Clear Beyond Words   The More Carrot Blog

Holland, Flanders, Luxemburg, and other surnames.

by Josiah Fisk, March 14, 2016

WhatCommunicates26_Graphic_10mar16We’ve all known people whose family names were the names of places. But what does it mean that your surname is a place name instead of, say, an occupation or a personal attribute?

It might mean you come from nobility: noble families often took the name of an estate, duchy, or other chunk of geography, and did so as early as the 11th or 12th centuries. But most surnames are not noble, and got assigned much later (in Europe, typically between 1400 and 1800).

For years I cheerfully assumed that a geographical surname meant that a forebear had lived in that place. It wasn’t until later that I realized how illogical that was. If everyone in a place were named after that place, it wouldn’t distinguish any Jan or Pierre or Helga from any other.

What these names meant was that a person had come from there but gone elsewhere. Being from someplace else is distinguishing.

You can even tell, approximately, the extent of the transplantation involved. Town or city names betoken a relatively local move (these names not being familiar or meaningful beyond their own regions).

Country names, in contrast, suggest longer migrations. To be Flemish in Flanders was no distinction, but in England it was. We can see this reflected in the many country-based surnames that exist in languages of other countries: Langlais and Engels for long-ago English expats, Tedesco and Lallemand for ex-Germans, and of course, Hollande and Flanders.

All of these surnames communicate something else as well: the highly circumstantial way in which many surnames came to be. In any particular locale, had the moment for assigning surnames occurred a year or two earlier or later, many of them would have been different, as the characteristic that stood out at the moment would have been different.

As for my own surname? It’s Norwegian for “fish”, but it’s an English name. What that communicates I couldn’t begin to tell you.

Can flowers lie?

by Josiah Fisk, January 11, 2016

You might think something as innocent as a flower would by nature be a truth-teller.

But flowers, just like gifts or greeting cards or smiles, can mean all sorts of things. Yes, they have an inherent message of happiness. But that actually puts them at a higher risk of being pressed into service when people are trying to sell, manipulate, distract, or cover up.

SchipholCleaningCartI found myself thinking about the uses and abuses of flowers recently when passing through the Amsterdam airport. Like airports everywhere, Schiphol has a fleet of trollies with all the supplies for keeping the bathrooms clean.

Unlike most airports, however, these trollies have a decorator touch. Instead of plain, utilitarian sides, they’re decked out with oversized photos of bright yellow tulips.

You can see what the designers were aiming for. And their hearts were in the right place. But somehow the whole thing backfires. Instead of a nicely decorated utilitarian device, the overall impression is of a highly mixed message and an inept attempt at concealment.

The flowers seem determined to be wishing us the happiest of all possible days. “June is busting out all over!”, they’re practically shouting.

But what’s actually busting out all over is the mops, buckets, cleaners and toilet paper. And those don’t send quite the same message as a field of tulips.

All the same, it’s clear which message is telling the truth about the purpose of the trolley, and which is trying to hoodwink us. And the truth, while prosaic, is more appealing. We like it when we can see the real story peeping out behind an attempt at camouflage.

But consider this: if they’d made the trolley enclosure big enough to hold everything, the flowers might have worked. In other words, if they’d done a better job of hoodwinking us, we’d happily take the flowers at face value.

Well, at least until we smelled the industrial cleaners.

Are corporate disclosures useful or redundant? Yes

by Josiah Fisk, January 4, 2016

Gretchen Morgenson nicely captures the debate over a possible change in accounting rules as to what is “material” for corporations to disclose to their investors.

Investor advocates say that investors find existing disclosures of material developments very helpful. Many corporations appear to think that the disclosures are redundant.

Both have a point. The content of the disclosures can be very helpful. But the way they’re written often isn’t.

When you’re writing disclosures, the easiest way to make sure you have been complete is to be redundant. And since there may be overlap in what is said about one risk or new development and another, you can get more redundancy there.

Deciding what needs to be disclosed is mainly a job for accountants, attorneys, and executives. Deciding how best to disclose it is a job for communications specialists.

Why it’s always good to test-drive your communications

by Josiah Fisk, December 30, 2015

PeasantFlightWhether you love or loathe the advertising industry, there’s one thing they’re good at: controlling every aspect of the messages they deliver.

So it was a bit of a surprise – okay, it was fun – to find a lapse in the industry’s we-think-of-everything professionalism.

At Findel airport in Luxembourg, there’s an escalator down to the gates. Right over the escalator is an impressive multi-screen video display. Even more impressive is the location. There’s nothing else to look at, and your hands are too full of carry-on baggage to reach for your smartphone. Whoever sited that display here knew what they were doing.

So far, so controlled. That goes for the messages too – an endless loop of pleasant but generic images and words of welcome.

Imagine my surprise, then, when this slick, efficient, hi-tech communication machine wished me “a peasant flight”. I looked again. Yup. Peasant.

Was this their way of saying they knew I was flying economy?

Okay, we all know they meant “pleasant”. They even wrote “pleasant”. But as luck would have it, the “l” landed right in the gap between two screens, rendering it invisible. Oops.

Most likely, this was a simple case of nobody telling the graphic designer where the screen gaps fell because nobody saw the potential for trouble.

But whatever the cause, the solution is the same: you test-drive your communication. You look it over and read it from the viewpoint of the user. You question your assumptions. Relentlessly.

And you check out the product in situ. That way you can truly know what the audience is seeing. And if there’s a problem, you’ll be the first one to spot it. Instead of the last.

Click to see this column in the December 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.

What were they expecting? Josiah Fisk, More Carrot LLC

by Cori Stevens, December 11, 2015

Of all the factors that can affect the reception and comprehension of a message, audience expectations are among the most overlooked. Yet they can be one of the main sources of communications failure. In this plenary presentation from the PLAIN 2015 conference in Dublin, Josiah looks at how expectations relate to needs and wants, and at the main types of expectations that influence receptiveness. He also looks at why it’s more important to avoid confirming negative expectations than to completely fulfil positive ones.