Saturday, January 31, 2009

Prefer active voice!

In business we communicate for action, or for transaction. We write to inform, query, motivate, persuade. We provide information to colleagues and clients, ask for information, or try to persuade the troops or clients to take some action.

If we write for action, then, and not just to say hello, in business, it stands to reason we will write more effectively in the active voice of the verb.

Oh no, what does this mean, you ask, a grammar lesson? Well, yes, it means a trip down memory lane to the days of the 8th grade, or as my friends from Asia say, the 8th form. Right, those days when you were filled with raging hormones that expressed themselves mostly in pimples and hair in places you didn't want it.

On those days when you dragged yourself out of bed at 6:30AM to wash your face, brush your teeth, dress, swallow a quick glass of orange juice and piece of toast and go wait for the school bus, you knew you'd be treated to a lesson in active and passive voice by the aging English teacher, Miss Crumples.

And what did Miss Crumples demand that you learn? She probably drilled into you the notion that in the active voice the subject does the action and in the passive voice the subject receives the action. Miss Crumples probably said, "The dog bit the man. That's the subject doing the action and the object receiving the action. Now, Jimmy, how do you express the same sentence in the passive voice?" Little Jimmy Jones, the class overachiever, dutifully responded, "The man was bit by the dog, Miss Crumples." And, Miss Crumples smiled delightedly while diagramming the sentence amidst a halo of chalk dust.

If you notice, in the sentence above the passive voice is formed (a passive construction itself) with a being verb form - is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been - and an action verb, followed by the preposition "by." It functions poorly in business writing for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it disguises responsibility, ala, "The project specifications were not completed on time." OK, who was it that didn't complete the project specifications on time? Was it you? Come on, own up!

Passive constructions are usually accompanied by other weak writing forms, such as nominals, verbs that have been turned into nouns. Together they help create weak writing. ("The project specification allocations were not enumerated by the system control coordinator." In that sentence, "allocations" is a nominal.)

But, those astute among you will see that I have used passive voice all through this post. Why did I do that? Well, passive voice is perfectly acceptable in a variety of circumstances. Use passive voice when the reader doesn't care who did the action (my use herein), when you don't want the reader to know who did the action, when you don't know who did the action, when the receiver of the action is more important than the doer and when you wish to be less confrontational.

Otherwise, prefer the active voice of the verb. Make those subjects do the action. Show accountability. Confront those offenders. Your readers will identify the scoundrel among them who didn't do his work. They will understand clearly, when you give them responsibility, what it is you want them to do.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Stop using conditional verbs!

Take this quick questionnaire:

1.)Do you use "could, would, should, may, and might" often in your business writing?

2.)Do Asians or Americans use "could, would, should, may, and might" more often in business writing?

3.)Do men or women use "could, would, should, may, and might" more often in business writing?

If you answered "Asians" to the second question, you answered correctly. If you answered "women" to the third question, you answered correctly. If you answered "yes" to the first question, I want to change your verb usage!

But, first let's talk about Asians and women. Why do Asians and women use the conditional (or subjunctive) mood of verbs more often than Americans and men?

Remember, early on we said that a communication involves a sender, a receiver, message, medium, feedback, and noise, all of which exists in a context and with cultural considerations. Let's think about my question, then, in light of the differences in cultures - Asian culture and American culture.

On the whole, the Asian culture is more accommodating and deferential than American culture, especially the American business culture. When I visited India a couple years back, I saw first-hand how deferential and accommodating Indian people are. To me this meant kind, generous, and amiable. I know it sounds a little stereotypical, but I experienced it that way, and my many students and friends from India always agree with me when I ask if they use the conditional form of the verb more often.

Interestingly, too, when I ask women - Asian or otherwise - about the use of conditional language, they routinely agree that women use this form of the verb more often. And, at least one researcher has shown that women use conditional because they are, not necessarily more accommodating, but more collaborative. Women, on the whole, communicate to build relationships. Men do not.

In any event, if you are communicating in America, or with American business people, I suggest you stop using conditional verbs. Don't submit a report to the CEO, or other C-level person, and say, "We might invest in this or that." Instead, be confident; say that we "must" or we "will" invest in this or that, or, "I recommend that we invest in this." Be confident. Don't give the executive group any reason to doubt you. Don't give them any reason not to accept your recommendation. In any job, you are being paid for your experience, your education, your intelligence, your insights, your opinions. Give them directly and with more confidence!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

How do you tell employees they're going to be laid off?

Every time you try to communicate, you choose a medium. Then you craft a message that will 1) help you achieve your purpose, and 2) appeal to the needs of the audience (factoring in context, culture and noise). If you want to create a shared understanding, you must choose your medium and language well.

Randy Falco, CEO of AOL, chose to send a long letter (871 words) to his employees this week. The letter concerns upcoming layoffs at the company. The letter represents the choice of the wrong medium and demonstrates a focus on the sender's concerns as opposed to those of the receivers. If you want to read a bad letter, check it out at:

In talking about the decision to lay off staff in the coming months, the too-long letter of 19 paragraphs features this kind of writing:

"...As a result, we will be reviewing our entire organization to further align resources and expenses against the real revenue opportunities in this difficult market. Part of this will involve consolidating groups to gain efficiencies that will unfortunately lead to head-count reductions. We anticipate this will result in a net reduction of our workforce of up to 10% over the next several quarters¬and we will attempt to finalize all domestic actions by the end of March. Reducing our workforce is never easy, particularly in the current climate, but our goal in doing this is to provide our core businesses the resources they need to thrive. Please know that, as always, we¹ll be doing everything we can to help and support those affected, including offering severance packages and other services...."

What do passages like these mean to the average Joe (the technology plumber): "align resources", "consolidating groups to gain efficiencies", and the ever-popular and ever-stinky "head-count reductions"? (All of this so that AOL can "provide ...core businesses the resources they need to thrive....")

Do the terms "euphemism" and "business BS" apply here? Yes. If you work at AOL do you want to read 136 sentences of this stuff? (BTW, the writing scores at a 14.1 grade level and a readability in the 30's, verging on the very-hard-to-read side of the scales). No, you don't want to read a letter this long. You want the CEO to level with you in plain language, not corporate speak, and with the briefest information about when you can expect the ax to drop on your head.

How should a CEO communicate this kind of news? In person. Hey, you're the boss, stand in front of me and tell me you're going to change my life, end my employment, casue me some real hardship. Let me ask you some questions, let me call you some names. But don't bullshit me with "head count reductions."

You can bet that if Randy had stood before the AOL people, in large or small groups, he wouldn't have used that kind of language. If he did he might have been stoned off the podium. If you must deliver this kind of bad news (and you're not losing your job), suck it up and do it in person. And, if you don't have the guts for that, don't tell me you're going to "align resources" or I might align yours!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Want results? Follow the old rule!

If you want readers to see, and act on, your messages, use the old rule - AIDA!

We older promoters know that the acronym, AIDA, has been around for a long time. It stands for 1) Attract attention, 2) Create Interest, 3) Arouse desire, and 4) Move to action!

If you want results, especially in your writing, follow that rule! Why? Well, your message may never be read if it isn't first noticed; so, you must attract attention. How do you attract attention with your writing? Aside from using some weird graphic devices (don't print on orange paper), you might use a question, a quote or a brief story.

Suppose you're looking for a job and you've written a cover letter; use a question in the first sentence to involve the reader. If you are writing to Microsoft, ask the reader, probably a person in the HR department, this question, "What kind of employee does Microsoft want?" Then, after you have that reader's attention, answer the question. "Microsoft wants motivated, experienced, intelligent...." The next thing you will do, of course, is show how you meet these qualifications.

You can pose just about any question to attract the reader. Questions work because they require participation, and that's what you want! Stories do the same thing; they involve the reader. But, not all stories are created the equally. You will need an appropriate and interesting story - and it must be brief, as little as two sentences at the beginning of your letter, say a cover letter to Microsoft. What brief story might you tell then?

Suppose you grew up in India, you might say, "In my small town near Bangalore, the mayor had the only computer and I sneaked into his office to use it every night. He knew I did, but he also knew of my passion for technology." That story says some things about you that a list of experiences and course work can never say.

Quotes can do the same. Instead of enclosing a list of references, why not use a quote from one of them to begin your cover letter? For instance, "I taught Babalu and have never seen a more passionate, dedicated and intelligent person in my 36 years at CMU. I wish I could hire him!" Or, if you are applying to Microsoft, use a Bill Gates quote, about anything, as long as it relates in some way to you and your talents. In so doing, you will borrow Bill's credibility! Or quote Barack Obama, or Mahatma Gandhi, or another famous person.

After you have the reader's attention, you must sustain it. You must keep her interest and lead her to desire, that is, the desire, in the case of a job inquiry, to know more about you. If you are selling yourself, you must write in such a way that leads the reader to want to see you or talk to you. That's the Action!

What causes this action? First, you have been noticed! Second (and third), you have been interesting and have created a desire in the reader to know more about you. You have moved the reader to pick up the phone and call you. You have used the old rule - AIDA!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Made to Stick!

If you are looking for a great book on communication, pick up a copy of "Made to Stick" by Chip and Dan Heath. The book has been around for a year or so and has been discussed in many business forums, but if you haven't seen it, your time will be well spent to read it.

In their book, which you can't miss in the bookstore because of its bright orange cover, the Heath brothers discuss urban myths to see what makes them last, what makes them so sticky. For example, they discuss the myth we have all heard of the businessman who goes to Las Vegas, meets a woman whom he takes to his room, and wakes in a tub of ice water to find that his kidney has been removed.

The Heath brothers wanted to know what made that myth and others like it so sticky. In the process the authors devised a formula for "stickiness" of communication.

According to Chip and Dan, sticky communications have these qualities in common:

Story Appeal

If you want your communication to stick in the mind of the audience, tell a sticky story. Tell about the homeless woman who went to the designer dress department of Nordstrom's in Virginia, just outside of Washington DC, and was allowed by the clerk to try on designer dresses for over an hour only to walk out, of course, without having bought anything. When asked why she treated the homeless woman so graciously, the Nordstrom's clerk said, "That's the way we should treat everyone."

Did that actually happen? Yes. It was reported by the NY Times. Will the story last? It will stick because it has emotional appeal, is unexpected, has concrete detail and possesses credibility. Will it help the Nordstrom reputation for the best customer service in America? You bet! It's sticky!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bad communication-It can kill you!

Every year 98,000 medical errors are recorded in the USA! Makes you want to stay away from the hospital, doesn't it?!

Once, when I worked at a Pittsburgh health care system, the CEO called me to her office to tell me we had a "problem." Turned out one of our nurses killed one of our patients. It had happened before so I wasn't caught completely off guard.

"The nurse poisoned the patient," the CEO said from behind her large walnut desk.

"How did it happen?" I asked, sitting in the dim light before her.

"The doctor ordered 350 grams of chemotherapy for a week for a cancer patient," she said, "and the nurse gave the patient 350 grams the first day. The doctor meant 350 grams, total, for the whole week, 50 grams a day. The nurse poisoned the patient."

"So," I said, "the patient died over a preposition?"

"What're you talking about?" the CEO said, not the least bit amused.

"Well," I responded, "it seems to me the problem was caused by the word 'for' in the sentence, a preposition."

"Right," she said, lifting a piece of paper and her pen, "let's figure out what the hell we're going to say to the media if this gets out. And, we're sure as hell not going to say anything about a preposition."

I thought that was inappropriate language for a nun, but, hey, she was the boss, and for the next half hour we drafted a benign but apologetic statement for any media inquiries.

Yep, bad communication can cause death and disaster. Case in point: Two US Marine fighter pilots died when their jet crashed upon a night landing at their airbase. Puzzled investigators when examining the flight recorder found that, inexplicably, the co-pilot had shut down power to the aircraft just upon touchdown. When the investigators recovered the voice recorder and listened to the pilot, they heard him yelling, "Take off power! Take off power!" After listening over and over to the recording, the investigators finally surmised that the pilot was issuing a command for MORE power, not less! The pilot had accented the words "Take off" but the co-pilot obviously focused on the word "off".

Bad communication can kill you, literally and figuratively. In business it will more than likely just embarrass you to death, just ask Neal Paterson, who was CEO of the Cerner corporation when the NY Times printed one of his emails. Or, ask the hundreds of other business people and politicians (anybody remember Mark Foley of Florida) who have been burned by their communications.

Use caution when you communicate. If you work in a hospital (and certainly if you are the patient), repeat the instructions you receive. Give and examine feedback. Study body language. If you are sending messages, know your purpose and your audience. Realize that your message, in this electronic age, can travel all over the world in an instant. Know that cultures differ and words and gestures take on varying meanings.

Stay alive! Communicate well!

Tell stories and communicate better!

If you want to be known as a good communicator, learn to tell stories.

Heck, we all tell stories every day. We meet a client for the first time and we tell her the story of our company. If things go well, she tells us the story of her company. Before too long we begin to tell each other the stories of our lives, whom we're married to, how many kids we have, where we went to school, where we worked before, some obstacles we've overcome, and so on.

If we begin doing business together, our customers tell stories about their needs and we tell stories about our solutions to those needs. Our relationship proceeds and we tell the story of delivery, or failed deliveries. We package stories of new products, new services and, sometimes, new mergers and acquisitions. We are constantly telling stories!

Two experts in leadership had this to say about story telling: “Story telling is how we pass along lessons from generation to generation, culture to culture…(it) is the most basic form of communication – more prevalent and more powerful than facts and figures.” Kouzes and Posner

A fine writer on marketing had this to say: "The evening news, television shows, movies, and plays: all are stories. The music we love tells its story through lyrics, or evokes them with its words. Stories give us context, and context helps everyone at every age understand. Stories wield special power because they can be translated quickly into something visual. When we hear a story, we see it, too, and the visual image becomes something that sticks in our memories long after the words have fled.” Harry Beckwith

Another writer you know said this: “…stories work (manuals don’t); stories inspire (manuals don’t)”Tom Peters

Need more proof, Howard Gardner of Harvard said this about story telling: “A key, perhaps the key to leadership is…the effective communication of a story.”

How do you tell a business story? Try this technique:

Set the Stage (the location)
Name the Actors (a hero who wants something and obstacles in her path)
Tell the Action (be specific, concrete, tangible)

You have probably heard many stories about great customer service. Perhaps you have heard a story about great customer service at Nordstrom's. I have a few favorites if you haven't any. In any event, I know all of you have lots of great stories to tell... about business and otherwise! Let's start to share some of them!

Follow This 7-Step Approach to Good Writing.

The 7-Step Writing Process

1.Envision the Audience & Articulate Your Purpose
2.Brainstorm or Cluster then choose an Order and Tone
3.Write and then do something else
4.Begin the Re-writing Process while:

Looking for Characters as Subject & Action Verbs
Keeping Subject and Verb Together, and
Prefering Active Voice

5.Review Transitions & Coherence
6.Check Mechanics (spelling, etc.)
7.Read, Edit, and Send

Notice that this process begins with audience and purpose. You must start with your purpose and answer the question:What am I trying to achieve with this message? You might also ask yourself:How will I know if I have achieved it? Hell, if you don't know what you're trying to achieve - why you are bothering to write to someone - how can the audience be expected to know what you're trying to accomplish?

You will be helped, too, if you can answer the following questions on the minds of all readers: Why did you write to me? What do you want me to do? and, Why should I care? Those are the WIIFM questions - the What's In It For Me questions. If you can answer those quickly, you will likely have an attentive audience.

If you feel intimidated by writing, simply write sentences at random or make an outline, or a cluster chart. As you are doing this, you can be thinking of an order and tone. In any event, start writing and worry about that stuff later in the re-writing process.

After you have filled some paper with words and sentences and paragraphs, look at each sentence to assure that it has a character as subject and an action verb. See if the subject and verb sit close to each other in the sentence and check to see that you have written the verb in the active voice (more about grammar later).

Now, examine each paragraph to see that it develops one topic, or thesis. See if each sentence in the paragraph relates to the topic and see if the sentences follow logically toward a summarizing sentence. If they do, examine the next paragraph to see if it has a connection to the previous one; in other words, see if the paragraphs have transition between them.

Now, run a spell check and review all grammar. After you have done that, set the piece aside and get a cup of coffee, a bottle of water, a Power Bar, whatever. Disconnect from the writing so that you can look at it afresh. I know, that takes time. Well, guess what, good writing takes time, even good email writing takes time. I should say, "especially good email writing."

Now, perform your last edit; look at everything closely; fuss over the message and then, and only then, send the message. If you have taken this kind of care with your written document, you can feel reasonably confident that it will reflect well on you and help you achieve your purpose, shared understanding and the accomplishment of an appropriate action!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Write for Action! Use Action Verbs!

Business people write for action. That is, they typically write to inform, justify or persuade. Because they write for action, they need to use action verbs. Being verbs - is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been - when used alone - take the writer and the reader nowhere.

OK, let's take a timeout for a quick, and painless, grammar lesson. The being verbs (worth repeating)- is, am, are, was, were, be, being and been - show no action. They work well with action verbs, as in "I am writing", and we call them "helping verbs" or "auxiliary verbs." But, put them by themselves and they flounder. "I am a writer" expresses no action. It expresses only my state of being.

The being verbs regularly appear in awkward sentences, such as this beauty: "The penetration of the compensating mechanism and the resulting overheating of the main valve are relative to the subordination of the acting dynamics." This models the kind of sentence we see often in academic and bureaucratic writing. It sounds intelligent but confuses the reader and causes multiple readings for understanding.

Commenting on academic writing, the late Michael Crichton said something like the following in the New England Journal of Medicine: Medical writing is a calculated attempt to confuse the reader. Doctors write this way so that they seem intelligent and don't get passed over for promotion.

Academics surely do write this way; take it from someone who works at a university. I find the best examples of bad writing on the bulletin boards at CMU and among the emails regularly sent to me on campus.

If you want to write well, you need to put many skills together - coherence, transition, parallel structure, and accurate pronoun reference, among many other grammatical necessities. But, if you write for business, you can begin now to simplify your writing with short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. And, you can begin to look at each sentence to make sure you have used action verbs.

You will find thousands of action verbs in the English language. Indeed, they help give our language its beauty and utility. If you want to create impact with your writing, ditch the being verbs and opt for some action!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Does 'Bill Clinton' ring a bell?

If I say Bill Clinton, what comes to your mind first? Monica? Hillary? Cigar?

Hey, "plain language" comes first to my mind! Why? Well, Bill Clinton sent an executive memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies on June 1, 1998 and told them they must use plain language. This makes the guy a hero in my book, cigar notwithstanding.

Bill said, "(Al Gore and I) are determined to make the Government more responsive, accessible and understandable in its communications with the public. The Federal Government's writing must be in plain language."

Bill went on to say that plain language saves time, money and effort and helps its users send clear messages about what the government is doing. Wouldn't that be nice?! Bill even gave the bureaucrats a grammar lesson. He said "Use: common everyday words, 'you' and other pronouns, the active voice and short sentences." Better grammatical advice was never rendered by a president!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

Leonardo da Vinci said: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Reflect on that for a minute.

OK. Albert Einstein said: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Reflect on that for a moment.

Jack Welch said: "You can't believe how hard it is for people to be simple, how much they fear being simple. They worry that if they're simple, people will think they are simple-minded. In reality, of course, it's just the reverse. Clear, tough-minded people are the most simple." How does that strike you?

What does simplicity have to do with communication? Everything!

If you want to communicate, if you want to share understanding with others, start with simplicity. Aim for understanding. Avoid jargon and pretense. Opt for a familiar style. Speak and write in action verbs. Use concrete details. Tell stories. Be emotional. Reveal your humanity. Above all, be fearless.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Write to an 8th Grade Audience!

If you heard or read President Obama's speech yesterday, you know he delivered a simple message. How simple was it?

I copied the speech transcript from the NY Times and pasted it into Word. Then I checked the "readability statistics" of it. What did I find?

President Obama spoke 2430 words in his 18 minute inaugural address. Those words were written in 113 sentences in 76 paragraphs, or 1.5 sentences/paragraph. Although the sentences were written on the long side (21.2 words/sentence), they only used passive constructions 13% of the time. What does this all mean? It means a reading ease of 65.8 and a grade level of 8.6 (all according to Flesch and Flesh-Kincaid built into Word).

President Obama wrote wisely when he chose words and style to address an 8th grade reading audience. Studies have shown that Americans read between a 7th and 11th grade reading level. A recent NY Times headline said "Literacy among college graduates falling".

If you want to communicate, that is share understanding, if you want to motivate and persuade, you need to keep your writing simple. You need to use "plain language." You need to opt for short words and use them in short sentences and short paragraphs. When you write, and speak, with simplicity, you will be addressing an 8th grade reading level, the level at which most of your readers and listeners live.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Beware the Noise!

How do we communicate? In the classic model one person sends a message and another receives it. This takes place over a medium. The sender and receiver then feed information back and forth. If it were that simple, of course, we'd all communicate beautifully with no misunderstandings. Indians and Pakistanis would live in perfect harmony. Hamas and Israel would break bread together.

Seldom does a message flow so smoothly, though. Cultural differences interfere and contexts are ever changing. Senders and receivers push messages continuously and, often, simultaneously. They send feedback that is often misunderstood or ignored. (When we fail to send a message, for instance, we are communicating.) The messages travel on/in media that are often unreliable and create messages in and of themselves. (If you send your wife roses, you need no words! )

Most communications are rife with problems, unfortunately, given the many nuances in language, vocabulary, body language, media and the like. And, to make matters worse, all communicators must deal with the increasing amounts of interference, as well as competing media and messages, all of which is appropriately called NOISE!!

Our environment is overrun with billboards, TV ads, popups, posters, advertising scrawled everywhere, including toilet stalls and human skin. This creates the tremendous amount of CLUTTER we deal with (or ignore) every day of our lives.

How bad is the clutter? In 2006, 9 trillion emails were sent (250 billion every day). In 2007, according to Technorati, 120,000 new blogs were created every day with 1.4 million posts every day or 1000 new entries every minute.

In March 2008, users viewed 11.5 billion online videos, according to Video Metrix. According to another source, 5 billion instant messages are sent every day, along with the 200 billion pieces of snail mail, delivered by the USPS every year. Add to that the 75-100,000 books published in America each year, the thousands of magazines competing for our attention, the 500+ cable stations, and millions of web sites we have to choose from and we have enough distraction to drive us batty!

All of this means that we need to communicate carefully, if we want to create "shared understanding," a good definition of communication. To be effective, to insure that both sender and receiver share the same understanding of a message, we must begin by being beware of the clutter. We must beware the noise! We must write and speak clearly, concisely and coherently. This means, too, that we must think clearly, understanding our purpose and understanding our audience. In other words, we must work at communicating, and work hard. Are you ready for that challenge?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Employers want communicators!

I teach communication at Carnegie Mellon University and I am always telling my graduate students that they can increase their chances of finding a good job, or rising through the ranks at their current jobs, by becoming good communicators. I share with them some of the information I have collected on this over the years. And now I share it with you.

On September 22, 2004, recruiters shared with the Wall Street Journal the attributes they were seeking in job candidates. In the article, entitled, "How to Get Hired," recruiters in the survey cited "Communication and interpersonal skills"(89%) as the most sought after student attribute. It was followed by "Ability to work well in a team," (87%) "Personal ethics and integrity," (85%) and "Analytical and problem solving skills" (84%).

A 2005 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers: Job Outlook 2005-Student Version listed "Communication Skills (Verbal and Written)" as first among the "Top Ten Skills Employers Want." That was followed by "Honesty/Integrity," "Interpersonal Skills," and "Strong Work Ethic."

And, Fiona MacKay, in an article on the web entitled "What Employers Want - the Top Ten "Soft" Skills Employers Are Seeking" cites "Communicate Effectively" as the first most wanted soft skill. That was followed by "Commit to the job" and "Learn new tasks willingly." You can find this at

As I said in an earlier post, I am proof that good communication skills can differentiate one employee from another - and lead to good jobs and advancement. I used my two degrees in English to propel myself through an executive marketing career. Of course, I read every book I could find on marketing and attended a number of classes after college to increase my marketing know-how. But, learning never ends. However, if you want to succeed, build a good communication foundation and your path to success will be easier!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Email-"I landed in the Hudson."

How ubiquitous are emails and Blackberrys? When US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River last week, a passenger, Matt Kane, responded to an email inquiry from Sheik Ali, waiting for him in Charlotte, with the now famous line, "I landed in the Hudson."

Valerie Collins, another passenger, used her cell phone in the plane to say to her family, "My plane is crashing." According to the Daily Mail, in an interview after the crash ,Collins said, "OK, I'm not going to see my husband and children again. And I just want them to know at this point, they were the number one thought in my mind."

Kane was safe and on dry land when he sent his messages, and Collins lived to be interviewed, thanks to a cool and courageous pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, whose name will go into the history books for landing a passenger jet safely on a river next to one of the most populated cities in the world.

I have seen no other reports of messaging to friends and family, but I am willing to bet that, as soon as they were able, many of the 155 on board the aircraft opened their telephones and laptops to share the exciting and good news by email.

And, what did they say? "I landed on the Hudson." Perhaps after they were rescued others said, "Don't worry; I am safe." Or, "I'll tell you all about it as soon as I see you." Maybe they said, "You're never going to believe what just happened to me." In any case they each had an incredible story to tell.

But they didn't tell the whole story with email. Email is designed for the kind of message Matt Kane and Valerie Collins sent: brief, factual, unemotional. These are among the primary strengths of email, making it the easiest and fastest way to communicate. And, because of those strengths, we send trillions of emails each year. But, email's ease and convenience bring a host of potential problems, some that can compromise people and businesses.

Email must be handled with care. Just ask Neal Patterson, CEO of the Cerner Corporation in 2001 who sent an email message to 400 company managers criticizing them for their lack of good management. The email was leaked and posted on Yahoo and resulted in big losses for the company, as well as public (and continuing) humiliation for Patterson. The valuation of the company, according to the NY Times, dropped 22% in three days, trading in Cerner's stock skyrocketed, and the stock price fell from $44 per share to near $30 per share.

If you have to send an email (and notice I said, "If you have to...."), keep it short and factual. Email lacks context clues, emotion, and rapport. If emotion will be part of your message, meet face-to-face with the intended audience. If you are late because the airplane you are travelling in has just landed in the Hudson River, send a quick email!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Write well. Differentiate yourself!

Michael Porter, the Harvard strategy guru, said businesses have three strategies: cost leadership, focus, and differentiation. In some respects people use the same strategies to acquire, or maintain, a job. That is, they work for less money than the person in the next cubicle, or they have a skill the other person doesn't possess, or they differentiate themselves from all the rest of the folks in some way.

Why not differentiate yourself by being a good writer? The statistics prove that most people can't write well. Within the last five years we have seen headlines like these: "What corporate American can't build: a sentence" (NY Times), "Poor writing costs taxpayers millions" (Washington Post), and my favorite "Literacy falls for college graduates" ( NY Times).

Think about this: business people don't write well for many reasons. In fact, they don't speak well, either, but that's another post. If you can communicate well, through strong writing and confident speaking, you will differentiate yourself. I am a living, walking, and breathing example of differentiating and succeeding through it.

I teach at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the most reputable universities in the world, a center of research and innovation, attracting some of the finest students from around the world. I teach "Strategic Writing" primarily and have taught many versions of "Marketing," as well as "Strategy" and "Entreprenuerism". I don't have the Harvard or Stanford credentials of many of my colleagues, but I did rise to several executive level positions, including vice president of marketing at a state-wide, multi-billion dollar health care corporation in Pennsylvania, by using my communication talent. And, I have never had a formal college class in marketing!

How did I rise in the ranks of marketing without a degree in marketing? I used my English major (bachelors and masters) and parlayed them with my strategic thinking, writing skill and ability to speak comfortably in front of audiences. These skills differentiated me from the many others with whom I worked. I was able to use writing to influence, persuade, build credibility, and motivate others. These are among the most important components of superior management.

You can do this, too, especially by becoming a strong writer. This is an attainable goal for anyone willing to put in the effort. Writing is a craft that requires practice and perfection . Learn a few simple rules of the craft and you will soon begin to differentiate yourself from the pack!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Steve Jobs Writes with Passion

Steve Jobs writes with passion, sometimes with the wrong message, albeit. Read his recent letter to Apple employees as he discusses his illness and pending absence from the day-to-day Apple scene. You will clearly see his emotion. Then read the letter he wrote to Apple customers a few months ago when he reduced the price of the iPhone - lots of personality, lots of Steve Jobs, lots of attitude.

Don't you prefer that? Don't you prefer a human to a bureaucrat? Don't you prefer personality to academic and legalistic BS? We are surrounded by bull and too many of us adopt that style because we want to fit in with the organizational culture we have joined. By the way, Mandarin has an interesting sounding phrase for BS. They use something like this - "bu sch" - as a word that means "not true." Yeh, "bu sch" - I agree!

When you write, write the way Warren Buffet recommends. He says that when he writes the Berkshire Hathaway annual report he pretends he's talking to his sisters. He even allows you to use them, if you have no siblings. Yes, the guy with all the money, one of the most successful business people in the world, a modern-day Rockefeller, writes as if he is talking to his sisters. He writes with humanity - and wisdom.

Think about your style the next time you write an email or memo. Look at your word choice. Are you using lots of three and four syllable words? Do you write sentences that never end. Keep it simple. Make it direct. Grow a reputation as a straight talker, a person who wastes no words, a person who values the limited time he knows his audience has. Look what it did for Jack Welch!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Write with Passion

Yet another letter of apology.... Stephen Schwarzman, Blackstone head, says, "I am both saddened and outraged to have to tell you that the SEC has brought a civil complaint...against Ramesh Chakrapani...charging him with passing inside information...." And, yet again, we see a message composed with anguish, passion and personality.

Listen as Schwarzman expresses the firm's shock. Listen as he talks about the firm's reputation and its ethics. Listen to a passionate man struggling to protect and/or re-claim the reputation of his company. Look at the word choice, the sentence structure. Learn from this!

Executives need to apply this passion and personality (voice) to all of their writing, not just their apologies. Too often business writing contains dull and empty phrases, jargon, and business buzz words. It is lifeless and meaningless. It inspires no one.

We are emotional human beings. We respond well to emotional language. Use it!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Listen to the Experts-Use simple language

CEO's and other executives - hell, everyone - should follow advice of Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, Ram Charan, Larry Bossidy, Peter Drucker and others who suggest that writers use simple, direct language. What did Welch say: We will be number one or number two in every business we are in or we will fix it, sell it or close it. That's pretty clear, pretty direct. He also said it's hard for people to be simple because they fear they will be perceived as simple-minded. The opposite it true, of course. Don't wait until you have to write your resignation letter (as did the chairman of Satyam last week) to be clear, direct, simple, passionate, personal. Do it now! Write every letter, memo, report, as if it were your last!

Why do they write best when they suffer most?

We see that Satyam chairman, Ramalinga Raju, has resigned over accounting fraud at the Indian outsourcing company. If you google him or Satyam, you will find a copy of his resignation letter. In it, he writes passionately and personally to his board about his "tremendous burden" while he unloads his conscience and resigns. In his pain and humiliation he writes from the heart and with easy-to-read text, including parallel structure. We wish he only would have used more active voice and stayed away from the "mistakes were committed" style of confession. Why is it that business people only write like human beings when they must apologize for their errors?