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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.