Working on a new site and will be back again soon. Stay tuned!

 

Case of the missing comma nets drivers $10 million

Time to admit to the world that I’m a fan of the serial (a.k.a. “Oxford” or “Harvard”) comma.

In my opinion, it makes any series of parallel words or phrases joined by “and” easier to understand and far less confusing. But not everyone is as liberal as I am about using commas — serial or not. And sometimes that can affect the readability of a piece.

For example, there truly is a difference between how you read this classic example of three mis-matched guests at a party (with the Harvard comma after JFK)…

— We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

… and how you read about the party’s two racy entertainers (minus the second comma).

— We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

Another example from the Grammar Diva of a book dedication that’s less confusing with the addition of a single comma:

— I would like to thank my parents, Steve Martin and Jimmy Fallon. (Decidedly an odd couple!)

vs.

I would like to thank my parents, Steve Martin, and Jimmy Fallon. 

Not having the extra comma typically means re-reading the sentence to get its true meaning. A minor annoyance, to be sure, but not much more.

“That comma would have sunk our ship”

For a company in Maine recently, the lack of a serial comma had more extreme consequences. It created an opportunity for the firm’s truck drivers to extract a $10 million settlement from company management.

Here’s how the grammarians at bigwords101.com described the Oakhurst case: 

A Maine company was faced with a class-action lawsuit requesting overtime pay for their truck drivers due to the interpretation of a written law. The drivers distribute perishable food items. Here is the sentence in question — indicating the activities to which overtime pay does NOT apply: 

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

The only thing the drivers do as part of their regular job is distribute.  If the comma separated that activity, the law would read, “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment, or distribution…” Aha! With the serial Harvard comma, distribution is a separate thing, and there is no overtime.

But when we leave the comma out (as it is in the official written law), the last item in the series can be read as “packing for shipment or distribution.” Clarified, this item would combine packing for shipment and packing for distribution as two separate packing activities. There is no overtime for packing, but they don’t pack; they distribute. So all is good and they receive overtime.

The final outcome of the case: The appeals court ruled that the missing comma raised enough uncertainty to take the side of the drivers. According to bigwords101.com:

That simple little Oxford comma would have made distribution a separate item in the series and disqualified the drivers from getting paid overtime for distribution, which is their job.

Or as one of the lawyers who represented the drivers so aptly put it: “That comma would have sunk our ship.”

So the serial/Oxford/Harvard comma finally had its day in court — and was recognized for its power to confuse (by its absence) or clarify (though its use). Not bad for a tiny punctuation mark!

Thought for the day …

The average pencil is 7 inches long, with just a 1/2 inch eraser

— in case you thought optimism was dead.

— Robert Brault

Boardroom buzz words that make my hair hurt

Just came out of a strategy meeting with my hair hurting, teeth grinding, and a renewed appreciation for simplicity in language — and thought. Indeed, as Geoffrey James maintains, language can shape thought. That’s why “fuzzy language” leads to “fuzzy” thinking, he says.

James, a contributing editor at Inc.com, has written extensively on the neuroscience of word usage and perception. In his piece on Train Your Brain to Think More Clearly he says,

If you habitually use fuzzy, ill-defined words crammed into long and convoluted sentences, you’re training your brain–and the brains of your team members–to think less clearly. Confusion is also contagious.

That may explain why I left the meeting in a daze. (Actually, that only explains part of my confusion. The rest was due to a surfeit of political posturing and an absence of new ideas. But I digress …)

In an effort to remove some of the ill-effects from this encounter — and in the always-noble pursuit of clear language and thinking — I offer up some of the newest inductees into the corporate buzz speak “Hall of Shame” below — courtesy of theofficelife.com.

And, just for fun, if you should find your mind numbing to the drone of corporate jargon at a future meeting, try making it a “win-win” with this Buzz Speak Bingo Card.

Actionable [adj.]: Originally a legal word referring to anything that affords grounds for a lawsuit. In business speak, it’ s anything on which action can be taken.

Bifurcate [v.]: An overly complex word that HR uses when splitting your position into two separate jobs. Feel free to reapply for either of them.

Biome, Ecosystem, or Ecosphere: Environment or market. “We just can’t justify full-time hires in today’s regulatory biome.”

Boiling the ocean [v.]: Attempting to do something with too broad a scope. This is generally in reference to a project or initiative to avoid. “The client is living a pipe dream; when are they going to stop trying to boil the ocean?”

Cadence [n.]: A far too poetic way to describe how often a scheduled event is repeated. “If we just hit the right cadence on our sprint meetings…”

Circle-back [v.]: To revisit an issue. “I’m heading to lunch now, but let’s circle-back Friday am.”

Curate [v.]: Adds a whiff of sophistication to any mundane selection process. “As Chief Social Media Jedi, you’ll be deeply involved in curating our Pinterest identity.”

Deep dive [n.]:An in-depth study.

Deploy [v.] Execute; release to the public. Makes the speaker feel like he’s planning D-Day instead of some insipid PR launch.

Dialogue [v.]: To have a conversation; talk.  “Let’s dialogue later bout the Miller account.”

Drink from the fire hose [v.]: To be overwhelmed with information.

Drink the Kool-aid [v.]: To accept company policy without question. [An unfortunate reference to the Jim Jones mass suicide in Guyana.]

Drop-dead date [n.]: The REAL deadline. Missing it often means dire consequences.

Gatekeeper [n.]: A person who controls the flow of visitors and information to/from management. You should “do lunch” with this person.

Hard stop [n.]: The non-negotiable end of a meeting. Usually announced at the start. “Clients are visiting this afternoon so we have a hard stop at two.”

Ideation [n.]: An overused portmanteau of “idea” and “creation.” Psychologists have a legitimate use for this word. You probably don’t.

Lens [n.]: A point of view; a corporate microscope. “I want to make sure that we’re looking at this through the right lens.”

Level-set [v.]: To ensure that everyone is at the same ‘level’ of understanding. “You better level-set your team before you send them on-site.”

Leverage [v.]: To make use of a resource. (What’s wrong with “use”?)

Net-net [n.]: The verbally communicated summary of a lengthy event. “Just give me the net-net of your conversation with the client.”

Offline [adj.]: Used in business meetings to reference a more detailed discussion that won’t involve the whole group. “Let’s dialogue about these issues offline.”

Operationalize [v.]: To do. (Now was that so hard?)

Low-hanging fruit [n.]:Relatively simple problems that can be addressed with minimal effort.

Ping [n.]: To contact or notify. “Ping the boss about this one later.”

Put to bed [v.]: To conclude something. “We just need to put these last issues to bed.”

Pull up [v.]: Meet together later about an issue, just as a car pulls up alongside another car perhaps?

Rightsizing [v.]: A gentler way to refer to downsizing. Suggests that a round of layoffs is simply a labor surplus correction, rather than a symptom of deep financial problems.

Run it up the flagpole [exp.]: To find out what colleagues think of a new idea. This is roughly equivalent to the next entry – to “socialize” something.

Socialize [v.]: To facilitate group discussions about an issue. “Let’s give them time to socialize the new material with their teams.”

Speak to [v.]: To address. “Yield the floor, sir, and I will speak to your point!”

Swim lane [n.]: Field of responsibility. “Listen, client management just isn’t in my swim lane.”

Talk to [v.]: A self-important way of saying ‘talk about’. “I’m going to talk to the issues raised last week.”

Tasked [v.]: To be given an assignment. “I’ve been tasked with bringing coffee to the meeting.”

Value-add [exp.]: A typical biz speak reversal of ‘added value.’ “We have to evaluate the value-add of this activity before we drop any more money.”

Vision [n.]: The bold leadership direction that every manager claims, even if it changes every two weeks.

Win-win [n.]: A mutually beneficial arrangement for two parties. While the better negotiator is probably still at an advantage, both leave the table feeling great about it.

Embrace simplicity

Found this on LinkedIn.com recently and taped it near my computer as a great reminder that more often than not, less is more.

Thought it worth sharing with all of you. Enjoy!

Email advice

 

Thought for the day:

Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

                                          Henry David Thoreau

What’s the “secret sauce” for a great team?

Ever wonder why some of the teams you’ve worked on have been highly enjoyable and productive, and others seem doomed to failure?

The Project Aristotle team at Google took this question very seriously as it embarked on a two-year quest to discover the common traits of the company’s best teams. And their findings were unexpectedly “squishy”– especially for a company that thrives on hard data and number crunching.

The “secret sauce” that differentiated great teams from mediocre ones had nothing to do with the diversity of the team or expertise of its members. Instead, the teams that out-performed were those where everyone felt psychologically safe.

Here’s how Charles Duhigg reported on their findings in his recent New York Times piece:

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

His conclusion is worth repeating as well:

Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.

Good to remember the next time I’m leading a client team or volunteer committee. Making sure all participants have psychological safety — a chance to be themselves, to offer out-of-the-box ideas and solutions without fear of judgement — is vital to producing better results AND a happier experience.

11isbs-Winnie-t_11_2239528eThought for the day–

Promise me you’ll always remember: 

You’re braver than you believe,

and stronger than you seem ,

and smarter than you think.

–A.A. Milne

Thought for the day …

“A [wo]man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.”

–Bob Dylan

Three squares sum it up pretty well

Finally back to my blog, with a busy year full of  “other things” intervening. But I’m looking forward to moving ahead — and offering a few helpful insights here and there as I (and my colleagues) continue our adventures in financial writing and editing.

One of the greatest of those adventures of course is trying to convince investment executives (and their legal reviewers!) that using strong, simple words that will engage, delight, educate, and motivate can actually increase engagement, save money, build their brand, AND increase sales.

That’s why I’m glad I joined the Plain Language Advocates group on LinkedIn earlier this year. The members always offer good food for thought and frequently unearth terrific research that supports the thesis that clear writing IS good for business.

They also bring some humor to the struggle. Like the Dilbert cartoon below, penned by Scott Adams in 1992 and recently resurrected by a Plain Language group member. It pretty much says it all.

Dilbert1 Dilbert2 Dilbert3

Talk to you soon!

Closing in on year end: What I learned in 2014

It’s been a busy but rewarding year for those of us involved in creating clear, direct content for consumers of financial services information. And the good news is that the need for concise writing and engaging content will likely continue through 2015 and beyond for a number of reasons. Among them:

  • The need to translate valuable insights of financial experts and investment professionals into language that real people can understand — and act on — will continue.

On the one hand, the jargon and shorthand that investment analysts and portfolio managers use among themselves will likely always exist. Like legal jargon among attorneys, terms such as “alpha” and “tailwinds” serve as shorthand among members 0f the elite investment professionals “club”, helping them quickly connect with their colleagues and the institutional investor audience.

On the other hand, there is a critcal need for regular investors to have access to these concepts, to stay involved with their investments, and understand how changes in the markets and the economy may (or may not) affect their decisions. That’s where writers who can translate the concepts become an invaluable resource.  For an interesting article on how plain language is critical to good communication of investment results, read Susan Weiner’s MarketingProfs article on Seven Ways to Talk Your Financial Execs Out of Jargon and Bad Writing. (You may be asked to sign up, but trust me, it’s free and more than worth it!) 

  • Feeding the the voracious content beast while also providing clear explanations and concise, readable content to help investors screen out an ever-increasing amount ot noise and make wise decisions has never been more urgent. Young and old, male and female, rich and poor, knowledgeable or just starting out — all want information that they can understand easily, digest quickly, and feel confident putting into action.
  • Cutting to the chase becomes absolutely essential as the ubiquitous use of mobile devices requires all communicators to help their clients think about how spare but strong words can capture people’s attention on a small screen.
  • Clear, concise language can cut through the clutter to engage people whose attention is so easily distracted by the next message (or cat video) on their phone, iPad, or laptop.

But my colleagues and I are up to the challenge. Always something new to look forward to (and fix!) in the year ahead. Welcome 2015!

Thought for the day:

 

Take a lesson from the woodpecker:

It never gets anywhere by knocking.

It keeps pecking away until it finishes the job it started.

And it owes its success to the fact that it used its head.

 

 

Thought for the day — and the week ahead!

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

Winston Churchill

In a creative funk? Walk it off!

Ever feel like you’ve “gotta get outta Dodge” and take a walk to clear your head before you can solve your latest creative challenge?

Well, apparently there’s a reason for that:  Walking boosts creativity.

And it doesn’t matter whether you walk outside or on a treadmill. Although the former is probably far more enjoyable, the effects are the same. A recent study by Stanford University researchers Marily Oppezzo, a doctoral candidate in educational psychology, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education found that walking can spark far more creativity than just sitting.  On average, an individual’s creative output increased by 60 percent when walking.

In their experiments, college students who walked indoors – on a treadmill in a room facing a blank wall – and outdoors in the fresh air had twice as many creative responses compared to those who sat down. “I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me,” Oppezzo said.

The study also found that creative juices continued to flow even when the students sat down after their walks.

“Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking. We finally may be taking a step, or two, toward discovering why,” Oppezzo and Schwartz wrote in their study published on April 21, 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

So next time you’re stuck — and the weather outside isn’t too frightful — get out of the office and take a walk.  And, although the study doesn’t support this, I would also suggest bringing some cash. Just in case there’s an ice cream store en route!

 

Thought for the day:

Whether you think you can or think you can’t —

you’re right.

Henry Ford

Am I happier? You bet!

I know I’m more productive working from my home office — and I know other colleagues who are freelancers say the same thing. Despite the sometimes crazy deadlines (because we fear saying “no”) and spells of feeling isolated from office water cooler gossip, my work as a freelance consultant does give me the opportunity for more focus and concentration, as well as the flexibility and down time
I need to be more creative. (See my earlier posts on some easy ways to tap into your best out-of-the-box thinking and get the creative juices flowing.)

But what a relief it is to know that my hunches are now confirmed as scientific fact, thanks to new research from Stanford University. In a quick summary of the Stanford study, Inc. magazine reported that “researchers found letting employees work from home made them happier, less likely to quit, and more productive. … In fact,” said the Inc report, compared with office counterparts, those working from home made 13.5 percent more calls, quit 50 percent less, and said they were much happier on the job. 

Great to know the study confirms what I know to be true. I’m much more productive and creative working where I am now than I ever was in all my years as a corporate citizen. Thank goodness for the technology today that makes that happen.

 

turtle-shell-1Thought for the day:

Behold the turtle. 

He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.

–James Bryant Conant

Thought for the day:

The writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.

~Dr. Seuss

For that “lightbulb moment,” try working in the dark

 

Following up on my previous post about finding “aha” moments,  I discovered another study on ways to keep the creative juices flowing.  Here’s a quick piece from Media Bistro on that “enlightening” research.

lightbulb

Want to Boost Creativity? Researchers Recommend Dimming the Lights

By Vicki Salemi on June 28, 2013 2:01 PM

If you’re in a creative rut right now, according to a recent study you may be able to get out of it by simply flipping the switch. That is, on the lightbulb.

According to a recent study published by theJournal of Environmental Psychology (via Inc.), dark rooms may boost creativity. Apparently they promote a more global perspective which can bolster creative juices.

Two researchers in Germany conducted six experiences to observe aspects of creativity. In the first three studies, they asked participants to describe a dark or bright environment and do a word search related to one of the two illuminations. Next, researchers measured their creativity by an imagination task, speed accuracy test or an alternate-use game. Researchers concluded that darker conditions led to exploratory behavior and surges in creativity.

Moving right along, participants were also placed in a room that was either dimly lit, bright or at the level recommended for offices. Subjects sat for 15 minutes before they began a creative logic test. Then they completed a self-evaluation regarding how comfortable they felt.

Researchers noticed the dimmer rooms were connected to more problem solving and higher levels of reported comfort by the subjects. That said, dim light wasn’t always beneficial. It didn’t bolster creativity when participants felt inhibited.

Thought for the day …

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

–Wayne Gretsky

In search of the “Aha” moment

It would certainly make my work easier if I had a magic formula to create the “aha” moments that help me write the perfect headline, refine a particularly difficult sentence, or find the unifying theme for a complex story.

But, alas, inspiration rarely comes on command.  Instead, it sneaks up when least expected, on a walk, in the shower, or in the middle of the night —  and typically when there’s no pencil or paper available.

I’ve always found the unpredictability of creative thinking and problem solving to be intriguing.  Which is why a recent Wall Street Journal article on “Tactics to Spark Creativity” got my attention.  In the piece, Sue Shellenbarger makes the case that “the best route to an ‘aha moment’ involves stepping away from the grindstone—whether it’s taking a daydream break, belting back a drink or two or simply gazing at something green.”

Simple ways to spark creativity

I find the green thing a bit far-fetched, but I did check out some of the other academic studies she cited, plus a few others that popped up in my search.  And to my delight, they all suggest that best creativity generating activities may be those where we give ourselves permission to relax and “chill-out.”  Among them:

Walk away from the problem to do simple, routine tasks.

Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at the University of California co-authored a 2012 study (featured in Psychological Science) that found when students were given a break between two attempts to tackle the same problem, those who had done a simple, boring task during the break had more creative ideas than those who were assigned a tough cognitive puzzle, or those who rested.

Wait until you’re tired or fatigued — and let your mind wander.

“Surprisingly, fatigue may boost creative powers.” says a 2011 study in the journal Thinking & Reasoning. According to the study’s author, Mareike Wieth, assistant professor of psychological sciences at Albion College, “Fatigue, may allow the mind to wander more freely to explore alternative solutions.” When study participants were asked to solve a series of two types of problems, requiring either analytical or novel thinking, their performance on the second type was best at non-peak times of day—in the evening for morning people, and in the morning for night owls.

–Have a cocktail.

This one surprised me, but a recent study by psychologist Jennifer Wiley at the University of Illinois (reported in Consciousness and Cognition) confirmed that moderate drinking can relax inhibitions in a way that seems to let the mind range across a wider set of possible connections.

According to the report, Wiley and her colleagues found that intoxicated individuals solved more creative word problems, and in less time, than their sober counterparts. “Interestingly, people who drank also felt that their performance was more likely to come as a sudden insight, the answer came all at once, in an “Aha!” moment of illumination.”

Shellenbarger ‘s WSJ piece offers up the example of  S. Tor Myhren, president and chief creative officer of Grey New York as proof. An ad executive with many successful campaigns, Myhren says he  wrote some of the iconic E*Trade talking-baby scripts while working alone late at night in his office, sipping a little Oban whiskey and listening to Radiohead on his iPod.

So it looks like an evening glass of wine (or two) may have creative benefits. (I may need to do my own empirical research on that.)

 

Thought for the day:

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.

Thomas Jefferson

“Sequestration” and the fine art of obfuscation

Okay. I can’t be the only one who is annoyed with how the media is using “sequestration” to talk about the huge U.S. budget decisions that have been kicked down the road.

It’s all the buzz in the news media, and the latest shorthand for a huge quagmire of problems related to the government’s (mis)management of our tax dollars. But why the need for a single handle to talk about the situation?  I suppose it makes life easier for the news people, just as the “fiscal cliff” did just a few short weeks ago.  (Of course, Bernanke’s moniker was clear, strong, and, unlike “sequestration,” immediately understandable to all. A stroke of marketing genius, says my colleague, Paul Lombino. Read more in “The Beauty of Brevity”  on his site.  Thanks, Paul!)

My biggest beef:  the use of “sequestration” flies in the face of what the word really means.  Here’s what Dictionary.com (a.k.a. Merriam-Webster) has to say:

 se·ques·tra·tion

/?s?kwi?str?SH?n/

Noun

  1. The action of taking legal possession of assets until a debt has been paid or other claims have been met; 
  2. the action of taking forcible possession of something; confiscation.

Synonym
seizure

I guess the “forcible” nature of what is to take place on March 1 is inarguable. But the idea that anyone is taking possession of anything  — or even being fully accountable for what’s happening — gets lost in the miasma of hyped up news coverage.

For a helpful description of how the Budget office currently uses the term, check out the recent column by Tom Murse on About.com.

According to Murse, the idea of imposing automatic spending cuts in the federal budget was first put in place nearly 30 years ago by the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.  But the media didn’t call it sequestration back then.

The fact that this is a government-manufactured term — designed to obfuscate and not communicate –is noted by Dr. Paul Johnson from the Department of Political Science at Auburn University.

According to Dr. Johnson (who is rather inclined to turgid prose) “…the term has been adapted by Congress in more recent years to describe a new fiscal policy procedure originally provided for in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985 — an effort to reform Congressional voting procedures so as to make the size of the Federal governments’ budget deficit a matter of conscious choice rather than simply the arithmetical outcome of a decentralized appropriations process in which no one ever looked  at the cumulative results until it was too late to change them.”

Johnson goes on to suggest that sequestration has been relatively successful as a deterrent to avoiding the hard budget decisions. “The prospect of sequestration has thus come to seem so catastrophic that Congress so far has been unwilling actually to let it happen,” he says.

Whether sequestration truly is a deterrent this time around remains to be seen. (We’ll know better on March 1.)

In the meantime, why not just use “budget deadline”  or “payment due date, ” instead?  Those are certainly phrases that anyone who has ever tried to balance a checkbook or budget can understand.

 

 

Thought for the day …

Be at war with your vices,

at peace with your neighbors,

and let every new year find you a better man.

… Benjamin Franklin

 

Thought for the day …

In character,
in manner,
in style,
in all things,
the supreme excellence is simplicity.

. . . Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

SEC “sez” plain language can fix financial literacy

Just how savvy are U.S. investors?  Not as smart as most investment companies would like to think, says the  Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  According to their Financial Literacy Report, released this summer as part of the Dodd-Frank Act:

  • Investors do not understand the most elementary financial concepts, such as compound interest and inflation, diversification or the differences between stocks and bonds.
  • They are not fully aware of investment costs and their impact on investment returns.
  • They also lack critical knowledge of ways to avoid investment fraud.

Troublesome conclusions to be sure, especially today as the demise of defined benefit pension plans and uncertainty about Social Security means that successful investing for retirement depends on individual initiative and informed decision-making.

The goal of the SEC Study  was to  “identify the existing level of financial literacy among retail investors” and  explore ways to increase it. The SEC used input from online surveys of several thousand investors and comments from more than 80 individuals, financial professionals, industry groups, academics, not-for-profit organizations, and other regulators.

Its conclusions confirm what most of us who write about investing and finance have known for a very long time: individual investors need more education and better information — and they need it in a readily accessible format and plain language.

As author and editor Susan Weiner, CFA, reminded us recently:  “Keep it simple.”

Susan, who is an accomplished writer (and ghost writer) on financial topics, also offered an eye-popping statistic she had seen in a recent New York Times piece by speechwriter Roger Lehrman:  Americans read at a seventh-grade level.

If you want to reach them, you must write at their level, says Lehrman, “You can’t hand your boss a speech saying, ‘It’s got all of your ideas. But 40 percent of your audience won’t know what you’re talking about.'”

If you’re writing for a general audience, use plain English and keep it short. Short sentences also tend to be easier to understand.

But what if your clients are all college-educated. Do you still need to keep it simple?

Yes, Lehrman says.  “Your writing’s grade level is a measure of how hard you’re making your readers work to understand you. If you make their lives easier, they’re more likely to stick with you.”

 

Thought for the day …

Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people.

–William Butler Yeats

200 words to make your readers feel smarter

Editing a particularly difficult document this past week — full of extra words and turgid, academic prose — I was reminded of Elizabeth Swann’s priceless line from the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.  Using the most pretentious dialogue she can muster to confound Jack Sparrow, Swann says, “I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request.”

In other words, “No.”

Which brings me to the topic, once again, of plain language, and to Joseph Kimble’s excellent reminder that the goal of good writing is NOT to showcase how brilliant you are (or by proxy, your client is), but rather to have your reader feel smarter.

With that in mind, what words work better than others?  The simpler the better, I say. “Eschew obfuscation,” William Safire would offer, if he were still here to advise us.

Of course, there are always exceptions for emphasis or cadence, but in pursuit of clarity and simplicity,  I offer a list below of alternatives that are easier to digest. (I’m sure you have your own to add.  If so, let me know!)

Instead of …. Try … Instead of … Try …
 

accordingly

additional

administer

advantageous

aggregate

alter

anticipate

assist

attain

communicate

compensation

comply with

component

comprise

concerning

concur

consequence

consolidate

currently

customary

decrease

demonstrate

designate

desire

disseminate

elapse

employ

employment

encounter

endeavor

equivalent

exhibit

expedite

expend

expenditure

facilitate

following

formulate

forward

frequently

hence

however

illustrate

impact

implement

inception

indicate

indication

individual

inform

initial

initiate

inquire

 

 

so, therefore

more, added, other

manage

useful, helpful

total

change

expect

help

reach, become

write, tell, talk

pay, payment

follow, meet

part

consist of, contain, include

about, on, for

agree

result

combine, join

now (or delete it!)

usual

reduce, lower

show, prove

name, choose

want, wish

send out, distribute

pass

use

work, job

meet, face, run into

try

equal, the same

have, show

hasten, speed up

spend

payment, expense, cost

make easier, help

after

work out, create

send

often

so, therefore

but

show

affect, influence

begin, start, carry out

beginning, start

say, show, suggest

sign

person

tell

first

begin, start, set up

ask

 

locate

magnitude

maintain

manner

maximum

mitigate

modify

necessitate

necessity

notwithstanding

numerous

objective

observe

obtain

occur

optimum

option

parameter

participate

per annum

per year

personnel

portion

possess

preferable

present

previous

previously

prior to

proceed

provide

provided that

purchase

receive

regarding

reimburse

remainder

represents

request

respond

retain

selection

semiannually

similar to

solely

specified

submit

subsequently

sufficient

terminate

transmit

transpire

utilize

visualize

 

 

find

size

keep, continue, support

way

most, largest, greatest

reduce, manage

change

require

need

despite

many

aim, goal

see, watch, follow

get

happen

best

choice

limit, guideline

take part

a year

a year

people, staff

part

have, own

best, better, preferred

give

earlier, last, past

before, earlier

before

go, go ahead

give, send

if, but

buy

get

about, on, for

repay, pay back

rest

is, makes up, stands for

ask

answer, reply

keep

choice

twice a year

like

only

named

send, offer

later, then

enough

end, stop

send

happen

use

think of, imagine

 

 

 

 

Thought for the day:

Drawing on my fine command
   of the English language,
             I said nothing.

Robert Benchley

Thought for the day:

  Listening,  not imitation,

  may be the sincerest form of flattery.

                                                     Dr. Joyce Brothers

Can a good phone interview replace face-to-face?

Looking back at last month’s post about real vs. virtual meetings, I got to thinking today about whether virtual interviews are adequate substitutes for the real thing.  Of course it depends on the purpose of the interview. If you need to capture the essence of someone’s personality and mannerisms, then the answer is probably NO. 

But for the most part, as verified by the hundreds of satellite and phone interviews aired on radio and TV every day, my answer is YES. And it absolutely beats trying to construct a story from written documents alone.

A recent case in point:  

One of my clients asked me to create a piece that introduced prospective customers to the unique physical and cultural environment of their sprawling corporate headquarters in the southern U.S.  Of course I jumped at the chance to visit the site and interview its inhabitants face-to-face to learn more — and perhaps squeeze in a round of golf. This was February after all; the month when we typically get the most snow here in the Northeast.

But, my hopes for a short trip and golf outing were swiftly dashed when I learned that the assignment didn’t include travel.  (I also learned that this company is quite frugal  when it comes to sending their consultants on what they deem unnecessary “junkets”.)  I took the assignment anyway, but not without some misgiving about being able to talk convincingly about a place that I’d never seen.  

To my surprise, it worked out remarkably well because the client chose the right people for me to interview.  They were passionate and knowledgeable about the subject, and more than willing to provide the details, diagrams, and anecdotes I needed. (Fortunately, I also discovered great photos of the location through an exhaustive search on the Internet.)

I know the final piece was a better product than what I could have created from written sources alone. And it’s pretty close to what I might have constructed from the onsite interviews that were part of my hoped-for mini-vacation. 

The experience definitely reinforced my belief in the value of a good phone interview.  As health writer Jane Sherwin reminded me in her April newsletter, an effective telephone interview gives you

  • room for new and unexpected topics, angles, opinions to emerge,
  • spontaneity and livelier language than the printed word — and livelier language is always better for readers,
  • richer perspectives and more candor from the interviewees when they sense your interest in the topic and what they have to say about it.

The power you get from “real” meetings

This post from financial writer/editor Art McPherson was written as a follow up to our recent discussion about the virtues and pitfalls of today’s “virtual” meetings and the value of meeting face-to-face with real people.  Perhaps his most cogent point:  “A virtual beer just doesn’t taste the same.” What do you think? –PJW  (Thanks, Art!)

________________________

By Arthur MacPherson [amacpherson01@gmail.com]

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’” — Dave Barry

Admit it. You cringe at the mention of “meetings.” Even if well-planned and tightly run, they eat up your time, taking you away from the work you already have and creating more work. But they’re an integral part of business life.

When I started my business career, a meeting always involved people gathering in a conference room or convention hall, coffee mug in one hand, and pen and paper in the other. But today we live in an age of “virtual” meetings — teleconferences, video conferences, online presentations, Webinars.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that companies are increasingly turning to electronic gatherings, particularly when budgets are tight. For a convention or company sales conference, virtual meetings can mean significant savings (50%-80% by one estimate) on travel and hotel expenses, and creating and shipping displays and boxes of brochures and trinkets.

In a company setting, meeting virtually allows you to sit at your desk instead of being held hostage for an hour in a conference room. You can even “attend” a meeting sitting at home in jeans and a t-shirt. There’s another advantage, discussed with a wink and a smile, if at all; you can multi-task. (Don’t deny it — you’ve done it, too.)

Cheaper, more convenient and less demanding on your time. Virtual meetings are clearly better than face-to-face in a conference room. Then again, maybe not, for a couple of reasons.

First, going “virtual” lacks the personal contact and connections that can make a meeting productive and worth the effort. Getting together in person lets you chat with others before and maybe go out for a drink afterwards (a virtual beer just doesn’t taste the same), building a sense of “team” and stronger relationships with co-workers. A glance across the table or someone’s body language can give you an insight into the dynamics of a project and the people on it. It’s human interaction that even the most sophisticated technology can’t replicate.

The second reason that some question the value of virtual meetings is the very thing that many of us value. Multi-tasking may seem more productive, but that email you’re reading (while listening in to make sure nobody asks you a direct question) is a distraction and you may miss an important detail or two. In fact, multi-tasking can prevent information from being retained in long-term memory, according to a widely quoted 2010 white paper by Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and marketing services company Maritz.

I dislike having my calendar clogged with meetings as much as the next person (especially the day last year when I had eight of them). But as Victor Torregroza, event marketing manager at Intel Corp., said in a 2011 article on BtoBonline.com, “The impact of people coming together for a common cause is extremely powerful. The quality is much more everlasting and impactful.”

Thought for the day:

How wonderful it is

that nobody need wait

    a single moment

to improve the world.

                                   –Anne Frank

Three steps to create content that works

 “Collaboration is in.  But it may not be conducive to creativity.”

That was the teaser for a recent (Jan. 15) New York Times article on “Groupthink.”  And it got me thinking about whether collaboration truly is the enemy of creativity. 

I suppose it depends on how you choose to define collaboration and what your  objectives are.  But if you’re talking about sharing ideas to create better communications, then I believe getting together as a group with the people who know the subject matter and the audience is a critical exercise — especially if you want to engage and delight your readers.

Here are the three essential activities that writers, editors, and communications professionals must pursue to create successful messages for your audience:

1. A “discovery” session. This is the “client briefing” where you and your technical experts talk about your message and your audience in detail, what you want to achieve, what your thoughts are on how to achieve it, and what documentation you have to support your arguments. (This is akin to “groupthink,” I suppose, but it can help you get everything out on the table and it gives everyone lots of information to fuel #2 below.)

2. Interviews and exploration. After the brief, the writers and/or editors for the project will typically retreat to their offices (or cubes) to review the data they’ve been given and call the experts for their views (taking copious notes and/or recording the interviews).  They’ll also take a look at what’s available on the Internet from others — including any similar information from your competitors. These activities often uncover promising new insights about a complex issue or a hard to explain topic. 

3.  Check-in on possible approaches.  After processing the information gathered  in Steps 1 and 2, the writer will be prepared to share new ideas and possible approaches with you  so you can agree on objectives, tone, style, and overall direction before beginning the creative writing process.

Thought for the day …

“And now let us welcome the New Year, full of things that have never been.”

–Rainer Maria Rilke

Writing responsibly — with an active voice

Just ran across a recent blog post from writing expert/instructor L Michelle Baker, PhD on active vs. passive sentence construction.

Like most versatile, creative writers, she advocates using both the active and the passive voice, depending on what you need to make the information clear, and the cadence and rhythm engaging.  But she also suggests that passive sentences can be a deliberate way to evade responsibility. 

We’ve all seen it in the corporate-speak memos from HR where such phrases as, “Employees are now expected to,” or “The new policy is designed to …”  No one really wants to identify the bad guy here — which is, obviously, “we, the company management”.

Or as Ms. Baker puts it in her post: “When the passive becomes problematic it is because the agent disappears in some way that feels uncomfortable to the reader.” She offers two example sentences derived from the many “beasts” she had a hand in creating as an accountant during the dot.com bubble. (That was before she went to graduate school to study English.) To wit:

–Contracts with key employees have not been signed.

–Cash is hemorrhaging at an alarming rate.

Commenting on the above, she explains how writers use passive sentence structures to side step responsibility:

“The first of those sentences is indeed in the passive voice. The agent of the action – whoever should have been signing those contracts – is not in the sentence. And the reason is obvious. Why didn’t we say “we”? Well because then someone would have to take responsibility for this omission …”

“But the second sentence – that’s written in the present progressive. The agent of that action is cash. Still, the sentence is elusive, because someone is allowing that to happen, and that someone has not been named.”

Baker’s conclusion: “… there are all kinds of ways to evade responsibility. The passive voice is just one of them.”  So, she says, “Let’s keep all of what we write responsible. We do that by using the active voice … and by keeping subjects and verbs close together. When we know the agent of the action, and when that agent matters, name it. Employ the active or the passive in a way that lends rhythm, passion, and purpose to your language.”

Thanks L. Michelle.  I couldn’t have said it better!

Are inmates managing your money?

Editing an article today on how diversification can help investors manage risk, I quickly lost count of  the number of times I change “equities” to “stocks” and “fixed income” to “bonds.”  And while I know those changes may raise my client’s eyebrows, I’m confident that making them is the right thing to do.

I also know that I’m not alone in this seemingly endless quest to speak with consumers in language they understand.

I have the support of the government’s initiative for Plain Language, passed in the fall of 2010, and dozens of experts on sites (like Plain Train) with a passion for communicating better.   More recently,  the investment companies themselves have taken up the banner.

In a Wall Street Journal piece published this spring about the difficulty that most consumers have with financial jargon, journalist Brett Arends cites the work that Invesco has been doing to eliminate jargon and confusion in financial communications.

Interviewed for that article, Scott West, head of consulting at Invesco Van Kampen Consulting, couldn’t have been clearer.  “You’ve basically got a language problem,” Mr. West says.  Or, as the warden in Hud so bluntly put it: “a failure to communicate.”

Apparently Invesco surveyed 800 investors to find out which words and techniques work best when advisors talk about investments and personal finance, and which miss the mark. Their conclusion:  Investors hate jargon and technical language.

So where people steeped in investments might talk about “equities,” “fixed income” and “asset allocation,”  they should be talking about stocks, bonds and diversification.  In fact, the WSJ reported, when Invesco tested the phrase “institutional-quality money management” in their focus groups, it prompted one participant to question why prison inmates were handling the money.

The need for financial literacy — and plain language — has never been greater as so many Americans are now in charge of their own investing decisions when they contribute to their workplace 401(k) and 403(b) retirement plans. Even the government is getting into the fray, according to a recent Forbes article.  It will be interesting to see how that plays out!

 

Thought for the day:

We may be disappointed if we fail, but we are doomed if we don’t try. 

–Beverly Sills

Thought for the day:

“Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way.  Stick to it, and don’t let the fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.”                  
— Mark Twain

Plain Language: Easy to read; hard to achieve.

Among the many observations that language expert Joe Kimble[1] shared with the corporate lawyers at his “Sure Fire Ways to Improve Your Writing” workshop last week, three in particular stuck with me:

1)      Plain language is not about “dumbing down.”  It is about writing more clearly and effectively for your audience.  For lawyers, in particular, he cautioned, “It is the opposite of the jumbled, dense, verbose, archaic style that has come to be called legalese.”

2)      Writing in plain language can be “devilishly” difficult.  Good writers just make it look easy in the same way that a good athlete makes a tough play look effortless.

3)      Finally, said Kimble:  “Good writers make their readers feel smart. “ 

The last point resonated with me again today when a client suggested that I needed to make the language in a financial information brochure “more highfalutin[2] and intellectual” so the readers would know “how smart the company is.” 

Catching – and keeping – the reader’s attention

I agree that it’s absolutely essential for a company to let customers and shareholders know “how smart it is” and to remind them in myriad ways that it remains fiscally sound, socially responsible, and prudent about managing investment risk.  But that doesn’t require that the content to support those points be labored, pretentious, or difficult to digest.  On the contrary, the idea is to communicate the company’s strength clearly and convincingly, with factual, direct statements that engage readers, make them feel smart — and keep them wanting more. (“So how do you manage market risk?”)

Of course, you don’t want to get too folksy and risk diminishing the value of the message.  But neither do you want to give your reader any excuse to stop reading, skimming, scrolling, or clicking through. In the 24-7 information age, it’s hard enough to capture someone’s attention, much less hold on for more than 51 seconds. [See my blog: Can you tell your story in less than a minute?]

Top 10 ideas for clear, concise content

So what are some of the rules to follow as a plain language advocate?  At a recent client seminar, I offered these top 10 best practices for plain language:

  1. Write it the way you say it.
  2. Talk to real people about real situations.
  3. Use the active voice.
  4. Be precise, concrete, and specific.
  5. Follow a logical structure.
  6. Don’t be wordy.
  7. Use acronyms sparingly.
  8. Think visually.
  9. Avoid industry and legal jargon.
  10. Test your documents on typical readers.

More observations on plain language in my next post.


[1] Professor Joseph Kimble, Thomas Cooley Law School, Lansing, MI

[2] from the Dutch word verlooten, meaning stilted

Thought for the day:

There are two ways of spreading light:

to be the candle

                       or the mirror that reflects it.

                                                              Edith Wharton

When Eight is Enough, Time for a Messaging Strategy

A design colleague and I were asked recently to help find a solution for a marketing piece that was in its eighth round of revisions.   Imagine.  Eight rounds!   Unfortunately, at this point, the client had begun both re-writing and re-designing the piece herself, apparently despairing of ever getting what she needed. 

On further analysis, we (designer and I) decided that – before putting fingers to keyboard or mouse to graphics program for version number nine, it was time to go back and revisit the strategy document behind the assignment.

Not surprisingly, there wasn’t one. Not even a short memo with a quick sentence or two about what the piece should try to do.  No wonder the wheels kept spinning:  There was no way to know when the final product had arrived at its destination!

Fortunately, the client agreed to stop the madness, take a deep breath with us, and talk about the objectives and audience for the project.  That gave us what we needed to develop a messaging strategy before another word was written.

In a recent blog post on the subject, corporate writer Andy Bartling suggests that developing a messaging strategy can reduce time spent on writing projects by as much as 30%.  Why?  Bartling says it’s because a corporate message strategy “ensures you’ll always deliver the right message, to the right audience, at the right moment in time. Even better,” he adds, “when a corporate writer works from a messaging platform, you never start from scratch–because your foundation story is already baked in.”

Corporate messaging platforms are “the surest way to write with clarity, consistency and efficiency, every time. (Not to mention the lower costs, if you’re a company outsourcing to corporate writers and designers.)” concludes Bartling. 

For more on how to build a messaging platform for your organization, visit his site, www.corporatewriterinsider.com.

Thought for the day:

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

                                                                       –Thomas Alva Edison

Thought for the day:                  

Nothing

is often  a very good thing to say.

                                               Mark Twain

Tips on building better PowerPoint presentations.

How to not hypnotize chickens.

Okay.  Let’s be honest.  The reason the PowerPoint presentation software has “power” in its name is that the program’s hidden agenda is to conquer the world, via boredom. 

Case in point: the news item in the New York Times recently on the U.S. military’s use (or rather, mis-use) of the medium. 

Apparently the ubiquitous use of computer-generated presentations that has reached near epidemic proportions in corporate America has also penetrated the military complex.  There are designated specialists (hundreds of them presumably) whose entire job it is to create PowerPoint presentations for briefings.  

While some who have seen those briefings suggest that you can’t reduce military strategy to bullet points, there are others who see some merit in the deliberate obfuscation and mind-numbing quality of these slide-like presentations, particularly when working with the media.  Some noteworthy excerpts from the NY Times piece: 

Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

 The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

Chickens, indeed.

The problem as I see it, is not in the PowerPoint, but in ourselves, that we often haven’t a clue as to how to use this powerful tool most effectively.  To that end, and with the NY Times expose as their reference point, I asked three of my esteemed colleagues to offer their views on creating effective PowerPoint presentations.  Here are their thoughts. Continue reading Tips on building better PowerPoint presentations.

Thought for the day

Aerodynamically, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumblebee doesn’t know that so it goes on flying anyway.

Mary Kay Ash

 

In the interest of levity …

… and courtesy of the government’s Plain Language site, enjoy these headlines that prove once again that English can be a very difficult FIRST language!

  • Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
  • Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
  • Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Ax
  • Farmer Bill Dies in House
  • British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands
  • Teacher Strikes Idle Kids
  • Miners Refuse to Work after Death
  • Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
  • War Dims Hope for Peace
  • If Strike Isn’t Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile
  • Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
  • Enfield (London) Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide
  • Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges
  • Man Struck By Lightning Faces Battery Charge
  • New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
  • Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
  • Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
  • Chef Throws His Heart into Helping Feed Needy
  • Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
  • Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
  • Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead

Thought for the day:

If the wind will not serve,

                           take to the oars.

                                                          —Latin proverb

The Debate Goes On

Today, I offer a quick follow up to my last post on the Digital vs. Print Debate, using excerpts from a recent Wall Street Journal article by Teri Evans, who interviewed small business owners and marketing experts for her story, “Firms Hold Fast to Snail Mail Marketing.”[1] 

What she discovered: 

  • Some entrepreneurs who were quick to write off direct mail as too pricey or passé are finding it’s not so easy to dismiss.
  • Today’s successful campaigns shun the old-fashioned – and expensive — boiler-plate approach (purchasing lists and sending fliers or coupons to a mass audience) in favor of personalized mailings to a hand-picked list of current and prospective customers.
  • The idea is to send something that is more appealing than ‘junk’ mail and potentially more noticeable than an email message, to “offer a personal touch the larger firms may not be able to have,” according to Eric Anderson, professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of management.
  • Business owners are trying to figure out how to integrate their Web marketing efforts — email campaigns, banner ads, and social-networking sites—with direct mail.  According to Professor Anderson, “The introduction of new media has forced business owners to go back and revisit the whole playbook on what’s the best way to communicate with customers.”  

My conclusions: 

1) Use online, electronic marketing messages to complement your print direct mail effort.

2) Keep the messages highly targeted and personal, with a signature, if possible, on each piece.

What do you think?


[1] From The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2010

Thought for the day:

If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed.  I am not discouraged,  because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.                

 – Thomas Edison

Digital or Print? – Revisiting the debate

In an intriguing MarketingProfs.com post last spring, Doug Stern observed that “digital or print” is the new “paper or plastic.” 

It’s hardly news that most companies have moved from delivering print messages via the USPS to going totally online for a variety of economic and philosophical reasons:  to “go green,” to save money on paper and postage, to get to market more quickly, and to tap into the interactivity and direct buying potential that only a link on the Web can supply.  In fact, Stern cited an estimate that 70% of all business communication was being done online.

But is it really an either/or question?  I say, “No.”  While more often than not the answer should be “both” for the reinforcement that a dual approach offers (paper AND plastic; digital AND print), sometimes only print will do. Continue reading Digital or Print? – Revisiting the debate

Thought for the day:

The road to success is always under construction.

                                                                         Lily Tomlin

Among my resolutions for 2010: Tackle Twitter

This week, after considerable research, I started using freeconference.com  to host and record the expert interviews I do for various freelance writing assignments.  Using the service – which requires only that both parties dial a central number and key in an access code – doesn’t exactly classify me as an “early adopter” (I’m sure it’s been available for ages) but it is a vast improvement over the mechanical recording methods I’ve used in the past.  Plus, it rids me of the gut-wrenching fear that I’ve missed the best quotes ever from a fabulous interview because I forgot to push the “REC” button.

But this nod to new technology only serves to remind me once again of the challenges I face in navigating (without map, compass, or GPS) a vast sea of new devices, services, and social media sites that pop up like icebergs daily, promising to make my work life “more productive,” my connections to colleagues “seamless,” and my efforts to secure new clients  “far more effective” than ever before.

I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in my little dory, either.  There must be many more people like me out there.  Otherwise, why would Wiley have created an entire publishing empire based on helping hapless “Dummies”?  (My latest discovery, Web Marketing for Dummies, is just one example.)

So, armed with the knowledge that there are kindred spirits everywhere who can offer a life vest and reassurance along the way, I’ve resolved for 2010 to make headway into the social media space.  This year I really will understand SEO, expand my use of Facebook for business, and set up, for all to see, a Twitter account.

My colleague, Neil Rhein, of Bulls-eye Communications put me one stroke closer to my goal today by offering an excellent article from John Arnold about which online marketing trends are worth pursuing.

I plan to read it on January 1, before the hoards arrive for New Year’s brunch.

It’s a start.  Wish me Godspeed in the year ahead.

And best wishes to you for a healthy and prosperous 2010!

Thought for the day:

 To lose patience

       is to lose the battle.

                                               Mahatma Gandhi

Can you tell your story in less than a minute?

In today’s time crunched world, we’re all getting better at processing our electronic inboxes at breakneck speed, rapidly discarding what looks superfluous, quickly scanning what captures our attention, and giving less than 60 seconds to our subscription e-newsletters. 

In fact, according to a 2006 study by researchers at Nielsen Norman Group (NNG), the average time spent after opening an online newsletter was just 51 seconds! 

So, as writer Richard Ketchen aptly noted in the second paragraph of his November Exchanges newsletter, “if that statistic is true, I’m now talking to myself.” (Props to Richard for alerting me to the NNG study!)

But those of us who work on e-newsletters for a living also can find solace in the Nielsen Norman research Continue reading Can you tell your story in less than a minute?

Thought for the day:

Goodness is the only investment

that never fails.

                  Henry David Thoreau

An arresting case for clarity …

Brit Police Chiefs Suspected of Word Crimes

My thanks to professional writer and editor Richard Ketchen for sharing the missive below in his recent Exchanges e-newsletter.  The 102-word sentence, excerpted from the Association of Chief Police Officers’ response to the British Government’s green paper on policing, is a top contender for this year’s Golden Bull Awards competition (sponsored by Plain English Campaign).  Need I say more?

The promise of reform which the Green Paper heralds holds much for the public and Service alike; local policing, customized to local need with authentic answerability, strengthened accountabilities at force level through reforms to Police Authorities and HMIC, performance management at the service of localities with targets and plans tailored to local needs, the end of centrally engineered one size fits all initiatives, an intelligent approach to cutting red tape through redesign of processes and cultures, a renewed emphasis on strategic development so as to better equip our Service to meet the amorphous challenges of managing cross force harms, risks and opportunities.”

Marie Clair, spokeswoman for Plain English Campaign says, “I fell asleep halfway through that sentence and didn’t get round to pondering the meanings of ‘centrally engineered one size fits all initiatives’ or ‘amorphous challenges’. Is that wrestling with a jellyfish, maybe?”

Note to Curmudgeon: Give Twitter a Chance

by Lauren Libitz, President, Yankee IABC

[See what The Friendly Curmudgeon had to say about Twitter back in June.]

I’m a big fan of the old saying, “Don’t knock it ‘till you try it.” Most recently for me it has meant trying new foods that I thought would taste awful when they turned out to be incredibly delicious (I’m looking at you sweet breads from Toro restaurant); clothing styles that I assumed wouldn’t look good on me until I stepped into the dressing room (hello dresses with pockets from Nordstrom); and social media tools. 

While more and more people are seeing the value of LinkedIn for maintaining professional connections and Facebook for keeping in touch with family and friends, my impression is that people are quick to dismiss Twitter when they haven’t spent any time exploring it. They haven’t set up a profile, haven’t “followed” people who are experts in their field, and haven’t gotten involved in the conversation, and yet are convinced that the only people using it are self-absorbed navel gazers. How do you know that the tool is useless when you haven’t even tried it?   Continue reading Note to Curmudgeon: Give Twitter a Chance

Is a White Paper the Best Solution?

Part 3: Ideas for building ones that work.

Once you’ve determined that a White Paper is the right solution (see Part Two of this series), you’ll want to make it as compelling as possible.  Fortunately, there are excellent online resources to help you achieve this yourself or find a skilled wordsmith to do it for you.

 All of these resources follow the same basic rules of white paper construction: 

Know your reader well.

Before you set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) you’ll need to be very clear about who your target audience is and what problems they’re facing. Of course this is the first rule for any good communication, but it bears repeating here because a White Paper is a factual document that relies primarily on the written word (and logical arguments) to engage readers rather than on the emotional language, photos, or graphics that are more typical of a marketing brochure. Continue reading Is a White Paper the Best Solution?