Matthew Sherrington: Calls to action should be clear and specific, otherwise they amount only to empty rhetoric

Identifying what needs to be done is useless unless you nominate someone to actually do it, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

Something must be done! That is what a High Court judge said recently, exasperated that a divorce case he was hearing had stacked up costs of £920,000, eating up over a third of the joint assets in question. More fool them, you might think about the splitting couple. But his ire was directed at his own profession: lawyers who he felt should know better than to waste everyone's time while fleecing the client. "Eye-watering, grotesque leaching of costs," he said. "Scandalous."

It was in 1853, more than 160 years ago, that Charles Dickens eviscerated the legal profession for its avaricious ways in Bleak House. The backdrop of the story is the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, litigation over a will that continues for years until legal costs have gobbled up the entire estate. No change there, then. (It's a nice coincidence that our 2014 judge was hearing a case known anonymously as J v J.)

Yes, something must be done. This legal story reminded me of a wonderful phrase I came across recently, describing this familiar bleat in grammatical terms, as the "passive evasive". And it touched a nerve, because an awful lot of charity messages are just that. "What do we want? A better world. When do we want it? Now!" I see a lot of vague, empty rhetoric masquerading as a tough call to action about something bad. I'm involved with a local community campaign where - with the best possible intentions - people are free with their ideas of what needs to be done, but often expect someone else to do it. (In spite of that, we're doing rather well - thanks for asking.)

You'll have seen it in the workplace too. Who has not been on the receiving end of a widely circulated email, with suggestions aimed at no one in particular, where all the recipients assume that someone else will pick them up because they weren't aimed specifically at them? The result is no one picks them up and nothing happens. One of my favourite management books is The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. It's a parable about self-preservation that is achievable by managing and delegating the "monkeys" - by which the authors mean other people's tasks and responsibilities that somehow cling to you and prevent you managing efficiently - making sure they always have an owner so they aren't left to gang up and run riot.

Exasperation is fine, but it doesn't amount to a hill of beans if no one is identified to do the doing. As the Lorax, in Dr. Seuss's eponymous children's book, says: "Nothing is going to change, unless someone does something soon." It's the "someone" that makes the difference, along with a clear idea of the "something". As the seasoned campaigner Kirsty McNeill told a conference of campaigners recently: "If your action isn't specific enough to end up on someone's 'to do' list, it's not actionable - just aspirational."

Is this another exasperated whinge? No, I offer clear advice. Whether it's delegating a task to a co-worker, framing campaign action for a politician or making an appeal to a supporter, be clear. Know exactly what you want done. Know who has the power and responsibility to do it. When something must be done, name the something - and the someone who must do it.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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