You face the blank screen, fingers curved over the keyboard, preparing to put new words on a new page; you are on the brink of creative action.
Then you stop, distracted by the default option. Tradition. Templates. Best practices. “We’ve always done it that way”–and for good reason, right?
So you copy and paste slides from one deck to another. Lift language from an internal document to use in a message for customers. Quote the CEO instead of the frontline associate, because … sure.
You think you’re following orders, or saving time, or demonstrating your intelligence. Actually, you’re avoiding creativity-and missing opportunities to improve your communications, your business, and your professional reputation.
You’re not alone. When I talk with businesspeople about what keeps them from taking creative chances at work, I get three answers:
- “I’m not creative.”
- “I don’t have time.”
- “They won’t let me.”
Lies, all lies. Let’s turn those lies into truths.
The lie: I’m not creative.
Why would you lie about your creativity? Well, long ago, maybe a parent or teacher or coach dubbed you “not good” at writing or painting or dancing or singing or coloring within the lines.
More likely, no one ever said a word about it. In the blank space where you were missing that feedback, you invented the notion that you must not have any creativity at all. (How creative of you.)
The truth: You ARE creative.
Of course you’re creative. We all are. Being creative means being able to think or do or make something new. You think and do and make things every day. The question is, how far are you willing to take your creativity?
- Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.
- Julius Zillgitt and his Hormel colleagues brought us Spam (the meat, not the email nuisance).
- Satoshi Tajiri created Pokemon.
Those are grand examples from beyond the world of business communication. You can be creative in the workplace, too, no matter what your role or message or target audience. Think about:
- The accountant who created data charts that prompted management to think in a whole new way about next year’s budget.
- The attorney who cracked up a roomful of new hires while they learned an email retention policy they’ll never forget. Humor and compliance.
- The shift supervisor who bucked the tradition of monthly meetings in a conference room. Instead, she makes quick, stand-up announcements in the lobby every Friday. People show up, stay awake and even ask questions.
All three found new ways to communicate—and created business benefits as a result.
The lie: I don’t have time.
Why would you lie about your time? Conditioned to believe that busy people are important, you boast about full schedules, tight deadlines and long to-do lists. Some of that is real.
How many times have you used the “no time” excuse without challenging your usual methods? Would a new approach save time? You don’t know, and you’re not about to waste time finding out.
The truth: You do have time.
Doing things differently-exercising creativity-can actually be faster. To prove this, when I lead communication workshops, I run speed writing exercises. I give everyone an assignment, then put three minutes on the clock, and say “go.”
Without fail, everyone gets something on the page. Some people get a few lines; others get a full paragraph or two. Most discover that at least some aspect of their rapid output is downright ingenious.
So stop saying you don’t have time to revamp that tired report or proposal or whatever other document you recycle over and over again. Next time you have a 15-minute gap between appointments, set a timer for three minutes and start telling the story in a new way.
When the timer rings, review your work and think for a moment, then go again. By the time that next meeting begins, you’ll have a first draft well underway.
The lie: They won’t let me.
Why would you lie about what’s possible? Once upon a time, you were brave enough (or inexperienced enough) to go against the flow. You wrote in a more conversational tone, suggested a different spokesperson or opted for a phone call instead of an email. Then you got your hand slapped.
Maybe once, maybe a few times, “they” rejected your approach. So you stopped trying. Why take a chance on creativity when “they” will only accept status quo?
The truth: They will let you (and they might be wishing you would).
There could be more than one truth behind this lie.
The first possible truth is that you’re afraid to confront a manager or client or legal reviewer who actually is difficult. They may have experience or data or policies to support their position. You should absolutely listen to their rationale—but don’t stop there. Understand what they fear, and be sure your idea avoids those risks. Provide evidence of your own. Present the business case. Sell your approach and its upsides.
A second possibility is that “they” are not as hard-headed as you think. Maybe your team uses that standard template not because your boss loves it, but because no one has offered a better alternative. Maybe your CEO’s teenagers have her thinking differently about social media. Maybe your legal department has never approved a message like yours because they’ve never seen a message like yours. You won’t know if you don’t try.
Finally, you may be stopping short of creative actions that “they” don’t even need to bless. Consider vocabulary. Are you afraid your messages won’t get approved unless they’re loaded with management’s favorite buzzwords (productivity, efficiency, utilize, optimize)? Try writing a clear, simple message in plain words that your target audience will understand. I bet no one will miss the jargon.
Stop repeating these falsehoods. Don’t say them to yourself, and for Pete’s sake, don’t say them to others.
Instead, tell the truth: “I am creative. I do have time. They will let me.”
A version of this article first appeared on the Spencer Grace blog.