What Weird Al can teach us about Corporate Communication

No, I’m not talking about “Word Crimes.” If you are that far gone, please close your LinkedIn account to avoid embarrassment and check with your nearest 7 year old for assistance. I’m talking about Weird Al’s all too familiar generic corporate speak found in “Mission Statement.” The song is a parody of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Go listen to both, I’ll wait…

I think the “Mission Statement” is great for two reasons:
1. The melody is technically proficient and catchy!
2. Anyone working at a modern business has been exposed to a mission statement similar to Weird Al’s interpretation and its ensuing spawn of generic corporate speak. Typically, when people hear these nebulous phrases, there is an uptick in self-inflicted head injuries.

As much as I’d like to discuss the finer points of Weird Al’s musical ability, that’s what Facebook is for. Let’s focus on number 2 and start with the mission statement itself.

In a few scant sentences, a business is expected to write a framework for its purpose. Think of it as an elevator pitch that justifies the company’s existence and its place in the universe. Furthermore, it relinquishes any responsibility to answer questions about your business’s true nature. Just refer to the mission statement!

The word ‘mission’ is jam packed with action! Didn’t you realize that your employees jump over hurdles and crawl under barbed wire? It’s the ‘statement’ that gives us trouble. An example of a statement is, “I am confused by your mission statement.” That’s it, one sentence. A quote from Disney’s “Aladdin” comes to mind – “Phenomenal cosmic power! Itty bitty living space.” This thing is doomed from the start.

But, we’re stuck with it. Someone long ago etched in stone that all companies must have a tweet-length summary to define itself – so say we all! The result is nothing less than a complete deconstruction of the English language into broad terms that could fit any company as Weird Al portrays. Quartz went as far to call out companies that use phrases from “Mission Statement.” See how many you can interchange! It’s fun for all ages!

How does a company move on from this blatant attempt to dumb down the true essence of the business?

1. Your employees, consultants, and fortune tellers need to know what exactly your company does and what your expectations are. Let’s help them get there. Look past the bland words that you’ve associated with your awesome business and define a clear strategy for the company with specifics. Something like, “we strive to be the preferred provider for 70% or higher of the widget resellers.” After all, you want to do well, right? Take those ideas (more than one paragraph is encouraged here) and communicate your expectations to your employees.

Adjust these paragraphs and ultimately your mission statement as your company evolves.

2. When selling, communicating, or interacting in any way to the outside world, use those same internal paragraphs to craft a concrete summary specific for the situation at hand. For example, “we provide our inventory to 70% of the widget resellers because ours are more yellow than our competitors.”

3. If at all possible, don’t refer to or publish your mission statement on the internet unless you can supplement it with honesty and specifics. Bury it deep down in your soul and cover it with junk food. Weird Al isn’t the only one judging you.

Well, we’ve got our mission statement and we’ve isolated it fairly well from doing any harm elsewhere by expanding it with specifics, or at least we though so! Out of left field, where all problems originate, we find a new communication issue that permeates a lot of organizations, stemming from the mediocrity of the mission statement – the dreaded convoluted management email.

This email is from anyone in charge to any group that is affected by some action. For example, it may be a CxO level email to a group that is being downsized or a director level email announcing a new goal for a group of teams. Typically, HR has been mistakenly encouraged to perform in an editorial capacity to soften the communication.

Beware! Danger! Watch Out! These might be typical signs I would flash at you before you click Send. While you might think you have written a carefully thought out communication, you need to reconsider if you’ve been infected by the mission statement virus. Here are some tips.

For bad news, don’t beat around the bush or pontificate, just get to the point! Folks have most likely heard rumors or at least understand what’s what and how your business works. They have either read the internet articles and analyst reports about your company or Gary in Accounting has told them the full deal (after all, Gary is the one who told the analysts). Give them some credit and be straight with them. Yes, it will suck, but they will at least appreciate your honesty, even if they hate you forever for whatever it is you’re doing to them.

If you are a manager or higher, you might find yourself having your hands tied as to what you can say and when. Assess whether it is the proper time to communicate the message. It might be better to wait until the complete picture has formed. If, on the other hand, there’s top secret machinations at work, but some communication still needs to get out (because information has a mind of its own, especially when HR is involved), you should be succinct.

For other news, set clear goals and timelines or at least communicate downstream and make sure the real message gets to the folks doing the work. Measureable results allow you to, get this, measure the results you get and hold people accountable! This isn’t rocket science, people (unless your company is building rockets, then I apologize).

The generic mission statement has infected our corporate culture, causing strife and despair across many companies. There are all sorts of reasons this happens. Sometimes people think they know what people want to hear and try to coddle them, but when a convoluted and generic ‘feel-good’ statement escapes, it can be a poison. Poor communication loaded with useless information only insults your audience and leads to mental uprisings complete with pretend pitchforks! Instead of being burned as a virtual effigy, modify your communication methods and be honest, specific and succinct.

Don’t be the target of internet ridicule for your mission statement! That’s what the comment section below is for!