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Black, white and gray: A 16-year-old holds up a mirror to business communicators

“I see the world kind of black-and-white”

So says Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate change activist. Thunberg has become a global media sensation by sharing a direct if alarming message with politicians, business leaders and the media about what will be required to meet the climate change challenge.

Whether one agrees with the conclusions Greta is pushing or finds them acceptable from a social and economic perspective, Greta’s rapid emergence on the global scene highlights a trend of high relevance to communicators – a desire for clarity and specificity that has largely become absent from business communication in recent years. 

Part of this, from my experience, is that business communicators largely find ourselves trading in “gray”: in ambiguity.

Organizations take months or years to finalize changes even when the direction of travel is obvious to employees and other stakeholders. Leaders seek not to alarm, and employees often demand certainty when little can be offered before the required facts are blessed by the lawyers, shareholders and, where applicable, governments, are in place.

To a certain extent, business communicators add value to organizations by helping them and their people navigate through ambiguity. Ironically, we actually generate a fair amount of that ambiguity in an effort to avoid alarming stakeholders about decisions that some may expect but which have not yet been taken. Moreover, much of the difference between communication disciplines like internal comms, public relations and public affairs comes down to the distinct ways each positions ambiguous issues with its core stakeholders.

Greta’s rapid and precocious emergence on the scene speaks to an appetite for “straight talk” from a public that is tired of ambiguous, nuanced conversation from its business and political leaders. It also derives from her deeply held convictions about where things are headed if her pleas are unheeded. 

Do I believe business communicators should “be like Greta”? No. I think the worlds we operate in are too nuanced and ambiguous themselves, and we can’t provide definitive answers all the time. But I do think we should “be more like Greta” and not nurture ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake.

People want clarity and specificity from their leaders. They want leaders to speak with conviction. When it becomes possible for them to do so, they can benefit from being as direct, forthright and above all, as speedy as possible.

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