Category Archives: Strategic Communication

Why Urban Legends Become Legends

What Makes a Message Immortal?

  • Is Walt Disney’s body kept in cryonic storage?
  • Does McDonald’s buy their beef from a company called 100% Beef so they can claim they use “100% Beef” in their burgers?
  • Did an attorney really use the “Twinkie Defense” to beat his client’s murder charge?

These are some popular urban legends featured on the myth-busting website We’ve all heard the classics … “A man wakes up in a tub full of ice …” But how do so many untrue stories survive in a society of skeptics? Why do we need a website like to help us separate the “true” from the “false”? 

It’s because good urban legends, the ones that never seem to die, share some important characteristics that, if properly applied, can make a message almost immortal.

  • Details. Details add credibility, and a good urban legend is chock full of them. An effective storyteller includes names, real places, and vivid details to overwhelm the audience’s doubt. That’s why we at Smith generally recommend that clients back up their key messages with examples and facts … in addition to communicating truthfully.
  • Credible Source. Whether we get it through email or hear it at the office water cooler, an urban legend often reaches us through someone we personally know … and why would someone we know lie to us? If you have a message to deliver, be sure it comes from someone the audience trusts.
  • Relevance. “The legends we tell reflect current societal concerns and fears as well as confirm the rightness of our views,” says In other words, the moral of the story is something we can relate to; it means something to us. Often, even the details in these legends are updated with each retelling to keep them contemporary and recognizable. Know your audience and make your message relevant to them.
  • Story. Good urban legends are good stories. They have characters, tension and action. Storytelling is a useful tool for connecting with an audience emotionally, and a good storyteller will enhance the message’s effectiveness. Good stories are also more memorable, which means they are more likely to be retold or, in the contemporary parlance, go viral.
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Grammar: Rules vs. Style

When facing a deadline, arrant pedantry is something up with which you should not put!*

The deadline is upon you. You’ve reviewed the draft a couple of times already. You just need to confirm a technical change was made. Giving your approval is, literally, moments away.

Then, you see it. A comma. 

Was it there before? 

Does it belong there?

As you anguish over the possibly errant punctuation mark, something else catches your eye. A preposition at the end of a sentence. 

Isn’t that illegal in your state? 

Didn’t that cost you a perfect score on an essay test in 7th grade?

When such grammar goblins creep up, they can create anxiety, distract you from the task at hand and even cause missed deadlines.

I recall one time, early in my career, I was asked to prepare a one-page brief defending a certain sentence construction we’d used in a benefits enrollment guide. We were at deadline, just awaiting approval so we could go to press. But, a reviewer at the client insisted the sentence was “wrong.” That debate become a vortex, sucking in my prior firm’s practice leader and legal department. On the client’s side, it went all the way up to the executive level. I recall winning that semantic dust-up, but the deadline was missed and it took undue effort, stress and cost to get things back on track.

Some people have strong opinions about grammar. But, in my experience, these disputes are too often rooted in a dogmatic adherence to rules rather than a dogged pursuit of clarity.

Prescriptive and Descriptive Grammar

I find people fall into two schools of thought about grammar: the prescriptive and the descriptive.

Prescriptive grammar is about how some people think language should be used. Descriptive grammar is about how language is actually used. 

Let’s take a famous phrase from one of my favorite TV shows: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

To a prescriptive grammarian, this phrase is wrong because it includes a split infinitive (“boldly” is splitting the infinitive “to go”). 

To a descriptive grammarian, the phrase is understandable and, therefore, fine. (Imagine that a persnickety proofreader had gotten a hold of this script. It would’ve read: “To go boldly where no one has gone before.” Compare the rhythm and emphasis in your head. Which version do you think works better?)

When it comes to communicating with employees or customers, I think we have to strike a balance between these two schools of thought. There are some conventions that are so widely accepted that straying from them would be awkward, self-conscious or confusing.

For example, everyone expects one space after a period. That’s right. EVERYONE expects just ONE space. Two spaces is just brazenly wrong. #petpeeve 

But, would Apple’s tagline have been as effective had it been: Think Differently?

It’s Mostly a Matter of Style

Many of the rules we get hung up on are not really rules at all; they are matters of style. (Should I have used that semicolon or broken up that one sentence into two?) After all, there’s a reason there’s no such thing as the Associated Press Rule Book or Chicago Manual of Rules.

A well-defined style is a bit like a verbal uniform. It offers some practical benefits, such as:

  1. Settling debates for the organization about right and wrong.
  2. Promoting consistency, which reduces confusion.
  3. Describing a personality for your organization’s verbal communication. 

To achieve these objectives, your style guide should address:

  • Common but tricky matters of style, such as serial commas and whether to punctuate bullet lists
  • Terminology specific to your organization, including formal benefit plan names, company products and use of capitalization
  • Guidelines about voice and tone to uphold your identity across content and communications

Clarity Is King

Even a good style book won’t capture every possible usage. I think the final arbiter has to be clarity.

Here’s an example taken from the title of a well-known punctuation primer

A panda eats shoots and leaves.

That sentence tells you about the diet of a certain kind of animal.

Now, with a single comma, we can turn our hungry panda into a killer.

A panda eats, shoots and leaves.

Ultimately, the desired meaning determines whether that comma is wrong or right.

As I recall from watching The Electric Company in my childhood … 

Electric Company – Punctuation

Punctuation. Punc, punc, punc, punctuation.

They are the little marks that use their influence

To help a sentence make more sense. 

I couldn’t say it any better, though writing “punc, punc, punc” probably violates Smith’s style guide.

Final Note

*You might recognize my subtitle (“arrant pedantry is something up with which you should not put!”) as a paraphrase of a comment often attributed to Winston Churchill. In one version of the story, Churchill wrote this on a draft to admonish an editor who had revised a quote from Churchill so it wouldn’t end with a preposition. There’s no conclusive evidence Churchill ever said or wrote this, but it has to be the greatest grammar comeback ever.

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A Shot of Jargon

Is Jargon Like the Clink of a Glass or a Bad Taste in the Mouth?


What do these words mean to you?

If you’re like most people, maybe nothing.

If you’ve sampled this herbal liqueur, you might be repulsed.

If you’re in the bar business, you might be among colleagues.

I was introduced to Fernet by a friend in the hospitality industry. One night, after finishing a cocktail, he ordered shots of the dark, aromatic liquid for us and for our bartender. I was baffled (and a little put off) by the strange, indescribable flavor. But, once the empty glasses were down, it was clear that we’d struck a deeper rapport with our attending mixologist. I felt like I’d just been given guest privileges at a private club.

Fernet-Branca is an intensely flavorful amaro made from herbs, roots and spices. I’ve grown fond of its quirkiness and I find it to be a good palate cleanser. I also like their label artwork. But it’s not for everyone. I once ordered a round for a table of colleagues at a firm Christmas dinner. It was not well-received. 

I think Fernet’s limited (or, rather, selective) appeal is why it’s a popular form of the “bartender’s handshake,” a subtle, knowing gesture among those in the hospitality industry. It quietly but clearly says, We’re of a class. But it’s also why my proffer of Fernet to my coworkers didn’t go over so well. In addition to not liking the taste, which I expected, the gesture lacked any deeper meaning for them. Rather than a handshake, it came across like a prank. Same liquid, two very different reactions.

A wink and a nod.

In these ways, a shot of Fernet is a bit like workplace jargon. To those in the know, it speaks volumes quickly and efficiently. To those who aren’t in the know, it’s met with raised eyebrows, confusion and even disapproval. While a shot of Fernet might earn a friendly nod from my bartender, it produced pinched faces among my coworkers.

A dirty trick.

Generally, jargon is used as a pejorative term; it’s something to avoid. But I think there are types of jargon, and not all are bad. 

Good jargon signifies knowledge and experience. It can make communication between those in the know more efficient and more precise.

Bad jargon hinders understanding and can lull sender, receiver or both into a false sense of understanding. 

This Progressive Insurance ad has a little fun with industry jargon.

Sometimes, not even the person using the jargon knows what they’re really saying. This happens when clichés and other vapid words and phrases stand in for clearly formed thoughts. These idioms often start as precise technical terms or fresh metaphors. Because they work, more people start using them. Eventually, though, these terms fall into the lexicons of people who really only think they know the actual definitions. Through misuse and overuse, the meanings become muddied and the terms become stale. I have to be honest, I still don’t know what a “catbird seat” is and where that phrase comes from. (Well, I do now.)

For the person communicating, this kind of claptrap is pernicious. Avoiding it takes self-awareness, switching off the inner linguistic autopilot and communicating more deliberately. (Instead of “catbird seat,” why not just say, “we’re in an enviable position”? Unless, of course, you’re making an allusion to the James Thurber story.)

Other times, the speaker thinks the words they’re using are common parlance when, in fact, they are not. In HR, there are countless examples. Typically, these are technical terms, legalese, SPD-speak or the latest management buzzword. These words may seem fresh or precise to those in the know — and they probably are — but to people in other functions, they’re gobbledygook. Here’s a good test for this kind of jargon. Try using it in casual conversation with friends at the next happy hour. (SHRM mixers don’t count!)  If you wouldn’t use it with them, you should be careful about using it with employees. 

If clearly defined, generally understood and properly used, jargon can become more like a secret handshake at your workplace. If used carelessly, it can be as out-of-place as tipping your bartender with coinsurance.

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Get Time on Your Side

Four Ways to Maximize Time on Your Next Communication Project

Four Ways to Maximize Time on Your Next Communication Project

“You can feel the industry-wide pinch on time and budgets. We saw a lot of ideas that could have been great with better execution.”

“With the speed of the industry, we can lose the craft of good storytelling and attention to detail.”

These are comments from two of the jurors who selected entries for the Communication Arts Advertising Annual 58. While the industry they’re referring to is the advertising industry, we’re seeing the same trend in internal communication. Projects are starting later, compressing timelines. Budgets, too, are shrinking as organizations try to do more with less.

It’s all understandable and not always a bad thing. Deadlines and budgets can force better decisions and maintain focus. And, besides, racing against time and having limited resources is all part of the creative challenge we communicators thrive on. As one of my heroes, Robert Frost, said about writing poetry without the self-imposed strictures of rhyme, meter or structure, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” 

Working without obstacles just isn’t as fun. But facing near-insurmountable obstacles increases stress and threatens quality. It can also diminish the creativity needed to help your message break through. 

Here are four ways you can increase the time available to work on your project, even if you can’t increase your budget. 

1. Don’t Wait to Engage Your Communication Team

We understand. You want to wait until you have everything figured out. You want your decisions approved, your strategy in place. But there’s a lot your communications team can be doing as your project takes shape. Every project requires discovery. We need to learn about you, your organization, your audience and your specific issues. We need to take in a lot of information before we can ever put out a first draft. Every project also needs some set up time. We need to assign a team and take care of a few administrative details. You never see these steps on a project schedule, but they still need to be done. Loop us in early and, when the iron is finally hot, we’ll be ready to strike.

2. Don’t Pay by the Hour

This will sound nearly blasphemous to many in the consulting industry. If you’re used to paying for consulting and creative services by the hour, you know what the underlying motivation of your partner is: Bill more hours. So, you may think that allowing less time to work on your project will help shave dollars off your bill. When we founded Smith more than a decade ago, we decided to bill flat rates. Quality, not time, is our focus. Our motivation is to understand your needs up front so that our final bills are in line with our initial statements of work. So, once you’re sure you’re going to need help with your project — even if you’re not exactly sure what your needs are — invite us to the table. Give us the opportunity to get to know you and prepare for what lies ahead.

3. Get Your Cowcatcher On

Ok, that metaphor is a bit folksy, but it’s a good one. Think about what could derail or delay your project at a critical moment. One of the more common hazards we see is a content reviewer who chimes in late. This is often a senior leader who doesn’t want to see things until all the kinks are worked out. We understand the logic, but the closer a deliverable gets to its final form, the longer it can take to make changes. While you don’t want your VPs wasting time on a draft that has too many holes in it, you also don’t want them to veto the talent in your video the day before your video was set to debut. (It happens.) Talk with us in advance about the process and the players so we can create realistic schedules and steps.

4. Don’t Hesitate to Run Something by Us

If you have an initiative in the offing, let’s chat, even if you’re not sure about where things are going. Let’s pick out some key considerations early. It could save precious time later.

I have a simple formula. Talent > Time. But with a good communication partner, you can get both on your side. 

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