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Are you designing a horse…or a camel?

April 15, 2010

Image by: tinyfroglet

“A camel is a horse designed by a committee,” so the saying goes. And the same is true when it comes to writing by committee.

In an attempt to incorporate everyone’s opinion, what begins as a clear, compelling statement often mutates into vague or convoluted mumbo-jumbo.

Unfortunately, while it’s easy to spot this disaster a mile away, avoiding the deadly quagmire is another matter altogether.

Let’s Get Everyone’s Approval

Aaaaaaaaaah! Run as fast as you can from this one. One of the first things we learn as writers in the business world is to ask for accuracy review not approval. There needs to be one person who has the authority to make the final approval — not 10.

If you need to share the written document with an entire committee or numerous managers, make it clear from the get-go what their expected role is:

  • This [document] is scheduled to be distributed this afternoon, and I wanted to share it with you as an [FYI/for your files].
  • Please review this [document], and let me know of any inaccurate data/information by noon on Thursday.

Once you receive their feedback and suggested changes – which nine times out of 10 will include such nonsense as changing “use” to “utilize” (No!) or reworking a phrase to say something that’s so full of jargon no one can understand it: “Because we have skin in the game and want to play to our core competencies, indicatively we must focus on cost-containment factors for the impacted business units going forward,” (Huh?) – respond by letting your reviewers know what will happen with their feedback.

Thank You for Your Suggestions

Respond by thanking them for their feedback. If they provided true corrections to inaccurate data, let them know you’ll correct the information. If they provided style or opinion suggestions – similar to the ones above – let them know you will take it into consideration and incorporate as appropriate when finalizing the document. This lets them know you’ve listened to their ideas and yet clearly states those changes will be considered – not necessarily used.

The Committee Meeting

The approach above works the best when you’re routing a document for review individually vs. at an actual committee meeting. Should you be subjected to this approach, tread cautiously.

It’s best to, again, listen to everyone’s feedback and even write by committee if that’s what’s required. At the end of the meeting, let everyone know you’ll review all the suggestions, and rework the document in one voice to ensure clarity and cohesiveness.

This sets expectations, again. It lets everyone know that you’ve listened to their feedback and indicates your intent to recraft the document in the best light.

Whew. Quagmire narrowly avoided this time around.

How do you avoid designing a camel instead of the horse you need?

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Change is a Good Thing, Really

April 7, 2010
The Monarch - Heard Museum Butterfly Exhibit

Image: Axel.Foley

Reading a post by Amber Naslund got me thinking more about change.

What is it about change that is so scary for us? Why are we so reluctant to move away from the status quo?

It’s the power of change, the momentum behind a shift in thinking or perspective, or the downright frustration with the status quo that sometimes propels us to a new place.

I couldn’t agree more!

I get extremely frustrated with the “But, we’ve always done it this way.” spiel and the unwillingness of many to foster, or even accept, change. Why not change? Why not try something new? Why not make a change for the better?

Sometimes taking one little step and then another and another can mean the difference between success and failure. What will you change in your life today?

Leave a comment, and tell me why change is a good thing, really.

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3 Secret Writing Tricks You Aren’t Using

March 31, 2010

confusionIf you’ve ever struggled with trying to make a complicated topic easy to understand, you’re not alone.

As business writers, we’re often asked to “translate” something technical, jargon-filled or esoteric into everyday language our audience can understand. And many times we may not even understand it ourselves!

For example, have you ever talked with an IT person who used so much jargon and acronyms it sounded like a recipe for alphabet soup? Or tried to understand the rational behind the actuarial formula used to calculate an insurance rate? Bah!

As a writer, it’s your job not only to understand what these subject matter experts (SMEs) are saying, but convey it in understandable terms to your audience. So how do we do that?

  • Secret 1. Play dumb. People like to help others. It’s human nature. And one of the easiest ways to get a better understanding of the topic at hand is to let the SME know up front that you don’t get it. That’s why you’re coming to them as the expert. This sets the stage, letting them know you view them as the expert, and makes them more willing to convey the information in an educational way.
  • Secret 2. Pretend you’re an alien. I know, it sounds weird, but it works. It goes something like this:

SME: This cool [jargon], [technical term] tool is great because it [jargon], [technical term], [jargon], [technical term], [technical term], [technical term], [jargon], [jargon], [jargon] for all our employees.

You: Uh-huh, right. I need you to make this as simple as possible. Pretend I’m an alien from outer space. I’ve just landed here, and you’re trying to explain this concept to me. I know nothing about your Internet, your computers or this cool new tool. Start from the beginning and pretend you’re talking to an alien.

I used this technique all the time when working for a computer company and talking to the developers about new products we were promoting/marketing. It worked like a charm.

It’s like a lightbulb clicked on over their heads and they’d say, “Ohhh. Got it. We’ve created a tool you can use to improve your productivity. It works by taking complicated tasks and simplifying them, shaving off loads of time you’d otherwise be wasting.”

Bingo! We’d never have gotten there without the “pretend-I’m-an-alien” trick. (You can also ask them to pretend you’re a five-year-old. Works the same way. Alien’s more interesting though, right?)

  • Secret 3: Say it out loud. Once you have a firm grasp on the concept you’re supposed to be promoting or explaining, it’s sometimes hard to write it as simply as you’d like. A sure-fire way to do this? Say it out loud. If you were to summarize what you want to say in one sentence to someone who knew nothing about the topic, how would you explain it? Often, we writers speak in much simpler terms than we write. By saying it out loud, you clarify exactly what you’re trying to convey, and can then write about it easily.

What are your secret tricks for understanding and writing about complex issues?

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To read. To write. To love.

March 24, 2010
Books - bookcase top shelf
Image by ~ Phil Moore via Flickr

Someone recently asked, “Who influenced your writing, your obsession with words and/or your love of reading?” So…here goes:

It all started when I was four. How to Be a Grouch was my favorite book, and I begged my mom to read it constantly to the point that the binding was loose, the pages falling out and poor Oscar was looking considerably tattered – even for him.

And then it happened.

I stopped reciting the story and began reading it! I was amazed, awed and, yes, proud. I couldn’t wait to start reading everything I could get my hands on.

Story Time

This love of the written word continued throughout gradeschool, and was spurred by Mrs. Nodeen, who was brave enough to hold story time for a bunch of ‘we’re-too-mature-to-be-read-to-like-preschoolers’ fourth graders! She read classics, like Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Pollyanna and The Secret Garden, which many in the class would never have ‘read’ had it not been for her determination and passion for reading/writing.

By eighth grade, I was on to Great Expectations, The House of Seven Gables, Jane Eyre and the like, and by high school my love for all things written was firmly entrenched. I excelled in English, and loved the nuances of this language and others, including French and Spanish.

Finding Perspective

Enter Mr. Bittle. Do you remember the movie ‘Dead Poets Society’? English teacher John Keating was the reincarnation of my own high school English teacher, Mr. Bittle, who died tragically in a car accident my senior year. He was the stand-on-your-desk-to-gain-a-fresh-perspective-on-life kinda guy, and encouraged us to read books that pushed the envelope in a small Midwestern town, including Slaughter House V and Catcher in the Rye.

He encouraged us to try new things, understand our inner voice and not be afraid to express ourselves. To make a difference. To espouse a controversial opinion – if we believed in it. To embrace differences. To celebrate life.

To read. To write. To live.

Through his teaching, encouragement and unique bent on life, we learned it was okay to offer unpopular ideas and express ourselves in words. I wanted to a make a difference as he continued to make a difference in the lives of his students.

Changing Course

Along the path to becoming a teacher, I took a Marketing course and changed my direction. I graduated college with a multidisciplinary degree in English, Business/Marketing and French/Spanish.

My first ‘real’ job was at a quaint bookstore in downtown Geneva, Ill. And from there, I jumped into advertising, quite literally falling into a writing gig. I was never one of those people who knew she wanted to write from day one. Read? Yes. Write? Not so much.

Of course, I’d silently breathe a sigh of relief each time a test was essay to which others would outwardly groan, received compliments on papers, and continually had teachers/professors encourage me to go into writing, which I’d quickly dismiss. I thought they were being overly kind, and didn’t see how I could possibly make a living writing.

Write for a Living

Little did I know I’d have a career writing professionally for the past 15 years. With the change to my most recent role, the writing is more strategic, less creative. This has enabled me to return to my love of writing in my personal life, starting two new blogs and trying my hand at a cozy mystery.

I can’t wait to see what other adventures are waiting around the corner.

Your turn! What spurred your love for reading, writing and the written word?

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Solve Problems: Stand on Your Desk

March 17, 2010
John Keating, Robin Williams, standing on his desk

Image credit: virtual film history

Unorthodox English teacher John Keating encouraged his students to stand on his desk to gain a new perspective about the world around them in the movie, Dead Poet’s Society.

The idea is to look at your world – the one you live in, breathe in and walk around in every day – from a different perspective.

We all lose sight of what’s right in front of us every day because we get used to it. By changing our perspective – by doing something as simple as standing on a desk – we gain previously unnoticed insights into our world, our situation, our environment.

Why not take the same approach to solving problems? Clients often come to us with the crisis of the day. Because they’re close to the problem at hand, it can seem overwhelming.

The solution? Stand on your desk. (If the boss is around, it may be best to do this metaphorically.) Look at things from a new perspective. You may be surprised at how simple the solution is from that angle.

How do you tackle new problems?

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Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

March 10, 2010

dog tricksThey say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I don’t know about dogs, but I do know that you can teach old cats new tricks. I’ve done it.

So, why not people?

I know several people in their 60s who continually find ‘new’ ways to do ‘old’ things by using new technology. And, I have a grandfather in his 80s who just bought his first Mac, recently joined Facebook, and is now videoconferencing (via iChat) with my parents and me. And, by the way, he’s not in the least bit worried that he doesn’t fit the typical demographic segment partaking in social media.

So, when I hear people in the corporate world saying we can’t do this or that because our primary audience is middle-aged and won’t embrace the technology because, of course you know, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” I just don’t buy it.

Just because someone falls into a particular age group does not automatically mean their luddites. It means we shouldn’t be judging a book by its cover. (Guess it’s time to pull out all the idioms, huh?)

Why not teach an old dog new tricks? After all, he’s probably bored with the ones he knows and would appreciate some variety.

Agree? Disagree? Why or why not?

Image credit: webecho

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Feeling overwhelmed? Not so much, no.

March 3, 2010

social mediaMaybe I’m naive. Maybe I’m clueless. Maybe I’m just overly optimistic.

These were the thoughts swirling through my head recently as I listened to the opening question of a ‘social media seminar speaker.’

Who in this room isn’t overwhelmed by social media?

As I scanned the room, nary a soul raised their hand. Including me. But, that was because I was so in awe and disbelief that all 60-plus marketing leaders in the room were truly overwhelmed by social media. Really?

I find myself shaking my head again as I’m writing this post. Really? How is that possible? It’s still marketing. It’s still communication. It’s still PR. As a good friend of mine keeps saying, “Communication is communication.”

He’s absolutely right. Social media just presents a new set of vehicles we, as marketers, communicators, sales people and business leaders, can use to share our message, engage with our customers, have an exchange of information and participate in conversations.

It’s that simple.

Now, are there things to learn about these new vehicles and the technology that goes along with it? Sure, as is always the case with anything new. Are there best practices we can cull and adapt? Of course, as is always the case with any marketing, communication or business endeavor. Are there ways to improve and enhance what we’re currently doing with social media? Absolutely, as is always the case with any of our marketing and communication practices.

So…feeling overwhelmed with social media? Not so much, no. You?

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