On writing in business: Stop overdoing it!

I read a book recently that went to great lengths to describe a point. I’m talking several long paragraphs to convey what should have taken a few sentences, maybe a few more. And this exhaustive technique occurred repeatedly throughout each section in chapter. My patience withered as my attention span changed channels; I had to stop. I skimmed the remaining six chapters as I was able to pick up the points from the first few pages of each. Why the author chose this route is anyone’s guess. Unfortunate because it held a lot of great advice.

Have you ever receive work emails in the same vein? I’m talking about lengthy, dense texts with way too many superfluous words laced with jargon to sound impressive: “In an effort to better optimize our production levels and synergize our teams….” I bet we share a similar disdain for openers like that.

For those of you who struggle with brevity and clarity in your work emails and other similar communications, I’m here to offer my help. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and lost at seas when trying to compose a simple message containing a lot of important information.

1. Keep it simple and concise.

That’s fairly straightforward, I think. Remove extra words that don’t relay the message. For example, no one needs to read your thought process in an email as portrayed by the trivial “hmmmmmmm…..” It’s an email, not a live conversation. You have time to make decisions, to research your thoughts, to edit and re-edit before you hit Send. Use that time wisely. You have complete power over what your email will say.

2. Avoid jargon and buzzwords.

A recent article I found on Ragan’s PR Daily, “13 responses to ‘dumbing-down’ writing” was probably written with the same attitude as this blog entry. Author Clare Lynch brings to light an important point I wish everyone I’ve ever worked with understood – “use jargon, and 74 percent of people will think you don’t understand your own words.” I jokingly used jargon in my above email opener sample because it has become so ubiquitous. And that is the sad part. I see words like leverage heavily misused along with redundant phrases like circle back.

My point is this: use simple English – or any other language you speak – to communicate your messge. Choose your own words, the words that reflect what you are thinking and feeling about the topic at hand. That is how you will communicate most effectively. Honest simplicity. Not the meaningless jargon everyone in the office has copied to death.

3. Proofread and revise.

I know, proofing and revising was such a pain in high school. It was annoying extra work, especially for lovers of the first draft – another blog topic entirely. As annoying as it was to slave away at revisions under your whip-yielding English teacher’s direction, that was a lifelong critical skill for improving your abilities to interact with others, assuming you live in a society among other humans.

As I stated earlier in point number one – you have complete control over your communication. There really is no excuse to send an email filled with errors or a wrong message. You have full control over when you release that message, so take the extra few minutes to read it over; correct grammar and punctuation, confirm your statements are accurate, and remove anything that will get you in trouble. What’s it take – an extra two minutes? It can save you hours or weeks of problems at work.

4. Watch your tone.

Email, memos, and other similar communication methods are emotionless by nature. You are in control with how your message comes across based on your word choices. It’s easy for a joke to come across as an insult, so avoid that altogether. I have often received emails in which the sender seemed angry and accusatory without any reason for it. Yet, that same person on the phone was pleasant and easy to work with.

Words always matter. Read what you wrote aloud. Remove words that sound harsh or sleazy. If you’re not sure, replace it. Ideally, you want to come across as confident, succinct, and likable. Those qualities will help improve working relationships with your colleagues.

5. Be direct.

Last point of this blog for tonight. Don’t talk in circles, don’t overload your message with superfluous information, don’t offer asides and personal anecdotes. If the backstory you started to write has nothing to do with the reason you are sending this message, delete it. If you have included extra details that may confuse the recipient, kill them.

Directness is terribly important, yet I see it overlooked far too often. Try it. You’ll feel better about emailing your colleagues. Remember, good manners matter.

 

I know there are plenty of other recommendations from communication pros out there. Feel free to share them in the comments below. It would be great to hear from you.

Social Media for Small Business & Writers: Organic and Human

Norwalk River, Spring 2013One thing I’ve encountered countless times while working for a marketing and advertising agency in the mid-2000s was that small businesses, non-profits, and self-employed individuals had a lack of knowledge when it came to self-promotion. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into a new client situation and view a history of bad advertisements, low-grade television spots, malfunctioning websites, and other underperforming efforts, usually self-produced by a family member with an interest in computers mid-way through their first year of college.

I understand the desire to save money, particularly for these small-scale entities and sole proprietors. Covering overhead month-to-month is critical. You do what you have to do. And I respect the DIY attitude – Do It Yourself for those who don’t know – as a hyperactive DIY streak courses through my circulatory system. I do know how to recognize, however, when I need the help of a pro, especially when it becomes an investment in the business. Chances are, the work a professional produces will outperform any low budget attempt and earn back the expenses at an exponential. The key is to continue the endeavor: a marketing campaign is only effective for as long as it lasts.

This is where social media comes in to play, as an affordable (free) DIY undertaking. Guidance by a professional marketer or advertiser will help if the funds are there to support it, but any small business or organization has full access to this broad medium.

Twitter was born during my final year at the agency. At that time, it wasn’t even a consideration as a marketing tool. If the term social media was coined by then, I don’t recall anyone ever using it. It certainly wasn’t part of the discussion at work beyond a colleague once telling me, “you haven’t heard about Twitter? You have to check it out!” Facebook was not available to the public yet, MySpace was enjoying its short-lived heyday, and LinkedIn was an up-and-coming professional networking tool. For the purposes of our clients, however, there didn’t appear to be anything in this realm worth investigating.

Fast forward six years, and I’ve spent that time working in a corporate position, managing corporate communication, and more recently transitioning to ecommerce. Social media has become a crucial medium in both disciplines. Even though I work in a corporate setting now, I still keep the small business mentality in perspective, it’s where I come from, after all, and I always want to see them succeed. And the first step in using social media to do this is to use it.

Whether we are talking about a two-person design agency, a local non-profit providing care for AIDS patients, or a freelance writer, building awareness is critical to developing new business. A web presence is standard for any business or organization that wants to be found. Not a yellow pages listing, not a classified ad in the local weekly paper, and definitely not an illegible paper sign taped to a lamppost at a busy intersection; an easy to find web presence is the norm. That’s how consumers look for services they require now, how they conduct competitive research, read first-hand customer reviews, and compare prices without leaving the couch. Consumers aren’t necessarily customers; they can be potential patients and students. And to use this to your advantage, you need to be easy to find.

Easy to find means having proliferated your web presence in various social media channels sharing interesting and insightful information relative to the services offered. More importantly, is your development of thought leadership, achieved over time and by example, through sharing knowledge and insightful information on blog posts, articles and other web media that establish a level of confidence and trust in the researching consumer. You want that potential customer to read or watch your content and feel they found exactly what they were looking for, and more.

Small organizations have a unique advantage in the realm of social media over larger corporate entities. Being small, the human factor is always prevalent. The individuals behind the business are not separated from the customer by automated phone services and faceless product websites. As a result, they are able to capitalize on their individual uniqueness made up of the services and the humans involved in providing them, not to mention local community involvement and level of volunteer commitment for the non-profits. These intrinsic human assets provide the strength and empathy required to build relationships with others who hold shared interests – as a provider or recipient – critical in developing a following to spread awareness and grow the business.

Regardless of what type of small entity I’m talking to, the rules are the same in social media. After a thorough presence has been established – an uncluttered website emphasizing your prowess, which can be achieved through a blog if you’d prefer – the second major step is relationship building. That is what social networking is all about, building relationships. There are several ways to do this; here are some I recommend based on my own experiences and successes:

  1. Join conversations. When you see a discussion topic on a social network, blog, or forum, join it. Offer your perspective rooted in your area of expertise. Be wary of offering opinions or statements you cannot back up, however, particularly in discussions with high emotions and sensitivity. Your goal is to win friends and influence others, to borrow from Dale Carnegie, not fall into arguments. Overall, maintain professionalism. And use your true identity with links back to your web presence. You’ll build credibility and potentially earn a few new followers.
  2. Share relevant and interesting information. Occasionally you will stumble across a current event that relates to your area of expertise – share it on all of your social networks. You will be surprised at how many in your audience (potential customers) appreciate reading articles they might not have otherwise encountered. This puts you in the know, you become a centralized resource for aggregating this information with a human touch, not an automated script sitting on someone’s web server delivering stories that match keywords.
  3. Insert yourself in the story. Take a page from marketing and public relations guru David Meerman Scott. In his eBook Newsjacking, Scott describes a marketing niche of inserting your perspective into a current news story. That is, you release an article, a blog post, or other communication that answers the situation at-hand in the current event, such as offering a free service to help the subject in need, or to immediately position yourself as the authority on the topic. Two important details cannot be overlooked: authenticity is a must, and timeliness is everything. The longer you wait – we’re talking minutes, maybe an hour – the sooner another will grab the opportunity before you can. It’s aggressive, but it can yield a ton of free publicity in the form of syndication by other blogs and the mainstream media, including follow-up interviews from reporters covering the event. As long as you are confident in handling what surprises come your way, newsjacking can open some major doors through social media at no cost.
  4. Be yourself. You are human. Your audience is human; they can detect the difference between authenticity and nonsense without much more than a gut feeling. Developing credibility in social media is a necessity in growing your business. Therefore, be honest and sincere, don’t exaggerate facts, and don’t speak in hyperbole. And don’t put on airs.
  5. Consistent activity is key. Setting a cadence in publishing content to your social networks and blog helps develop reader loyalty. Readers come to know your rhythm quickly, such as expecting to see a new blog every Sunday morning. There are automated tools that can help you maintain a publishing schedule, though I prefer to do it manually because it feels natural to allow some variance in the hour of day I publish. And that lets readers know I am actually performing the task, not automated software.
    You cannot forget the operative word activity in this matter; there is nothing worse to a loyal audience than a social media account or blog that has unexpectedly become dormant for a long period of time. It implies you’ve lost interest, have nothing more to say, you’re out of business, or other more tragic matters. Should a business closure occur, keep your social media presence alive, continue building your reputation, and make sure your loyal audience knows where to find you after the business closes. And if you’ve decided to discontinue your blog, give your audience the courtesy of knowing.
  6. Silence is the worst kind of response. Since social media makes businesses directly accessible to customers, feedback is bound to occur. Whether positive or negative, you need to respond in a relatively short time. Sometimes a simple message of gratitude is all that’s necessary to let your customer know you are listening and care. The same applies when a customer voices a negative response – offer to help that customer resolve the situation by replacing the product or whatever remedy is most appropriate. An unhappy customer who receives argumentative or apathetic responses is likely to share that negative experience with his or her own network. And negativity has a tendency to spread much faster on the web than positivity, an unfortunate truth.

No matter what your profession is, the size of your business, or the role you play in it, all of these guidelines are applicable. Building and maintaining relationships with your potential and existing customers is now the standard method of doing business. Once you begin this endeavor it becomes a commitment, and a valuable piece of your business growth.

Lastly, have fun with it. The best kind of work is produced when you enjoy doing it. Post content you like to write about or read. Help others by answering questions and offering suggestions. The concepts of karma apply here, through basic humanity and goodwill. Social media is an organic process; it is as human as you make it.

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.