Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The blogger blogs on cliches.

I was just thinking about this blogging business and thinking about the commitment it takes, and with my full plate, 24/7, I wonder if I have the bandwidth. The stakeholders in my life have been pushing my envelope and I’m feeling like I’m outside the box. In fact it looks like I can't get my arms around my full plate. I guess I’ve been unable to get strategically focused on my go-forward plan, even though I realize this isn’t rocket science or brain surgery.

Speaking of blogging, when you drill down to the granular level, this is just basic blocking and tackling, isn’t it? However, at the end of the day, I want to be about robust, world-class language solutions. Net-net, my value proposition is based on maximizing synergies so that I'm in the blog market with a leveraged, value-added deliverable. That’s the big picture here, isn’t it? I know you can resonate with that.

So, if after reading this note you have any issues, plug them in or let's take them offline. I don’t think you’ll have issues, but many people have a result-driven mind-set that isn’t a strategic fit with my game plan. I want to be a mover and shaker; so, let’s take this blog and run with it. We’ll make it our big, hairy, audacious goal! We’re here to empower each other!

If nothing else, let’s touch base, ASAP. Write or ping me the next chance you have. We WILL connect. Meanwhile, never forget this: Bottom line, your call is very important to me!

Monday, April 27, 2009

You gotta read this!

This weekend the NY Times published an interview with Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Airline. The interviewer, Adam Bryant, asked Mr. Anderson a series of questions about leadership, career, meeting management and the qualities he is looking for in recruits. The Times article, headlined, "He Wants Subjects, Verbs and Objects," quickly rose to the top of the Times "Most Popular-E-Mailed" list.

I have pasted the link to the article here so that you can see why the article became viral:


You will find, among other things, that Anderson stresses communication skills as keys to success. About interviewing, he says, "...what you’re trying to find out about are the intangibles of leadership, communication style and the ability to, today, really adapt to change."

Later, he says, "You’re looking for a really strong set of values. You’re looking for a really good work ethic. Really good communication skills. More and more, the ability to speak well and write is important. You know, writing is not something that is taught as strongly as it should be in the educational curriculum. So you’re looking for communication skills."

And, again, he adds, "It’s not just enough to be able to just do a nice PowerPoint presentation. You’ve got to have the ability to pick people. You’ve got to have the ability to communicate. When you find really capable people, it’s amazing how they proliferate capable people all through your organization. So that’s what you’re hunting for."

The title of the interview is taken from this passage, "I think this communication point is getting more and more important. People really have to be able to handle the written and spoken word. And when I say written word, I don’t mean PowerPoints. I don’t think PowerPoints help people think as clearly as they should because you don’t have to put a complete thought in place. You can just put a phrase with a bullet in front of it. And it doesn’t have a subject, a verb and an object, so you aren’t expressing complete thoughts.

And a lot of what we do in communication, when you write e-mail, you need to express yourself very clearly so people understand whether we’re going to L.A. today or we’re going to Boston today."

Finally, when asked about business school curricula, Anderson says, "When you’re managing as much change as corporations globally must deal with today, the ability to communicate and communicate effectively is so important that it ought to be a core capability in a business school curriculum. We measure, study, quantify, analyze every single piece of our business. Business schools in the United States have done a phenomenal job of creating that capability. But then you’ve got to be able to take all that data and information and transform it into change in the organization and improvement in the organization and the formulation of the business strategy."

I don't know about you, but I could kiss him for this interview. It will give me justification and encouragement for the next ten years! Thanks, Richard Anderson and the NY Times!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Answer these three questions before you blog for business.

Businesses can benefit from blogging, both internal and external blogging. But, before any employee begins to blog, he or she needs to answer some important questions.

1.) What policies and/or tools does your company have in place to guide you if you decide to start blogging?

Some enlightened companies have policies and tools available, particularly for internal blogging. They provide sites for employees to blog. Some even have a blogging champion. The really enlightened companies have clearly articulated policies that regard information that may not be revealed or disclosed, in blogs or other public forums. If your company has such guidance and policies and you decide you want to blog, you need to answer the next question:

2.) What is my objective for blogging?

Do you want to blog to become notorious? (bad idea) Do you want to blog to make lots of money? (unrealistic idea) Do you want to blog because you have nothing else to do? (better have a trust fund). If, however, you decide that you want to blog because you want to build deeper relationships with your clients, because you want to hear what’s troubling them, because you have something worthwhile to say, you have identified good objectives. Many other positive things will come from blogging, but decide right up front that you’re not blogging to rant but to listen. Then, give some very serious thought to the next question:

3.) Am I ready to make the commitment to blogging?

If you aren’t prepared to spent 10-15 hours each week in planning, writing, editing and responding to your blog, get out now. Blogging takes that much time. Most successful bloggers post every week day, and some on the weekends. These people spend time thinking of subject matter that will fit their purpose and connect with the interests of their targeted audience. Then the bloggers attach their backside to a chair and begin writing. Anyone who writes knows that writing takes lots energy and focus…and time. Then, if you're lucky enough to hit on a hot topic and dozens of people respond to your post, you have an obligation to respond to them, as well, within a reasonable time. After all, when it is done well, blogging creates a conversation.

Techorati has identified over 110 million blogs. The vast majority of those blogs are not read. They come and go, or they come and stay on a server in blog limbo. If you decide to create and write a blog for business, you have made a wise and important business decision. But, you must do it correctly. You must clearly understand your objective and your audience and you must commit the time and energy that will be required. Then you can blog for your business. But make sure you know what you're doing. Your company reputation and brand may depend on it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Four ways to put variety in your writing.

This will take you back to 8th grade English class. Are you ready?

You can put variety in your writing by mixing the four types of sentences. What are those four types of sentences?

1. Simple
2. Compound
3. Complex
4. Compound-Complex

What do those terms mean? A simple sentence contains one independent clause (a group of words with a subject and predicate that can stand alone). For example, "The woman drove to the store and bought some groceries." This is a simple sentence even though it has two verbs (drove and bought).

A compound version of that sentence might read, "The woman drove to the store and bought some groceries, and her daughter waited in the car." Compound sentences consist of two or more independent clauses that are typically joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, while, yet). Lost yet? I hope not.

A complex sentence contains one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses (groups of words with subjects and verbs that can not stand alone). The complex sentence looks like this, "The woman drove to the store and bought some groceries while her daughter waited in the car." What group of words cannot stand on its own? "...while her daughter waited in the car" That's the dependent clause.

A compound-complex sentence combines the two types of sentences I have just discussed. A sample might look like this: "The husband stayed at home, and the woman drove to the store and bought some groceries while her daughter waited in the car."

What's the point of this time warp back to 8th grade? I will show you. I will show you that when you mix these four types of sentences you create variety in your writing. That variety leads to freshness, and that freshness keeps your readers interested while your writing avoids becoming stale.

For instance, read the following paragraph and notice how I mixed the four types of sentences. Also, note how the use of simple sentences in the first 13 sentences makes the writing boring.

"I told you. Vary your sentences. Use short sentences. Use long sentences. Write one word. Write ten words. Write fifty words. Or, bore me. Just like this. With short sentences. One after another. Three word sentences. One following another.

The reader has other choices, you know. He or she can pick up a magazine, a newspaper, a CD liner, 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 complex sentence that begins with three subordinate clauses (just like the previous sentence). Or, on the other hand, begin your simple sentence with a conjunction and a prepositional phrase – just like this sentence. Simple, compound, complex, compound-complex – it’s your choice.

Whatever you chose, take the reader on a journey. Stop. On a dime. Take a leisurely walk; over the hills and down the valleys of your writing. Or, run, skip, hop, jump. Then, stop for a deserved rest. Yes, here. Wait. Just for a moment to catch your breath.

Now, get your second 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; keep the reader interested.

Get along now; time to go home. Pick up some speed; go for the Big One; use a semicolon and join three independent clauses (a compound 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 uses well chosen words placed within well crafted sentences that create coherent and seamless paragraphs."

Well, now that you have re-visited 8th grade, don't you wish you could do it over again?! (If I only knew then what I know now!)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Keep subject and verb together.

If you look at a lot of bad writing (especially business and academic writing), you'll find the same mistakes in each sentence. Typically the bad sentences use nominals and passive voice, and typically the subject and verb are 15-20 words away from each other (if not further). These bad sentences look like this one:

"The implementation of the project specifications for which we've been waiting at least six months, an implementation that should have been completed by now and was, in fact, begun well before the present team came on board to pick up the slack from the previous team, is critical to the project's success and the maintenance of the account."

Pretty bad, huh? Pretty typical, too! Let's look at it.

What's the subject of the main clause of the sentence? What's the verb of that subject? I'm not going to tell you for a minute. But, I am going to tell you that readers like to find the subject and verb quickly. This tells them what the sentence is about. And, readers like the subject to be a "character" who takes some kind of action. That means we need an action verb, especially in business writing where we usually write for action.

Well, if you guessed correctly, you said that "implementation" is the subject of the main clause of my bad sentence and "is" is the verb. Besides functioning as a being verb in the sentence, the word "is" doesn't sit anywhere near its subject, "implementation." Forty-six words separate "implementation," the subject, from "is, "the verb. And, to make matters worse, the word "implementation" isn't what you'd call a character as a subject. It's a nominal (a verb turned into a noun).

That sentence contains a 58 words. Any reader begins to lose comprehension of a sentence after it surpasses 20 words. But, that doesn't mean you can't write a 20-word sentence. You can write one even longer; just keep the subject and verb close to each other and keep balance in the sentence.

For example, suppose I write, "The woman fought the villain." The subject and verb sit next to each other in this subject-action verb-object sentence (the best kind). Now I can modify it in many ways, making it longer. I will do this and keep the sentence as a "simple sentence" (remember simple, compound, complex and compound-complex sentences from 8th grade?). A "simple sentence has only one clause. Here goes:

"On the first Monday of the month, on a rainy and windswept evening at 9:00pm, in a little town near Pittsburgh called Scenery Hill, the tall, dark-haired woman fought the evil, sinister and ugly villain valiantly and with the courage of a lioness."

That sentence has 43 words yet it can be easily read and understood because it uses a character as subject, action verb, active voice and because it keeps the subject and verb together. They need not be next to each other. I could have put some modifiers next to the verb. The subject and verb only need to be near each other and, for best results, in the subject-verb-object pattern so familiar to most readers.

When you keep the subject and verb close, you help the reader. Remember, no writing is understood until a reader understands it. Until then, it's only noise.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Even Philip Kotler makes mistakes!

If you know anything about marketing, you know that Philip Kotler is THE MAN! I recommend any book he has ever written on marketing, especially the popular press books. His "Marketing Insights from "A-Z," "Kotler on Marketing" and "According to Kotler" will help anyone, even hardened marketing professionals, understand marketing better. (And, he has a new one coming out: "Chaotics"! I can't wait for it!)

As I say, I own, and have read, the first three, as well as most of Kotler's books; and, I have enjoyed them and learned from them. For that reason I was surprised when I was looking at text books to use in my marketing class and came across this passage in a Kotler text book on non-profit marketing:

"Individual behaviors that a marketer can influence require consumers to decide to act. Decisions about actions vary in two important dimensions: involvement and complexity.

While it is obviously a continuum, consumer behavior theorists make a distinction between low involvement and high involvement exchanges. They believe this difference affects the amount of cognition or problem solving a consumer will undertake during and after the exchange process. As defined by Engel and Blackwell, with respect to products and services,

“Involvement is the activation of extended problem solving behavior when the act of purchase or consumption is seen by the decision maker as having high personal involvement or relevance.”

That is one obtuse piece of writing, isn't it? If you read it a few times, you will hardly understand its meaning. But, if you look at how the sentences are crafted, you will see the errors; you will see why the passage fails: it uses too many nominals (verbs that have been turned into nouns).

So, let's translate. We begin by turning the nominals back into verbs. "Behavior" becomes "behave." "Decisions" becomes "decide." "Actions" becomes "act." "Involvement" becomes "involve." And, if you keep looking, you will find other such nominals that need to be turned back into verbs: exchanges, activation, purchase, consumption, and so forth.

When you begin to simplify the piece, that is, use shorter words and fewer nominals, and when you think about writing the passage conversationally, you start to make sense of it. Someone is behaving in a certain way. Someone is buying something after thinking about it a lot or a little. Marketers understand the ways people behave and the extent to which they become involved when they decide to purchase something. Right!?

Of course! With a little editing (re-crafting) we now know what Kotler was saying. Marketers know that when we buy chewing gum we don't think a lot about it. We don't involve ourselves too much; but, when we buy a new BMW, we think a lot about it. It's a little bit more complex! Smart marketers who know this use it to help us buy their products. Simple!

Why should Kotler and others write with simplicity? Remember: the New York Times said that literacy is falling among college graduates and corporate America can't build a sentence. In other words, not many people out there read well and fewer have the time to try to read a complicated passage. Any person or company that wants to achieve its objectives cannot communicate in a style that makes the same errors that Kotler made in that passage.

But, we forgive you, Phil. The rest of your writing is swell!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Are you high context or low context?

I have taught writing in the School of Information Systems and Management at Carnegie Mellon University for ten years. Over that time I have taught hundreds of fine young people from India, South Korea, Japan, China, Thailand and just about every other land!

During one of the first classes I ask my Indian and Asian students if they communicate differently from Americans.

"Yes," they answer, "most definitely."

Then I ask them, "How do you communicate differently?"

After some shifting around in their seats, typically the Indian students respond with the obvious things, like British spelling. But, in some deeper part of themselves they know they communicate in a fundamentally different way. After they think about the question for a while, a forthright student will say, "We are less direct than the Americans. We are less forceful."

This style of communicating serves my non-American students well in business in India and Asia. In those places, the more direct style of communicating doesn't work. Direct-speaking Americans interacting in the Near and Far East are often seen as aggressive, abrasive and boorish. Conversely, the less assertive “Eastern” style of communicating doesn't work as well here.

I asked a colleague of mine, Vidhyu Rao, who works for a very successful company with many employees from India, what she thought of this phenomenon. She explained it this way:

“This whole behavior gets clear when we understand Edward T. Hall’s model on cultures,” Vidhyu, wrote. “Hall categorizes culture as high context and the low context. Asia, Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe are all high context cultures. The Americas, England, Australia and northern Europe form the low context cultures. Low context cultures rely on spoken and written language for meaning. High context cultures use and interpret more of the elements surrounding the message to develop their understanding of the message.”

It helps to explain the behavior of one very successful Indian company I know. This company clearly recognizes this difference between high context and low context cultures. In fact they have begun to ask their employees to "push back" on their American customers. They have asked me, a communication consultant to them, to stress this in the engagements I have with their employees (to date I have engaged with nearly 700 of them). Understand that the “push back” they refer to, and the one Vidhyu has discussed with me, is not rudely aggressive. Quite the contrary, this company simply asks its employees to articulate opinions and arguments better.

Why would any company want its employees to push back on their American customers? A company with thousands of employees and some of the premier customers in the world can only have one good reason: their American customers have asked them to be more forceful. Their customers have essentially said, "Look, we pay you well to help us do things we can't do for ourselves. We want you to tell us when we're wrong. We don't want you to accept what we say.” Or, as Vidhyu has said, “We do not want you to learn our ways and become one of us. This will not allow us to evolve and improve. It's nice but it doesn't help us. Tell us when we're wrong!" In other words, their clients want to be coached/ pushed back.

But, how do people from a high context cultures, some of which were colonized for centuries, cultures that know how to get along, cultures that are beautiful in their gentleness and passivity, become more aggressive and assertive overnight?

I tell my students from India, China, Thailand, and the other high context cultures to begin by changing their language, particularly their writing, when they communicate with Americans. I tell them to be less passive.

For example, I ask my students this question: who uses passive voice more, Indians and Asians or Americans. They don't hesitate for a second: Indians and Asians! I ask them: Who uses conditional language (should, would, could might), Indians and Asians or American. Again they don't hesitate for a second.

So, I tell them that in my classes I don't want them to use passive voice or the conditional (indecisive) mode of verbs. I want them to say, "We will do this," not "We could do this." I want them to say, "You did not complete the project on time," not "The project was not completed on time."

Then I tell them that I love them, I love their culture, I love their sincerity, their kindness and their goodness. I ask them not to change those things but to change their communication style with Americans, particularly with American business people and especially through their writing. I tell them to push back!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Take this quiz; learn what people are saying.

A Little Word Quiz

Match the numbers to the letters below. See what America is saying.

1. They were called “little Eichmanns” by Colorado professor, Ward Churchill.
2. They use this ad slogan, “We’re offering our own stimulus package.”
3. This person used “look” 26 times in a one hour span.
4. This person said, “You know,” 235 times in 41 minutes.
5. Discount sales fell “off the map” when Barack Obama said these words.
6. Barack Obama used this word and sales started to pick up.
7. This term identifies 65% of the population who want to “maintain their existing content experiences.”
8. This phrase is typically only understood by people over 50.
9. This phrase has nothing to do with prostitution.
10. This spelling error exists on the Orient Express take out menu.

Match the letters to the numbers above. See how current you are.

A. Massive passives
B. Hope
C. “Beef w. Lobstger sauce over rice”
D. A hard row to hoe
E. "The economy has weakened"
F. Caroline Kennedy
G. Barack Obama
H. Trojan condoms
I. 911 victims
J. On the flip side

Got those all right? Now that you know the new ad slogan for Trojan's condoms (2-H) see if you can match this sentence to its owner: "Fork The Recession!"

A. Julia Child
B. George Bush
C. Eat N Park Restaurants
D. Jerry Seinfeld
E. Colorado Restaurant Association (CRA)

A report in Media Post News calls "Fork The Recession" "decidely edgy" because "tough times call for direct messages." The campaign is funded with $170,000 in integrated media (a mere pittance) and will urge Colorado residents to feed the economic recovery by feeding themselves. You got it! The answer is "E", the CRA.

And, when Barack Obama speaks optimistically, the economy improves (6-G), even if he says "look" too often (3-G), while his supporter (and erstwhile US Senator from New York, Caroline) can't stop from saying "you know" (4-F). Speaking of Barack, we urge him to stop dissing the economy (6-E) because we all know we have a tough road to hoe (those of us over 50 know that has nothing to do with prostitution (9-D) because we've lived on the flip side (9-J).

Oh, and Ward Churchill, the professor from the University of Colorado who sued that institution when it dismissed him after he called the 911 victims "little Eichmanns" just got his job back after the court ruled in his favor (1-I).

So, there you have it - the language being used in America today. Interesting, isn't it?!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

No weapons.

On Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, three police officers, responding to a domestic dispute, were shot and killed. As we learn more about the events surrounding that tragedy, we are told that the mother of the alleged killer told a 911 dispatcher that her son had weapons. Unfortunately, that information was not passed on to the police officers.

According to the Pittsburgh Police, if the officers had known that someone had a gun they would have responded to the dispute with more caution. Fraternal Order of Police President James Malloy, a retired police officer, said in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, "You approach the house with a different attitude. You approach the house from a distance. You park your car a distance away from the house so you can hit the dirt."

How did such a terrible communication failure happen? In this case the mother of the alleged killer called 911 and spoke to a 911 dispatcher who typed the information she was hearing onto a computer screen. That information was then sent electronically to a police dispatcher, who read it and sent it to the police officers.

Robert P. Harvey, the 911 communications manager, said in the Post Gazette, "When she (the dispatcher) put 'no weapons,' we swear that she meant to put, 'no weapons involved.' " So, we find that three young men lost their lives over one word.

If this only happened rarely, we'd have no reason to be concerned. However, it happens often. A few years ago, for example, two US Marine fighter pilots died when their F16 crashed upon landing. When investigators recovered the plane's flight recorder, they found that the pilots had shut off power to their aircraft just as they were landing. Then, when the investigators listened to the voice recorder, they heard the pilot say to the co-pilot, "Take off power." They listened to that message again and again until it occurred to them that the pilot was trying to tell the co-pilot to accelerate, to use the power that is needed upon take off.

I had a similar experience as Communication Director at a large, urban teaching hospital. One day, the CEO called me into her office to warn me that the organization might be receiving some negative media attention. I asked why and she told me that one of our nurses had killed one of our patients.

"How did that happen?" I asked.

"Well," the CEO said, "the oncologist ordered 350 grams of chemotherapy for a week, and the nurse interpreted that as every day for a week, So, the nurse essentially poisoned the patient on the first day of treatment."

"What you're telling me is that the patient died because of a preposition," I said.

"What are you talking about?" the CEO responded, rather irritably.

"The word 'for'" I said. "The patient died because of the preposition 'for' in that sentence."

"Right," the CEO said, waving me out of her office. "Just make sure you don't say that to the media."

I don't remember what I said to the media, but I'm glad I didn't have to be the one who explained it to the patient's family.

No amount of words can fix what a few words have broken. "Hindsight is 20-20", of course, and we can't know what would have happened if the officers had been told "no weapons involved" instead of just "no weapons." Maybe they would have defended themselves and lived. And, maybe if the nurse had asked the doctor to clarify the message of "350 grams for a week" that patient would still be with us. We'll never know. I do know this, though, I am glad I wasn't the 911 dispatcher who said, "No weapons." That phrase will haunt her for the rest of her life, as it will surely haunt the families of the dead policemen.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Say what?

I was invited, along with the rest of the CMU community, to attend, in February, an "Intelligence Seminar" on "Intelligent Preference Assessment: The Next Steps?" This was to be led by Craig Boutilier, Professor and Chair, Department of Computer Science, University of Toronto. I didn't make it. I'll tell you why.

Let me give you the first sentences of the invitation:

"Preference elicitation is generally required when making or recommending decisions on behalf of users whose utility function is not known with certainty. Full elicitation of user utility functions is infeasible in practice, leading to an emphasis on approaches that a) attempt to make good recommendations with incomplete utility information; and, b) heuristically minimize the amount of user interaction needed to assess relevant aspects of a utility function."

Got that? Good. Let me know what it means. I was hung up on the first two words and didn't do too well after. I guess my utility function wasn't know with certainty. Maybe it just wasn't functioning.

I put this before you, not because I attempt to make recommendations with incomplete utility function or heuristically minimize the amount of user interaction. I put it before you to show you how not to communicate.

I know, I know, you're going to say that the writing is intended for a technical audience and that the technical audience will understand Dr. Boutilier when he goes on to say, ""Current techniques are, however, limited in a number of ways: (i) they rely on specific forms of information for assessment; (ii) they require very stylized forms of interaction; (iii) they are limited in the types of decision problems that can be handled."

Well, I will respectfully disagree. You see, Dr. Boutilier begins his second paragraph in English. He says, "In this talk, I will outline several key research challenges in taking reference assessments to a point where wider user acceptance is possible. I will focus on three three (sic) current techniques that we're developing that will help move in the direction of greater user acceptance. Each tackles one of the weaknesses discussed above." Kinda sounds human, doesn't it?

Academic writing typically takes the form you see above. The author, desiring greatly to impress his/her colleagues, begins by using the longest words (typically jargon) and longest sentences he/she can imagine. After preening his/her feathers and puffing the pecs, the writer experiences a reality check and writes reasonably understandable language, knowing that if he/she is completely unintelligible, the students may stay away, those who have not been forced to attend by their teachers.

Then, finding himself (or herself) becoming reasonably intelligible, the writer, again conscious that the peers are watching, moves back to more jargon and highfalutin' language. To wit: Dr. Boutilier continues: "The first two techniques allows (sic) users to define 'personalized' features over which they can express their preferences. Users provide (positive and negative) instances of a concept (or feature) over which they have preferences."

This kind of language exists to impress rather than to express. It is used to exclude rather than to include. And, it works beautifully. Fortunately many scientific writers have the confidence not to write this way. They write to express; they write to communicate; they write to include. They craft their writing using plain language that includes short words, short sentences and short paragraphs with only necessary technical language. They strive for a response that says, "I see!" (Imagine a light bulb going on over the reader's head), not a response that says, "Say what?"

BTW, I'm open to anyone who can translate the first sentences for us!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

You sent what???

Did you ever send an e-mail and wish you had it back? E-vidently it's an e-pic problem in higher e-ducation. Check this out from MSNBC:

"New York University officials weren't laughing when hundreds of people mistakenly received word that they'd been accepted to grad school on April Fools' Day. NYU says it sent out acceptance e-mails April 1 to 489 applicants to the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Those applicants should have received rejection letters instead. The school sent out a second e-mail about an hour later to the applicants, saying they hadn't been accepted after all."

That was April 1, 2009. Now check this story from the day before, March 31, 2009, as reported in the San Diego Union Tribune:

"The University of California, San Diego accidentally sent a welcome e-mail to about 29,000 applicants who had been rejected.The e-mail sent Monday evening invited all 47,000 students who applied to an admitted students' day on campus.UCSD Admissions Director Mae Brown apologized for the mistake Tuesday and explained that the e-mail was supposed to go to about 18,000 accepted students.Less than two hours after the error, she sent out another mass e-mail apologizing for distress it may have caused to anxious applicants and their families, Brown told The Associated Press."

Then we have this from the LA Times about a December 2008 higher e-ducation e-mail accident:

"Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management said a technological glitch caused erroneous notices of acceptance to be sent to about 50 students who had not been admitted last year."

And, this message of e-ducation e-rror comes from a 2003 report in the New York Times:

"In 2003, Cornell University sent welcoming letters to 1,700 high school students who had submitted early-decision applications, including nearly 550 who had already been rejected in December."

Duke University did the same thing a few years back, as did their neighbor, UNC at Chapel Hill. Are we starting to see a pattern here? Do the academics at our institutions of higher learning not get the picture. Are these people not reading about each other? Is e-mail really that troublesome? Well, yes, of course it is. Why do you think they call it "e-vil mail" and "e-vidence mail"? It gets a lot of people in trouble. We type; we send. We have a brain fart in between.

Certainly this happens e-verywhere, not just in the hallowed halls. So, what's to be done about this modern malady? I see the problem with e-mail this way. We love the speed. We love the power. We need a lag. We need a tool that suspends all e-mail messages so that we can read them again before we send them. You know, examine them for e-vidence of e-diocy and/or stupidity.

E-mail is hyper fast and hyper e-asy. We need something to slow us down. I'm not talking about hours of lag, just minutes. E-ven if we have to wait ten minutes, we will likely reduce the numbers of e-rroneous e-mails by half (and that will cut costs in half). And, these are just the e-mails that don't flame somebody e-lse. For those messages that are dripping with invective, we need to wait a day, at least! We know that e-mail makes shouting and snarling e-asy! It gives us the power of snark! But, it then gives us the resulting guilt and regret. To some of us, it gives infamy.

As for infamy, ask Neal Patterson from the software firm, Cerner, in Kansas City, whose flaming e-mail message to his managers in 2001 caused his company to lose over $300 million of its valuation and landed him in hot water with his shareholders whose stock price fell from $44/share to $30/share in three days. That bonehead e-mail also landed Patterson in the New York Times Technology section and in half a dozen communication text books and thousands of blog posts. I'm guessing, he'd vote for an e-mail lag system. He doesn't e-ver want to hear his shareholders scream at him again, "You sent what??"

Friday, April 3, 2009

It ain't about you!

Just about every day I have students who ask me to look at their resumes and cover letters. I usually tell them two things about their cover letters: 1) Your cover letter is boring, 2) It talks too much about you. This hurts and puzzles them. Then I explain.

"Look," I say, "you're a great person, but no one really wants to hear about you. If you go down to the local pub and start telling some nice-looking lady or guy how wonderful you are, they'll either pour a beer on your head or run away screaming. But, if you tell them how wonderful they are, watch their eyes light up. Watch them buy you a beer!"

Obviously if you approach someone without the right panache and sincerity, they might still dump a Miller Lite on your cranium. No one wants to be flattered. But they (we) never tire of hearing sincere compliments about ourselves. In the case of a cover letter (and a resume), the recipient wants to know how what you are saying will help them fill some need of theirs, not yours (as in, I need a job!).

So, assuming you've first got the reader's attention (by the way, you can grab their attention in a cover letter by: 1. asking a question, 2. citing a great quote, or 3. telling a brief and interesting story), the next thing you do is tell them how you will fill their needs.

For example, you may begin your cover letter by asking a question, "What does Microsoft want in new hires?" After you ask the question (and have their attention), you give the answer (they be waiting for it). "Microsoft wants dedicated, enthusiastic, energetic, educated and self-motivated engineers." Then, you quote your previous boss, Joe Bagadonuts, who said, "Billy Bob was the most energetic and enthusiastic young guy ever to come to us from CMU." The rest of the letter shows how you understand the needs of Microsoft and highlights the many successes you have had in your young life producing just the kind of outcomes Microsoft requires. In other words, you write about them!

I tell my students that nothing they write is about them - cover letters, resumes, memos, e-mails, reports, RFP - none of it, not even a love letter (especially not a love letter). Anyone who receives a written message of any kind asks 1. why did you write to me, 2. what do you want me to do, 3. why should I care? In other words, they're saying, "Tell me quickly how this message benefits me because I got 230 e-mail messages today, 72 IMs, 43 tweets, 61 telephone calls, 11 letters and a partridge in a pear tree. I'm too busy to screw around."

This is doubly true for someone who is receiving 322 letters and resumes for one job opening. If your letter is one among the multitudes, you need to grab the reader's attention and differentiate yourself , which you can do by writing an interesting cover letter and showing the reader that you understand his/her/the company's needs.

The writing is not about the writer. Who is it about? The Audience. Right, always the audience! Or, as Peter Drucker said, "It is the recipient who communicates. The so-called communicator does not communicate. He utters. Unless there is someone who hears, there is only noise." And, they ain't gonna hear about you if all you talk about is yourself.

Don't add to the noise. Know the reader's needs. Connect with the reader. When you write your cover letter, put yourself inside the reader. Write from the reader's point of view. Remember, whatever you write, "It ain't about you!"

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Make your resume more than an obituary.

As I was on my way to class, a student brought me his resume and asked me to look at it. I did. I told him it looked like an obituary, something they'd write about him in the newspaper after he dropped dead. I told him, as subtly as possible, his resume was one of the most boring I had ever seen. He told me forlornly that he was told to do it that way at career services, just like everyone else. I told him that was a big problem because the world is over saturated with boring messages that clutter our minds and distract us. I told him he needs to cut through that clutter with a focused, and differentiating, message that promises some benefit to the reader.

"How do I do that?" he implored.

"You need to attract the reader's attention," said I, "and create interest and appeal. You need to show the employer QUICKLY, how you can satisfy some need at his/her company. And, while you're at it, you need to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack. The HR departments are getting 322 resumes for each job and you need to make yourself stick out."

"How do I do that?" he implored.

"You can start," I said, "by writing, not your employment objective, which no one cares about, but a 'Profile,' a profile that says you are everything the employer has ever wanted in an employee."

"How do I do that?" he implored.

"Simple," I said. "Just write something like this: 'An enthusiastic, energetic, self-motivated, CMU-educated engineer with corporate experience and proven outcomes.' Then, create a section called 'Special Accomplishments' and cite some of your more impressive accomplishments. But, make sure they are measurable, that is, show some proven outcomes from some projects you worked on, some results. When employers look at the results you've created for others, they translate them into results you will create for them."

"How do I do that?" he implored.

"Look," I said, "this ain't brain surgery. Take any of your experiences, preferably work experiences, and talk about a 3% increase in volunteers, or a 4% increase in customer satisfaction, or a 7% increase in productivity. Surely you've worked on something, in college or at a job, that attempted to create some results."

He smiled. I thought he might be getting the picture, so I continued, "You need to think of finding a job as a marketing activity, that is, find out what the customer wants and provide it. Or, demonstrate clearly how you can provide it better than the competition, the other 321 people who applied for the same job. Think strategy. Think Michael Porter: be the cost leader, be different, or be focused."

"How do I do that?" he implored. (I was beginning to think he only knew five words.)

"Use the key words that every employer looks for (managed, coordinated, developed, created, and so on), but add the results. And, in the 'Work Experience' section, instead of just writing that you were a coder for Cognizant, talk about Cognizant and its clients. Suppose they worked with IBM, BONY, Coca Cola, and other big brand names. If so, use those words in your resume. Each word carries associations that rub off on you when you use them. Don't talk about yourself in this section; talk about Cognizant, the $20 billion company."

"Oh," he said, the smile widening. I saw that he was beginning to get it.

So, I continued. "Look, kid, these are words on a piece of paper. You can make them boring or interesting. It's your call. You get to pick the words that represent your life, regardless of what career services says. When you choose words with no life, you create an obituary. So, promote yourself as if you were a product. Labor over every word. Give your writing energy and life."

I began to move away from him because I was expected at class, and I felt that I had enlightened him. As I walked down the hall, he hurried to catch up and stepped in front of me. "Will you look at my cover letter?" he asked.

"How do I do that?" I implored. "I have to go teach." He looked downcast and I added with a smile, "But, come see me later. I have lots of opinions about cover letters!"