The Language of Strategy
Successful strategic communications in an age of distraction
When you walk into Planet Word, a new museum in Washington DC, you pass by an artificial tree featuring 364 individual blossoms that light up and “talk” as you pass underneath. Each branch represent a language; collectively they cover 99 percent of the languages spoken by humanity (the art installation is titled, “Speaking Willow”).
Then you enter, and the first exhibit is a mesmerizing 48-foot-wide, 22-foot-high wall of 1,000 3-D white words called “Where Do Words Come From?” It tells the story of the English language’s development. The narrator points out those 1,000 words aren’t even 1 percent the English language. But that’s tricky. There is no true accurate figure for the precise number of words in English, because there are so many words that can be used as either a noun or a verb (i.e., “pool” as in a place to swim; or, to “pool” resources).
Another major theme is how language across cultures is so different. The museum’s displays point out a number of fun facts about language.
· There isn’t a direct “yes” or “no” in Irish Gaelic
· Tonal shifts in Mandarin Chinese means a word spelled in a single way can have four different meanings as diverse as “lion,” “to eat,” “history,” and “room”
· In Hindi, there are three ways to say “you”
· The Zulu language (in and around Southern Africa) incorporates click sounds
· Barf detergent is found in the Middle East (based on the Farsi word for “snow")
· Pschitt is a soft drink in France
Analytical techniques have also opened new vistas in understanding text. Corpus analysis documents that 3 percent of Dr. Seuss’s words were invented. Author Ray Bradbury said his favorite word was “cinnamon,” which analysis shows he used at 4.5 times the rate of the average writer, but the same analysis also revealed he used the word “spearmint” 50 times the rate other writers!
When you walk out of Planet Word, you’re struck by how diverse language is. Above are just a few examples of how words and meanings have diverged over time. But that’s just the words. It says nothing about other important issues like pace (e.g., how fast do they speak), style (i.e., prefer love stories or fight stories?), traditions, script (i.e., Arabic is read right to left, Cyrillic is different altogether). Considering how different we all communicate, it makes you wonder how we ever manage to understand one another, especially across cultures.
That pessimistic thought leads us to today’s topic…
So what’s the language of strategy?
We should start from the premise that strategy is the search for success in a competitive human endeavor (or, as I’ve also called it, a “purposeful orientation toward success”). Yet success is interpreted through human eyes, and those human eyes read words and derive meaning in so many different ways.
The language of strategy is any form of common communication amongst competitors.
That’s not necessarily “language.” More like a common understanding. That’s a lower common denominator, and it’s important to spot that difference. You’ll never share a linguistic forest with your adversary, but you can at least agree on a few trees, and that’s often good enough on which to build a common understanding between rivals.
What does a common understanding look like?
Let’s see what it is here in the US. The average American reads at the 7th to 8th grade level, based on national surveys. A good rule-of-thumb is that falls in line with the Harry Potter books (6th to 9th grade level), which can be read by 80 percent of Americans. (And, of course, this document itself is written at about an 8th grade level.)
Depending on the audience you want to influence, you’ll have to adjust your common denominator. Within your own culture, set the grade level at about 8th grade (presidents Reagan and Kennedy, renowned communicators, spoke in public at about this level). With allies that speak English, with allies that use English as a second language, move a couple clicks down grade-level-wise. And with culturally-dissimilar adversaries, move down to lower-grade-school-level (presidents Trump and Truman were perhaps most effective at communicating in this way). This may be why parades are so useful as deterrents.
Brevity and clarity are the heart and soul of successful strategic communication. Of course, there’s occasional call for long, well-written documents on major strategic decisions. Amazon’s famed 6-page memos that all decision-makers’ read together come to mind. Attacking armies may consult 500-page analyses to “go right” and another 500-pages of information may say “go left.” But that’s analysis.
Strategy that speaks to and inspires and moves a mass of people toward some end must be written more briefly, more clearly, more simply.
If there’s a takeaway to language in strategy, it’s this:
Understanding is the goal.
Simplicity is the key.