The boss scare factor

Skull and crossbonesBack on the creativity versus fear topic. It’s Halloween time, of course. Not that I have to write a scary Halloween-themed blog. That would be out of character for me to follow a seasonal impetus.

Scare Factory

Consider your workplace. Do you feel confident in your ability to speak honestly with your boss or coworkers? Are you forced to walk barefoot on a wide plank wood floor covered in eggshells without making a sound? Because, if your boss should hear the slightest crunch you will be sentenced to hard time in his sweatshop dungeon churning out handmade plastic jewelry to sell to vending machine distributors.

An open coal-fired furnace occupies half the room, providing both intense heat and the only light source. No indoor plumbing so you’re forced to use a five gallon pail. You have no choice but to endure your boss’s martini-soaked screams and rants whenever he feels the need to release a little stress, which is all the time, because he has to stick around after work hours to babysit you. At 3:00AM you’re finally permitted to surface for fresh air, covered in soot and hot glue gun burns, able to go home to bed only to return five hours later.

Yes, this really happened because you had the mind to speak up and share an honest thought. And crush an eggshell.

Unjustifiable Fear

Welcome to the wonderful world of irrational fear. It comes in all shapes and forms, hindering our abilities to do what’s right and doing things well. It controls us for as much as we allow it. It can destroy our careers if not kept in check. Letting your imagination run amuck with all that could go wrong for the simplest task – see overwrought example above – can be taxing on your well-being and mental condition. I know many of us deal with varying levels of anxiety, which tends to fuel these irrational responses, I get that. But you need to know that fear cannot rule you.

I’m getting off my pedestal now.

I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist. I am a novice student of these disciplines when it comes to my professional life. I know from plenty of years of experience that fear is both pervasive and detrimental in the workplace and I have ideas rooted in my experience and observations on how to address it.

In reality, what’s the worst that can happen when you approach a senior level executive with a suggestion? Your fears will tell you everything can go wrong, anything from immediate termination to indentured servitude. Rational thinking should tell you the executive will thank you, maybe ask to learn more, set up a meeting to discuss. Or a simple no thanks. You’re not working for a Sith Lord, just another human being who’s accomplished a few more things to achieve that job level. Always remember they are humans too.

That thought reminded me of the many times I’ve witnessed employees in various workplaces revere the senior management as untouchable gods. I’ve never wrapped my head around that. We don’t live in a feudalistic society, so why does this innate sense of fear-based reverence exist in our culture? Perhaps it was passed down in families with harsh rules on children speaking only when spoken to followed by punishment if breeched. Whatever the cause, it’s up to each individual to take control, to annihilate those irrational fears. The critical first step is to be assertive, not pompous, assertive. There is a difference.

If I cannot communicate openly with a senior manager about a project I’m working on, or share thoughts from my expertise on how something can be improved, I’m not doing my job well. There are nuances within this statement of course, but it’s a clean generalization. Consider adopting a similar mentality in what you do, one that allows you to feel comfortable and speak freely without fear of retaliation. Push fear aside, reserve it for real problems like active war zones, category five hurricanes, and zombie infestations.

More to come on this topic. Your suggestions and comments are welcome.

Leverage this: try effective communication

The use of jargon, or corporate speak, has had a genocidal effect on good-natured simple words. These words didn’t ask to be violated when someone seeking impromptu authority uses them incorrectly to speak over another’s head. The tragic popularization of converting nouns into verbs, for instance – leverage, impact, blue-sky – does not make you a better speaker or writer. Nor do figurative phrases whose meanings are lost on the average person, like boil the ocean, pissing on fire hydrants, and circle back.

If you speak in jargon, you are not communicating effectively.

Though you may think jargon makes you sound more professional or smarter, it does the opposite. Consider phrases like the team exhibited robust performance this month and my idea has been blue-sky’d by marketing, which are both esoteric and void of humanity. Here are a few reasons jargon is ineffective:

  • The recipient may not understand the meaning of the slang words;
  • The audience may feel you are talking down to them, especially when they work outside of your circle;
  • There is an emotional disconnect from jargon, authentic passion cannot be expressed through it;
  • Jargon by design eliminates personal accountability.

It’s bad enough when jargon and buzzwords appear in emails or presentations, but when I hear them in personal conversations I cringe. Not the good kind of cringe induced by a comic riffing on a taboo subject, for which I have a high appreciation. I wish I was using hyperbole right now, but I have had the sad fortune of witnessing all of the examples mentioned in this blog spoken in some type of face-to-face conversation at work this year. I keep a mental note each time I encounter these terms and my disgust for them.

I dare you to talk that way to Grandma.

You might use the following sentence when speaking to a colleague at work:

I’m not trying to boil the ocean here, but we do need to leverage the latest ad campaign assets to incentivize the consumer during BF/CM to create another lift. 

Consider speaking this way to anyone else in your life – your parents, your kids, your grandmother, your friends while watching a football game at the bar – and count the seconds it takes to hear what did you just say?, repeat that in English, or some kind of mockery and laughter at your expense. With this in mind, ask yourself what value comes from using jargon at work. I bet this is not easy to answer. Meanwhile, common speak is clear and specific:

I know it’s difficult, but we need to rework the latest ad campaign to continue driving sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

The student intern gets it. The admin gets it. The old-school senior vice president who chose not to retire fifteen years ago gets it. The creative professional from a non-corporate background gets it. And it wasn’t complicated to say. Is this making sense now?

Unnecessary, if not misleading.

The English language contains an abundance of great words to fit most any occasion and meaning. I know it’s not perfect, there are voids by not having words for certain objects (is there a common word for the interior section of the arm opposite the elbow?), complexities (such as the homonyms there, their, they’re), and words with multiple meanings (such as lie, post, and stake).

The language exists for us to use and enjoy. Explore dictionaries and thesauruses for strong alternatives to jargon. You have full creative license. If you’re unsure your audience will comprehend the word you found while in context, find something more suitable. It’s not difficult. Even the most successful novelists keep reference books at their desks for precisely this reason. The key in finding good words is simplicity. Million dollar words, those rarely seen outside specialized texts used in the medical community or academia, rarely suit the need as they come across in the same vein as jargon. So avoid them unless it’s appropriate for your audience.

Help make the world a better place. Communicate effectively, don’t use jargon.

Where do I begin (in writing for business)

A common question for anyone with a concept that merits exploration and writing about: Where do I begin? This was the first thought that came to mind as I prepared to write this blog. The blur of ideas swirling through my brain right were each vying to surface, holding each other down to drown rather than allow any the opportunity to escape unscathed. My ideas were composed of hardened exteriors with spines and claws capable of taking anyone’s fingers off, yet malleable amorphous bodies lay beneath the surfaces waiting to express themselves.

I’m sure everyone experiences this difficulty when they set out to write something, some may call it writer’s block or procrastination, for others it’s seen as a matter of organizing thoughts. Whatever your perspective, they are all essentially different terms for the same thing.

So where do I begin to apply this blog to effective writing that is applicable to any reader who may stumble across this  article? Good thing I kept asking myself this, it’s like I’m working through another cycle of missing motivation – see my previous blog entry on motivation to learn more. And now I’ll step outside of my head.

Grab attention

In business writing, the example I’ll use throughout this exercise, it is important to begin with a succinct message that immediately grabs attention. No different than journalism or fiction, really, though the intended audience of any corporate communication is expecting another doldrum memorandum or speech. You can’t let dull happen. Ever. Let’s use a speech here, don’t ever start a speech with “I’m so glad to be here, my name is _______ and I’m really happy to meet you. My accomplishments include….” Everyone’s heard that intro before, it’s expected and exhausting, the audience is already staring at the light fixtures or shutting their eyes to take a nap. Instead, begin with, “Here’s your solution…..” or “Tomorrow we will begin….”

As tempting as it is, you may want to avoid at all costs beginning a speech with the words “I killed your baby today, she deserved it.” Attention grabbing – absolutely. A few will find the humor, unfortunately, most will not. But think of a similar and relevant statement that will command the attention of even the most apathetic employee. Then carry that heightened moment forward with further supporting details.

In medias res

Then there is beginning in medias res. Unless you are a writer or have been enrolled in a writing program, you are less likely to encounter this term. Thing is, you’ve seen it used in movies, TV dramas, and books of all kinds. SImply explained, it’s beginning the story in the midst of action from the middle of the narrative, an abrupt flash forward if you will, that immediately draws the audience to an upcoming conflict that early part of the story is building up to. I find it a fun literary device as I don’t always like to tell stories in chronological order. Think about how this can apply to preparing a presentation or speech. Open with a teaser that immediately engages the audience, then transition to the beginning of the story you are about to tell. Just don’t lose the momentum that opener initiated.

Begin with the end

There are other aspects to where to begin, such as sorting out your thoughts, like my opening paragraph to this blog entry. Sometimes, those swirling thoughts are so overwhelming and cumbersome that the best place to begin is with the end. What is your intended result? Who are you talking to and why? If you are persuading an audience that a new process will benefit the company by reducing expenses thereby improve their bonuses, start there and follow with supporting information like how this came to be and why it will work, then close with a reiteration of your initial point. SImple, right?

Where this blog entry started and has headed I couldn’t fathom before I began. This idea was one of those soft-bodied cores beneath a spiny exoskeleton when it was first spawned, difficult to approach until I found exactly the right point to access its warm and bountiful interior. I hope that you have come away with something useful in your own writing endeavors, even if some strange visual metaphors to remember this by.

Motivation is my vicious circle

Motivation has been on my mind lately, due in large part to reading Daniel Pink’s Drive, which I recommend everyone to check out. So I’m looking at how it relates to what I do as a writer and how I can write about its existence in a professional setting. And I continue to wrestle with it.

Then I had the brainstorm when fear motivates us. What could possibly be good about a negative motivator? Are there exceptions to the rules of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? As I felt the need for my bones to rip out of my skin in pondering this, an epiphany struck me – I’m fighting through motivational issues right now as I type these words. Feeling unmotivated to write about motivation. Not good.

Returning to my earlier question about fear motivating us in a positive way – sure, in that no one wants to be called a failure or deadbeat. In business, I see fear a lot, and I see it driving people to do things – albeit strange, often counterproductive things – but it is a powerful force that must be recognized.

For example, I’ve witnessed a manager’s decision to end a key communication project – one that was nearing completion – only to replace it with another mundane safe-yet-proven-ineffective initiative. Why? The manager voiced second thoughts that a higher-up wouldn’t respect the original initiative. And fear that too much information wasn’t good because it could cause employees to be hired out of the company should info somehow leak to the competition. A frustrating scenario to say the least. And I’m not talking about trade secrets leaking, just comprehensive information for the betterment of the employee body and improve efficiency of business as a whole.

I don’t mean to write in the abstract, but various non-disclosure agreements I’ve signed over the years put me in an awkward spot.

The reality is the employee body wants honest, transparent communication. They want access to information so they know who does what in which department at what location, especially in a global organization. Access to useful information eases work processes and reduces frustrations, which in turn increases efficiencies and productivity. Not a hard concept to fathom, unless fear of trying something new and different is a restraint. This is a common theme with vertically structured organizations that have been around a long time and are finding it difficult to survive in the current business climate of horizontal matrices and the flexibility of the up-and-coming Results Only Work Environments.

So, that is just one example of many that I can somewhat write about without risking litigation. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but far less than if I was to start a sentence with “let’s be honest….” My point – this is a topic I must explore in further detail on this blog within the realm of creativity vs. fear.

That preceding statement is the motivation I needed to realize to so I could write these words. It’s all a large infinity loop of jagged lines and hooks.

If you’ve learned something – anything – from this post, please tell me about it. It’s the details between the lines readers pick out that seem to resonate most, and I learn a lot from that in return.

Revision in Everyday Life

One of my Instagram shots.
the author of this flyer didn’t bother to proof read the headline.

It always surprises me how often I will come across writing in the professional and academic world that has not been thoroughly revised. I recall when I was in high school and college I had peers who were all about the one-and-done mentality, first draft purists, if you will, acting as if a second draft was infringing on their creative freedom and raw genius. I knew a girl who wrote poetry in high school, who would write poems on random sheets of paper in rough form and just leave them around the house to find and read at another time. I suggested to her that she collect the poems into a book and develop them – no, that would have ruined her creative process, I was told in some roundabout way.

A few weeks ago, I found myself explaining to my daughter, now in eighth grade, the importance of revision while helping her with homework. It’s a funny thing with her, she has raw writing talent, it appeared at a very young age, but she refuses to believe she is good at it and voices how she “hates it.” Thing is, after walking her through a few revision steps to help her with some creative and essay writing assignments for which revision was required, she was excited about the work she produced. She loved it as she read it aloud to my wife and me! Then she quickly moved on to some other non-related topic as thirteen-year-olds often do. I look forward to the day when she realizes her intrinsic talent in this area and enjoys it.

I’m not one to preach, but I will share this advice with anyone willing to listen. Revision is a strong tool not to be ignored, even if you are writing an email at work. Ever notice some emails from co-workers are written so well that they are short and to the point, you understand what the sender is communicating without effort and even feel that person’s mood come through? It’s a beautiful thing; anyone can pull it off with the slightest effort. Unfortunately, what I see more often than not are messages typed in a hurry filled with misspellings, texting-style shortcuts and ambiguity, sometimes responding with a single word answer to a series of questions with no clarity as to which question has been answered. This of course necessitates follow-up questions and turns into a lot of wasted back-and-forth time that could have been prevented by sending a clear message in the first place. The key: proofread what you wrote and revise as necessary, it doesn’t take long to do. And the larger scale the communication, the more critical this step becomes.

I know old habits dies hard, people are stuck in their ways. I get all that. But consider the simple tool of revision in your daily life as a way to help you get ahead and not waste your valuable time.