Search This Blog

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.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Thank you for your patience.

I am always glad to see the words, “Thank you for your patience.”   I like them so much more than "Thanks in advance"—a thoughtless, ill-considered and standard closing of bill collectors and which has been adopted by too many people who ask for something and then thank the reader in advance for doing it.   Writing the words Thanks in advance is presumptuous; thank you for your patience is not, although it often lands in a similar position at the close of a piece of communication, whether e-mail or hard copy.
I read the words this morning from my banker who was attempting to resolve a bank discrepancy that he had already admitted was the bank's fault.  I didn't care whose fault it was as long as my account was credited with the money that had gone missing.
Having promised to fix the first attempt at fixing the problem that hadn't fixed it, my banker concluded with:  “Thank you for your patience.”
I thought it was exactly the right moment to use those words because I had waited for him to work out the solution and to implement it--a few business days.
But knowing when to be patient is not always as simple as that.  When I first learned of this problem, my friend Sue offered me two words that she said worked best at encouraging others to solve your problem:  "Squeaky wheel," said Sue.
I agree with her, but I also think there's a timing involved in being an effective squeaky wheel--a balance that allows for being patient, too.
I squeaked a little by explaining the problem, and then I waited.
The process reminded me of that brief flash of a parable in the book of Luke where Jesus shows us a fig tree that is not bearing fruit fast enough.  Tempted to cut it down, the story says, "Let's be patient.  Poke the soil.  Give it time."  Eugene Peterson interprets that story in THE MESSAGE in a context that teaches people with problems to solve how to be patient, for that is what the story is saying.  There's a time to weed and uproot and a time to poke the soil, maybe add some fertilizer, and then wait for progress to happen.
I lean that way more often than not.  While it is tempting to squeak loudly (and I saw this done recently at Walmart when a woman was denied a refund for a product that didn't work, and she stood her ground and said, "You expect me to swallow a hundred dollars for a piece of junk!"--the tactic worked; she got her money) but, in general, I'm not comfortable squeaking loudly in public or on the page or screen.
Instead, I try to use facts to present my case; and having presented it, I wait.  And present it again--and wait until some inner buzzer declares:  Long enough.
Then, I squeak some more, but so often I don't have to do that. So often, the facts and patient waiting bear the fruit of resolving a problem, and I haven't gotten upset or upset anyone else.  And during the interim while information may be passed back and forth, what used to be called a paper trail is created.  That trail is necessary for referencing later—to remind people who may need to understand what has happened so that it won’t happen again what did occur as it was recorded in a dispassionate way.

The next time you have a problem to solve or a complaint to register, spend your energy on the polite presentation of facts that represent your cause first.  Then, watch the solution grow--along with your patience.   Gratitude for resolution naturally flows from this occurrence, and it should.  Don’t be slow in saying, “Thank you” for someone’s patience or for any other reason at all.

Daphne Simpkins' most recent book is Christmas in Fountain City