Today I consider some tips from the world of fiction composition for your compliance program. These lessons are applicable for both the design, enhancement and implementation of your compliance regime. Moreover, by considering some of these techniques it should work to operationalize your compliance program as it will add differentiation for the different corporate audience every compliance practitioner must address.

Tempo is an important issue when writing a narrative. In the world of fiction, it is called pacing. Some stories are non-stop action and some linger over the tiniest of details for inestimable lengths of time. Between the breathless and the meditative is a wide variety of pacing. The key is to find the right pacing or variety of pacing for your story. While doing some study on fiction writing techniques I came across some interesting thoughts about pacing which I find are instructive for any compliance practitioner in creating or enhancing a compliance program. 

Professor James Hynes, in Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques, identified three general rules of pacing. The first is the pace of the entire work, contrasted with individual chapters and scenes. Under this rule, you need to proportion and balance your pacing across the story, juggling how much information you want to get across in the words and pages allotted to the matter. Of course, you must consider how much patience your reader has to receive and read your release of information.

For the compliance practitioner, this means not only how you are presenting the information but how the message is received. Have you considered the pace of not only the overall change but also the pacing of your training message? Finally, what about two-way communications? Are you receiving feedback which you are incorporating back into your compliance program going forward?

A second general maxim is the density of the narrative; that is the length of time it takes to relate the scene or chapter vis-à-vis the amount of time it takes to read it. Under this formulation, a long story depicting a short period of time will move slower that a short book which depicts a long period of time. A third axiom of pacing is between action and exposition. Typically, more important scenes have a full complement of tools. Conversely, exposition is generally used when filling in a character’s back story or describing a setting.

Obviously, an entire compliance regime written by lawyers for lawyers is a recipe for disaster. Use the tools of a writer that are available to you in your drafting, action, dialogue and setting. Louis Sapirman, Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) for Dun & Bradstreet, has called this a 360-degree view of communications. Finally, have you incorporated the tools of social media into your compliance messaging? If not, why not?

Other guidelines in fiction writing can inform your compliance communications. Drawing on Hynes concepts on pacing and Debbie Harmsen’s article in Writer’s Digest, entitled “5 Key Questions Writers Should Ask When Revising Writing”, I came up with some interesting ways for you to consider your compliance message and how you might work to use it to further operationalize your compliance program.

Does your message have the right message for audience? 

It would seem to be a basic axiom that any compliance practitioner would write a message about compliance. You must strike both the right note and set the right tone. This may mean you adapt your compliance message differently for different groups of employees. It would seem self-evident that a message that resonates in the US may not resonate with the same force in China or some other far-flung geographic location outside the US. You should also consider how you release the information and what forms of communications you will utilize to communicate to each audience within your organization.

Have you chosen the strongest possible structure and pacing? 

Harmsen noted, “Structure is critical to every piece of writing. It’s the framework that holds content together. It guides the reader along and, in doing so, subtly lets them know they can trust you… If your structure helps readers know where they’re going and feel confident about the types of information and entertainment they’ll get along the way, they’re more likely to trust you and what you have to say.” For the compliance practitioner, they key is whether your message is consistent and cohesive and does not send mixed signals. From the pacing side, consider the difference in views from 30,000 ft. vs. ground level, where a large picture may move more slowly than a small, quick page turning story.

How am I offering overall takeaways? 

The latest United Airlines public relations disaster should make clear once and for all that slavish adherence to a rules based culture may work in kindergarten but not in the real world of employees and customers. As a compliance practitioner, you must provide solid and useful information to the business team which they can operationalize. If you put too many rules in front of your employees: (1) they will never be able to remember them all; (2) you will never have enough for every conceivable situation; and (3) some situation will arise where slavish following of your rules will lead to a United Airlines-type disaster. 

Does each section or chapter have a clear purpose? 

I often rewrite compliance policies and procedures that were drafted by lawyers in law firms who have never practiced law, let alone compliance, from an in-house perspective. These policies and procedures read like they were written by lawyers for lawyers. The business person trying to read the company policy and do the right thing has little to no chance in such scenarios. Harmsen’s dictum to “look at each section of your article or each chapter of your book and note what purpose it serves to the overall piece. If it doesn’t have one, it likely needs to be either revised or cut” translates precisely into communications from the compliance function. If language does not serve a purpose, make sure that it does in the final version. Finally, make sure that everything appears “in an order that flows logically and easily from one to the next”. 

Is my voice authoritative without being overbearing? 

Harmsen nails her final section with the following, “Where is your ego in all of this? Are you like the guy who is trying too hard to impress his date?” The core of writing is like the core of compliance communications; it is about the content and not about you, the author. You certainly need to be competent in your communications around compliance but you need to also make sure your content is competent and, at the end of the day, that is what your compliance message, whether written, verbal or in video format, is about. By empowering your employee base in compliance, you take the most operationalization step possible, as you will have employees doing compliance.

As a CCO or compliance practitioner, you should always be curious and consider the 360-degree view of communications espoused by Sapirman. By using some of the tools of a fiction writer, you will have a stronger message which will resonate more intensely with your audience. It will also work for more fully operationalizing your compliance regime.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2017