Global communications in English


Fragments – jolly or jerky?

Sentence fragmentsFrequent use of incomplete sentences (or sentence fragments) is a style that many Dutch writers and readers like: they find it punchy and snappy. English readers, by contrast, find texts with lots of fragments difficult to read. They experience them as jerky rather than lively. In English, fragments are mainly used for special effects – in advertisements, slogans and literary works, for instance. In normal writing, fragments are usually considered to be poor style. So how do you know whether a sentence you’ve written is complete or incomplete? And how can you cut down on fragments in your writing?

Something missing
Here are some examples of sentence fragments (shown in italics). They come from the English version of a Dutch company’s website.

Delivering safety will always be a challenge. Making investment in trends like automation and controls systems crucial.

Change brings opportunity. But requires new skills.

We add real value. Whether you need a designer, a systems engineer or a project manager.

Testing, testing
So how do you know whether a sentence is a fragment? Just ask yourself three things:

  • Is there a finite verb?
    When looking for the finite verb, ignore any verb forms ending in -ing, any past participles [deelwoorden] in -ed or -en, and infinitives.
  • Is there a subject?
    To find the subject, ask who or what is ‘doing’ the action expressed by the verb.
  • Is it a clause beginning with a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun?
    These include after, although, as if, because, before, if, once, since, until, while, how, that, which, who, whom, whose.

Getting rid of fragments
You can get rid of sentence fragments in various ways:

  • Join the fragment to the preceding complete sentence:
    Delivering safety will always be a challenge, making investment in trends like automation and controls systems crucial.
  • Make the fragment a proper sentence:
    Change brings opportunity. But it also requires new skills.
  • Add information you want to highlight by using a dash:
    We add real value – whether you need a designer, a systems engineer or a project manager.

Now try your hand at fragment spotting!







Translation trouble

trouble-keep-calmIt seems so simple. You have a message in Dutch, and you need it in English. You just have it translated and you’re done. Right? Wrong! Nine times out of ten, a straightforward translation is not really what you need.

Who, where, what, why
Sometimes you read a piece of text – in English or Dutch – and you just know it’s a ‘bad translation’. But was it a bad translation? In my view, most translation problems arise because we’re not asking ourselves enough questions before we start. Who is the text for? Where is it going? What does it need to achieve? And why do we want to translate it in the first place?

Who – The audience
The first thing you need to ask yourself when you start translating is ‘Who will be reading this?’ To make a good translation, you need to be able to empathise with the audience. If you know – more or less – what prior knowledge the audience is likely to have, it will be easier to gear your translation in the right direction. A non-Dutch audience may be unfamiliar with some of the content in the original, which will then need to be explained. And sometimes there are parts in the original that are totally irrelevant for your particular audience. These are then best left out altogether.

Where – What kind of English?
A closely related question is ‘Where is the text going?’ In other words, will it end up all around the world? Or in a specific place? This question is relevant, because you need to know what kind of English you should use. Are your readers native speakers of English? Are they in the UK, the US, or somewhere else? Or will your text mainly be read by non-native speakers of English? You need to take all this into account to make sure your spelling and vocabulary reflects the kind of English the readers are used to. And if your audience is non-native, you should be careful about using clever idioms or complex grammatical constructions.

What – The purpose
What is the translation supposed to achieve? Is it intended to inform, persuade, encourage or warn people? Just as in any piece of writing, the purpose of the translation is something you need to be aware of, so you can take cultural differences into account. For example, if you use the direct Dutch way of communicating in English, you may step on some toes in other cultures, and your message may overshoot its intended goal.

Why – Managing expectations
Why do you actually need the text in English? Is it just to inform your global management team about an internal decision? Or do you need your brochure in English so you can give it to potential clients outside the Netherlands? Are these clients expecting the same kind of information as your Dutch clients? Or is the market different? There are many different reasons why you need a translation – it’s essential the translator knows what yours are. 

Mission accomplished
Once you’ve answered all these questions, you will often find that what you actually need is a slight rewrite of your Dutch text in English, with a clear view of your purpose and audience in mind. This doesn’t need to take much longer or be much more expensive than a ‘normal’ translation. You actually save time – and money – if you get the message right the first time round. In the end, it’s all about communication. The form of the message (i.e., the way it is written) should never get in the way of the message itself. If your message in English achieves what it is supposed to achieve, your translation mission has been accomplished.

Going social?


Social media

Going social? The best social media platforms bring people together and provide smart tools for sharing and developing ideas. So it’s not surprising that many companies are setting up their own internal social media platforms. But platforms without users are useless! Here are our top tips for persuading people to take the plunge and go social.

• Involve others in the process
If people feel involved in a decision-making process, they’re more likely to support its final conclusions. Ideally, you should involve people from as many levels of the company as possible. Send out surveys to identify needs and wishes, set up focus groups to assess the results – and communicate about these activities across all your channels.

• Use the platform yourself
If you don’t know how the new platform works, you won’t be able to sing its praises or react to criticism. Make sure you log on and experiment with all the features – and not only the basic ones. Plus, using the platform to link with your communications network will help build knowledge and buy-in among your direct colleagues.

• Get managers on board
When managers start using the platform, their team members are more likely to follow them. Put together a quick 30-minute workshop tailored specifically for team leaders and/or middle-managers. Focus on what will get them quick results to encourage further activity.

• Connect with early adopters
Your system will almost certainly be equipped with an advanced metrics dashboard. Mine the data and identify which teams or individuals are the first to use the new platform – these are the “early adopters”. They will tell everyone what they think about the platform – and their opinions will probably be trusted more than your news items about it! Get in touch, ask for their feedback, and keep the conversation going. Give an “Advanced Users” workshop, and offer to take them through some of the snazzier functions of the new platform. Also, connect with IT to answer any criticisms as thoroughly as possible.

• Use the platform for competitions
Where persuasion fails, temptation may work. Set up an internal competition that’s exclusively hosted on the new platform. Even better, choose an existing internal competition that complements your new platform – for example, one focused on ideation, cross-selling or innovation.

• Build critical mass
Above all, the success of your platform will depend on quickly attracting a critical mass of users. You need to keep watch of how many people are using it, and how quickly that number is rising. Stay nimble, proactive and flexible – if momentum drops, be ready with a contingency plan!

For examples of how different companies are putting these ideas into practice in their internal communications, see this blog post from All Things IC.

Control the tense, control the argument

AristotleAccording to Aristotle, all arguments boil down to just three issues: Blame, Values and Choice.  For example, “Who set off the banking crisis?” is about blame, “Is abortion murder?” is about values, and “Should we build a new freeway to the north?” is about choice. These three kinds of arguments are each associated with a different verb tense. If you control the tense, you control the argument!

Blame = past tense
Values = present tense
Choice = future tense

It’s important to focus on the type of argument – and the tense – that will achieve your ultimate goal. For example, the past tense is what you use to determine “whodunnit”, to apportion blame and mete out punishment, while the present tense is great for getting your audience to unify behind a particular belief, identify in a certain way, or judge something as good or bad. If you want to come to a joint decision about something, however, you need to focus on the future – the kind of argument Aristotle called “deliberative”. Deliberative argument is the most pragmatic kind of rhetoric, and the most useful in a business context.

If you find yourself losing control of an argument, or losing out to a competing pitch, try changing the tense. Go from blame to choice by saying “What should we do about it?”, “How can we keep it from happening again?” or “These are all good points, but how are we going to…?” Alternatively, if you feel that an argument is focusing too much on the future, and you would like to delay any decisions on actions, use the present tense to shift the focus to present values or use the past tense to apportion blame.



Ask colleagues to find a second reader

correction If you have asked colleagues to contribute material, either as input for copywriting or to be edited, it’s a good idea to ask them to get their text read  by a colleague before handing it in – on the principle that two heads are better than one. This way, any passages that are unclear or controversial within the department can be located and improved or removed before the editor or writer goes to work on the text. This not only ensures a better result, but also saves money on your publications budget!

Don’t forget the final step

finish Writing in a corporate context is usually a collaborative and iterative process. You brief us on what you want to achieve, we write a first draft, and then it’s your turn. You (and perhaps your colleagues) give us feedback so that we produce a new version that’s even closer to what you have in mind. Alternatively, you make changes to the document yourself.

Read the rest of this entry »

Know when to call it a day

Producing a piece of communication is a bit like painting a painting. At a certain stage it’s perfect. Fiddling with it still further – a dab here, a dab there – can ruin the final product.

But it sometimes happens that a publication is ready to go to press: all stakeholders have approved the text, the designer has put all the text into the design, the proofs have been read and corrected … and then … the boss (or the communication department’s internal client) has a new idea. Or worse still, several new ideas. Sitting in the plane on the way back from a meeting, or relaxing at home the weekend, he or she reads it through once more. “Shouldn’t we add a bit about…?,” they ask. “I think we should mention… and Bill said he’d like to see more about…”

In many cases, especially if the publication is supposed to have some news value or needs to be deployed quickly, adding new material at this stage is a bad idea. Of course, it always possible to add more details or to give a more complete picture. But it is not automatically the case that more detail means better communication. On the contrary, it may mean less effective communication, creating a confused picture and puzzled readers.

It will certainly also mean extra expense – because altering a document at such a late stage is always costly. And it may well mean lost time and money (in terms of lost sales, for instance), as publication date is put back. The 80-20 principle is relevant here: if you have 80% correct, that’s probably as good as you need – time spent on getting the other 20% right is likely to be unprofitable.

If you are faced with a situation like this, you should probably try talk your boss or client out of adding lots of new material. You could suggest that it might be turned into a new publication instead, or be put on the website. But it should not delay publication of the present document. Otherwise, it may end up being delayed indefinitely, as new situations arise and “need to be included”. We have seen (non-compulsory) annual reports, for instance, being delayed so long that their distribution was eventually abandoned because they were so embarassingly late.

Setting up an internal newsletter

An internal newsletter can be so much more than a bulletin board. For example, it can support engagement, act as a channel for reinforcing strategic messages, or set the tone of your company culture. However, deciding what role your newsletter should play in your communication mix is only half the battle. Making sure it actually succeeds is where the real work comes in. We assume you already know what you want your newsletter to do — so here is our ABC of how to make it happen.

A is for Appeal
Your newsletter can’t achieve anything unless people read it. Make it cry out to be picked up and read, or clicked on and shared. To do this, you need to assess every aspect of your newsletter from the point of view of your target audience. Are they more likely to read print or digital? What kind of layout will grab their attention? How much text do they want to read? Even if it’s a channel for corporate and strategy messages, you need to think twice before using management-speak and pictures of grey suits. But remember — your newsletter is first and foremost a communication tool. Always ask two questions: Does this speak to my readers? Does it communicate and reinforce my messages?

B is for Budget
As you plan your budget, the most obvious cost factors will be set by the form your newsletter takes, not least whether you need to print and distribute it. However, there are a lot of less obvious factors that will be hidden inside your editorial process. For example, as a general rule, the more people who need to read and review an article, the more time it’s going to eat up. The less specific your brief is, the longer your designer, photographer or copywriter will spend coming up with the right content. The real trick here is to work with transparency (so everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them) and simplicity — kick those extra cooks out of the kitchen so you can get the recipe right.

C is for Control
Once you’re on the road, you need to keep a firm hand on the wheel to make sure you don’t veer off course. Newsletter projects can be susceptible to ‘brief-creep’ — when the people working on it think they know what it’s for and how to achieve it, but allow assumptions and misunderstandings to build up. Slowly, issue by issue, the look, feel and effect of your newsletter morphs into something you don’t want or need. Preventing this starts with you. Drill into your team the reasons why a particular style, or tone of voice, format or layout has been chosen. And make sure new team members thoroughly understand why things are being done a particular way.

Anyone got a story for the newsletter?

How to fill your newsletter

newsletter Oh, it sounded so good at that first meeting. “Let’s launch an internal newsletter,” everyone said. So you all worked out your comms aims, secured a juicy budget and built a crack team to help put it together. But now that the first publishing date is looming closer, you’re wondering how you’re going to fill all that white space. Well, there are a few tricks for making sure that you always have plenty of stories to choose from.

Newspeople are nosey networkers

Forget about Lois Lane wandering the streets with her notebook looking for stories. Real newspeople pump their contacts for information. There’s no way you can be everywhere at once, so put your network on the case, rooting out stories from across your organisation and sending you leads. Each internal event you go to is another chance to add to your list of content contributors. Luckily, most people are delighted to have their projects, ideas and achievements placed in the spotlight. Make sure everyone knows who to approach for a chance to be featured.

Fixed features fill themselves

Well, that’s not quite true. But there are a few regular items that can make life a little easier. One is the Opinion Column. Is there someone with a unique perspective or particularly important point of view that your readers want to hear? Asking someone to write a regular short column can take care of one slot per issue, and gives your newsletter a valuable and familiar human face. Another useful feature is the letters page. It can be tricky to get it fizzing — you may even need to appeal directly to your network — but such pages are generally popular and generate engagement. As a channel for feedback, they can provide valuable insight for management, too.

Turn readers into writers

Even better than a letters page is a social media page. Do you have an internal Twitter or employee YouTube? Any company message boards or corporate blogs? If yes, select some of the most interesting and engaging content from these channels and re-post it in your newsletter. It’s a brilliant way to create cross-channel buzz, and it will bring the best and most interesting opinions and ideas being voiced online to a wider audience, reinforcing the value of these engagement-boosting tools. And if you don’t have any social media support for internal comms yet — get on the case!

Find your own voice

Credibility is a difficult word for an internal newsletter. However, the fact remains that most people are put off by publications that sound too much like the work of corporate strategists. While politically tricky, carving out a little independence for your newsletter is almost always worthwhile in terms of reader engagement. This doesn’t mean that you have to go looking for scandal. Just report the facts and don’t be afraid to tackle sensitive issues. The braver editorial team might even publish the odd critical letter… Some management boards will see the value in this — and some won’t. But test the water. Get it right, and the value of your newsletter will rise exponentially.

What did you do to my article?!

Managing expectations

desparate Newsletters often depend on contributions from people within the company. But sometimes the information submitted needs to be significantly edited to make it as clear, informative and engaging as it needs to be for the audience. Obviously, you don’t want those who have worked hard on a piece to feel offended if changes are made to it. You can avoid this by carefully managing your contributors’ input and expectations throughout the process.

Sometimes when a colleague has spent time and effort on a submission, they may feel quite confident that it’s very good and ‘ready-to-print’. So if the article — to a communication specialist’s eye — is too long, complex, or woolly, this can create a tricky situation. These tips will help you avoid this happening, and make it easier to keep contributors’ feathers smoothed when big changes do have to be made.


Clearly define the parameters of the article, including the desired length, tone of voice and the essence of what needs to be communicated. Remind those writing from a specialised (scientific/technological) point of view that they need to keep it as direct and simple as possible if the audience is non-specialist. Should articles need to have specific layout characteristics, provide a bullet-point overview of what these are (e.g., include a headline and a sub-headline; provide an introduction of a certain length; use subheadings at least every couple of paragraphs). If these requirements are made clear to contributors at the start, they will be less taken aback if their piece later has to be adapted to adhere to them.


You can quickly see whether a submission is more or less fine, or whether it needs to be significantly modified. If it does (and it’s not feasible to ask the contributor to submit another version), officially thank them for their article: this gives you the chance to immediately communicate in a friendly way that changes are going to be made to the piece to make it fit the parameters. If possible, give them an idea of what these changes will be (e.g., you will be featuring just the results, not the study details; the language will be simplified; and you’ll be restructuring it to bring that interesting information to the top). This gives them a heads-up as to the changes they’ll see later, removing the possible element of unpleasant surprise.


Some contributors don’t care if you change their work — but that’s not always the case. Assure those who have a serious vested interest (professional or political) in what they’ve communicated that you want them to review the edited version. The key to making this step go smoothly is — again — providing clear parameters. Emphasise that you are asking them to review the piece for accuracy (you don’t want them to rewrite it!). Request that corrections be inserted using track changes for easy identification. Mention that if they feel strongly about including deleted information, they then have to indicate text that can be cut to keep the article the proper length. Continuing to give contributors this element of control (carefully controlled by you!) right to the end of the process can help keep even the touchiest ones satisfied, and your editorial processes running smoothly.

© 2013 - Baxter Communications | Hilversum - NL