Search This Blog

Friday, December 31, 2010

"I don't chew my cabbage twice." Repeating a message inside a workplace document.

Historically this old cliche means that I refuse to repeat myself.  If you can't hear me, get your ears checked.  If you don't understand me, I can't help you.  But that kind of thinking doesn't serve your readers well if the message you have to share needs to be revealed in a variety of ways so that the complexity of it can be appreciated.

That's why workplace writers must think about the logic of their idea presented simply, the possible metaphors for their ideas that will help enhance the reader's understanding, and different words that create the kind of verbal texture that, ideally, an illustration or photograph will also add to the story you are trying to tell.

When you plan a workplace document and decide upon its principal message, you must think multi-dimensionally.  Consider how many ways you can tell the message you intend to communicate.  Then, explore them.  Try them out.  Try them out on readers.  Traditionally, readers need to hear and see your message in a number of ways in order to receive the information you have to share.

Experiment in Creating Results-Producing Headlines for Blog

Like other people who are investigating the forum of blogging to see what attracts the most readership, I have been considering my headlines.  I think my content is sound, but my headlines have previously been written so that students who are interested in running a search inside my blog on specific topics, like email, can easily find those entries by running that simple search.

However, I think the design of the headlines for inside-the-blog searching is a logical function to use the blog as a classroom tool  but I am not sure if writing the headlines that way attracts the greatest number of hits through search engines that reach out to other professionals who may be interested in reading about professional writing. 

So, for the next few blog entries I shall experiment with headlines--writing the entries about creating workplace documents but use only one keyword to tag the subject and sculpt the rest of the blog headline to reach out to readers outside the classroom.

It will be interesting to watch which headlines draw the more readership and try to figure out, like any businessperson must, what works and what doesn't.

Elements of Style (on the web and elsewhere)

One of the chief issues with creating better looking and more professional documents for any workplace environment is the writer's belief in and commitment to a quality of style.

Many writers of workplace documents spend so much effort explaining that they are not natural writers and could never spell very well that they miss the main point about style in workplace documents:  it matters and the excuses we make about our perceived weaknesses don't improve the quality of the style or make the reader care more.

The reader has to read, and whether the writer of the document wants to admit it or not, style choices and stylistic mistakes can stop a reader from reading.  It's that simple.

The antidote?  Admit what your real weakness is:  you don't believe you can take charge of your style.

That's not true.  You can.  Good workplace style is not brain surgery.  With all of the tools inherent in word processing, you can solve many of your style issues by simply paying attention to what you consistently do wrong.

After that it's a matter of building your vocabulary the way you believe in building your wardrobe and developing a workplace voice on the page that makes you sound the way you want to be heard:  competent, reasonable, friendly and open to discussion.

Workplace writing is different than other kinds of writing.  It is logic based, and people in  business tend to be logical.  Test that theory the next time you have a workplace document to create.  For content, ask yourself if it fulfills the three primary objectives:  fulfill its purpose, meet its audience's needs and does it situate itself into the occasion?  When you consider that last one, you are thinking about style, too.

When you do, you have taken a major step away from needing to announce your weaknesses and toward your necessary destination where, as a confident writer,  you let your document do its job:  speak confidently and persuasively for you.

Daphne Simpkins' most recent book is Christmas in Fountain City

Retiring Minds Don't Want to Know That They Have the Wisdom and Experience That The World Needs (and the computer is the medium through which to share it)

"I don't want to fool with that computer."
"You're not going to make me have one of those computers in my house."
"I am not going to go on that Facebook.  Can't people use the telephone anymore?"

I hear different versions of these statements from mostly retired people whose blunt rejection of technology asserts the idea that he or she has narrowly escaped being kidnapped by some form of extraterrestrial or that they have avoided the dark side of man's sinful nature.

Occasionally, he or she goes on to say that they don't want to mess with Facebook (they frown when they say this) and email is all they're going to do because they have to.  The implication here is that they would give up email too if they could.  Don't blame them.  Email is always with me, and sometimes I want to shut it down too.  I am able to not check my email for long periods of time and I consider this a virtue.

But what troubles me about people who reject technology out of hand is not the connections they are denying themselves; it is their wisdom and meaningful experiences which I believe they have and do not share as expansively as many younger people with less wisdom give away freely.  Because there is a lack of substantial depth from people who have lived long and prospered and could explain how/why, younger people don't really have a sense of what seasoned wisdom is.

I think the major problem with retiring people shunning technology stems from a misunderstanding that hardware, which seems very complex, is similar to complexity of use in software, but they're not the same.

You don't have to understand or grasp the physical complexities of bandwidth, fiber optics, and assorted other words to be able to turn on the computer.  And you don't have to be afraid of software. When I speak with people who are resistant to moving from emailing to blogging--and they're the ones with something to say--I whisper, "You can't break it."

You can get snarled up, but you can't break the computer.  When you get snarled up, you can always hit Control/Alternate/Delete at the same time, and it will back you out of the problem you are having.

Also, if you do something that really freezes up the movement of your computer, you can reset the whole shebang by going to your help button, finding System Restore and letting the sequence of events take you through the process of going backwards in computer time to the day or week before when your computer was not frozen or snarled up. Then, shut it down and bring it back to life and you're in business again.

People who are afraid of using technology listen to me when I talk about resetting the whole shebang, but only one person so far has let me lead her into blogging, which I fervently believe she should do because she has a great deal to offer about the subject she is writing about, and I think the web exists for the purpose of sharing the kind of information she has.

It also connects people.  I believe in the webs of connection that the internet makes possible, and sometimes older people who have lost many friends and are living comparably isolated lives don't realize the extent to which they can touch and be touched online, fearlessly, is they choose to believe:  Hardware and software are two different tools and quite hard to break.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Live Links, Spheres of Influence and Mafia Wars

I have begun to see phrases in common conversation underlined in an imagined blue script, implying that there is an active link that will take me to a definition of what the speaker really means when he says something that initially puzzles me.
It happened yesterday when a man who walked me into church while jovially declining to carry my book bag that looks like a purse with the laughing over-the-shoulder comment, “I’m not comfortable enough with my sexuality to tote that.”
Lugging my purse and heavily-endowed book bag while attempting to carry a linen jacket without wrinkling it, I smiled, amused, while my mind darted to the translation of what he was trying not to tell me:  a. my back’s out and I don’t want to admit it; b. I don’t like you enough to help you though I pretend to; c. you’re pretty strong; carry your own book bag.
While I may not ever learn the true translation of something that doesn’t really need to be translated, I took note of the idea that body language that I used to read as casually as I assessed books by their covers, has evolved for me to read spoken words in this new ways: as if it is highlighted in a world that is neither virtual nor physical and as if my mind contains a cursor that I can use to tap on the search string and follow my curiosity to a place where meaning and translations of puzzles exists.
I still believe in conclusions like that, a real understanding of casually typed search strings though I do not always think that the web is the best source for that wisdom.
It is, however, the place where our language is evolving and we are integrating that evolving language in new ways in our lives.
Blogs are monetized.  That means that people who write online daily journals have several ways now to make money from these journals and it is called monetizing.
Our respective spheres of influence have supposedly expanded though I am not sure that the phrase “sphere of influence” denotes as much influence as I had previously thought.  Marketers use it now to indicate that the web can take people who have something to sell outside the physical boundaries that encompass the people they know and who might buy their product.  Outside the sphere of influence is the new and improved phrase to mean that your territory for sales or developing contacts is unlimited.
But the dynamic is still the same.
You can have knock on a lot of doors (Adsense) and you can have plenty of word-of-mouth (and now lots of word of mouth is competing with lots of other words of mouth) and you still have to match a consumer with a product that he/she needs and can afford to buy.
I have bumped into these words lately because I have just published a new book of short stories feature a Southern church lady who has been showing up outside her fictional sphere of influence (Montgomery, AL) in Canada where ostensibly people have liked her well enough to invite her back many times.  I have published this collection and now sell it through Amazon and am wrestling with the different strategies one uses to announce to the world that there’s something new to buy in paperback and as a Kindle book.
I started blogging, making sure I had found my voice and my niche before letting my sphere of influence know what my extended sphere of potentially influenced people already had access to—one person took note.
That makes me grin.  It makes me grin because the World Wide Web is touted as the magical avenue to some destination called a bigger sphere of influence and I imagine that others have found their way to a destination more easily than I have.
Presently, I am still thinking about what to write next, whether I need to buy the Writer's Market anymore because the way I sell my work is different than it used to be, and how many blog entries do you need to post before the world wide web takes notice and the news gets back to your sphere of influence that is supposed to already know you and care meaningfully about what you are doing?
Mine doesn’t, mostly.
I posted the news of my new book on Facebook and the news slid by in that regional feed that plays night and day like an ongoing conversation on what we used to call a party line where anyone with a phone—a computer—can pick up the receiver and listen in.  Not much goes on.  Black widow spiders show up in people’s cars. Some guy keeps posting the lyrics to songs about love lost.  And my niece is winning or losing at Mafia Wars, I’m not sure which.

Explaining Processes in the Workplace is as simple as making Date Loaf Candy (Recipe follows)

Sometimes I ask my college business students to write out their instructions for a computer trick that they have just learned.

"This is how we learn to use the computer," I report.  (I gather these tips to grade and learn all I can but I don't tell them that.)

But gathering computer tricks is not my grading goal when I read the papers.  I analyze how well the student can explain a process to someone else, and then I try the process. If it works, he/she explained it just fine.

The proof is in the execution, isn't it?

To vary this routine, I sometimes ask them what their favorite dish is that someone else makes for them.

The enthusiasm for this assignment is greater than the one about sharing computer recipes.  (That's really sort of what it is.)

They loved sweet potato souffle, Oreo pie, chicken and dumplings, all kinds of macaroni and cheese and assorted pies.

Then, I tell them my recipe for fudge which leaves them salivating, although it's the Hershey cocoa fudge recipe that is easily accessible on the web.

A recipe that is less common is one for Date Loaf Candy, which was a winter treat for farmers long ago who had their own cream, fresh-churned butter, and kept dried dates and enough sugar to make this satisfying treat that calls for a damp dish cloth (flour sack) and, yes, a lump of butter.

After some practice I discovered that a lump of butter was really about 3-4 tablespoons of butter, and although it seems unbelievable this recipe does not call for Vanilla Extract. I tried it once and it didn't help the taste at all.

So, here's my process piece that you can make to find out if I can explain a process.  Tip:  The candy is not magazine-page beautiful, but it is astonishingly tasty and satisfying--rich in taste and rich in fiber.

Date Loaf Candy

What you need:
A damp T-towel that you are prepared to see stained and might want to throw away after the candy is made
A large can of Pet Evaporated Milk--the recipe calls for 1 Cup, and there's a smidge extra that you can use for your afternoon coffee
2 cups of sugar
1 10 ounce package of chopped dates (If you buy the whole ones, even pitted, they aren't as good.  They're tough and hard to chew and don't soften as well in the cooking.)
4 tablespoons of butter (real butter)
1 plus cup of pecans

In a tallish but heavy-bottomed sauce pan so there's room enough for this mixture to boil up, bring to a slow boil the sugar and the Pet evaporated milk.  Add the dates as the sugar is cooking.  Stir gently.  Bring slowly up to a soft ball stage, which you can determine when droplets of it land in a cup of cold water and harden to a tacky touch.  Remove from heat. Stir in the butter and the nuts. 

 Then, lay out your damp cotton cloth that can breathe (that's the point) on your counter top or a cookie baking pan.  Pour candy onto moist towel in log shape.  Cover sides of candy with cloth and form to about a 5 inch width loaf.  Place on the back porch where it's cool or any room in your house that is the coldest spot.  Let harden to a chewy texture.  Then, shift the whole loaf to a strong piece of wax paper and additionally cover with tin foil.  Slice to serve when your favorite TV program is on.

You can refrigerate, but it's harder to cut and chew.

That's the best recipe for Date Loaf Candy I know.  Do you think you can make it?  If so, then the process was adequately explained, which is the proof for being able to share a recipe for the computer or any other workplace function with someone who wants to learn it.

What Hansel and Gretal Can Teach Us Today about Bread Crumbs, Trails and Teasers

Ever since Hansel and Gretal famously left a trail of bread crumbs in order to find their way home, people searching for a destination through woodsy terrain have laid down clues for themselves to find their way back to their points of origin.  That happens in a different way through the social media where people learning how to use the  e-power of reaching out to others for their various causes attempt to lay down bread crumbs for people who have clicked their way to a fork in the road that could lead them to a new and interesting destination, like your website.

That happens daily on Facebook and other social media forums where announcements of news are intended to draw people to a destination.

Like old fashioned flyers stuck on telephone poles and storefront  windows that said the circus is in town, the message that follows is "Come One, Come All!"

But there are hundreds of these postings on the modern equivalent of store windows and roadside poles (Facebook, etc.) and the invitation followed by any kind of message that sounds needy pushes potential guests away rather than drawing them irresistibly to the place you want to lead them with your bread crumbs.

Rejection and acceptance on the web share one commonality: they happen as an impulse in a second.  Neediness incites instant rejection.  The spirit of surprise and adventure triggers curiosity and the click that follows the link you have posted--modern-day breadcrumbs.

If you are posting your announcements hither and yon and adding anything like a statement of need, resist that impulse.  Instead, create the impulse of clicking yes, which is what you want by providing fresh and tantalizing bread crumbs that will lead them to your site.

Here are some tips to remember when creating your teasers that you want to serve as bread crumbs:

1. Don't  belabor  gratitude for the reader's interest.  Instead, add a new and quickly telegraphed tidbit of news that forecasts something to come--something with a "Oh!" factor.  (I would have said "wow factor" but that kind of power doesn't come easily, but the "Oh" factor is actually obtainable.) 

2. If  you are responding to a reader's comment, add on to the existing information  provided rather than explaining it some more.  For instance, if someone compliments a story, tell them what's coming next or a fact that you left out of the original.  Add, don't explain.

3.  Keep your message brief.  Point rather than drawing an elaborate map.To build your ability to do this, listen to news programs where teasers are regularly used to build viewership.  Sound bytes summarize quickly what's to come, and no one says, please watch us, we need viewers.  You need and want readers, but announcing that need won't elicit the response you want.  Stick to forecasting the news.

 Writing on the web feels like a foreign experience sometimes--a trip through the woods.  But you can do it if you remember that laying down a trail is the same in both environments.  You will learn from the trips you make which are the better routes to take, and when you do, you can convert your bread crumbs of knowledge into teasers for your potential readers and customers.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Shoot Me An Inbox To Remind Me

I read these words this morning from a company to an individual who asked for information.

I can almost understand what that means, but I'm not sure.  I figure it means: send an email to my inbox that repeats what you just told me and I'll follow up later when I can think about what you want.

Unpacking the code language that has evolved through Internet use is an ongoing job because the tools of technology are forging forward at a pace that is faster than my preferred speed of moderate to slow.

Blinking, I work to keep up, occasionally, thankfully stumbling upon someone else who operates at the speed of courtesy as I know it.

That happened recently with the Fischer Honey Company.  Using the Internet I tracked down a contact number at their home base in Arkansas, and sent Miss Ann a message something like, "I can't find your honey locally any more and I want to buy some.  Can you help me?"  (Actually, I think I wrote something like "My sweet tooth is aching for some honey.  Can you help me?"  But I'm not sure I sent that message. I just remember writing it.)

Miss Ann didn't direct me to shoot her an inbox.
Miss Ann promptly wrote:  How much do you want?  These are the sizes we offer.
I'll ship it as soon as possible. 

I drooled, then chose what I wanted. The honey arrived within a week.  I paid for it.  I said thank you, thank you, and I looked like a hero to the people in my family who also wanted the honey and were equally exasperated by the lack of the supply of Fischer honey locally.

People who love honey take their honey seriously, and Fischer honey is seriously delicious--not like the sugar-watered kind that you find in cute containers that people get used to and which results in amnesia: people who eat a lot of that so-called honey forget how good real raw honey can taste.
Fischer's product, like their service, reminded me that the speed and language of doing business keeps changing, but the dynamic that is true for customers and salespeople is the same:  match the product sweetly to the consumer. 

And in the case of the Fischer Honey Company, the experience is a very sweet one indeed.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What To Read....Stanley Bing!

You probably read a number of periodicals or journals to keep abreast of trends in your field.  The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Forbes and Inc. are all useful resources for the business-minded and the curious.

But occasionally, you want to read books that explore business ethics or themes or even competition in the workplace.  Naturally, you could go right to Michael Crighton and his sizzling thriller that explores competition in the workplace Disclosure.  But if you are a person who likes subtle humor and appreciates a deft use of language, go find yourself any book by Stanley Bing, who writes about business from a variety of angles and with savvy insight. In addition to Lloyd: What Happened? A Novel of Business, I recommend:  What Would Machiavelli Do?  The Ends Justify the Meanness, Throwing the Elepant:  Zen and the Art of Managing Up, Crazy Bosses, How To Relax Without Getting the Axe: A Survival Guide...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Geographical Location of Ideas

I read the words often.  You do too.  "In the preceding paragraph," is one example.  "As mentioned previously" is another way lazy writers attempt to connect the dots of a persuasive argument for a reader.

It's a lazy way to write, and it's a dumb way to write. 

Here's why.

It's your job as a writer to present your case to a reader, and your writing should make the logical connections for the reader.  When you do not do that and instead point out the geographical location of ideas in your work for the reader to see, remember or reread, you are making a great leap of faith and being lazy at the same time:  in forfeiting the responsibility to writing the transitional phrases and sentences that logically link your ideas for the reader you are trusting that the reader can make those leaps for him or herself.  Now, ask yourself:  how many people can successfully read your mind?  Let's assume everyone can.  Now, ask yourself:  how many people, after reading your mind, will axiomatically agree with you because they think you're right about everything?  If your answer is "everybody" then go ahead and point out the geographical location of ideas in your work because all of your endings will be happy ones.  That's what life is like in a fairy tale.

However, if you live in the real world with the rest of us, then reconsider pointing out the geographical location of ideas inside your work.  Don't let the example of others convince you that it's fine because a lot of people do it.  That bandwagon is as deceptive as bandwagons everywhere; just because it goes by doesn't mean you have to jump on it

Think for yourself instead, and write for your reader.  Write the transitional phrases and sentences that your reader needs to follow your point of view and agree with you because your argument is logically sound and they can see the connections because you have provided them.  If you don't, your reader may go looking for the place you have pointed out and not come back to finish reading, and ideally, agree with your conclusion.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Using the Exclamation Point!!!!!!

Sometimes I receive emails from people who highlight the subject in red and add an exclamation point to make sure I know the message is important.  Often the message is very important but not urgent.

There's a difference.

Urgency requires a life-saving, fast response; important messages often require deliberate thought and calculation.

Red-flagged messages with exclamation points often deserve the latter attention, but people who fire them off seem to want a hurried response and will follow up with two or three more emails with exclamation points and a couple of phone calls before an hour has passed upon receiving them.  These exclamation-point people might even wait outside the restroom for you to come out, believing that as soon as you reappear in the office hallway you will be ablaze with the red-hot attention their pressing matter deserves.

It probably does deserve attention but it most likely doesn't deserve the red-hot, urgent kind: a decision that is made at the speed of the writer's anxiety rather than at the pace of deliberate consideration.

Timing matters in making decisions.  People who make decisions have many factors to consider other than just the red-flagged alerts bearing exclamation points.

Keep that in mind the next time you want to fire off an urgent message that feels critically important to you but is only one more important matter for the person to whom you are sending it.

Then, remember what the boy who cried wolf found out:  too many exclamation points used too often causes people to doubt the urgency of your message. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dumping Litter--Forfeiting Opportunity

They show up in my e-mail box: documents that require review or grading, and they still don't have cover notes that explain their presence.

Each time it happens I see that character played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada dumping her coat, day after day, upon the receptionist that she notoriously abuses in all kinds of ways.

When someone litters my email box with an attachment that does not have an explanatory note, I feel the same way I imagine the character who played the abused receptionist feels:  as if I am doing someone else's laundry, and it's not my job.  I am not the receptionist, but I am treated like one when someone dumps a document in my email box, like a piece of clothing that needs to be hung up on a hanger somewhere else after I have cleaned and pressed it.

But aside from the admission that I don't like to be dumped on and this causes me to feel no small amount of irritation, I feel greatly sorry for the person who sent the message who might be sending other more important messages (or even resumes) in the future to people who could hire him/her or promote him/or her.  Ideally, that recipient might also be inclined to think highly of the person for demonstrating consideration of others' needs and time by simply explaining the presence of the document that has been sent.

In short, not writing a cover note for attachments via email is not only very poor salesmanship (poor customer relations), it's worse:  it makes you look really bad.  And whether you understand this or not your name becomes associated in the minds of others as rude, self centered, lazy, late and a problem that you have to work around.

So, think about that the next time someone has asked you to provide the work that was expected of you; and after you have been asked, once, twice, or even three times, don't just finally send the document without the courtesy of a note that says, "Here's what you need." You could even go that extra mile and apologize for holding up someone else's schedule by not doing your job in a timely manner. You don't actually have to say that, but a general apology that has taxed someone else's patience is a good idea to cover the multitude of infractions that may remain unsaid in that exchange because even as I write this entry I am not saying everything I feel and think about inconsiderate people who live in the center of their universe where the people around them aren't coworkers--they are the people who clean up after them.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Don't stalk your co-worker. Make an appointment or call instead.

When e-mail isn't fast enough and you really need to see a business contact in person, it is a very good idea to make an appointment.

Before you do something you'll regret, pick up the phone. Phone calls can connect the way they always have, just as we hope that, ideally, e-mails do....and will.

Persevere politely.

If you need information, keep trying to take the courteous route.  If you don't, you may fall prey to one of the greatest temptations that happens when we are driven by personal ambitions to obtain answers we need to what we consider very pressing questions. 

(Unfortunately, the questions that most often feel urgent to us may not seem as urgent to others.  Additionally, it has been my experience that people who frequently have urgent questions are really urgently just seeking some kind of reassurance that he or she is liked. Truly.)  This unfortunate need for attention and how it is expressed becomes especially awkward when you decide to follow your colleague into the bathroom and ask your pressing question while he/she is otherwise engaged.  Even when you loiter politely by the towel rack or hot air dryer that stance is not a wise choice or allows for sufficient space to help someone to feel at ease who is shocked and aware that you are waiting, waiting, stalking, stalking.  (That mumbling you hear from the other side of the stall door is that person calling home or the security patrol, and they are calling about you.  Yes, you.)

Second to this choice in bad judgment of following someone into the restroom is what you consider the more polite choice of waiting outside the restroom to waylay the person on his/her way some place else, like a scheduled appointment for which he/she is focusing his/her thoughts in order to be ready for the meeting. 

Now, it's true the person you have stalked to the restroom might greet you cordially upon exiting, but he/she most likely will have grown cold inside after realizing you have been waiting there, and smile only with the coldest of intentions right after he/she has decided that the flight/fight response triggered by the adrenaline rush of being startled and stalked by you has abated, along with her/his powers of concentration about the forthcoming meeting.

To avoid receiving a cold and deadly smile from someone who now sees you not as a person with a problem but who is one, remember that Queen Elizabeth was once accosted inside her toilette and she had the interloper's head chopped off. 

One can't resort to such extremes in the workplace when one is stalked by people who frequently have emergencies that others have to handle for them or urgently need reassurances that he/she is liked.  One can only say, no, to whatever favor you might urgently have wanted to ask and later post on one's blog:  If something bad ever happens to me, go ask this stalker where he/she was when it happened.

The next time you have pressing issues at work, remember to respect the laws of courtesy and you will have a much stronger chance of receiving a favorable response to whatever urgent issue has driven you to become, instead of a co-worker, temporarily, a stalker.

Monday, October 18, 2010

How to Lose a Sale: Give your philosophy of life instead of answering questions about the product

Grading mid-terms I often write the words "non-responsive to the question" in the margin.  It isn't that the student doesn't know the answer; rather, sometimes the student will write something to justify his/her opinion about the noun located inside the question rather than respond to the question as a whole.

Here's an example:  What are the three main concepts that drive the production of all workplace documents?
The correct answer begins with naming these three concepts:  reader, purpose and occasion.

Instead, a student might begin by writing, "I think emails are important because everyone uses them and format is important because everyone needs to know formats, and I believe that proofreading really counts!"

The three nouns inside that response are good choices to mention in a business writing class but not the answer to the question: they exist to prove that you have picked up some words about writing but you have missed the big picture and settled on details that fit in the margins of the discussion.

Why this matters is because most people going into the workplace will eventually have a product to represent, and not knowing how to answer a direct question directly often allows you to maintain a behavior of not answering the questions that a prospective client or customer might ask. 

Here's an example:  A prospective client asks a fledgling company web-page designer for a rate card, time frame for production and simultaneously provides all of the copy that will need to be on the web page. 

The web page designer, who needs to close the sale before proving himself, replies with a form, saying:  "Fill this out." And then offers a philosophy of doing business with the added claim, "We really believe in ourselves."

No sale.
No sale.
No sale.

That response is about justifying one's self rather than meeting a client's needs.  That void of meeting a prospective client's needs is quite similar to not being able to answer a direct question on a mid-term exam.

If you are working your way through college on your way to working in the non-academic world, pay attention to the words "non-responsive to the question."  There's a fair chance that you will continue that behavior in the workplace where the price paid isn't a poor grade on a test but less money in the profit margin.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Have a great day!

Your day, like mine, is flooded with sentences like "Have a good one!"

We mean it.  But, sentences flung over our shoulders or used as an exiting strategy because saying good-bye when you are leaving feels so final, can also lose their significance.  Further, they can camouflage sentences that look like them in structure but still have real, intentional power.

In short, there are many sentences that look and even sound alike, but they have a different purpose and different levels of powers.

Parting shots:  Have a good day.  Take care!   These are breezy sentences that aid us in transitioning from one place or person to the next.  They don't mean very much in the scheme of human relationships.  And, they have no intrinsic wisdom.

Slogans:  Eat more chikin.  You can do it, we can help.  Have it your way. 
Companies try to sell the spirit of their identity in slogans that they hope we will repeat and associate with them.  They are memory builders.  Oddly, because they sound and look like other types of sentences, cliches, for example, they rarely have power, except for a short while when they exist as buzz phrases or tongue twisters. 

Mantras:  I can do it.  I can do it.  Just do it.  Nike's slogan is also a mantra.  These sentences are meant to be motivational, and for people who believe in the power of talking yourself into a more successful way of life, they have meaning for the people speaking.  But one person's mantra cannot be another person's mantra in the same way that your personal epiphanic moments can't translate into other people's places of catalytic change.

Cliches:  The early bird gets the worm.  A stitch in time saves nine.  Watch your p's and q's.
Often cliches are practical portions of wisdom reduced to a memorable nugget. They are meant to help keep you on the straight and narrow, working for success, while keeping your hands clean and your nose to the grindstone.  Get the idea?  They resemble the kind of advice your mother gave you:  Always say thank you, obey the speed limit and if you don't have anything good to say about someone else, don't say anything.
Cliches help us to feel safe because they are so familiar, but they don't necessarily have motivational power in them.

Proverbs:  Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

Here you have one of many proverbs from the Bible that alerts you to the power of language and how to use it.  The meaning is not readily clear, and you have to live with the idea for a while before the fruit of its meaning blossoms in you,  which is the pace of wisdom growing, not the pace of technology or how fast you can type or read.

That's the primary difference between proverbs and other types of sentences that look like them.

I invite you to read through the book of Proverbs and post your own favorite words of wisdom in a comment for others to see.  Chances are they won't know it, and you will be doing them a favor.  It's always a good idea to share wisdom, and sharing proverbs is as simple an act as telling someone to have a good day. The difference is that proverbs can actually help a person to do that.

Monday, October 11, 2010

D is for Deduction

In a culture that thrives on exploring emotion and confessing deep personal needs and believing that lots of appetite for worldly goods justified the consumption of them, we often forget that there is a different way to approach solving problems in the workplace--and beyond.

That approach is called deductive reasoning, and some people do not even know what it is. The reason that word seems foreign is because there is such an emphasis on feelings and personal experience that the discipline of assessing dispassionately is a skill oft forgotten.  For some it doesn't exist.

But whether one uses it regularly or intentionally, deductive reasoning exists anyway.

Deductive reasoning is the ability to place your personal preferences in the background while you assess the pieces of a puzzle you need to solve.

While there is much to be said about trusting your hunches and your intuition like betting on a horse or not getting on an elevator with a shady character who makes the hairs on your neck stand up, when solving workplace issues, deductive reasoning will more likely serve your cause, and consequently, your career best.

The temptation is to believe that inductive reasoning works everywhere all the time.

But it doesn't.

When people at work don't pay for their own coffee and they're supposed to, having a hunch that you know who the secret sippers are won't be worth much if  you accuse someone who is innocent and you're wrong, and you could be wrong.  Even if you're right, if you don't have proof, there's not much else to do after the accusation is made.  Better to install a nanny cam if monitoring the coffee fund matters that much.

And while trespasses against the coffee fund might not be worth the price of a nanny cam, the emphasis on evidence here is worth it.

If you have a point to prove or a case to make, get the evidence. Free the argument from personal bias, hunches and intuition, because when it comes to arguing your position, you can't assume that other people's hunches, biases and intuition will parallel your own.

But others might view the evidence if you present it.

The next time you have a problem to solve at work (or anywhere), check to see if you are operating on instinct or relying upon analysis of the evidence.  If you have the pieces of the puzzle to solve the puzzle with, use them.

They are much more reliable than the hairs on the back of your neck--or that famous gut instinct.

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.

When was the last time you apologized for making a mistake or for being selfish to the point that someone else bore some unpleasant consequences for your thoughtlessness?

It happens all the time in daily life and in the workplace.

The measure of a professional is how well and how truly he/she apologizes for making a mistake or for causing someone else an inconvenience.

The good news is that we all make mistakes and must, sooner or later, apologize to someone.

In this way, we all share the same burden to know how to apologize well--and what it looks and sounds like when someone doesn't mean what the word "Sorry" says.

I read this apology quite often.  It is an all-purpose word that supposedly covers a multitude of infractions.

It means:  I'm sorry I asked you urgently for help, but when you gave it at midnight, I didn't see your response for a week because I forgot to check my e-mail.

It means:  I forgot to do my job and this caused a ripple effect down the hierarchical ladder, a domino effect that created more work and confusion for more than just you:  Sorry.

When there is no definite explanation for what you are apologizing for, chances are you are only paying lip service to what is expected of you.  People know that.  People take note of that.  No one will tell you that people are drawing conclusions about you from the way that you run over them with your personal ambitions, calling over you shoulder "Sorry" that feels to you like enough--but it's not enough for other people to excuse your action, or ideally, to forgive that misdeed.  And that needs to happen.  It needs to happen because people in a workplace environment need to get along with one another, and they can only do that when the scales of justice are in accord:  all the apologies that need to be said have been said.

Reconsider how you feel about apologizing and what you hope to accomplish.  If you are just getting the apology out of the way by saying one word or even a sentence fragment like "sorry about that" know that people who understand what an apology is supposed to accomplish and what a sincere one means also know what a casual, insincere one represents.

It means you aren't sorry at all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Navigation is not about the writer; it's about the reader.

The successful construction of workplace documents rests upon fulfilling the purpose with regard and respect for the reader and the occasion when the reader will encounter the document.

But once the document is ready, another event must happen:  the reader must be able to navigate the document--that is, use it easily.

For this to happen, there should have always been a "reader first" attitude at work in the writer or builder of the document so that not only will the logic move in concert with the reader's mind but the eyes of the reader will easily interpret the visual cues set up by the writer.

These cues or signals include every symbol on the page--from the words chosen to planting of the art work that leads the eye to the headings and subheadings that keep pointing like arrows:  this way next.

Here you go.

Turn here.



Now, let's move on.

For providing navigational cues for the reader is a step not unlike providing directions to a destination.

Some people are better map followers--better readers--than others.  For those who are word and symbol challenged, respect for design that results in greater ease of use by readers is key to leaving that reader with the impression:  That was not only well written, it was easy to use.

Think about all elements of design when you are planning your next workplace document.  Make sure your ideas are clear. But also make sure that your reader doesn't have to figure out your lay-out design strategy.

The more you develop a "you first" attitude toward the reader, the more successful your workplace document will be. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ethical Writing

Persuasive writing often gains its power to move others because of a moral imperative that we loosely associate with positive moral values.

Because language has this potential power, people who use it well have a responsibility to work from an ethical system.

There are many.

Using language authentically is part of each one.

Using facts honorably is another aspect of ethical writing.

But there are times when you must argue a position, and will rely upon a strategy of presenting your argument that falls into three broad-based categories:   rules-based writing, rights-based writing and utility-based writing.

You probably already know each one represents, but in case the ideas are foggy, here's a quick rundown:

1. Rules-based writing uses a document with rules to justify the logic of the argument.  A company's handbook with the policies in it is an example.  But lawyers rely upon the law and religious folk rely upon their respective holy texts to argue their positions.  Any system of rules that is codified somewhere and is used to justify the position of the writer is considered rules-based ethics.

2.  Rights-based ethics.  In this position, the writer will need to establish a common understanding of what the rights of people are.  These may be referred to in general terms or even assumed. They could even tie-in to different types of rule books where the rights of people are characterized, but the ethics of the position will reflect a respect for human rights.

3.  Utility-based ethics.  Here, the end result, when achieved, justifies the means one takes to reach it.  The profit is the bottom line, and the ethical concern is that you achieved your profit.

Often you are the best judge for whether you are writing ethically or not.  Becoming more aware of your own motivations for writing will help you to judge more accurately if you are arguing ethically.  Respecting your reader will also keep you on the straight and narrow of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

It's not an either/or world just because someone asks you to choose A or B.

Choose A or B is classic sales set up designed to cause you to choose something, most likely something you will pay for.

We are conditioned in our country to want choices.  When we see a choice, we automatically think, yes--now, which one?

That's one of the ways that people mislead or misdirect others in the workplace in all sorts of workplace documents.

Beware of either/or set-ups because you can find yourself on path A or path B when you didn't want to go anywhere at all.

That's one lesson to learn from the focus on making a choice that someone else might set up for you.

But there's more.

Recently, I asked my niece what did she want for breakfast.

"A sausage biscuit," she replied.

"Hardee's or McDonald's?"  I inquired.  A or B?

She shrugged. "A sausage biscuit is a sausage biscuit," she said without equivocating. 

A or B didn't matter.  She just wanted a sausage biscuit.

We found one. 

Not every decision is as simple as that one.

But moments to choose can be as simple, if you can remember to think about the question and what the purpose is behind it.

The next time anyone offers you one or the other, you can easily say, neither--or, you could say both.

It's not an either/or world just because someone sets up the question that way.  Be ready to rewrite the question to fit what you need or want to do and you take charge of this powerful set-up that you can use when you need to while not letting anyone use it to manipulate you.

Writer's Block at Work

You stare at the screen and the words don't come.

You have been there before--in that uncomfortable place where you are supposed to write something and no words come out.

The phone rings.  You eagerly pick it up.  "How are you?"  the caller asks.

You moan:  "I've got writer's block!"  Your body hunches over the receiver that you cup with one hand, and you moan some more about how hard it is to write.

The caller doesn't say much after that.  It's as if the phrase that means "I have no words" makes other people clam up.  You don't have any words, and people who come into contact with you lose theirs in your company.

Writer's block is not contagious, and it's not as mysterious as the history of its use implies.

Automatically the phrase traditionally refers to writers (and other artistic types) who have been producing words and works that tell something true to people who want or need to know it.  When they stop writing, it's called writer's block.  The reason that's so scary is that their lives are usually built around their art, and when they dry up--having nothing to say--it's not just the works that fade away, they are concerned about the very meaning of their existence. 

At work, the purpose of putting words on paper or the screen is different, and any claim to writer's block has a different association.  It certainly doesn't have the consequences of an implied identity crisis.  It just means you have a problem you need to solve.  That is actually true of most jobs at work, and writing is just one more job.  Perhaps it is your least favorite job.

Some people are just more verbal than others, but everyone who is human must use words to communicate in the workplace.   Falling back on the excuse of writer's block in the workplace is a habit you need to break, because claiming that as the cause of not being able to put words on the screen will not help you to put words on the screen.

Here's what will:

Make sure you know the answer to the question posed of you, because most work documents have a question that is being answered by the writer.  That answer is the purpose of the document being created.

Know the purpose.  Know the question.  Make sure you know the answers.

Eighty percent of the time people in the workplace who claim to have writer's block have this condition instead.  They can't write because they don't know what to write.

Stopping to think through the purpose and find the answer will break that immobility you are calling writer's block.

And don't call it that at work, anyway.

You are supposed to have the answers at work, and using the excuse "I've got writer's block!" gets interpreted by people who have nothing to say to you afterwards as this:  'You don't know what to write, and that's why you aren't writing.'

That may not be the only reason other people go quiet on you, but it's probably one of them.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Visual Aids in Workplace Writing

A word is a visual aid, because a word is a symbol for that which it represents.

Sometimes many words are needed to communicate ideas and concepts.

When you reach the stage where many complex ideas are being presented in your document, one of the choices you may need to make is to find a visual aid that can tell the story of what you are trying to say faster through a visual image.

Choose that image or visual aid in the same way that you approach constructing any type of document:  use your deductive brain to select the image that tells the most the fastest.

Think about your resume.  It is a visual aid.  It tells the story of you work and education history fast, telegraphing key ideas quickly using words. But the whole page (or pages) of words is a visual aid. 

Most documents have the capacity to be seen as a visual aid, but there will be all kinds of flexible occasions when you will select from a growing assortment of possible images that include charts, graphs, photos and video clips.

You may even use clip art.

There's nothing wrong with clip art if you you choose it because it fits the purpose and occasion of your document and won't offend or repel your document.

The most obvious problems with clip art is that there is a clip-art feel to the elements.  That may not matter to you.  What should matter is that you don't take the first piece of clip art that is vaguely associated with the idea you want to telegraph. The visual aid tells a story.  The right visual aid tells the story you want to transmit.  The wrong--or not exactly right-visual aid will have an undesirable effect of confusing your reader.

Beware of sending mixed messages through your visual aids.
Be especially careful of tone.  You don't want to mix and match real photos with cartoon characters, and you certainly don't want to use cartoon figures for an occasion that is more serious than that.

Remember too that the artwork or visual aid that you select may show up on a piece of paper, on a computer screen or be displayed on a very large screen if it is part of a PowerPoint presentation that is projected so a crowd can see.

In short, visual aids are powerful tools to help workplace document creators tell the stories of business.

Just remember, it's not about decorating or playing with bells and whistles; it's about telling the the truth of what you need to share.  Keep that serious ambition in mind, and your selections of visual aids should fulfill the purpose, attract the reader, support the tone of the occasion and fit the environment of the reader.

Considerations in Writing Notes of Condolence

The way to write this document is the way you approach writing any workplace document where the boundaries are set for you by the professional tone of the relationships established inside the environment:

Who is the reader?  To a person who has just experienced a great loss

What is your purpose? The express your understanding and sympathy for this great loss

Occasion?  Something serious has happened to a coworker outside of the workplace but the behavior and productivity of the worker will most likely be affected and needed to be understood and taken into consideration until such time as the shock of loss fades and the adjustments begin.

If you do not know the person well and don't want to write a fulsome personal letter on your notecard or a sheaf of fine cream-colored paper, find a sensitive card and send it.

However, if you work closely with the person, follow the guidelines for content after answering the questions you always ask and answer before writing a workplace-affiliated document.

Spell the person's name correctly.
If you have read the obituary, mention the deceased person by name and recognize the relationship.
Do not immediately recount a major story of your own loss and explain how hard that was for you.
This letter is about the reader's loss, not yours.
Offer to help in any way you can.
Sign it sincerely.

Until you have experienced a major personal loss due to death, you won't fully understand how to write this note or choose that card.

Until then, express your condolence and offer your abiding presence as a help in time of trouble.

That's what someone needs, and it is all that is expected of a mature and caring co-worker.

Two Examples of Emotional Appeals

While certainly tears and begging come to mind as examples of making emotional appeals at work, there are two other types of making emotional appeals that stand out more than all others. Both are insidious because they are so common.  The first is the frequent, habitual knee-jerk response of whining that something is expected of you.  The only other emotional appeal that wars with this one for preeminence in the workplace is complaining.

Did you think that whining and complaining were really only modes of self expression that you have a right to exercise because you live in a culture that promotes freedom of speech and the right to happiness?

Of course, but there is something else in the workplace called decorum, and neither complaining nor whining support the desired decorum of workplace discourse.

Additionally, both whining and complaining cost you great credibility in the workplace.  While people might listen sympathetically, it doesn't take long for others to decide that you are a cry-baby.  Immature. A slacker.  Illogical, too.

Illogical? Not because emotional appeals do not present a reasonable argument for making workplace decisions, but because making emotional appeals in the guise of whining and complaining undermine your reputation in the workplace.

They are, at their heart, a form of emotional appeal that other people who are task-driven listen to and then have to work around to get their jobs done.

What whining is:  a form of sloth.  People who whine don't want to work, but they don't want to say that.  They complain about the workload, the insurmountable problems, or accuse someone else in the workplace of being the reason that the work can't be done.  Anytime you hear someone begin a sentence with, "What you don't understand..." you are most likely about to hear someone whine.

Complaining is similar. It's a way of avoiding exertion or taking responsibility for the outcome of an assigned job.  But people don't want to say, "I don't want to be held responsible for how this project turns out," so they say something like this:  "There's not enough time.  There's too much to do.  You should have asked me yesterday.  They are going to have to pay me more if they want me to do that.  Nobody told me that I was going to have to do that. Nobody trained me to do that.  How am I supposed to know how to do that? They didn't teach me that in college!"

Complaining lays the groundwork for later making an excuse for failing.  It's not even a slippery slope.  It simply leads to that.  I told you it couldn't be done.

The antidote for the problems caused by these types of emotional appeals is simple. Listen to yourself. If you are the one complaining and whining, stop.  If you are listening to someone who chronically whines and complains, cut to the chase.  Instead, just say, "We'll talk about that later. Let's get to work now."

Then, get to work.

A Good Steward of Your Words

As I listened to Tim Tebow’s mother address a full house of people who support a pro-life ministry, I heard her use the word mission instead of the more common word that folks in church settings often automatically use: ministry.
It made a powerful difference in the message of her speech.  She recapped the history of her marriage and how, as missionaries, she and her husband and now her children had followed their respective missions to serve Christ. I thought:  That’s what makes the difference.  Knowing that you serve the Lord with talents, gifts, and money with the mission of building the kingdom, not only ministering to it but acting on behalf of it. 
As someone who occasionally (and with no more expertise than an interest in how language is used) advises others on how to raise money for various ministries, like organizations in the pro-life movement, I told the serial writer of fundraising letters for the pro-life movement:  Hold onto that word mission.  It motivates people more than the word ministry does.  That word mission gives meaning to work; ministry puts it in a category.
Substituting the word mission for ministry has strengthened her persuasive argument that people who support different ministries can find more meaning in the investment of their treasures when they understand—and are renewed in their understanding—that people with a mission build.  They act.  Caregivers in a ministry have a different set of verbs and they are not lesser activities; but when you are trying to motivate other people to move, the set of action verbs associated with building a mission have a greater capacity to motivate others to join the mission.  
Furthermore, I think it likely that people who know how to use that word mission authentically become better stewards of their gifts and their time because they keep their eyes on the One whose Great Commission established the plan that makes our lives meaningful in Him. Their progress is understood inside His pleasure—and not because of the dollars or numbers that may or may not grow according to his good pleasure.
Good stewardship happens in many ways and through many choices, but sometimes the most powerful first step can be the substitution of one word for another: the exchange of the word ministry for mission in this instance. When you do, you actively ally yourself with the One who actively came here to fix what Adam broke, and actively does it now through the good stewardship of his followers’ gifts in motion.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Simon Says Syndrome

How long has it been since you played Simon Says?

Do you remember how?

It's a game about waiting on permission to follow often barked orders.  People fall into the habit of doing what someone else tells them to do, and when they forget to ask permission, they're out of the game!

It's a lousy game to play.

Ostensibly it teaches good manners, but that habit of asking permission to act or execute a move doesn't promote success or profitability in the workplace.

It doesn't promote that oft quoted boast:  "I'm pro-active."

Like other buzz word phrases the claim to be pro-active is not the same stance as taking charge of learning what you need to know and doing it whether anyone tells you it's okay or not.

In the workplace, people are often divided, rather casually, into different groups: passive or (pro) active, perfectionists and people who are not perfectionists, and the go-to people and the ones you can't find when you need to go to someone.

People who are still playing Simon Says at work fit that latter category.  They are often invisible, polite, well-meaning people who are waiting on other people to tell them to become pro-active.

Today's lesson is simply that:  Do you think you are a pro-active person?  Prove it.

Answer the logic question in the preceding entry about how to choose the right music to play in the workplace.

If you are waiting for someone else to post an answer first before you commit yourself, think again:
working isn't playing, and most likely the only people playing Simon Says will be the ones who make less money.

Friday, September 17, 2010

What's the best music for the workplace? (Yet, another logic problem to solve.)

Imagine it's your job to choose the music that plays in the background at your workplace.

That's great!

You love music.  You love all kinds of music.

You plug in your Ipod and start listening, actively, mentally sorting the songs that inspire and touch you. 

Then, you become aware of a question humming beneath the surface of your enthusiasm:  'What if my taste in music isn't the same as other people's?  Do I have a right to assign my taste to them and expect them to like it?"  (How would you feel if someone did this to you in the name of doing it for you?)

Stop:  Is this the best logical question to ask that will produce the answer to the question: which music is best for the workplace?

You continue to listen to music, but you switch off the Ipod.  Because, after all, it's loaded with your faves. 

So, you start listening to the radio, tapping buttons, moving from genre to genre:  Country to NPR.  The good news:  you like it all.  Something inside of you unbends.  Most people are pretty cool.  How could you go wrong choosing music?  You consider picking this; you think you will pick that.

Stop:  What's the problem here?  You're still choosing music that people might like.  But is that really the best question for choosing music for the workplace?

You turn off the music, and begin to listen to the silence.  It's hard because you have work to do.  Your list of chores calls you, and at the top of it is that really simple job:  find music for the workplace. So far, you haven't settled on any one piece of music or type.

Stop:  Here's where you ask the question:  what job does music do in the workplace?   Pick one:
1. Provides a tranquil background sound
2.  Enlivens workers to work harder
3.  Adds familiar melodies that feel like home
4.  Keeps people in a humming state of mind

It might.  But music can also bombard, annoy, assault, wear out listeners with even love songs that take them in their emotions to too many historic occurrences that cause them to lose focus. They could start crying on the job!

Now, you begin to think that the person who assigned you this job has put you in a very dangerous position.  The answer--finding the music for the workplace--feels like a test no one can pass.  But you have to do the job because that's what work is.  Instantly, you don't like the job anymore. Now, music that you loved hurts your nerves.  You begin to doubt your own taste.

Stop:  That's emotional.  In the workplace, most decisions are based on logical analysis of the problem, envisioning the possible solutions and choosing the one that's most likely to meet the greatest need.

What's the best question you can think of to produce an answer that leads to choosing music that will meet that need?  Will annoy the fewest people and motivate the greatest number to work at a good pace in a positive frame of mind?

Add that question to the comments below, and the genre of type of music that you think meets that goal, if you think you know the answer.  Is it time to investigate that elusive genre of music:  elevator music?  Now,  you can infer logically how that genre emerged, can't you? 

You might also investigate the Mozart Effect, and ask yourself if it is real or imagined.  How can you justify the answer?

Words for the day:  elevator music, Mozart Effect, NPR, Country, personal taste, group dynamic

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Exercise In Logic and Summary (with vocabulary building thrown in for fun and profit)

I saw the car key on the black asphalt of the walking trail in the park where I exercise most mornings.  Stooping, I picked it up, knowing ahead before I actually touched the lone large key that it would be a recent loss for someone.  No rust; no caked mud--none of the other elements of the weather attached to it.  Besides, it was my second lap around the park, and I would have seen it the first time around.  I pay attention to my surroundings.

A novice about cars I let my forefinger graze over the car maker's insignia on the rubbery tip of the key, wondering which make and model of car it represented.  It looked familiar--thought it was a Chevrolet, but a Honda owner, I wasn't sure. I thought about circling the cars parked in the lot looking for a match, but chose a different option instead.  I walked over to a man who was getting into his car and about to crank it up--he had his key!--waved to him and asked, "Do you know what kind of car this key would fit?"

"Chevrolet," he said, eyeing me as if surely I couldn't be that ignorant.  Could be, too.  Was.  I am not embarrassed by my ignorance, however.  I'm too old to assign value to myself in terms of what I know or don't know.  I am old enough to ask questions, and find answers:  this is what this blog entry is about, and it's an exercise in logic and it's for my business and professional writing students, so if you are a different reader, just ignore us or jump in.

You have just seen me use two essential characteristics of logic: an admission of ignorance; a request for help.  (I didn't know if he could help me. I was prepared to ask the next person who came along.  I am not shy about asking for help.  This park is pretty public, and I sort of knew the man I asked--we pass each other often in the park-- and I am aware of the faces and schedules of other people. The danger felt minimal.)

Now, how did I find owner of the Chevrolet without handing the key over to a stranger who would not be loathe to steal someone's car, because that could have happened?

I did find the owner and without making a whole lap around the walking path.  How did I know that I would find the owner?  I walked counterclockwise holding the key in the air.  She recognized it and said, looking angry, "You found that key?  My son is supposed to have that key. That's him over there--he's probably looking for it right now."

Job done, I waved good bye.

Still walking counterclockwise, I encountered the son next.   He was walking with headphones and didn't hear me when I spoke.  I greeted him two more times.  He scowled.  Took off his head phones. 

"Whaddya want?" he asked irritably.

I didn't say, "Your mama's going to let you have it shortly."  Instead, I inquired brightly, "Looking for a key?" 

He shook his head abruptly, no and put his head phones back on.

"I just returned a lost car key to that woman over there. She said it was yours and that you lost it."

He jammed a fist inside his pant pocket--came up empty.  He looked at me as if I were a pickpocket.

"You must have a hole in your pocket," I explained, as I saw that he irrationally wanted to blame anyone nearby for the loss of the key, including me.

"Your mother's waiting for you," I said, and started back on my walk.

By the time I made the next lap they were having a pretty loud conversation.

I avoided hearing it.   Then, I saw the mama hand the key back to her son and walk off. 

He looked at the key, looked at the car, didn't see me--and then ran after his mother and gave her the key back.

She pocketed the key, barely slowing down, and he returned in a relieved lope to the car and waited for his mother to finish her walk.

Now, the logic assignment for today: Which one of these people is the more logical?  The mother or the son?
Explain your reasoning in a comment on this blog.  Summarize as much of the story as you need to in order to make your point.  You might even want to imagine that the mother is the equivalent of a manager and the son, an employee who needs direction and mentoring.

Then, for vocabulary's sake, choose one of the following words as the right word that associates itself logically with this event:  delegate, logical, illogical, inconsequential, unavoidable mistake, avoidable mistake, trust, mistake, understandable mistake, or busybody.  If none of these words associates itself in your mind as a logical connection, add your own word at the end of your comment.  Just write:  Word of the day: your word.

So, today I am looking for a summary that asserts a thesis that the mother or the son was the more logical, followed by your explanation for your rationale, and culminating in the word for the day that attaches to this event.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Writing Is Hard Work. But, do you want to work that hard?

Because the best writing appears on the page or the screen as if it were written effortlessly, there is this presumption by people who don't write regularly and don't like to write that writing is easy for some people and hard for others.

If writing is hard for you--if you feel like a failure before you begin to write any document--you might draw the conclusion that you aren't a capable writer or can't write what you need to write in the workplace in order to succeed.  That isn't true.

It just means that writing is hard work and you have been duped by writing that you admire into thinking that you aren't a good writer.

That word good haunts us all.  Close on its heels is the word bad, for it is an easy assumption to make that if you aren't a writer for whom words come easily, you aren't a good writer; and if you aren't a good writer, then it follows, one leaps to think, that you are a bad writer.

While the deduction is easy to make, it isn't true.  For the judgments of good and bad actually don't apply to writing in the workplace where the assessments of prose that we assign to artistic endeavors are not relevant.

Here's what I mean:  The great works of literature achieve greatness because many people liked reading them and educated people explained why their meaning has a broad range of significance. If the language is beautiful and the images sterling and true, then we assign the word "good" to them; and over time, we get mixed up about writing in general.  We expect all writing to achieve goodness by being beautiful and true but that's not true (and beauty is irrelevant) about workplace writing.

Writing for the purposes that we fulfill in the workplace does not fit within the realm of that kind of truth and the exploration of beauty.  Because workplace writing does not intend to fulfill those purposes, it should not be judged by that criteria.  Instead, workplace writing is simpler but still noble:  it attempts to solve problems, create records and communicate movements of progress.  In short, it tells the truths of the workplace.

For those purposes, the craft of writing clearly and briefly is mostly what is required; and unlike artistic endeavors, the craft of workplace writing can be learned by anyone smart enough to get a good job and have hopes of advancing.

That's really the reader this blog is written for--the ambitious professional (ambitious is a good word), who may be uncertain about his or her ability to communicate on the page or on the screen and recognizes that in a changing work environment where communication matters more than ever (Social media, web-based writing--you name it) that being able to write a clear sentence or form a shapely paragraph could make the difference between not only keeping your job but advancing in it.

Many people postpone recognizing that principle for the simple reason that they are afraid that they can't communicate clearly in the workplace. That isn't true.  That fear most likely got born in various English classes along the way where analysis of literature was expected, and papers written about literature supposedly told some kind of truth about you as a reader and a writer. That skill called literary criticism doesn't have much to do at all with whether you are able to write well and clearly in the workplace whatever the nature of that workplace is.  Living on an irrelevant reputation  your earned during your school days can cripple you in the workplace where you can decide for yourself whether you think producing strong writing is a good choice to make and that you can make the choice for yourself without waiting for someone to assign some kind of letter grade to your work that proves you have the ability to produce what many employers ask for:  strong communication skills.

If you can read this blog entry, you can write the kind of workplace documents that you need to write.  They require hard work.  The simpler the prose and presentation of the idea the more likely that the writer worked very, very hard  to achieve that effect. 

Don't let that effect throw you off the idea that you can't do that, too.  You can.  But your ability to succeed is not based on whether you understand how to use a comma (you can learn that) or how to use a semi-colon (you can learn that), it rests entirely upon your understanding that workplace writing is not about creating art. It's about telling business-based truths in a clear style to people in a hurry who need to digest reliable information quickly.

Writing is hard work.  Deciding whether you want to work that hard is the challenge you have to meet before you can most certainly fulfill the necessary ambition to become an effective communicator in whatever workplace you decide is the place where you want to succeed.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Opinion or Analysis? Recognize the domain. Choose the stance. Then, write.

We have so many opportunities to offer our opinion now that we have almost forgotten that sometimes not only is our opinion not really desired, voicing it actually impedes fulfilling our purpose.  (Yes, your personality can get in the way of making your point.)

For no matter the medium or the situation, skilled writers remember their purpose while writing, work continuously to know the audience, and then choose which stance to take in order to make the case--intrigue the reader, fulfill the purpose and not offend the reader by making one's personal opinion a hurdle to jump.

Sometimes it is.  Too often writers axiomatically adopt a casual voice, a first-person opinionated position because that's the tenor of society, but it's not always the best choice or the strongest stance to take.  When you choose this stance, you are gambling that your readers already agree with you about some points.  You think this because you feel so strongly about it that you can't envision anyone disagreeing with you.

Just because you feel strongly about something doesn't mean that the passion or conviction you feel should be the dynamic you trust to make your case or that others share your convictions.  The problem is that we use our personal voice so often we forget that there are other stances to choose that could fit a situation better.

For instance, take a look at your opportunities to write today.  E-mail, Facebook, .

In each instance, you need to choose to show up on the page as a personal voice or the voice of objectivity.  The more you write for the social media, the more your casual voice is cultivated--is brought to the surface of daily life and stays there.  But it's not an all-purpose voice.  You can be casual on Facebook if it's not the company's Facebook page and you may write personal e-mails, but that voice doesn't fit your company e-mail voice or your professional voice on or sites like it that build professional contacts in a different way than your personal Facebook page.

Sometimes you need to use the voice of analysis, which is a very powerful choice if you are in charge.

  • People who are self conscious about their own authority often choose the first-person colloquial voice and stance as a form of apology for being in charge.  When they do, they risk undermining their own authority when it will count and, along the way, weaken the team because a team needs a strong leader the way a family needs the discipline of parents.
  • When writing for the company, you use a royal stance--a "we" approach, and your tone represents the trust that you company posits in you as the voice of the company.  It should be your friendly but firm voice--simultaneously approachable but with boundaries set. 
  • Colloquial expressions that are so much a part of coming and going  in daily life don't belong in professional documents that need the boss's voice.  Excise:  see ya, well, yeah, hey, and any emoticon that brings up visions of you playing the sandbox with your playmates.
The workplace should be relaxed, but it is not a sandbox.  It is an environment where logic usually trumps emotion. The voice of authority should sound like someone who who understands that co-workers are not playmates but teammates.  On any team, there is a captain, and if that's you, use your captain's voice.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Finding Your Tactful Voice

Discover your tactful voice.

Unless you have a personality that instinctively produces easy-listening or easy-reading conversation or prose, you need to be aware of how the tone of your voice on the page or the screen sounds to others.

While there are many kinds of soothing phrases you can weave into your written reports that create a positive effect rather than a negative one, the most foolproof strategy for the beginning workplace writer is to understand the difference between direct and indirect language.  The first is straightforward and often sounds powerful and authoritative or sometimes blunt and rude; the second is tactful and can be interpreted as soft, weak and nurturing.

Depending on the situation, such as sending a good-news letter or a bad-news letter, the approach of your language can bolster or undermine the purpose of your document.  The good-news letter benefits from a direct approach, because there is no reason to be tactful about delivering good news.

However, with unappealing news to deliver--or any kind of information to impart that might be controversial--indirect language is the smarter choice.

What do the two styles of language sound like?

Example 1: 
Direct:  I think you are going a great job!
Indirect:  Although you are obviously putting in some long hours, the results of your efforts are falling short of the sales goals.

Example 2:
Direct: Congratulations on reaching your first anniversary with the company!
Indirect:  A year ago today we hired you with great enthusiasm about the potential contributions you could make to the company; unfortunately, during that time, your excessive tardiness to work and chronic absences have resulted in this warning that you need to reconsider whether you are fully committed to your job, and, if so, does your behavior and attendance reflect that commitment?

If you are not delivering specific news that dictates the approach, direct or indirect, then look at where you place yourself in a sentence.  If you find that you are frequently causing others to believe you are rude or arrogant, simply review your writing and identify how often you begin a sentence with the word "I."   A good tip is to take a highlighter and color each
 I so that you can see it.  A preponderance of "I'" on the page has an excluding effect on the reader.  This writing habit can cause a reader to back away--think you're rude or self-centered, even, harsh.

By reconsidering how to present your ideas with deference to the reader and by using introductory phrases that weave the reader into the document, you will attract rather than repel your reader.

Direct and potentially offensive: I think you ought to do that now.
Less direct and potentially less offensive:  You have many responsibilities throughout the day and I know you are keen to accomplish them all, but would it be possible for you to take care of this first?

There are many ways to cultivate the powers of persuasion inherent in finding and maintaining a tactful voice.  The mindful, listening writer understands his/her own position and extent of authority, and spends his/her words carefully and tunefully with the ultimate hope of fulfilling his/her purpose while at the same time making the experience of reading and working with him/her a more pleasant experience called cooperation rather than obedience.

Daphne Simpkins' most recent book is Christmas in Fountain City

The Soft Sell Happens When You Are Dancing in Soft Shoes

Dancers have a step called the soft shoe shuffle.  It's a form of tap, but the dancing shoes are missing the metal on the soles that makes that snappy loud sound. Instead, the soft shoe dance creates a swishing, pleasing effect.  Gene Kelly was a master of this soft shoe.  Hands behind his back, he tapped and soft-stepped his way to a variety of partners in a wide rang of musicals, including An American In Paris.

Sometimes when I think of the type of letter or email I need to write to prompt an action or make a request of someone, I try to find the stance or tone that would be most likely to achieve the action I need or elicit the yes from someone who is very, very busy.

For when you are making a special request, you are typically asking for someone to do something for you that is not part of the job description and for which he/she won't be compensated--other than the expression of your gratitude.

That's when the soft shoe dance step--if remembered--will help you to stay light on your fingertips as you write the message that will be welcome even though the request means extra work for you.

I am not as graceful at this as I would like to be, so I am alert to others with whom I work who are.  I frequently practice this dance step with people who are better soft shoe dancers than I am.  I know a few, and they are all highly-placed executives who don't write like heavy-footed, loud clicking tap dancers. 

What they all have in common is the art of the soft shoe shuffle that results in the successful soft sell to others. When they give orders, it can sound like a coaxing request.  When they are only requesting, you can't say yes fast enough.

A high-ranking administrator out of state occasionally asks me to do something time consuming and challenging; and though it is not my job, I am always glad to see his name pop up on the screen.

I have never told him no.

Last week, he sent me another prompt, with the request lightly displayed in the subject heading.

One more time? he asked.

This guy can dance on the screen the way Gene Kelly did in Paris:   He explained his reason, his need, why I was the one who could help him, and ended with admiration and gratitude that was not overdone. 

It was genteel.  It felt true, authentic and persuasive.  Made me want to dance.

It was easy to say yes, and I tried to mirror his tone--mimick his step on the screen because mastering the soft sell, the soft shoe, the light touch begins with imitation, if you don't already possess that skill.

My assent is not all about making his day, which he claims happens when I agree.

When I say yes, I put myself in a position to learn from someone who is a genius at this kind of communication.

That's how learning to write in the workplace happens. It can feel like hard work or it can feel like dancing.

When the instructor who is asking you for a favor makes you feel light on your feet, too, yes is the only logical answer--and you can't say it fast enough.

That's quite a feat.