that your idea was in fact their idea all along.
So, if we expect to be able to believe what we read, then we also have a duty to ensure truthfulness in what we write. In order to gain the trust of our readers and build a reputation for being a valid source of information, we must rely on truth at all times.[Jules]
Photo credit: littleBIGsis
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Jules is an executive PA and also runs the largest eraser emporium in the world (AFAIK) and you can find out more at originalerasers.co.uk
Jules manages FirstSigns with me, and is a keen writer with an eye for detail like an electron microscope.
Interesting piece, thanks for sharing! I’ve been blogging about trust in communications myself recently so I’ve been doing a fair bit of thinking on the subject. A few thoughts crossed my mind (not a particularly long journey) whilst reading your contribution to this really important debate.
I don’t think Gerald Ratner told the truth when he uttered ‘total crap’ gaff – he over egged it. The truth would have been more like ‘We are a high street jewellers. We don’t purport to be Tiffany & Co – our customers are after something more affordable and accessible but every bit as glamorous once it’s out of the box, so we source our inventory appropriately’.
“By hiding a harsh truth within carefully crafted words, we can get the message across gently, minimising any negative reaction and enabling the reader to digest and reflect on the information more positively.” This worries me. Internal communicators should not be hiding harsh truths within carefully crafted words. It is patronising to the reader and runs the risk of misinterpretation, both of which can defeat the purpose of the communication.
Honesty is not about telling the truth. Honesty is about not lying. We are all big enough to understand that certain truths cannot be told because of commercial or legal sensitivities. So don’t skirt around these issues. Spell it out. If you cannot tell the truth say so – people will understand if you provide the necessary context.
“Careful comms can manipulate people into agreeing with you”. This again worries me. Internal Communication is not about getting people to agree with you. Granted, we communicate because we want to achieve an outcome. But that outcome should never be getting people to agree with you. There is nothing wrong with disagreement. What you want to do is present the truth and let people decide for themselves whether or not they wish to buy into it. They will base this decision on any number of factors, including but by no means exclusively the communication itself.
In my world, open, honest and transparent communication with staff cannot possibly work when your communications strategy or approach contains words like manipulation and hidden truth.
thank you for your comments and your valid points.
As an Internal Communications specialist I’m sure Wedge may very well agree with you. I, alas, am not a specialist and I don’t work in internal comms; so my guest posts here are merely my personal thoughts.
I’m an amateur writer, and I like to write about various aspects of writing and communicating. But I’m certainly not an expert, so I hope all the professionals who read my posts just take my ideas as personal thoughts, and not as suggestions or expert opinion!
What I try to do is offer thoughts for people to discuss, even if I myself am wrong. So in that sense and in light of your excellent comments, I’m glad to have done that.
Thanks again for taking the time to respond. You’ve given me, and hopefully others, some useful things to think about.
Hey Jules – I feel somewhat humbled that someone not directly involved in our noble profession writes so eloquently and passionately about the importance of truth in communications. Don’t ever ask me to write about erasers, I just wouldn’t know where to begin ;-)
And don’t for a second think that Internal Communications specialists all agree over this stuff. I encounter very polarised views within the industry all the time and whilst I like to think I’m always right, the truth is I’m not.
Someone I work with starts sentences with “If I’m REALLY honest…” or “Being REALLY honest with you…”
It’s at that point that I KNOW a lie is about to arrive…
Great article, Wedge!