The emperor has no clue

Bust of the Roman Emperor NeroI’ve consulted with a lot of companies in my day, and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a bevy of wildly talented people. But once in a while…well, my luck seems to run out.

Lately I’ve been challenged with a senior-level exec (read: stakeholder/approver) who just doesn’t seem to “get” what the content team is trying to do. Sadly, this exec — heck, let’s call this person Nero — doesn’t seem to get content strategy, period.

That’s not the end of the world. I’ve had to educate many folks on what  content strategy encompasses and its value. But it’s worse than that. You see, Nero doesn’t even seem to grasp the basics of online marketing, communications, branding, SEO, and most other things essential to success with a Web venture.

Recommendations based on research are tossed out the window with a flippant “Nah, I don’t like this.” Instead of guidance to the team based on business goals, we hear “I’ll know it when I see it.” Cronyism is rampant, with lunch buddies’ off-the-cuff opinions weighing far more heavily than in-depth analysis and expertise. And business decisions are made with an eye toward empire building, rather than doing what’s right for the company.

The worst part? Nero enjoys such a position of power that no ones dares mount a differing opinion, let alone a challenge. So all those poor decisions end up implemented, against everyone’s better — but unspoken — judgment. Meanwhile, morale is sinking like the Titanic. Can the business as a whole be far behind?

Bad enough when no one can point out the emperor has no clothes. In this case, it’s even worse: The emperor has no clue.

He said, she said

A client recently questioned me about the wisdom of using “he” for the default pronoun in the FAQ copy for her website.

Her concerns: Would it come across as sexist? Would it make women readers feel left out?

My response was that, sadly, the English language doesn’t have a handy gender-neutral pronoun at its disposal (and no, “their” is not an appropriate option — don’t get me started). So it’s become a standard and accepted practice to simply use “him” or “he” or “his” to refer, generally, to all mankind. (Womankind? Humankind?) And most people don’t bat an eye because they’re so used to seeing it that way in print.

Oh, and by the way, it’s grammatically correct.

But, said she, it still makes me uncomfortable. Can’t I just alternate pronouns?

I said sure, you can do anything you want. It’s your site. Heck, you could even use the dreaded “s/he” construction. But there’s a caveat. Using unconventional style and grammar, like the ol’ he/she switcheroo, can make your writing look inconsistent, amateurish, or self-conscious. Your copy also gets harder to read, because the reader gets distracted each time he (or she) runs into one of those awkward constructions.

My advice to her? Learn to live with “he.”

In the end, she chose to alternate pronouns. Fair enough. After all, clients may pay me for my opinions, but they don’t have to heed them. Even when I’m right.