Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How do you define 'marketing'?

Everyone, especially those inside GM, is wondering if GM will "do any marketing" now that it faces a bankruptcy deadline. The ad agencies are especially interested in the question. I'd say it doesn't matter. Those who use the phrase , "do any marketing," are doomed to fail and will live to see the bankruptcy filing. Why? Let's start with Peter Drucker.

Drucker said that a business has only one purpose - to create a customer. Drucker further explained that businesses can only create customers through marketing and innovation.

If Drucker made marketing so important, how did he define it? He said, "A company's primary responsibility is to serve its customers...." That sounds like the guru of marketing, Philip Kotler, who defined marketing as, "sensing, serving and satisfying the wants and needs of customers."

Kotler further expressed his marketing genius in this simple statement, "Marketing begins long before there's ever a product or service." Everyone whose product has failed and who has said, "We didn't market that enough" needs to have Kotler's statement branded on his body somewhere it will always be visible. It will kill two birds with one stone: constantly remind him of the true meaning of marketing and constantly remind him of the origin of branding.

Did GM sense, serve and satisfy the wants and needs of its customers? Evidently not. Or, did Toyota sense, serve and satisfy the wants and needs of GM's customers? Hmm. You may accuse me of 20-20 hindsight, but if customers weren't buying Chevys and GM is now mucking around in a muddy mess, what's the difference?

Through my career in marketing and marketing communications, I heard, every time a product failed, "We didn't market this enough." It made my skin crawl and gave me the anger necessary to lift lots of weights at the local gym. But it also taught me that marketing is not a verb. Let me repeat: marketing is not a verb. I retch when I hear anyone say, "Let's market this" when I know that they mean, "Let's waste a lot more money by throwing at this losing idea more promotions (read: advertising) that no one will ever watch, read or listen to because no one ever wanted or needed this product in the first place."

When I read today that GM wonders how it can survive if it has no money for marketing, I understand sadly that GM will fail, that they need to fail. They have not understood the first rule of marketing: that they must sense (long before there's ever a product), serve and satisfy the wants and needs of their customers. And, oh, by the way, they must differentiate themselves in some meaningful way from their competition (anyone know Michael Porter) while understanding the ways people want to be communicated with, the costs people are willing to absorb, and the conveniences people prefer in order to accept GM's products.

Somewhere along the way GM lost the insights of Peter Drucker, the consultant hired by the legendary Alfred P. Sloan, to study and help GM. Somewhere along the way GM became complacent and proud and bottom-line oriented. But, if anything is constant in life it is change. All organizations, and organisms, must change or die. The new CEO of GM said that the new GM will not be the same as the old GM. It better not be. It must change. As it does so, I suggest they re-invent themselves by, first, using the next 30 days to re-visit Peter Drucker, Philip Kotler and Michael Porter to understand the basics of business again and to learn the true meaning of the word "marketing." Then they can do some branding (the kind I mentioned before).

Monday, March 30, 2009

Write for rhythm, variety, value and shape.

My good friend, Dennis Moran, the great (really) designer, has identified the similarities between writing and design. He specifically mentioned in a recent post the "...contrast and rhythm, variety of form...value and shape...." that writing and design share.

Just as great graphic design (and other works of visual art) benefit from variety and contrast, writing benefits, as well. I trust I provided an example of that in the last post. And, I promised to provide more today. So, I begin with an unusual sentence style that you do not want to overuse but that will surprise the reader when you use the style well. I call it the "Yoda Sentence Style."

Yoda Sentence Style
This kind of sentence puts its main elements in an inverted style. It typically puts the object at the beginning: "Fighting for their place in the galaxy the rebels are." Does that sound like Yoda? The Yoda sentence may also put the modifiers at the beginning : "At the edge of the galaxy, among the enemies of our cause, preparing for the fight wait Obi-Wan and Anakin." In a business sentence that style might translate into something like this: "At the end of the project, having given their best, living by the promises of our mission, stand our employees, exhausted but unbowed."

Triad Style Sentences
This kind of sentence uses semi-colons to great effect. That is, you write three independent clauses (three groups of words that could stand on their own as independent sentences) and connect them into one compound sentence using semi-colons. If you are Roman, your sentence will look like this: "I came; I saw; I conquered." If you are an ordinary business mortal you might write: "We delivered the highest quality; we sold at the best prices; our customers re-paid us with their loyalty."

Parallel Style Sentences
These kinds of sentences make for easy, and pleasing, reading. They rely on something we discussed before "parallel structure." If you look at this sentence, you will find a parallel series of infinitives ("to + a verb")": "To enhance our market share, to increase our bottom line, to bring more value to our shareholders, we must first identify and satisfy the wants and needs of our customers." Don't you like the rhythm? This kind of sentence also saves space. It prevents: "If we want to increase our market share, we will need to identify the wants and needs...." and so on.

Balanced Style Sentence
Yes, I admit: I'm a Libra. So, I'll always be opting for, and recommending, balanced writing. This style of sentence can be called a compound sentence, that is, it consists usually of two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. (Whew! This must be transporting you back to 8th grade,) Forget about the sentence names and the grammatical jargon; remember the style. It looks like this: "We did what the customers asked us, and we sold more this quarter than last year." Or, "We did what the customers asked us, but we sold less than last year." (The "coordinating conjunctions" are: and, but, or, nor, for, so, while, yet.)

Well, so much for the grammar lesson. I hope I kept you all the way through. I know you're probably exhausted. You may have pulled your wife's hair or dipped it in the ink well. You may have thrown a spit ball at your kid You may have scratched your invisible acne or your butt the way you did (OK, I did) as an unruly teenager. But, you learned something about variety in your writing. And, I hope you saw that what Dennis said is true: Good writing and good design share contrast and rhythm, variety of form, value and shape.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Try different sentence styles for different effects.

You can use different sentence styles to build different effects in your writing. For instance, I wrote the paragraphs below after watching my older son, Nicholas, playing in front of the fireplace. I used different sentence styles in each paragraph to make you feel the tension I felt as I watched him maneuver his way around the blocks on the floor in front of him. How did I do?

Staccato Sentence Style
I watched my son Nicholas playing with his blocks and Legos this afternoon. He was building a city for his Bionicles. He had multi-colored blocks and Legos in place on the floor in front of the fireplace in the family room. Sitting in front of his make-believe city, he reached across the landscape to straighten a column and knocked over two blocks. He threw his hands into the air in despair. He picked up the errant blocks and said something under his breath. He leaned forward from the waist to a 50 degree angle. He focused on the blocks. He steadied his hand. He inched a blue square block downward into an open space. He inched a red rectangular block slowly on top of the blue block. He held his breath. He opened his thumb and forefinger. He released the red block. He lifted his hand, quarter inch by quarter inch, from the blocks. The blocks stayed. He sat upright. He let his breath go. He smiled.

If you felt, first, the reportorial style and, second, the tension I felt when watching my son, I succeeded in my purpose by using short, simple sentences. I used a staccato, hammering style - bang, bang, bang, bang - in the last several sentences. In the next paragraph below, I changed the sentence style, connecting several actions to pull you along and make you feel the continuity of my son's efforts and my involvement with his process. Did I succeed?

Continuous Sentence Style
I watched my son Nicholas playing with his blocks and Legos this afternoon, sitting in front of his make-believe city, creating a setting for his Bionicles, multi-colored blocks and Legos stacked in rows on the floor in front of the fireplace in the family room. Reaching across the landscape to straighten a column, he knocked over two blocks, and, throwing his hands into the air in despair, he picked up the errant blocks, while saying something under his breath. Leaning forward from the waist to a 50 degree angle, he focused on the blocks, steadying his hand, inching a blue square block downward into an open space, then inching a red rectangular block slowly on top of the blue block, finally opening his thumb and forefinger, releasing the red block, and lifting his hand, quarter inch by quarter inch, from the red block. The blocks stayed in place and Nickie sat upright, letting his breath go and smiling.

If you look (and count), you'll see that I wrote 19 sentences in the first paragraph and only four in the second. The two paragraphs feel different, don't they? Staccato sentences build one effect; continuous sentences another.

Now, try this; write a continuous sentence and stick a simple sentence immediately after it.

I walked to the bus station in the early morning light while several other people converged behind me near the newspaper stand that had just opened for the morning, its proprietor smiling and greeting us with a wave of his hand. The bus arrived.

Or, try it this way (a simple sentence, followed by a continuous one):

The bus arrived. Several people followed me in the early morning to the curb from the nearby newspaper stand, some looking at the ground to avoid stepping in the puddles of water from the evening's rain, some reaching into their coat pockets for a crumpled bus pass, some simply moving lock-step to the vehicle they used every morning to deliver them to the jobs they didn't enjoy and the settings they detested.

You will see that when you put simple and continuous sentences near each other, the contrast between them creates an interesting effect. In the next post we'll talk about triadic sentences, cumulative and parallel sentences. Isn't this fun?!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Madonna, grammar, and picky, picky people!

After I aced the "Jumble" in today's "Trib pm," I read a wire story in the same publication from the Associated Press/New York Daily News that Madonna is planning to adopt a second child from Malawi, a southern Africa country. Typically I don't read stories about Madonna; she's so 80's. And, it's not because I don't like Madonna; we just have so little in common.

Anyway, the newspaper story, which talks about how 50-year-old Madonna, who hasn't led what you might call a stable family life (what with Alex and Jesus and Guy), wants to have more children. The story ends with this sentence: "Madonna was hoping to bring home a 3-year-old girl named Mercy, authorities were reticent to send children into 'a broken home,' one official said."

Well, this is one sentence where you want to pull out your grammar penalty flag and throw it at the newspaper. Those of you who have any interest in these things will see that the writer has misused a comma and created what we English teachers call a "comma splice." In other words, the writer split two sentences with a comma instead of joining them with a semi-colon.

OK, so you shout, "Big Deal! It's just a comma!" I'm all right with that. However, I am bothered because the writer used the word "reticent." This word primarily means "quiet, unwilling to talk, uncommunicative." It doesn't fit in the context of the sentence. I'm guessing the writer meant to use the word "reluctant," which means "unwilling, disinclined, averse." In that case, the writer would have written, "...authorities were reluctant (or unwilling, averse, disinclined) to send children into 'a broken home,' one official said."

Do you think I'm being picky?? I don't think I am. All my life I've been told to "choose the right word." Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” I agree!

We use words to build sentences, sentences to build paragraphs and paragraphs to build messages. If we use one wrong word in constructing that edifice, the whole thing can collapse. Yes, one word can make all the difference. If you don't believe me, ask David Howard of Washington, DC.

In January, 1999, David Howard, a white aide to Anthony Williams, the African-American mayor of Washington, used the word, "niggardly," in reference to a budget. This upset one of Howard's African-American colleagues who interpreted it as a racial slur and lodged a complaint. As a result of the uproar Howard resigned and Williams accepted the resignation. Howard's friends in the gay community stepped in and insisted on a review. After the review, the mayor offered Howard the chance to return to his position. Howard refused but accepted another position with the mayor.

Does one word matter? Obviously. One word caused David Howard plenty of discomfort, many sleepless nights and much notoriety. It could have been avoided if he had used a more common word or had some inkling of the sensitivities to "niggardly." Or, maybe Julien Bond, who was then the chair of the NAACP, was right when he said, "David Howard should not have quit. Mayor Williams should bring him back — and order dictionaries issued to all staff who need them. Seems to me the mayor has been niggardly in his judgment on the issue."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How to ruin a perfectly good fairy tale.

Want to ruin a perfectly good fairy tale? Use the passive voice, nominalized verbs, long words, long sentences, long paragraphs, and jargon, like this:

Once upon time as a separation was occurring among three little pigs (in the genus of even-toed ungulates) and their maternal unit, a prowling by a wolf (canis major) was taking place in their vicinity. The pigs were being sent away by their maternal unit who had advised them of certain growth opportunities relative to the separation, a decision which the pigs accepted. A further decision by the pigs concerning a separation involving individual living headquarters was rendered by the three pigs after some dialogue and introspection (it is unknown if they sought additional third-party consultation). In any event, after having sourced the appropriate construction materials, and after due diligence and legal consideration, and in due time, the first pig, who had been attracted to the concept of organic, sustainable living, saw his house completed of an organic material, herein after referred to as “straw.” After some further period of time, the aforementioned carnivore, i.e., canis lupus, with an insatiate appetite, happened upon the dwelling of the pig and attempted to gain entry thereat. His subsequent accomplishment of that effort resulted in the satisfaction of his hunger impulses, i.e., the first pig was consumed by the carnivore. Meanwhile, in a second action, another dwelling was being constructed, of an unidentified species of sticks, and in compliance with local zoning ordinances, in a setting removed from that of the first pig. It might be ascertained by the attentive reader that the result of the second visit of the wolf culminated in an outcome similar to that of the first pig, that is, death by mastication and ingestion. (It must be mentioned, parenthetically, at this juncture, that each exchange between wolf and pig featured strident phrases, in a dialogue of highly emotional exchange, namely the wolf’s exhortation, "Little pig, little pig, let me in", the pig’s subsequent retort, "Not by the hair on my chinny chin chin" and finally, in a fit of pique, the wolf’s rejoinder, "Then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down," which he accomplished in due time.) Because his hunger had not been sated, the wolf sought the whereabouts of the third pig, also for purposes of mastication and ingestion. It happened that the third pig’s dwelling had been fabricated of blocks of ceramic material commonly used in masonry construction and usually laid using mortar. Seeking to replicate the successes he had experienced with the sibling pigs, i.e., the destruction of their domiciles to gain access to their persons, the wolf summoned the full force of his diaphragm and expelled a great amount of air, as he had done previously in the direction of the dwelling, as has been noted in this case, a ceramic and mortar dwelling. This action was repeated several times by the wolf to no effective end, whereupon he resolved to gain access by accessing the topmost aspect of the structure and repelling down the vertical outlet used for venting hot flue gases. His success at that action ironically resulted in his ultimate undoing, i.e., his fall into a cauldron of boiling water eventually led to his demise, and to the further irony of his being consumed by the very prey he had preyed upon.

Monday, March 23, 2009

You may use passive.

I suggest you avoid passive most of the time, especially in business writing. But, as we said in the previous post, many people prefer passive voice when they must discipline employees. On these occasions, they say, "The report was not completed on time" as opposed to "You did not complete the report on time."

In any event, consider using the passive in these circumstances, as well:

1)When you don't know who did the action.
2)When the readers don't care who did the action.
3)When the receiver of the action is more important than the doer.
4)When you don't want the reader to know who did the action.

In the case of #1, a passive sentence in the newspaper might read, "Last night valuable records from the Social Security offices in downtown Altoona were stolen." No one knows who did the action.

As for #2, a newspaper sentence might read, "Valuable records should always be kept locked in a safe." No one cares who's going to lock them.

With #3 above, a sentence in the Altoona Mirror might read, "Guard Julio O'Brian was shot last night as he fought to protect valuable records that were being stolen at the Social Security office." Julio is the important character in this drama.

And, for #4, a sentence might read, "Mayor Lester Fester was rumored to have considered resigning over the lack of security at the Social Security office which was recently burgled." The person who started the rumor does not want to be identified.

Passive has its uses, as you can see. But, again, when you want action, which is the case with most business writing, you are well advised to prefer the active voice. Or, you may end up with the kind of stuff you read in the previous post (to which I add some more humdingers that just occurred to me):

Patrick Henry's famous cry, "I will be given liberty or I will be given death by you."

George H W Bush, "Allow my lips to be read by you- no new taxes."

Some other well meaning presidential hopeful, "Your pain is felt by me."

The passive just doesn't rally the troops, does it?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Use passive; lose power.

We were talking about words having power. Today we talk about words losing power - in the passive voice.

Let's take a look at some memorable and powerful words re-written, not in the active voice with the subject doing the action, but in the passive voice with the receiver of action in the subject position. Let's begin with an easy one - the slogan of a brand name that will be quite familiar to you:

Nike slogan (re-written in the passive voice): "It must be done by you!" Can you see that on billboards around America? Doesn't have the same ring to it as "Just do it!", does it? How about naming a movie, that has just been released, in the passive voice:

Movie (in the passive voice): "You are loved by me, man!" Doesn't grab you? How about, "I love you, man."

You may find your escape in movies while others find their escape in drugs. To them we suggest, "No, should be said by you to drugs!" That's a lot for a bumper sticker, isn't it? It will obviously work less well than, "Just say no to drugs," which didn't work that well anyway.

But, it is good advice, isn't it? "Just say no to drugs." The subject is "you understood," the action verbs is "say" and the object is "no." Simple. Just like this time-honored good advice, "The consumption of an apple a day by you, and the doctor will be kept away by the apple." Too passive for your taste? Me, too. I prefer the power of Subject-Action Verb-Object, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."

If you're like the rest of us, we remember certain advertising slogans better than we remember important birthdays. Does anyone remember this slogan: "The Charmin must not be squeezed by you"? No? Well then, do you remember this popular McDonald's message, "It is being loved by me"? No? How about this 80's McDonald's slogan, "A break is deserved by you today"? I'm sure you don't. It just doesn't stimulate the way this active voice message did, "You deserve a break today", which, by the way, has to be one of the best ad slogans of all time (who among us does not believe he or she deserves a break today).

Perhaps because we all want a break, we think less about what we might do for others. You may remember that John F. Kennedy asked us in his inaugural address to do something. In the passive voice I translate his inaugural request thus, "The question should not be asked what can be done for me by my country. The question should be asked what can be done by me for my country." Does that inspire you?

One of the masters of inspiration, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood in front of the reflecting pool in Washington, DC, and told the world, "The mountain has been visited by me!" Wait, that wasn't it, was it?! No, I think he said, "I've been to the mountain." And, Winston Churchill motivating the British during WW II, said, "We will fight on the land, on the seas, in the towns...." When he wanted to move and inspire his audience, he used the active voice, as did JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, when you want your words to have force and power, use active voice. Remember, though, that passive voice has useful functions, especially to avoid confrontation. But, if you're testifying before a grand jury and you want your peers to believe you, don't say, "Sexual relations with that woman were not had by me." Even if it's not true, you're better off using active voice!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Do words have power?

How about the power of these two words - "Special Olympics". You can bet Barack Obama knows their power and wishes he had never used them. And he should. He messed up big time when he said his White House bowling resembled the Special Olympics. Now he needs to apologize, very sincerely.

Last October, some poll workers in New York apologized to Barack when they issued an absentee ballot with the words "Barack Osama." Seems even one letter can do damage, let alone one or two words.

Just ask the Iowa community college that this January invited its students to a "Linch and Learn" for Black History Month. Think they had to apologize? How about grovel?

Once when I worked in corporate communications at the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, we sent hundreds of brochures to EMT's in western Pennsylvania inviting them to a Grand Rounds at Mercy Hospital. Unfortunately, the hundreds of brochures said, "Ground Rounds." You think I didn't hear about that?!

Words have tremendous power to inflict damage, cause joy, motivate the masses. Anybody remember the word, "Change"? How about "Maverick"? Certainly the first of these words helped to propel one of its owners into the White House while the other helped to keep its owner out.

In a memoir, Henry Kissinger reported an incident during the Viet Nam War when the Department of Defense authorized a foray into North Viet Nam to rescue American POW's from a prisoner of war camp. They sent a force to the camp at great cost and risk, despite a coded message from inside the camp saying that the camp was "closed". The DOD decided, because they really wanted to carry out the mission, that the word "closed" meant that the gates were locked. In fact, according to Kissinger, when rescuers got to the camp, they found it was empty.

New York real estate tycoon Larry Silverstein owned a 99 year lease on the World Trade Center Complex. He also owned an insurance policy that said he would be paid $3.5 billion for any terrorist "event" that damaged the complex. After 911 he sued for $7 billion, claiming that the complex was the victim of two "events." Guess what? He convinced the judge that 911 damage to the WTC was two separate events. He was awarded the $7 billion, not a bad return on his $15 million investment.

Yes, words have mystery and power. You know that when you name your child, when you say the name of the person you love, when you say Jesus or Mohamed or Buddha, when you say the two words, "I do" or "I quit" or words like"wop" or "kike" or when you tell a bad joke. You especially know the power of words when you have been politically incorrect, as our president has certainly been. If you or I made his mistake on national television, we'd certainly lose our job. Ask Tommy Lasorda and Don Imus.

Barack won't lose his job, but he needs to apologize, quickly. He said some bad words. We've all done it, probably harmlessly, as Barack no doubt did. But, we need to be ever vigilant with our language, remembering that words have power, whether we intend, or do not intend, the interpretation that has been made of them. Like EMT's going to meetings at the Ground Rounds restaurant!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hiding behind passive voice.

Did you see Edward Liddy's, letter to America? Edward is CEO of AIG. Right, that AIG. The company that's being called, "Arrogant, Incompetent, and Greedy." I read the letter in the Washington Post yesterday. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/17/AR2009031703019.html?referrer=emailarticle

The letter, entitled, "Our Mission at AIG: Repairs and Repayment," reads reasonably well - with one glaring exception. Edward says in the first sentence of the third paragraph, "Mistakes were made at AIG, and on a scale that few could have imagined possible."

Edward obviously has not read a revealing little book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, entitled, "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts." In their instructive book Tavris and Aronson show us in the first pages how culprits - corporate and otherwise - use the passive voice to hide their responsibility or to hide the responsibilities of others.

For example, the book cites a statement by Henry Kissinger on the Viet Nam War, "Mistakes were quite possibly made by the administration in which I served." Oh yeh, Henry, quite possibly about 58,000 mistakes. Also, the book cites Cardinal Edward Egan of New York discussing child molestation, "If, in hindsight, we also discover that mistakes may have been made...I am deeply sorry." Let's not even go there.

Passive voice has its purposes. For instance, it helps people avoid confrontation. You may want to write, "The report was not completed on time" as opposed to "You did not complete the report on time." When you use the passive voice in that instance, the person who failed to complete the report will feel less threatened. Or, you may not want to name the doer of the action for fear of recrimination, ala, "The CEO was rumored to have been arrested at a previous job." You don't want to be named as the person who started that rumor.

Because we use business writing for action, I advise you to prefer the active voice - the subject does the action; the object receives the action. Prefer the active voice especially when you must admit your error. Although Edward Liddy clearly states that he wasn't at AIG when the troubles began (he says he has "answered the call" to lead AIG in September 2008), he needs to name the people who share responsibility for AIG's colossal blunders. We need names; we need culprits; we need to know that the mess was created by humans and was, in effect, avoidable, else we fear that we are all victims of chance.

And, while he's at it, Edward can stop calling these colossal errors in judgment, "missteps." They weren't missteps, they were colossal blunders. We don't need euphemism on top of passive construction. Edward is right, however, when he says that AIG's mistakes were "on a scale that few could have imagined possible." But, we need the mistakes to be made imaginable! For that we need to know who made them. We don't learn that when we read, "Mistakes were made."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Women do!

In answer to yesterday's question, "Who uses "conditional" language more, men or women?" Women do! Why?

Women are more collaborative. They communicate to build relationships; whereas, men communicate for power and position. These differences are cited in the work of Deborah Tannen. I have pasted some of her findings here:

Talk to emphasize status
Talk to preserve independence
Talk to separate and differentiate
Talk to control and offer solutions
Talk more directly
Talk to boast
Consider indirectness “sneaky”
Avoid apology; consider it “weak”

Talk to create connection
Talk to create intimacy and closeness
Talk to seek and give confirmation
Talk to connect (not to solicit advice)
Talk more indirectly
Talk to achieve balance
Consider indirectness “less aggressive”
Apologize readily to “restore balance”

(“You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,” D. Tannen, Ballantine Books, NY, 1991)

So, it is not unusual to hear a woman say, "We could discuss the budget at our Tuesday meeting." Or, it is not unusual to have her write a similar sentiment in an e-mail message. She'll use the "would, could, should, may, and might" words because she wants connection and balance. She knows she can achieve that with indirect language.

Likewise, the fine people from the Orient and from India will address you in the same way. They truly do want consensus and balance. But, as I suggested, it can work against them in a culture such as American business. In fact, one of my clients with a large Indian workforce told me to encourage its employees to "push back" on their clients. When they said "push back," they meant be more assertive, more direct. And, why does this company want their employees to push back on their customers? Well, for only one legitimate reason - their customers want them to push back. They don't want them rolling over all the time.

Now, having said that women and Orientals and Indians use the conditional more than everyone else, I must add that this is true in general. Certainly, many women have a more masculine approach to communication and many Oriental and Indian business people don't roll over for anyone. But, on the whole, these stereotypes fit.

What's the takeaway, as they say? Watch your language. Watch your word choice. Examine your messages. If you find yourself using "would, could, should, may and might," think about the context and your objectives. You could be using the wrong words; you might just want to change; you may find yourself with more respect in which case you should change. If you do, I know you would thank me!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Avoid the conditional.

OK, here's a quiz that'll take you back to 8th grade, or as they say in India, 8th form. Name three "modes" of a verb. I'll give you a hint: you can also call them "moods" of the verb. Think now. Morph yourself back to junior high school English class or middle school. Remember those days? Pimples. Hair on your body in places you never had it before. OK. Give up?

All verbs have mode (also called mood), as well as tense, number, and person. The mood reflects the approach you give the verb, that is, indicative, imperative or subjunctive (which many people call "conditional"). The first mood, indicative mood, makes a statement. "I am going to the meeting this afternoon." Imperative mood states a command, "Go to the meeting for me this afternoon." And, the subjunctive mood, which is a little more complicated, often states a condition, leading many people to call it by that term. It could look like this, "If you go to the meeting, would you represent me?"

In this post let's consider the subjunctive mood only. Subjunctive verbs can express a wish and a requirement, but let's just examine the conditional aspect. In this form, the verbs often use these helping verbs: would, could, should, may, and might. I recommend that business writers avoid them. Why? Simply because they suggest indecisiveness.

No executive or group of executives that entrust important studies or proposals to you are going to be satisfied if you report back to them that, "We should consider a merger with Widget, Inc." Even less compelling is the statement, "We might merge with Widget, Inc." No, they want to hear you say, "I recommend that we merge with Widget, Inc." or "I recommend that we avoid Widget, Inc. at all costs." Conditional is too conditional.

OK, here's another quiz. Who uses conditional verbs more, Americans or Asians? Right, Asians use it more often. It's part of the culture. And, when I say Asians, I am also including people from India. I have grown to love all things India, mostly because of my work at Carnegie Mellon University where I have taught hundreds of young people from India and also from my association with a great young company called Cognizant. Over the past ten years I have found the people from India to be the most generous and deferential people I have ever met. And, imagine, I have been teaching them to be less deferential and to stop using the conditional mood so often. Why because it makes these very learned, intelligent people seem unsure of their their recommendations.

Here's your last chance to get an Ed Barr quiz right tonight. Who uses conditional verbs more often, men or women. That's a loaded question, you say! Perhaps. But, let me know what you think. Do men or women use the conditional form of the verb more often? Which gender, on the whole, loads its writing and speaking with "could, would, should, may, might"? If you're really feeling grammatical and communicative, tell also us why the gender you chose uses conditional verbs more often. Above all, though, if you're married and you debate this, don't go to bed mad! That's an imperative!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Avoid "It is...." and "There are...." sentences.

Suppose you see this sentence, "It is to be expected that we write better." You might legitimately ask, "What is to be expected?" You might ask that because "It" is a pronoun and pronouns need antecedents or references.

I suggest you avoid beginning any sentence with "It is...." Even the harmless, "It is raining" bothers me. But, not so much as some of these other forms:

"It is possible that...,"
"It is significant that...,"
"It is obvious that...,"
"It should be noted that...,
"It it essential that...,"

and the many other forms that writers, especially bureaucratic writers, use.

This metadiscourse has been rightly called "throat clearing" because it adds nothing to a communication, just as a literal throat clearing before speaking adds nothing to the substance of a remark. When these written forms are used, they delay a message and often confuse a reader.

In a similar way, "There are...." sentences confuse readers. Take this sentence, for example, "There was an attempt to implement an activity in direct opposition to the wishes of the management." This will trouble readers for several reasons.

For one thing, we readers are unable to quickly find the subject of the sentence. The writer either doesn't know who is attempting to do something or wants to disguise the fact. This is troubling because readers want to know what is being affirmed in a sentence and they want to know about whom the action is being affirmed. In other words, they want to know the verb and the subject.

Also, readers in the West, as opposed to those in Arab or Chinese societies, read from left to right. In so doing, they like to see the sentence pattern "S-V-O" (even though they may not be consciously aware of it). That is, they want to see the subject of a sentence in front of the verb, not behind it. Any time you write a "There is (or) There are, (or) There will be...." sentence, you will put the subject after the verb.

And, speaking of the verb, if you write a "There are...." sentence, you will have used a "being verb" and we agreed in a previous post that "action verbs" work better in sentences, especially in business writing where we write for action. If you examine my "There are...." sentence above, you will also see that "attempt" and "opposition" are "nominals," that is, verbs that have been turned into nouns(see previous post). These are weakened verbs.

If you are going to attempt something, attempt it. Don't make an attempt. Use action verbs in S-V-O sentences. If someone is opposing something, have them oppose it. Don't put them in opposition. After all, it is better to hit the reader over the head with action because there are so many other things out there competing for their attention. Get it?!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

How long is yours?

Sentence! How long is your sentence? (What were you thinking, Dennis?)

Writing is the one time you want "shrinkage." Consider this report from the Kansas City Star regarding its research on sentence length: "When reading sentences of 15 words or less, readers can comprehend 90% of what they’ve read. When reading sentences of 25 words or more, they comprehend only 62% of what they’ve read."

Yep, small is beautiful. If you write short sentences, readers will understand what you've written. Go above 25 words and they don't get it.

The renowned teacher of writing, Rudolph Flesch, had (something like) this to say about sentence length, "Sentences with 8 words or less are very easy to read. Those with 11 words or less are easy to read. Those with 14 words or less are fairly easy to read. Sentences with 21 words or less are fairly difficult to read. Those with 25 words or less are difficult to read and those with 29 words or more are very difficult to read."

What kind of writing is very difficult? Try this: "The Project implementation completion commenced in January and installation was accepted in November, or approximately 11 months to completion instead of the mandatory seven for a variety of reasons, among which the high turnover of top-level staff (including the Project manager) occupied a major role." Huh? Run that by me again.

What kind of writing is easiest? Comic strips. Why? They are mostly dialogue written in a small frame. What is easy? Danielle Steel. What is fairly easy? John Grisham. What is very difficult? "Scientific American." Should you write comics in business? I doubt it. But, you should also not write "Scientific American," unless you're writing to a bunch of scientific Americans.

So what is standard? 17 words. And, what publication typically models the standard? Right! The newspaper! When you write, model the newspaper. Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Don't worry about having a long one, sentence that is. Go for the 8 to 17 word sentence. You'll make your readers very happy!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Words of Wisdom!

Albert Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Leonardo Da Vinci said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

Jack Welch said, “Insecure managers create complexity...People must have the self-confidence to be clear and precise… (but)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’re simple-minded. In reality, of course…clear, tough-minded people are the most simple.”

Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy said, “Along with having clear goals, you should strive for simplicity in general…leaders who execute…speak simply and directly. They talk plainly and forthrightly about what’s on their minds (and) know how to simplify things so that others can understand them, evaluate them, act on them, so that what they say becomes common sense.”

But, of course, the world is awash with the following kind of talk: “We harness deep industry process and technology expertise and unrivaled large-scale, complex change capabilities. We seamlessly integrate consulting and outsourcing capabilities across the full cycle of business transformation. We leverage our proprietary assets and global delivery network for quality, speed, an lower costs.” (Accenture Annual Report discussing their “differentiation” in the marketplace) Say that again?!

And, of course, it's not just business that writes that way. You may remember William Jefferson Clinton and his testimony to an attorney, regarding a certain Lewinsky woman:

Attorney: “…the statement (made by your counsel) that there was ‘no sex of any kind in any manner, shape, or form with President Clinton’ was an utterly false statement. Is that correct?”

President Clinton: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the – if he – if ‘is’ means ‘is and never has been and is not’ – that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.” (Grand Jury investigation)

Well, maybe we can forgive Billy Boy because during his administration he also sent an executive memorandum to all branches of government telling them they had to write with "Plain Language."

And, what is "Plain Language." It is simple, clear, concise and coherent writing. It uses "you" and other pronouns, it prefers active voice, it uses strong action verbs, and it prefers short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. In other words, it is simple! It is tough-minded. It is direct. And in its simplicity it is sophisticated. It doesn't depend on what the meaning of "is" is!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What's the agenda?

Don't you just hate it when you go to a meeting and the leader has no agenda (or worse yet, no one leads the meeting)!

At those times, the discussion usually goes something like this:

Leader: Thank you for coming this afternoon. I want to talk about our new project for the Widget Company.

Person 1: Do you think they're going to make it through this recession, Bill?

Person 2: I have a friend who works over there who says she's concerned.

Person 1: She should be concerned, Carol. This economy sucks.

Person 3: Speaking of the economy, Bob, did you guys see that Madoff will be spending the rest of his life behind bars?

Person 4: He deserves it. They should put all those criminals in Alcatraz.

Person 2: Alcatraz? Have you ever visited there? I did last summer when Henry and I went to San Francisco for his 20th high school reunion.

Person 1: 20th? You're kidding?! He doesn't look a day over 25.

Person 2: He's taking those new vitamin supplements and getting facials.

And on and on it goes, spiraling ever so far away from the point of the meeting until the leader out of exasperation corrals all the cattle and herds them back to the barn.

Even at those times when agendas exist, weak leaders let meetings spiral out of control. Why? Most people fear they will hurt someone's feelings by cutting them short or saying, "That's nice, but we're here to talk about the project with the Widget Company. You can discuss your trip to San Francisco and your vitamin supplements after the meeting."

I know, that sounds tough, but the word "agenda" comes from the Latin "agere" meaning "to do," so having a meeting and having an agenda suggest that something get done as a result of both. Otherwise, you and some other reasonably high paid people will have wasted time and money.

If you want to avoid the kind of scenario I created above, do this. First, decide if you must meet at all. These days with virtual options like wikis, blogs and google groups, people can come together virtually. However, even if you decide to meet virtually, you must create an agenda. When you have created the agenda, circulate it before the meeting and ask for opinions.

What does a good agenda look like? Basically it's a strategic plan for a meeting. You need to think of the people (who), the topics/outcomes (what), the timing (when), venue (where) and process (how). As for the "what" of the meeting, the topics/outcomes, I suggest you limit your discussion to one main topic. Many managers stuff agendas with more topics than they can possibly discuss. These are the managers who hoard information because they know that knowledge is power, or they have few meetings because (of all things) they feel uncomfortable interacting with others, especially in large groups where they might be vulnerable. So, they hold information and dispense all of it in one sitting. These meetings become interminable.

A manager who holds information or feels uncomfortable with people simply shouldn't be managing. But, we all know that these kinds of managers exist. So, what do we do about it? I say, manage the agenda! That's right; take the power!

If no agenda exists, go to the white board or flip chart and suggest one. If an agenda exists with too many items, ask that it be limited. If the discussion spirals, which it almost assuredly will, step in and bring it back on point. And, above all, make certain that everyone knows his/her part in the meeting, especially what actions each person must accomplish. Either that or you will see people nodding, doodling, blackberrying and later complaining about what a colossal waste of time that was.

Meetings sometimes offer the only process for accomplishing business activities. They can be effective if they begin with a strong agenda, one where everyone knows his/her part and expectation, and if they stay on topic. Otherwise, you're going to hear a lot more about Henry's facials.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What are your e-mail "pet peeves?"

I am indebted to my good friend Dennis Moran, one of the finest graphic designers in America, for stimulating this discussion. Dennis asked that I address failures of e-mail etiquette in my blog and I can't think of a better time to do it. So, let's start with Dennis's pet peeves. Says Dennis:

"I have a few pet peeves related to e-mail use that maybe you could address to your global audience.

1. People who don't respond when you send them something. I'm talking specifically about clients who NEVER respond, when I send them PDFs of design work, or invoices, even though I ask for confirmation of receipt, just so I know that they got it (mailer-deamon does alert us to most undeliverable mail, but not all).

2. People who refuse to use even an abbreviated letter format in e-mail. They just respond. No "Hi Big Boy" or "Hello Sweet Cheeks"...they just start typing, often in all lower case, and often with serious spelling errors.

3. Responding to a phone message with an e-mail--immediately after NOT answering the call. Hey, e-mail is great, but there are some things which are better handled with conversations particularly when immediate responses are important.

4. Related to No. 1.--Don't assume that just because you sent an e-mail, that it was received. There are hundreds (OK, at least 10) reasons why the e-mails that are sent are not necessarily received: server error, mailbox full, etc.

PS: here's another one: always include an e-mail signature with full contact info--it makes it extremely easy for people to find your phone number and address in an instant without searching a database."

Dennis has not only identified some of the errors of e-mail etiquette, but he has also done it with a great sense of humor! And, I wholeheartedly agree with him on each point. To those I add some of my own:

1.) I routinely receive e-mails with no subject line. I encourage my students to use the subject line to abbreviate the entire message. For instance, I will write to business colleagues and say in the subject line, "We need to meet this week." If you can, always use an action verb in the subject line, especially in business where you communicate for action.

2.) I routinely receive e-mails with NO MESSAGE, just attached assignments from students. I ask them to say something, anything, even if it means sharing a little-known fact or interesting quote. If nothing else, they might say, "I have attached my assignment." No one likes wordy e-mails, but no one likes blank e-mails, either.

3.) I routinely receive e-mails disguised as text messages, complete with text acronyms (or perhaps I should say incomplete), spelling errors, and a casual tone not appropriate for business.

So, tell us, what are your e-mail "pet peeves?" What steams your windows? Jump into the fray!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Prefer one and two-syllable words.

I am not asking you to become dumb. I'm asking you to see the beauty and power in simple language. For example, many writers have cited the following two-word sentence as among the most powerful statements in the English language: "Jesus wept." It surely works better than "Jesus became lachrymose." Yet, many teachers would have us write the latter way, many of our college teachers, especially. Using big words is almost a rite of passage in graduate school.

Speaking of rites, I went to my son Alex's first reconciliation tonight. It prepares him for his first Holy Communion after Easter. Many of you remember the rite of reconciliation. For several weeks in CCD you were prepared to meet alone with a priest, face-to-face, for the very first time to tell him of your grievous sins. What could they be, you wondered? I smacked my brother, Nicky, and called him a bozo. Is that a sin? You probably weren't sure and had to be coached on your sins.

You also had one of life's biggest words foisted on you: reconciliation. What a mouthful. I'm guessing that you didn't understand it and I'm also guessing that the church uses this word because of its power to impress people (I hesitate to say intimidate them). But it's a long one, isn't it? Six syllables. Re-con-cil-i-a-tion. Two affixes. One prefix.

We who have been to college have stored a basketful of such words, typically so that we can use them in our writing. We almost never use them in our speech. We don't use them because they won't work in our speech, even with the advantages that spoken English gives us over written English, that is, body language, voice inflection, gestures and the occasional grimace.

So, why do we use them in our writing? We have been taught to impress the reader, that's why. We need to be learned (accent on the "-ed"). We, therefore, tell our associates about the implementation of the specifications toward a resolution of the interferences in the granular processes. And, when a plain-spoken CEO comes along, someone like Jack Welch, and rattles everyone with his bluntness, we call him a genius.

For instance, Welch once said that if a business unit at GE wasn't number one or two he would, "...fix it, close it, or sell it." Anyone not understand that? He said, "If you're not in Germany, you're not in Europe, and if you're not in Asia, you're nowhere." Any questions? If "Neutron Jack" were evaluating an employee, he wouldn't call it a "reconciliation." It would be more like "rank and yank."

In any event, although my son Alex may not understand the word "reconciliation," he and his God have been "brought together" as the word originally meant it Latin. And, he is happy.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Do you metaphor?

Warren Buffett does. And, he did today. He called our struggling economy an "economic Pearl Harbor."

I'm a big fan of metaphor, and of Warren, especially his writing, but he blew it on this one. While I agree that the economy stinks and that it has "fallen off a cliff," as Warren also added in his interview with CNBC, giving us what might be called an absolute metaphor, we needn't blame the Japanese, or some other sneaky enemy, for this economy.

You may recall, if you have any gray hair at all, that years ago when they were a martial nation, the Japanese attacked American military installations at Pearl Harbor, staging one of the all-time, most successful, military sneak attacks in history, putting much of our navy out of commission. (Had we done it, we'd still be talking about what a great military achievement it was.) Anyway, Warren's Pearl Harbor metaphor doesn't work for me.

What is a metaphor? The word "metaphor" comes to us from the Greek where it means "transfer." Metaphors transfer meaning. They describe a first subject as being similar to a second subject (without using like or as). In so doing, they transfer the meaning of the first subject to the second. For example, when a Shakespearean actor says, "All the world's a stage," he is comparing our everyday activities, our daily strutting and fretting, with the acting that occurs on a stage. If we're honest with ourselves, that metaphor works. We all strut and fret, alternately wearing and discarding masks to suit our immediate needs.

But, is this economy like Pearl Harbor? Not from what I can gather. At its core, Pearl Harbor will always stand for a ruthless sneak attack for which the victims were unprepared. No one sneaked up on us in this fiasco, certainly not a wartime enemy, especially not the Japanese. No, this time we had our heads buried in our fears, our complacency, and our greed. We don't need to rehash the failures of Iraq, General Motors, or the banks of America to prove that statement. But, the secondary parts of the Pearl Harbor metaphor seem to work. Let's look at them.

Pearl Harbor required all Americans to unite behind a government that had identified a common enemy. Pearl Harbor required that all Americans sacrifice personal pleasures and re-tool industry so as to produce the arms of war. Pearl Harbor involved every family in America, rich and poor. Pearl Harbor gave us an opportunity to prove our courage and resiliency. These also fit our current economic circumstances. But, again, they do not inform the central element of the metaphor, the sneak attack.

If Pearl Harbor as a metaphor doesn't fit snugly, what metaphor does? Perhaps Warren hit it better, while mixing metaphors, when he said the economy had "fallen off a cliff." We can't say it was "pushed off a cliff" because then we'd have to blame the the Taliban, or Toyota, or George Bush, or somebody.

No, we best say the economy "fell off a cliff" because we Americans and the people we elected and the people they appointed allowed the economic vehicle to drift driverless down the road for a few years before it dropped precipitously off the cliff. That took years of gradual theft and collusion and ignorance. When the big drop came, Warren is right, it came with the suddenness of a Pearl Harbor. It brought an immediate loss of footing, accompanied by extreme and frightening vertigo, and the painful uncertainty we now suffer.

Yes, Warren was right about the fall. What frightens me is that the car is still falling, we haven't heard the crash yet or watched the fuel erupt into a fireball. Only then can we lower ourselves to the bottom of the ravine to identify the broken, charred, and mangled bodies. Only then can we determine how to re-assemble the car, or trash it. Only then can we begin to rehabilitate the victims. How's that for a metaphor?!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Show, don't tell.

Any good writing teacher will give you this sage advice: Show, don't tell. I, too, offer those words of wisdom! Apply them to everything you write.

For example, suppose I write this sentence: "My ten-year old sister is very fast!" That sentence tells; it doesn't show. How do you make those words show? Well, you might say, "As a garbage truck passed our house, my ten-year old sister raced it to the corner of our block. She took off in her brand new, white Nikes, her braided pigtails flying, and she beat that truck by two garbage truck lengths! The trash men whooped and hollered all the way, telling their driver to 'step on it!'"

Or, you might write, "My girlfriend really loves me." Again, this is a tell sentence. How can you make it show? You might write: "My girlfriend handed me two 40-yard line Steeler tickets for the Cleveland Browns game and asked me to take my brother. Then, before she drove away, she handed a six pack of Iron City beer out her car window and drove away saying, 'Have a great time, honey!'" Here in Pittsburgh that would be called "true love!"

How does this concept apply to business writing? For one thing, it applies directly to resumes. As I have reviewed hundreds of resumes written by my students, I typically see language like this: "Coordinated a team of project engineers for the installation of customer relations management software at Widget International."

That sentence will provide more meaning and create more impact it if says, "Coordinated a team of seven project engineers in a three-week engagement at Widget International of Buffalo, NY, to install customer relations software and increase customer satisfaction scores by 11.5%."

When you tell, you rob the reader of scene, story, and outcome. When you show, you give the reader the scene, story and outcome. Every sentence we write may not include an outcome but everything we write is story. We introduce ourselves to a potential client and we tell a story. Better yet, we introduce ourselves to a potential client, and we evoke their story! We listen to their story. Then, after we understand our clients' needs, we share our stories; we build narratives that show how we have benefited some other customer. This works especially well in cover letters or executive summaries to RFP's.

So, if you're trying to sell your services to a customer or even sell yourself as a potential date, especially in writing, show, don't tell.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Vary sentence length.

Vary sentence length and pattern, not just in your writing but in your speeches. Create a rhythm that ebbs and flows.

Use short sentences, as I have said before. But don't bore the reader or listener with "See Spot run" sentences. Use sentences of medium length and sentences that stretch the reader's or listener's attention to the breaking point.

Write a one word sentence. Wow. That will help break the monotony. Write ten word sentences that pull the reader gently along. Write fifty word sentences and test the reader's endurance, their capacity to linger with you as you explain some necessary and fundamental thing, as you outline the process you hope to achieve, a process that will eventually serve their needs and result in growth for them and the organization.

Or, bore the reader. Just like this. With short sentences. One after another. Three word sentences. One following another. Or, four word sentences. See how they run? Do you like them? Do they engage you? Not on your life. You annoyed your reader. The reader will stop. Your message will fail.

The reader has other choices, you know. He or she can pick up a magazine, a newspaper, a crossword puzzle, a product label, anything that has words on it, and read it, instead of your memo.

If you lose the reader, you will not communicate. You will just make noise - blah, blah, blah. If you want to keep the reader, if you want to connect, if you want to cause action, vary your sentences. Write a sentence that begins with three subordinate clauses (just like the previous sentence). Or, on the other hand, begin your sentence with a conjunction and a prepositional phrase - just like this sentence. Simple, compound, complex, compound-complex - it's your choice. And remember to keep the subject and verb close together.

Whatever you chose, take the reader on a journey. Stop. On a dime. Take a leisurely walk; over the hills and down through the valleys of your prose, running or walking, skipping or jumping., yelling as loud as you can. Then, stop for a deserved rest. Yes. Here. Wait. Just for a spell.

Now, get your wind. Hurry along with the words gathering behind you before they cascade over your shoulder. (Yes, throw in an image that the reader can see.) Then, slow down again. Stop. Write again. Use three words. Write four word sentences. Keep the reader guessing and interested.

Get along now; pick up some speed; go for the Big One; use a semicolon and join two clauses; and, while you're doing it, throw in another clause, joined to the first sentence. Don't worry. Your readers will follow you, especially when you have used the right tools, such as action verbs, active voice, and characters as subjects in logical prose that sees well chosen words placed within well crafted sentences that create coherent and seamless paragraphs.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Use the readability tool in Word.

I admit to being a "late adopter" to technology and, therefore, I learned only recently that my computer has a "readability index" in Word. To make use of this valuable tool, all you have to do is enable it. (Sorry, you'll have to ask a techie.) Then, when you spellcheck any document, your computer will give you a readability report after it has told you to correct any spelling errors.

The readability index is based on the Flesch readability studies. The index measures the length of your words, sentences, and paragraphs and your use of passive voice. The tool suggests that most people read at a level between 8th and 11th grade and suggests, therefore, that if you want to reach most audiences, you need to use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. Also, because active voice is more direct, the index suggests that you prefer active voice over passive.

I recently copied and pasted into Word Barack Obama's inauguration speech and his first report to Congress, just to see how he scored. These were speeches, of course, but they began as written documents, very few people speak extemporaneously these days, especially if they are presidents and paying talented speech writers.

So, how did Barack score on readability (think "understandability")? He scored mid-8th grade in the inaugural address and mid-9th grade in the speech to Congress.

You might say that he should have written to the mid-3rd grade level for Congress. Those folks have not been accused of being the brightest candles on the cake. In contrast to many elected officials, Winston Churchill understood the need to use plain language. I scored his famous "we will fight on the seas..." speech, the one he gave during WWII, and it scored mid-3rd grade level. Mid-3rd grade level! He certainly knew his audience! Both Obama and Churchill are known as great intellectuals, yet both chose to address his audience on a level that he was certain would communicate his message.

Great orators of English know that they need to use strong Anglo-Saxon words (the short kind) and short, crisp sentences. They know that they should avoid words from the Latin and Greek . You might enjoy writing to a co-worker and saying, "You are sui generis." Or, you might want to say to a relative, "Give up on being a omphaloskepsist," just to show off your learning, but you won't make your point as well as if you had said, "You are one of a kind!" and "Get your nose out of your navel."

The long words are for the academics and bureaucrats. Many academics write to impress each other and many bureaucrats write to conceal, not reveal. Long words (Latin and Greek words) help them. I encourage you to study the Greek and Latin origins of English to better understand the language, but avoid using the words, especially in business writing, in favor of their cousins, the Anglo-Saxons.

If you're not sure how your writing (and speaking) score, use the readability tool in Word. It's fun and revealing!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Never use three words when one will do.

How often have you seen the phrase, "came up with"? For example, we "came up with" a new strategy. If you pay attention to your writing and the writing of others, you will see this kind of construction often. It is called a "phrasal," a verb with an adverb attached to it.

You will never have to remember that word, phrasal, unless you get a shot at "Jeopardy." "I'll take English grammar for $100, Alex." So, don't memorize it, but remember the notion. You don't have to use three words when one will do. In the case of "came up with," we prefer "we DEVELOPED a new strategy" or "we CREATED a new strategy" or "PROPOSED a new strategy."

That said, phrasals perform a useful function in idiomatic writing, when the adverb modifies the verb. Take the verb "run" and the many adverbs that attach themselves to it. Some one can run away. Or, you can run into a long lost friend. Or, God forbid, you might run over that friend. If you watch your language, you'll quickly get the run down on run!

Or, consider the mighty midget, "up." For one of the smallest words in the English language, it may just have the longest definition in the dictionary. It has so many uses thanks to its remora-like attachment to a host of verbs. For example, you might fix up an old engine and have it take up lots of space in the garage, or work up a thirst before opening up a can of brew, while you size up the situation. You might just give up, go into the house and dress up for the mechanics ball, if you are up to it, you might wind up with a great date.

Or, if you decide to be less idiomatic, you might repair an old engine and have it occupy a lot of space while you open a beer and review the situation before quitting to shower, shave and prepare for the ball (I was greatly tempted to say "spruce up"). And, if all goes well (a phrasal?), and you persevere, you may get lucky! All because you came to the point and used one word instead of three!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Want to have a good job interview? Have a conversation.

I interviewed a student today, a mock interview. She wanted to practice because she has a second interview on Friday...with the CEO of a local company. Naturally she's a little nervous and wants to make a BIG impression on the BIG Cheese.

She didn't interview well with me. Why? For one thing, she sat in front of me, limpid and withdrawn. For another, she didn't smile and her poor posture reflected a meek and timid personality. To make things worse, she only spoke when I asked her questions; and then, she only answered with terse statements.

When we finished, I gently told her these things and she readily acknowledged them. Knowing she didn't do well, she asked me how to improve. I told her that a good interview, especially with a CEO, demands a good conversation. I told her that to have a good conversation she needs to stimulate a dialogue by asking the CEO questions. Of course, she had no idea what questions to ask. In my experience with mock interviews of students and prospective employees, no one knows what questions to ask.

I have seen this problem, not just for the last nine years I've been teaching at Carnegie Mellon University, but for the 20 years before when I interviewed prospective employees in the marketing and corporate communication departments under my direction. Everyone seems to think that an interview is a passive process. It isn't. It's a dialogue. You interview me; I interview you.

This kind of interview starts with attitude, the attitude that you, the prospective employee, have skills and talents that are marketable. Again, this attitude says, "I'm interviewing you as much as you are interviewing me." In boom times, or bust times, that questioning attitude pays off.

Notice that I'm not suggesting that an interviewee have "an attitude." Anyone who goes into an interview with arrogance and aggression is going to lose. I'm talking about confidence. You need to sit in an interview feeling confident that you have the skills, experience and general wherewithal to do the job under consideration. Again, this means, in part, that you are interviewing the interviewer to determine if the organization is a good fit for you, just as they are trying to determine if you fit with them.

You can learn whether or not they fit by asking them questions, just as they ask you questions. Your questions will stimulate dialogue and that will help to make you seem interesting, communicative and discerning. So, what questions should you ask?

Over the years, I have told so many students in so many mock interviews to ask questions and heard them say that they can't think of any questions, that I wrote them down, in book form, and sent the manuscript to an agent who sent the manuscript to a potential publisher. I can't list all 50 questions from my manuscript in this post, but I will list a few (in random order).

Questions to ask a prospective employer
1. What happened to the last person who had this job?
2. How are employees evaluated?
3. What is the management style of the organization?
4. What is the work-life balance?
5. Is there a 'glass ceiling?'

If you ask those kinds of questions, you will stimulate conversation and demonstrate a serious and discerning nature. Moreover, the interviewer will not feel as if he or she is in the presence of a lump. Nothing is worse than interviewing someone who sits limply in front of you and is unable to engage in a conversation. Trust me; I have interviewed some real lumps.

To test my questions, I sent my manuscript to an HR professional in Silicon Valley. She agreed with the premise and the questions and endorsed my manuscript. Take our word for it, if you want to have a good job interview, have a good conversation. And, use me as a reference!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Write well. Use action verbs.

I repeat. Write well. Use action verbs.

The action verb drives the sentence forward. It drives the paragraph. It drives the e-mails, letters, memos, and reports that you write. It drives any piece of writing, even a post card.

What a sin, then, when writers emasculate the action verbs, drain them of their energy, and turn them into nouns. Implement becomes implementation. Negotiate becomes negotiation. Obfuscate becomes obfuscation. The action is muffled. And, the being verbs creep into the sentence like pale vampires. Then sentences like this one appear out of the fog:

"The implementation of the project specifications and the addition of the retention of the consulting engineers with the creation of a new reporting system will BE forthcoming in the next quarter."

These types of sentences, so falsely impressive and bureaucratic in their tone, not only confuse readers and waste their time, but also disguise responsibility. We don't know who is implementing what, or what is being specified by the new report that is being created.

Anyone can write these types of sentences. You can. Just imagine yourself in a three-piece, pin-striped suit with argyle socks. Imagine you are sitting in your cubical in the city planning department. Just before you break for lunch and the egg salad sandwich you brought from home in your pale blue Tupperware container, you decide to write that memo the boss asked you to write to the local citizenry. You square yourself away at the computer, poise your hands over the keyboard, and bang away, with the objective of trying to impress the boss rather than communicate with your audience. You write the following:

"The recent amendments to the city planning codes and the adoption of the new planning districts voted on by the city council and ratified by the county manager, pursuant to the articles of incorporation, are in the process of verification so that home owners are in possession of certificates of occupancy can understand the new planning policies."

Say what? In one sentence you manage to confuse a whole city of people but, hey, you feel good knowing you impressed yourself and probably the boss. But, do you really want to write like that? Or, do you want to write well? I know the answer, so I give you this advice: Load up on your stock of action verbs. Keep a pile handy near your laptop when the being verbs try to sneak into your sentences bringing their clouds into your writing. If you see any of the following - is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been - in your sentences, rush them out unceremoniously. Only use them when they are aiding the action verbs as "helping verbs" or "auxiliary verbs." I repeat. Write well. Use action verbs.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Write long sentences with caution.

Business writers write to inform, query and persuade. They write for action, not to say, hello, howdy do. Business readers read to answer the following questions:

Why did you write to me (your purpose)?
What do you want me to do (action)?
Why should I care (benefit)?

We write and read this way in business because none of us has time to waste. We are starved for time. Short words, short sentences and short paragraphs help the writer achieve his/her purpose; and, short words, sentences, and paragraphs help us, the readers, get the message (action/benefit)quickly.

Business readers appreciate the journalistic, "inverted pyramid," approach, that is, writing that offers the reader the who, what, when, where, why, how, and how much in the first sentence(s). In this style, an inductive approach, a message to your boss might begin by saying,

"We need $250,000 more for this project. With the new cash we will hire two more staff and buy another laptop. With those resources we will conclude the project two-weeks ahead of schedule. Moreover, we will achieve efficiency and give you a $100,000return."

No fooling around here (or "beating around the bush," as they say idiomatically)! Short words, short sentences.

You will note that I used four sentences in the example. However, when you keep the subject and verb together, preferably at the beginning of the sentence, and choose strong (action) verbs, you can write longer sentences. You can do this because readers, who need to find the subject and verb quickly, will be able to. The rest is just modification. So, the sentence above could easily look like this:

"I write to ask for $250,000 more for this project so that we may hire two more staff, buy another laptop, and conclude the project two-weeks ahead of schedule, creating a $100,000 return on the investment."

In that sentence, the subject "I" is followed immediately by the action verb "write," and the direct object "to ask." The main clause is, thereby, constructed as a S-V-O pattern. The dependent clause that follows is built from the same pattern. This makes the long sentence easy to understand.

However, many long sentences suffer because they use being verbs and, therefore, cannot use the S-V-O pattern. Look at the following sentence:

"This message, regarding a $250,000 investment in additional staffing and other resource allocation, is meant as an argument for conclusion of the current project by a two-week interval followed by the creation of a $100,000 return on investment."

That sentence doesn't help the reader who has to search for the subject ("message") and the verb ("is") and wade through a host of weak words (verbs that have been turned into nouns): "regarding," "investment," "additional," "allocation," "argument," "conclusion," "followed," and "creation." These words function as nouns, instead of the strong action verbs they could be. In this case the long sentence definitely doesn't work. And, truth be told, this writer wrote to impress, not express.

You make choices when you sit down to write. You can choose to write long or short sentences, but remember, if you write a long sentence, you must craft it carefully or you will lose the reader, who will likely need to read the sentence again, wasting time, or, worse yet, completely missing your meaning. Keep the subject and verb together, preferably at the beginning of the sentence, choose action verbs, and use characters as subjects ("I," "you," "the team," "the manager," "the client," "the boss," and so forth).