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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

To testify or not to testify at work or school--that is a believer's question

It's a tough call.  Isn't it?

Do you proclaim to others that you are a born-again Christian, saved, washed in the blood the same way you share your e-mail address? 

People who have said the name of Jesus in a meaningful way--that is, accepted his atonement for their sins--are commanded to give a reason for the hope that is in them.  That commandment backs up the Great Commission, which is every believer's job: to tell the Good News that Jesus lives and is always calling to them in hope that they will be reconciled to their Creator by accepting the truth.  Sin exists.  People sin.  God doesn't sin.  To get along with God, you have to do something about your sins.  He is holy and really can't communicate with you when you are covered in grime.  His holiness requires a clean-up job, atonement, and He provided someone who can take care of that, Jesus.  The only stipulation?   It's simple:  Say yes.   Recognize the Gift.   Accept the Giver.  Admit you're dirty.  Get cleaned up.  Thank the Lord.  The Great Commission is fulfilled, and something extraordinary begins in the new believer.  It's pretty exciting stuff--heady, actually.  Exhilarating.  You gotta talk about it.  You are  commanded to proclaim it.

But when?
When and how do you testify at work?

Many of my students do this regularly in their e-mails to me or their blog entries. They tell me they are born again, saved and a follower of Jesus (I like this one especially). Colleagues don't usually.  I work at a university where we separate church and state, respect freedom of speech, and believe in open-ended inquiry about everything except faith. Christianity seems especially off limits.

As it is in other workplaces.
As politics are--or can be.
As many subjects that require respect for others' preferences and differences demand.

Business students who are preparing resumes and writing cover letters often ask me:  "Do I tell a prospective employer up front that I am a Christian because I plan to testify when I get the job?"

"Making that announcement might well cost you the job before you ever get it."

They nod seriously, ready to pay the price of unemployment.  That is commendable but perhaps not necessary.

"Will you be more able to testify once you get the job?"  I ask.  "Because if you don't get the job, you can't really testify fully."

Heads nod.

"Should you keep your counsel until that time?"  I ask.

"Makes sense," they say. 

They get jobs, and start the conversation by saying, "God bless you" even when someone doesn't sneeze, and the tension to testify begins, though not as overtly as they might have anticipated.

For it doesn't take long to figure out that testifying at work to the reality of a Living Christ is effectively accomplished by how you live and often by what you don't say as well as what you do say.

That doesn't mean that you should not tell the truth when someone asks you about the hope that you obviously have in you.  But answering the question after it is asked can be much more meaningful than telling someone the answer before the question has arisen.

When you get to work, you can live your calling in such a way that the question will be asked.  You don't have to wait until you hear it and it can show up in a variety of ways (Why do you look so happy?), but when you do, your testimony will be a seed well sown in more fertile soil.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Direct and Indirect Language

It is as difficult to hear how we sound to others as it is to see ourselves as others see us.

I run into that sometimes with students who have a tone of voice in their work that is off-putting, sometimes screeching, sometimes angry, vehement, overbearing and unintentionally rude.  Insecurity often masquerades as arrogance on the page.

It is difficult to explain how someone sounds to him or herself, for if the news is surprising, the person who needs to hear it simply can't.

When I am trying to help a student recognize a problem with tone, I begin by recommending two stances in writing that fit different purpose-driven documents.

Good news can take the tone of direct language.  It can be heard like this:  Congratulations. You won.  Here's the good news.  Wait.  There's more. 

See how the sentences are strong and punchy.  Because the content is positive, direct language can be used this way.

Bad news can't.

Even news that is simply less than good can't.

Bad news needs indirect language to achieve a more pleasing tone.

Indirect language sounds like this:  What a good effort you made on that latest project.  However....
It was wonderful meeting you, but......Thank you for the invitation; unfortunately........

Bad news needs a softener at the beginning.  It thrives on a warm good bye. 

After delivering bad news, you can thank the person, wish the person well, say the sun will come out tomorrow.

The tone of your voice will match the indirect language, and you, as the voice of that bad news, will leave a kinder echo in the listener's ears.

Paper Trails (Living in Self Defense at Work)

In a writing class, we eventually get around to one of the jobs business writing does:  create a paper trail.

Paper trails exist to create a shared understanding of a commonly experienced event at work, to document progress in problem-solving (or not), and ultimately, whatever the goal, to establish a history that can be argued if a conflict erupts about what happened why at a future time.

When a business reaches that point, the paper trail becomes a first line of defense.

They are necessary, but, at times, they feel false to me, as if I am always thinking about having an alibi in case I ever need one.  I don't like living like that.  I prefer to work companionably and in good faith, and the constant creation of a paper trail feels like I am planning something mean.  Like I'm smiling while I have my dukes up and ready, tucked behind my back.

I have never really put up my dukes for any reason, preferring to lose a battle or be smacked around than pummel someone else.  But that's my preference. In a job situation, I represent the company, and my dukes are their dukes. So, my dukes help create paper trails that serve many purposes--most of them good ones:  record-keeping documents, transmittal documents, accounting documents, and the other kind that tries to make sure that if trouble comes, it hits someone else harder than it hits you.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Bar Room Prayer Isn't Funny

It is true that I would rather be in a coffee shop than in a bar which is why I went to the cafe on board a cruise ship to have some afternoon java and stare out the window at the ocean and think deep thoughts.  At the other end of the cafe is a bar where people who prefer alcohol can get the drink they prefer and stare out the window too and think their deep thoughts.  It is a congenial way to spend an afternoon cruising from one port to the other.

I don't object to that at all.  What I did object to was a round up of people bellying up to the bar and cheered to spending more money on alcohol by being led by a ship employee in the chanting of what I discovered later had a name:  The Bar Room Prayer, which to my Christian ears, began to sound unbelievably like the Lord's Prayer.  Later I learned that it was a parody of the Lord's Prayer, an invention in such poor taste as to certainly not be funny and, truly, to those of us who view the Lord's Prayer as a model of how to pray, was unwise, disrespectful and, here's the business problem, alienating for the business who was providing an employee to lead this parody in a public setting with little regard for those of us who were cafe-goers and happened to just be standing near enough to hear it and be repulsed by not only the abuse of a beautiful prayer's rhythm but the encouragement of customers to get drunk in order to earn greater profits.

It's a pitful way to do business but a very efficient way to drive off customers.  For there were far more people drinking coffee than drinking beer, and I was not the only one to leave the room.  I went down to the main deck and filed a complaint about using this parody of the Lord's Prayer in a public forum and which was led by a company employee who was in a hurry to finish this chore and get on to the next.  The parody was led by rote, with little thought for the effect it was having--driving customers away, leaving a very bad impression and a bad taste in my mouth about an experience on a ship that had been otherwise quite pleasant.

In an age when businesses compete always for more customers and greater word of mouth, the story I tell of this company is that it doesn't know the product it is selling.  Renowned for setting the bar high for good taste as a ship for people who prefer civility and quiet, in an unchecked moment without anyone monitoring the good taste of the entertainment by a young person who did not know better, this event happened and will most likely happen again.

It shouldn't.

For those of you who think I am exaggerating, here's the parody as I heard it:

Our lager,
Which art in barrels,
Hallowed be thy drink.
Thy will be drunk, (I will be drunk),
At home as it is in the pub.
Give us this day our foamy head,
And forgive us our spillage's,
As we forgive those who spill against us.
And lead us not to incarceration,
But deliver us from hangovers.
For thine is the beer, The bitter, The lager.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What's in a name? A rose by any other.....

Before Shakespeare provoked us to consider the power of a name in his famous play about young lovers from feuding families, a person's name counted.

Plato mattered.

Socrates mattered.

All the famous despots in history mattered.  Still do, if you want to understand how not to repeat the same mistakes.

It's the first rule of salesmanship and also the first trick of a hostage negotiator's trade:   What shall I call you?  What's your name?

He asks those questions because using someone's name builds an instant bond.  Makes that person feel recognized.  Seen. Valued. Important.  A relationship can grow between people who know each other's names.

Recently I have had occasion to ask three different clerks at three different stores the names of their respective bosses. 
The three answers were:
1. I dunno.
2.  Wes.  Don't know his last name, but he's from Prattville.
3.  Tommy.

I didn't have a complaint--just had a question, but my desire for more product information dwindled because the clerk didn't know the name of the manager, his own boss.

It says a great deal about someone in the workplace who doesn't know his boss's name.  It says something about the impression a boss makes on an employee if the clerk can't remember him (her).

It says a great deal about a company when the employees don't know the names of the people with whom they work.  What it says isn't very good advertising, is it?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Black Holes and Spam Catchers

One more time I learned my lesson about attaching large documents to an e-mail that I expected someone to answer quickly.  By quickly, I just mean a couple of days. When six days passed, I sent the follow up that tried not to sound like I was pestering or complaining:  "Did my e-mail go to your SPAM catcher?"

The reply:  Nope. Got it.  Just haven't read it yet.

That's okay.  I'm a realist, but it could have happened the other way:  my e-mail could have gone to the SPAM catcher.

It has before, and it has happened when deadlines were involved and people were changing e-addresses, so that there was a great deal of where are you now?  Do you still use that account?

One more time I have learned:  It is wiser to send a separate e-mail when attaching a big document so that the e-mail that has the key piece of information you also need to send has a better chance of reaching the person on the other side of the screen.

It's not foolproof.   But it increases the successful odds of communication happening.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Humble Brag (Just right for cover letters)

There are probably just as many interpretations of what this term means as there are people who are able to blow their own horns while sounding humble.  However you pull this off, you've got bragging rights.

And you've got power, for the humble brag is a sound and persuasive approach to writing cover letters that reinterpret the facts that tell the story of your professional life on the resume.

The humble brag can come to life in many forms and is different from the simple humble response of downplaying any reason for praise.

Scenario:  "You rescued that woman from a burning building!"

The humble response:  "I was in the right place at the time when she needed me. I was glad I could be useful."

Consider the same scenario, but no one knows you rescued a woman from a burning building.

The humble brag is uttered when no one asks the question:  "I'm sorry I am late to work this morning.  I happened to witness a house fire, and was able to pull a woman and her baby out, but that detour has made me late for work. It won't happen again."

You get the idea.  The brag is tucked inside other information that is also relevant.

Think about the dynamic called the humble brag the next time you need to write a fresh cover letter for a job application or when you send off your resume. Rather than begin each sentence in the letter with the word "I"--nothing humble about that repetition--look for ways to begin your sentences with some action, and then humbly include the news that you think is relevant to the job's criteria, and which you deftly claim you can handle.

For more about how to use a story inside a cover letter, see the following entry:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Does the tail wag the dog? Or, is it the Cookie Matchmaker?

After a recent sighting of a pop-up advertisement that does not reflect the ethical of intentions of this blog, I looked for a way to ban that advertisement from popping up again.

I suspect there is a way to do this, but I could not immediately find it out.

 Instead, the question that I typed in a variety of search strings ultimately led me to a video that I watched which showed me some of the ways connections are made between advertisers and a blog site.  While the retailers show up initially as a possible, natural alliance to the content of the blog, they soon begin to be matched to the reader's surfing trail, I think, as well as the blog or any other destination.

That idea almost caused me to have an identity crisis, for I quickly figured out that the troublesome advertiser I wanted to ban must have shown up in response to some trail that my curiosity has taken, and which has led the Cookie Matchmaker (the Big Brother that matches cookied information to surfers) to arrange it so that we keep bumping in to each other on this blog.


The problem didn't originate with someone else.  It happened, in part, because of something I have done.

This result has caused me to take a second look at myself in the mirror called pop-up advertisements, which pop up in response to how I am being profiled.

It has made me want to think about who I really am--and if the way the Cookie Matchmaker sees me--is more accurate than I was at first willing to believe.

I invite others to investigate this mystery, and post your own observations here so that we can learn more about this multi-dimensional dynamic together.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Three Reasons Why You are Not the Perfect Candidate for the Job

You are not the perfect candidate for the job.

Beware of claiming to be the perfect candidate for a job during the application process.

I understand the impulse to sound confident by writing, "I am the perfect person for the job!"

 Don't worry about not sounding confident. Your command of language inside your cover letter will establish your credibility gracefully.

Boasting that you are the perfect candidate will most likely have the opposite effect on you reader.

Here are three reasons not to introduce yourself as the perfect candidate for the job:

1.     Calling yourself perfect is illogical.  You are human, and so you are not perfect.
2.     You are not in the position yet, and so you cannot know firsthand all that is required in the position.  The boast that you're perfect for it implies a familiarity with the job's requirements that makes you sound naive, maybe even ignorant.
3.     Finally, you do not know who the other candidates are.  Without a reliable basis of comparison to the other candidates, you do not only not know if you are the best candidate for the position which in this context is what perfect implies. 

Consider wisdom, humility and a different word choice than perfect when you tender your application for a job.  Think of saying it differently and more truly with descriptions like viable candidate, competitive candidate, serious contender.  Use anything but perfect, because, you are not perfect.  When you use that word in this way, you prove it--and you usually prove it right at the top of the cover letter or resume.

Daphne Simpkins' most recent book is Christmas in Fountain City

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cold Calls Today Can Warm Up Sales in the Future

Cold calls are a type of sales approach that most salespeople dread and which they postpone doing until the boss says, "Where are the sales?"

When the regular sales contacts have all been approached, the list of long shots is brought out and called or dropped in on.  "I was just in the neighborhood...."

In person or on the phone, the cold call begins.

You have to introduce yourself.

The listener may immediately shut down.

You have to snag some buyer interest because at the heart of what makes a sales call cold is that the buyer does not have a ready or present interest in the product you are selling.

Quick gambits might work.  Emotional appeals might work.  There is one approach that works more often than any other:  straightforward presentation of why you are either calling on the phone or standing in front of a person who has a list of work to do as long as yours.

Years ago I witnessed a young man who sold an item more unpopular than prepackaged funerals.  He sold office forms.

Forms are not discussed much in the workplace, but they come from somewhere if they are not generated in-house.

This young man visited my boss once a month, month after month, for two years.  Each month I heard my boss say, "I don't need any forms."  After the polite young man left quite politely, taking the firm no for what it was, my boss would turn to me and say,  "We have a backlog of forms, but if I ever do need forms, I'll buy them from him."

Through the years I, too, would have my version of a form to pitch to people who didn't want what I was selling.

In an economy that has dried up in some quarters there isn't as much time to spend building a reputation for reliability that might ultimately convert a series of cold calls into, finally, a sale.

But the message of that memorable encounter remains:  polite persistence is a key to turning a cold call into a sale.

In person or on the phone, the cold call won't stay cold forever if the sales representative relays the benefits of the product being sold.  Some of those benefits can't be communicated quickly in a cold call that gets shut down fast.  But the professionalism of the salesperson can be communicated and will be communicated by the way you make your cold call.  You may not sell the product that day; but, you can sell the benefits of one day working with someone who has communicated powerfully that he/she doesn't give up and knows how to respond to the word "no."   With a smile and a nod and a gentle promise of "I'll be back."

Make a cold call truthful, fast and respectful of the other person's time.  You might not make the sale that day--but you will have increased your chances of succeeding in the future. 

We all resist doing work that doesn't hold the promise of succeeding.  You can change your attitude about cold calls by taking a fresh look at what they really are:  sowing seeds of preparation that can turn a future cold call into a sale.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Rethinking Conventional Wisdom

"One of the laws of our household growing up was to never eat fish and drink milk at the same time," my friend confessed, while eating fish and not drinking milk.  She shook her head as she puzzled over whethere there was any harm in that culinary combination.

 I knew what she was feeling:  we grow up with what we consider conventional wisdom, and then later in life, we wonder if it was ever true, or if its purpose was outgrown.

Most of us live with that tension daily and often in the workplace.

We have a set of ideas that we think are true: 

Don't make personal phone calls at work.

Don't surf the web on company time.

Don't discuss your personal life with coworkers.  While companies claim to be "like a family,"  unless you are in the Mafia, they aren't, really.

Don't put anything in an e-mail you don't want the boss to know because he/she has a right to read your emails.  (Yes, rumor has it that there are people at some companies whose job it is to run routine screens on search strings inside employee e-mails to find out who's up to no good.)

Those make a kind of head-nodding sense to us.

But other mandates passed along in the same way that we ask "Where's a good place to have lunch?" don't always mesh with our sense of conventional wisdom.

Sometimes I still think e-mails are too casual for certain types of tasks.

I don't think saying you're sorry means that you're weak.

And I don't think you can be too courteous in an age when speed drives us, and speed is often at war with the pace of courtesy.

One of the ways that many people underestimate why being polite matters is that they don't know how they sound on the telephone, one of the chief ways that we communicate at work.

Often people forget to identify themselves, mistakenly believing that their voice will be immediately recognized.

They call and don't ask if they are calling at a convenient time.

They speak too fast or too slowly, and sometimes sneeze into the receiver.

If you haven't heard how you sound on the telephone in a while, listen to your telephone message on your voice mail.  Has it been a while since you changed that message?

If you can't remember when, it's time to change it.   There's no conventional wisdom to back me up on this, but I know that other people have been calling you and leaving you messages. They may even parrot your message as they hear it, while yawning.  They are most likely tired of the same old message which imparts the idea that you are growing older and more tired too.  Doesn't it?

Sometimes the heart of courtesy is to rethink how you sound to others, and if the ways that you leave behind a message of yourself sound tired, it's time to change the message.

Courtesy existing in an age of speed isn't the same unappetizing combination as fish with a glass of milk, but it your first response to this unction was that you don't have time to change your phone message right now, then most likely, you really, really need to change it.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Add Titles to Your Attachments

When you let the first word of your attached document also serve as the title of it (that's the default title when you don't add one), you signal to your reader that you don't pay attention to details.

If your job is to pay attention to details, this message of inattention costs you credibility.
If your job doesn't require that you pay attention to details, what kind of job is it?

In addition to telegraphing to your reader that you understand the power of adding a title to an attachment when you add one, you simplify the reader's task of managing files that often are linked to e-mails and e-documents.

File management, like information management, must become a habit--almost a reflex, or you can spend a good amount of your time playing find and seek and seek again.

Unlike your car keys, which we all expect to misplace, missing documents are more important because they affect more than just you--the driver of the car.

Information in e-files, e-mails and e-documents serve more than just you, most likely.

If you are in the business of sending files as attachments, give them a relevant title to make managing them as simple as a good habit that one not only starts but maintains, like reliable, accessible files.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Cover Notes for Attachments Should Quicken Interest in Your Reader

One-line cover notes like "Here's my resume" or "Here's a photo I thought you might like" are lame cover notes at best. They have no more significance than a grocery list does after the items on it have been bought.  You throw it away.

The cover note has far more potential than a grocery list.

Your cover note has the power to intrigue the reader to open your document and interpret the message in the way you intend it.  
Cover notes with a sales hook--a reason to open the attachment--demonstrate the kind of energy that employers are looking for: active employees, not passive ones.  Passive cover notes tell readers that you will be a passive employee.
Finally, you can also leave a memorable idea behind that the reader now associates with your name.  The result is the difference between being memorable or forgettable. Which one do you need to be?

For example, when sending a resume, you could write:  Here's the resume you are expecting from me.  After serving in Afghanistan, I am eager to see how my leadership skills can help your company meet the challenges of these trying economic times.

If your work history is less dramatic, you can simply write:  Here's the resume you are expecting.  Thank you for reading it and for considering me as an applicant for the junior executive position.  I am eager to put my college-education to work for you. 

There are as many ways to write a memorable cover note as there are people to send them--people who need to be remembered in a positive way or find jobs.

If you are sending limp, lame, lazy-looking cover notes that have very little content, it's time to think:  what does a cover note have in common with a grocery list?

The answer:  not much.  Unless you are writing it as if what you write is an item on your to-do list and you--and next, your reader--will soon mark through it, or in the case of e-mail, simply hit the delete button.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Making a Successful Routine Request

Maybe you're used to yelling at the dinner table, "More meat!"  Maybe someone brings you more meat. 
Maybe you think that's the way to ask for something in the workplace too.

It is not.

Just as you would not yell "More meat" at the waiter in a restaurant, you should not holler versions of what you want in person or through emails in the workplace for help or for folders or any kind of information that you need.

Perhaps you have been doing this unwitttingly, and you have been getting what you asked for.
That's because people want you to go away, and that's the quickest way to make sure you leave.

Chewing on your hunk of meat, you walk off not realizing that people wonder which cave you live in and if you would enjoy the perks of civilization, like indoor plumbing and a stove.  When you behave like a cave dweller, you don't leave a very positive impression behind.

It's hard to know if you have been living in a cave. (Plato explains this in his book The Republic.)

But if you don't want to read Plato, consider this question:  Have you been demanding what you want the way a baby does who cries for a bottle until someone puts the bottle in his/her mouth?

If so, stop.  Learn to use words to communicate what you want, and these words should be laced with "Would you mind?" and "Is it possible" or "Would it be convenient?"   You see?  Words of courtesy and respect can do what demands and yelling have previously accomplished, only there's a greater benefit.

People will have a greater respect for you in the workplace and be glad to hear from you again.

Making routine requests is part of any workplace routine.  Don't fall into the bad habit of routinely hollering or demanding.  Instead, make your routine requests special:  be polite and considerate.  When you are, second helpings of help will follow.  When they do, say the same words you said after the first help was given and received, "Thank you."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

When Opportunity Knocks, Answer the Door

Like everyone I receive many attachments without an explanation.  They show up in my e-box with no accompanying note of explanation.  When that happens (and it frequently happens with business people) I always think:  'You're missing an opportunity to make a sale.'

Maybe you think you're aren't selling something, but I think most e-mails sell something in the workplace:  credibility is one.  Establishing and building your credibility translates into your being memorable and easy to work with.  When people don't find your documents/correspondence confusing, they may not say, "Well done!" but they do register that inner exhale of:  'That was easy.'   That's especially important if you are always thinking ahead to how you can earn your next promotion or your next raise.  Don't let people forget you, and they will be more likely to if you don't provide a cover note that explains the attachments you are sending along.

Here are five good reasons to add a cover note to any document you forward whether through e-mail or snail mail:

1.  It's polite.
2.  Your reader will be more likely to open it.  Many people don't open attachments if they don't recognize the name of the sender, and sometimes people don't remember names.
3.  You help orient the reader to what he/she is about to open.  It could sound like this:  Here's that report you asked for...... Not only do you help orient the reader, you help steer the reader to interpret the contents of your attachment in the way you want it to be understood.
4.   You can offer to answer any questions that might arise after your reader has opened and read the document.
5.  You could express gratitude for the reader being interested in reading your attachment, especially if it is a resume or a proposal for a change at work.  This single sentence can open the door for you to follow up on this e-mail.  Sometimes you need to follow up:  to remind them of who you are and that you will do what you say you will do.

Following through goes a long way in the workplace.  A good example of this is simply writing a cover note that explains the purpose for the attachment being sent.  When you have a blank screen in front of you, recognize it for what it is:  an opportunity to remind the reader that you are a hard working person who is polite and respects others' needs to know and fulfills them by providing useful information in a timely way.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Shake That Thing! 5 Ways to Sharpen Your Professional Writing This Year

Pay attention to how often you use the word "thing" to refer to the subject you mean.  Like the word love, for which there are a variety of feelings, the word thing is considered an all-purpose word, but sometimes it doesn't serve its purpose.

The thing is, words are symbols, and the word you use creates a link between your brain and the reader's brain.  The more precise the word choice, the stronger the link of understanding will be between the writer and the reader.  Recall how often you check your bars for the strength of a WiFi connection or how much power you have left on your cell phone.  Now, imagine that the word "thing" is the last bar, the faintest hint of power.  That's the power of the word thing when you are communicating.

Don't take my word for it.  The next time you write anything, double check your use of the word thing, and then consider which noun you really need to express the clearest idea possible.  You don't have to swap out every thing--just the ones where you mean the kitchen sink rather than that thing that has two faucets, or the traffic light rather than that thing that hangs over the road that controls traffic flow, and that thing between your two ears that thinks about the power of language.

If you are not a big user of thing, take a second look at the four other most common words that people rely casually upon to communicate and which are worn out from overuse:  do, it, seems and awesome.

When you confront those words, you will also feel the nagging discomfort of not wanting to sound snooty or out of step with other people who use the same language and in the use, help each other to feel part of the crowd.

Here's the question for you.  Are you part of the crowd or do you want to stand out as a stronger communicator who sets a higher standard for clear and persuasive communication?  Then, be willing to be uncomfortable by sounding sharper than your friends and by showing progress in the craftsmanship of writing even if that progress means that you have to give up your longtime lament of   "The thing is--I've never been a good writer."  Good writing begins with a desire to become a better communicator because you understand the power of that position.  A growing self awareness that produces a more controlled use of vocabulary is one step to take to reach that goal.  When you make that choice, your workplace writing will improve and, most likely, your earnings will as well.