Objectives - why they often hinder (or: how to seem helpful, but be obstinate)

On with this month's update. But wait... according to perceived wisdom of communicating, I must first tell you the email’s objectives. But what are they? To entertain? Inform? Hmmm... maybe to ‘improve stakeholder engagement’. Or ‘start a dialogue'. Goodness, I don’t know - which must mean I'm paralysed into inactivity, unable to proceed.

No. People obsess about objectives. We see a report – or attend a talk – entitled: “Findings of Client Survey”, and the first bit says: “Objective of report: to tell you about our survey”. NSS (it’s my shorthand for No Sh*t Sherlock). And it then says: “Objective of survey: to find out what clients think of us”. NSS. Again. NSS-squared, I suppose.

Sometimes, objectives help. Often, they often don't. Here's some reasons why:

They’re obvious. See example above - "a client survey is to see what clients think of us"...

They’re boring: I never start my training days with the Course objectives. They’d send a glass eye to sleep. Also, the objectives are obvious – if you need to hear them, I reckon you probably shouldn’t even be in the room. Instead, I start by showing my WiT-based CV (it’s been downloaded thousands of times). Neat. That wakes up delegates. 

When combined with templates, they lead to tedious repetition: maybe our template says: Objectives. Then Method. And Findings, and Recommendations. Result: I’ve seen reports that pretty much say: “Objective: to generate new ideas. Method: we employed methods to generate ideas. Findings: we found new ideas etc". As I said, repetitive.  

(For more on templates, click here for "Why templates often make Board packs worse", and here for "How to avoid problems that templates create".)

They miss the bigger problem: got an unclear report? No worries – think more clearly about our objectives and surely that solves it, no? No. Knowing our objectives won’t help much if we can’t convey our stuff well.

They waste much time: imagine your team must give a talk to staff to improve compliance - and someone in your team asks: “What’s the talk’s objective?”. Holy Cow, that sets a hare running. Some people strive to change the question: “What outcome do we seek?”. Or: “What's our purpose?”. Others throw out a huge array of answers. “To reduce errors.” To which someone adds: “…by 7% - objectives must be SMART, you know”. “To raise awareness.” “To teach staff the new rules.” The debate rages. 

This last point – wastes time – leads to another problem, and it’s my most hated:

They legitimise petty obstinance. At work, is there a project you hate? Want to ensure it goes nowhere whilst fooling others you support it? Simple… get people in a room and mention 'objectives'. You'll mire the project in never-ending navel-gazing. To mire it further, use words like 'stakeholders' and 'audiences'. (If someone puts you on the spot, spit back phrases like ‘collaboration phase’, ‘no magic bullet’, and ‘we must find the right balance’.)

This obsession with objectives... it's not what we do outside work. When you sit down in a pub with mates, do you say: “First, what are this chat's objectives?”. You’d soon be Billy No-Mates. OK, yes, a pub chat is informal - but think also about formal speeches... at a wedding reception, does the best man say: “First, let me outline my speech's objectives”?


So far, so bad. But what to do instead? Try some or all of these:

Start with the conclusion, not the objectives: in the 'client survey' report, my first sentence might be: “We found that tall people hate us”. That spells it out.

Or merge objectives with findings in a single sentence: in the 'client survey' report, imagine I've a strange urge to first tell people I've done a survey - and why. My opening sentence might then be this: “Based on a survey of clients we did to find out what they think of us, we found that tall people hate us.” Objectives and findings in one brief sentence. Sorted. Except for tall people who still hate us.

In talks, cover objectives as a casual aside: if there's something weird in the objectives that needs mentioning, talk about it a little while later as a seemingly ad-lib aside: “Wait... your question makes me realise – you think today is about ABC and DEC. It is. But it’s also about XYZ. Phew. Glad that popped into my head.” 

Avoid the word ‘objectives’: it's a bit... business-speak – use it, and it's a slippery slope. You'll soon spout words like 'innovative', 'solutions', etc. Also, 'objective' has three syllables. Which is a lot. Then again, so does 'syllables', but I’ve yet to find a shorter way to say 'syllables' - whereas for 'objectives', I say 'goals'. Or I say: “here’s what we want”.

Think about KFC: ask yourself: "What do I want people to Know, Feel, Commit?" KFC is from Andy Maslen's great book Write To Sell, and its 'Feel' bit is genius. If giving a talk to tighten compliance, maybe make people feel scared... that helps guide you in what to say.

Mention them if you're a consultant? Want to pad out a job? Tell clients you first need to better understand their objectives, strategy, vision. That soaks up a few chargeable hours.

That's objectives. I could rant about a related topic: "What's our one key message?". But that's for another email (actually, I did rant about it in an email two years later - here it is).

Instead, here is this month's contrived link to the funny bit... earlier, I spoke of petty obstinance, so here's a great video clip from the sitcom Parks and Recreation. It's a masterful display on how to answer questions with a question. Enjoy.


PS: what about our readers and audiences... their needs? I've not mentioned them, and surely they're vital, no? No, not in the way people think. A future email will explain.


Clarity and Impact Ltd | +44 20 8840 4507 | jon@jmoon.co.uk | www.jmoon.co.uk

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