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Saturday, August 18, 2012

You didn't have me with "Hello!"

While the word "Hello" may have been enough to snag the character played by Tom Cruise in "Jerry McGuire," the use of the word "Hello" as a universal introductory beginning for any type of document (except maybe some kind of letter) is not strong enough to make the kind of connection you need in all kinds of documents.

Only increasingly one sees this word used in all kinds of documents instead of a strong introductory sentence.  The problem? It's the word one uses on the telephone or in person, but that use of "Hello" as a greeting does not mean that it fits functionally or efficiently on the page or screen.

The problem with using "hello" as if it can do all things in all introductory situations is that it fails.  It fails because people forget that there is a great responsibility in workplace documents to snag a reader's curiosity, promote that reader's curiosity by making a connection to the idea that will be explored, and then leading that reader through the document logically and, ultimately, persuasively.

To do that, you need to reconsider the function of an introductory sentence or phrase and don't count on "Hello."  Here are at least five jobs your introduction still needs to do:

1.  Not greet a reader--snag a reader.  So, telegraph the key idea that will draw a reader in.  Waving or saying hello won't do that.  Some people just wave and say good-bye.

2.  Using some other form of dialogue is often a strong choice to make.  News writers do this frequently.  Short story writers do this sometimes.  And, perhaps, having seen it in some other context, you might wrongly assume that a greeting is the same type of beginning. It isn't.  Dialogue is different than a greeting.  Quoted dialogue is also different.  Here's an example:  "I killed him because he betrayed my sister and he had it coming."  Now that's a strong lead for a non-fiction news report or a short story.  See how dialogue initiates the idea of story?  Find the story angle--and business documents often have them--and look for the key idea there.

3. Choose a visual picture or a strong action verb.  Avoid passive language or weak ideas.  Here's an example to begin a professional autobiography.  "When I crossed the threshold of the newsroom, I knew that becoming a reporter was what I wanted to do with my life."  Look for the moment you can report--the one that has the most information in it.  Use it.

4.  Do not under any circumstances use the introduction to explain how you plan to organize the document for the reader.  Just don't ever do that.  See it this way.  Ever planned to kiss someone good-night?  Did you tell that person:  "Stand still there for a few seconds while I plant a kiss on you?"  Why not?  If someone won't stand still to be kissed, will that same type of person stand still while you explain your organizational strategy for a piece of work that he/she might not want to read?

5.  Got some powerful numbers or stats to report?  If they fit, use them.

There are as many ways as there are stories to start a piece of writing.  Look for the part of your idea that has the greatest appeal for a reader, and find an active and visually pleasing way to use it to lead the reader into your work.   "Hello" only works with Tom Cruise.  The rest of us have to try harder.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Your E-mail Can Look Better on the Screen

Fast-typing e-mail writers enjoy the speed of creating e-mails.  I don't blame them. I like the wind in my hair when I type fast, too.

However, e-mails that are written hurriedly are not just prone to have style mistakes in them. They often look skimpy and scattered, are indented oddly, and manifest a great unawareness of basic principles of symmetry.

When crafting an e-mail message, remember that how it looks to you may not matter, but it might matter quite a lot to the reader. Many a reader may indeed draw conclusions about your work habits, and determine that your lack of awareness of how to present an e-mail reflects a greater leaning towards amateurish habits than professional ones.

Take a few minutes and reconsider your e-mail format:

1.  No need to indent in an e-mail.  Flush all copy left.  This design looks best, especially for short sentences.

2.  Double space between paragraphs.  Single space inside of paragraphs.

3.  Include a salutation if you believe that other people like reading their own name.  Tip:  99% of people do.  Almost as important, when you type someone's name, you remind yourself who the reader is, and just maintaining that stance will help you include content that is needed--not just what you feel like typing.

4.  If you decide to add a complimentary close (that means, add a Yours truly or Best regards), remember that only the first word is capped.   The words that follow are lower case.

5.  Build a signature block. If your return address does not clearly spell out who you are, you truly need this piece of information.   Additionally a signature block makes the image of the e-mail on the screen look more professional.

6.  To punctuate or not to punctuate?  There is a growing tendency to leave off punctuation marks in e-mails.  How do you know when you should?  I punctuate until I see the preferences of a my correspondent/colleague, and then I mirror that choice.  If your reader is an editor or an English teacher, punctuate.

7.  Change out the words in the subject line to reflect the current content of the message.  Don't just let the old header serve.  The reason?  If someone ever needs to find an old e-mail that documents a discussion of a specific topic, it is easier to locate that e-mail by subject than to track it through dates.

Does craftsmanship matter when speed is foremost in your mind? You may not think so, but your reader will.   A better looking e-mail is one that will invite your reader to keep reading.  Whatever your view about style, you want that, don't you?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Build Your Name Recognition By Signing Your Emails

Ever been at a party or some social event when someone was introduced and you didn't quite catch the name?

That's why the standard protocol is:  "George meet Susie; Susie meet George." 

Then, George says, "Hello, Susie."  And, Susie says, "Hello, George."

The names get repeated at least three times, and there's a much better chance Susie and George will remember each other's name.

That kind of dynamic is also true in the workplace where emails fly fast and compete with other flying documents to attract the attention of a reader and make a memorable and positive impression upon the reader.

To do that, the reader must at least know the writer's name.  How can you plant your name or attach your name in ways that help the reader to remember who you are? When you do, it's called, in a small way, building name recognition.

If your return address does not state your name or at least your last name, that's a good place to begin. Choose a return email address that at least hints at who you are or, better yet, spells it out.

Then, always add a signature line or block that provides quick contact information.

Those are two simple ways of repeating your name and helping other people to remember who you are.  There is an easy third way, too.  If information has been exchanged, reply with a quick "Thank you (George or Susie)!"  using that other person's name. (People like to read their own names and hear them).

 That third time is not a charm that will result in your being unforgettable, but it does leave a positive impression that will be difficult to forget.

That's building name recognition. Take the time to do it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Sideways Smile :)

Sideways smiles show up in e-missives almost every day.  A nearsighted reader with thick-lens glasses, I always have to look hard to make sense of the colon and the closed parenthesis that creates the sideways smile.  It is a well-intentioned device, I suppose, but craning my neck sideways I never smile back the way you do when someone really smiles at you.

But that's not what it is meant to do altogether or all the time.

The sideways smile, like the smiley face it represents, is supposed to tell the reader, good intentions planted here, I'm writing tongue-in-cheek here so don't take it too seriously, life is good for me and I hope it is for you.

I imbue to that sideways smile all of the good intentions that can exist, but I do not feel them when I see that code for it. Not really.

To be honest, I miss a real smile and all of the nuances of other kinds of smiles for there are so many and one pairing of two punctuation marks can't do justice to the slightly crooked smile of my youngest niece and the Cheshire cat smile of my older niece or the laughing, spontaneous smiles of people who go through life greeting the day with a truly happy heart that brings such delight to others that there is no one symbol that can tell the stories of that smile, that person, that blithe and happy spirit of a human being.

All of that doesn't show up in that tidbit of a smile :).  In fact, I am almost always disappointed that :) can't mean more--be more so that I can feel more when I see it.

It is too compressed, like tight lips, really, rather than a broad beaming smile. It is like so much of the other highly condensed versions of reality that words ideally represent.  I do not enjoy u for you because people have more substance for me than a single letter can represent (even I), so concave by itself, so empty of personhood. The symbol that represents someone else needs to be filled up with more substance than an empty vowel, like u.

I miss the look of the word for some words do seem to have an appearance. Grinning is one. I think that word looks far more like a grin than the sideways smile :) does a smile.

These abbreviations and symbols born from text messaging mostly exist for expediency's sake, and I value time saved, but there is a time to spend, well, time, and smiling with you is just such an occasion. Whole words that explain more of the truth would be welcome, and I would happily spend the time reading them so that the smile that inevitably shows up on my face would be bright and whole and true--so big that it cannot fit inside the abbreviation of the event marked by :).