I’m in the midst of developing materials for an upcoming course on leadership and communication, and a random suggestion for this book came up in my searching for sources.
We, Me, Them & It, by John Simmons is a re-issue of a business writing classic from 2001. Simmons is a founding member of Dark Angels a collective of writers that focus on teaching and developing writing skills for people in business.
As the book is focused on business writing and especially marketing (an acknowledged
The various entities referred to by the book’s title are the four perspectives to consider in business writing: the organization, the individual, the audience, and the product. These can each have various levels. “We” might refer to the company as a whole or just a team within it. “Me” generally refers to the individual writer, the person or persons tasked with generating the copy and messages. “Them” are often the customers but more generally the audience – the person or persons that the messages are directed at, or those that “we” want to communicate with. “It” is the product or message we want to get across.
The overall aim of the book seems to be that establishing a tone of voice for an organization helps the individual writers within that organization to be clear and consistent in their communications with each other, within the organization, and with the audience (generally, the customers but other stakeholders as well). This is not a how-to but more of a philosophy and a recognition that building that tone of voice takes time, effort, focus, and skill.
I found this model interesting as I would have assumed that the “it” should be considered first – what is it you want to tell people – but I can see from this model that understanding we, me, and them are important first because those tend to be more consistent and help to establish that tone of voice for all messaging.
The key takeaways for me from this book are:
This focus on tone of voice reflects the importance for companies (and individuals) to document their mission, vision, and values (MVV), for those are the things that lead to that voice. As a project manager, I align MVV with the project objectives (mission), the strategic question (vision), and a blend of project quality, stakeholder requirements, and constraints (values).
The MVV must also be real, and I agree with the importance of both having MVV and being authentic about them. As the author states:
“There’s a terrible danger in putting words together in combinations that give a veneer of management consultancy respectability – but actually they mean very little.”
Replace “management consultancy” with whatever the purpose of the company or project is, and you have the same effect. MVV statements have very little value when they are not real or meaningful, when the company stands for something quite different or, worse, has no intention of living up to them. It’s little wonder that an organization that uses the word “respect” as one of its values but is unabashedly disrespectful of employees and clients would have difficulty communicating clearly or staying on brand and message. Garbage in, garbage out.
For my own business, Lyric Management, I’m both the “we” and the “me”, which provides some luxury around defining the tone, but doesn’t mean I don’t need to establish MVV and a tone of voice. It could be that my difficulties with sales and marketing come from a lack of clarity or specificity about what these things are. Sure, I’m the one doing all the writing, so the voice is definitely mine, the “we” and the “me”. But since I’m an individual, and my writing is affected and influenced by my emotions, mood, perspective, and knowledge and understanding, it may be inconsistent or unclear from story to story, and therefore not reflect the “we” that I want to be. I also have different “them” or audiences (colleagues, clients, world-at-large), each of which might need their own tone.
Perhaps the most important message from the book, and from most writing guidance, is this: doing it makes you get better at it. Writing well requires that you do a lot of it, and that you keep the various elements of we, me, them, and it in mind throughout. Ditto for thinking.
Writing as a communication tool is subject to the overall definition of communication: that the message goes from the sender to the receiver, and the receiver replies with acknowledgement and understanding. So, not just writing lots, but sharing it and getting feedback, testing whether the messages are heard and (ideally) enjoyed.
Note: As a devotee of the Oxford comma, I had to suspend my beliefs while reading, starting with the title and continuing throughout the book. The author clearly believes the Oxford comma to be superfluous, a sin I won't hold against him (much).
What about your writing and communication? If you’re starting or in a business, have you created your mission, vision, and values or core objectives? Are those coming through in your communications? And how do you practice and develop your writing?
Please comment below or email me at email@example.com with your questions and feedback.
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Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.