Have you heard that humans swallow eight spiders a year?
Chances are you have, and chances are you know by now that this is merely an urban legend. But at one point (before helpful sites like snopes.com) this information was swirling about, getting passed on from person to person without a fact-checker in sight. Millions of children went to bed every night absolutely terrified, jaws clenched to prevent the elusive spider from crawling inside.
Like a game of telephone, words and phrases can become as jumbled as a toppled tower of blocks—and at a surprisingly alarming rate. At other times, information simply becomes outdated and we lack an effective way to correct it for the masses. This is where my workplace took drastic (and entertaining) measures to stop ridiculous statements from taking on a legendary quality.
I work in the admissions department at a creative liberal arts college in Chicago. My coworkers and I work hard to be open and honest—with each other and with prospective students and parents. But after some recent reflection, we realized how inconsistent, outdated and downright untrue a handful of our messages to students were. What we sent to students in an email didn’t always reflect what counselors told them during in-person sessions. What our website said didn’t always mirror what our brochures proclaimed.
Although it can be daunting and time-consuming to develop definitive messaging in a large organization, that was the relatively easy part for us. After all, our mission and outward-facing information are constantly being tweaked to fit the times. The real conundrum was how to stop saying what we’d previously been saying—especially when some of those stock phrases were years out of date. “Hey kids, we have so many internships, we don’t even have enough students to fill them!” Well, wouldn’t that be nice? But it’s not true and hasn’t been for a while, and we shouldn’t be telling prospective students anything but the absolute truth.
Time for an intervention
Every year, the college’s enrollment department puts on a summit to check in with one another and see how things are running. Recognizing the dire need for messaging clarity, this year’s summit featured an entire section on language. Rather than sit everyone down lecture-hall style and drill into their heads what not to say, we made it an interactive process that was admittedly a little odd, but also cathartic, fun and successful. Follow these simple steps and all your company’s worst words will wither away:
- Take a survey. Ask team members to submit words and phrases that they feel uncomfortable saying, that aren’t true or that need clarification. (The survey can be anonymous, but you’d be surprised how eager people are to take ownership of discovering poor messaging.)
- Form a committee to sort through the submissions. We involved those from the communications team, as well as the most senior members of the department. We compiled a list of “bad messages” that were outdated or inaccurate, and that we were certain should never be spoken again. We then wrote the messages out on large pieces of butcher paper.
3. Write correct versions of the bad messages. Some of the bad messages could simply be discarded without replacement, but others were corrected or updated. We put these versions into our content management system and also printed out hard copies (you’ll see why in a minute).
4. Walk through the bad messages. Gather the whole office or department together and give everyone a sheet (or two or three) of name tags. Explain why each phrase is wrong, and have anyone who is guilty of saying a particular bad message write it down on one of the name tags. If anyone has a rebuttal, take notes.
5. Buy a piñata, rent loudspeakers and hold a purging ceremony. This is where you can really let your creative nectar flow. We filled up a large piñata with candy and scrolls of the new messages. The VP of our department called out the individual bad messages. Whoever had written the bad message on a name tag walked over and stuck it on the piñata. Then one person grabbed the loudspeaker and spoke the phrase for one last time. Then we ripped apart the large piece of butcher paper containing the message. Finally, (and this is where it gets really odd), we took turns whacking the piñata. When it finally burst, out poured an assortment of candy and scrolls of fresh, correct, acceptable, untainted, glorious new messages.
You can adjust the above activities to fit your budget, schedule and/or level of employee enthusiasm, but do be sure that whatever you decide to do is tangible. There was something so satisfying about tearing apart the words that had been dragging us down for years, something so therapeutic about unraveling a new set of messages that gave us a clean slate and a guide for our future work.
Stop letting false or exhausted phrases slow you and your team down. Squash the myths, clear up the misconceptions, make things right. And in the spirit of correcting fictitious messaging, humans swallow zero spiders in their sleep per year.