Robert Phillips, Lasotell Pty Ltd.

Most of us have a mother/grandmother – but that is not the important point.  It is the instant change in our thinking and perspective that even reading those few words can make in each of us.  Why is that statement “would you give it to your mother/grandmother” important to technical writing and technical communication?  It can affect every aspect of our approach to business (and life).

Looking at a situation from the perspective of what we would do if it involved our mother/grandmother (particular family member or close friend) is much more personal than trying to work with an abstract persona.  A persona built by a group is the sum of a collection of characteristics of people each person in the group knows.  We try to hide that lack of genuine personality by giving the persona a (usually) democratically selected name, like “Betty”! But more importantly, the reactions we attribute to Betty are basically another democratic assessment, and the chosen reaction will often not be a common reaction of real people.  One proof of that statement is how the British Government was so wrong in assessing the mood of the people to the question to leave the European Union.

When we think about what we would say, do, or give to our mother/grandmother (particular family member or close friend), our decision is the sum of our personal standards, feelings of care, and attitudes to responsibility.  We rarely have the same commitment to a persona.  For example, we know our mother’s/grandmother’s level of general knowledge and education.  We know what she watches on television, reads, listens to, some of what appeals to her, and something of the basis on which she forms opinions and reactions.  But my mother/grandmother is different from everyone else’s, even though there may be much in common.  How much easier, and more true to life, is talking about something in terms of us and our mother/grandmother than to ignore the personal and talk about our abstract, composite “Betty”?

How much of what we write would change if we always asked the question of whether our mother/grandmother would like to receive it?  Could understand it? Think of it?  How much would things change if we had to deliver the product we write about or the document we write to our mother/grandmother?  How many things would we do differently if our mother/grandmother was the customer of our work or our fellow employee?  Are we not all somebody else’s consumers and subject to their documents, advertising, and persuasion?  How do our thoughts change when we switch from our mother/grandmother to our abstract, composite “Betty”?

Despite out best efforts, sometimes the mother/grandmother approach does not work, situations where there are much, much stronger forces working behind the scenes.  The most common situation is where governments have their own agendas, which are often dollar-based.  For example, those forces might include deciding which area of the sea to search for a missing airliner (which may affect who pays billions in compensation) and how to raise the money for government-funded aged care for the huge numbers of baby boomers (not possible for Western governments).  No amount of thinking and referring to mothers/grandmothers will work in the current approaches – which may be why these issues arose in the first place.  Here is a challenge: how do your views change as you think about aged care with and without your mother/grandmother in mind?

One of my recent clients was in the in-home aged care sector.  This sector in my country is dominated by religious and not-for-profit commercial organisations. (By the way, Not For Profit does not mean “doesn’t make a profit” – every business (versus a charity) has to make a profit or it doesn’t survive.  Not For Profit simply means no profit is distributed to owner shareholders.)  All of the in-home aged care organisations have staff and/or volunteers who perform the physical care activities, and they care deeply about their clients.  But moving up the organisation, the degree of attachment to and focus on vulnerable people typically decreases.  Passionate individuals exist at every level, but they are often only one voice among many.  But I have seen fascinating changes in mood and direction by simply asking “would you do that/give that to your mother/grandmother”?  The truly amazing thing is how often the outcome is not what the individuals said they would do or give to their mother/grandmother.

Some of us are familiar with the Pay It Forward “fad” (because it seems to have faded away too quickly to call it anything else), but we admired the idea behind it.  How much easier is it to always think about using our mother/grandmother as our yardstick as the consumer of what we write and how we write?

Try this: next time you cannot think of how to write a particular thought or sentence, pick up a (real or pretend) phone and tell it to your mother.