Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Writing Is Not About Perfection

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a feature of this blog that focuses on basic tips to help you communicate effectively.  This time I want to share some thoughts about one of my personal writing mottoes, which is: "There's a million different ways to say something."

I tend to quote that motto to myself when I'm getting too wrapped up in writer's perfectionism.

Do you ever feel that you need to find the one perfect phrase that will capture your idea as nothing else can?  If you do, I can relate. Sometimes I can get so steeped in my search for perfect expression that I end up stifling my creativity.  I must often remind myself that there is no one right way to say anything.  In fact, the richness of our English language gives me many possibilities, each one as potentially valid as the next.

When I struggle too hard to turn my thoughts into just the right words, it's not good.   I tend to freeze in fear under the severe spotlight of my own criticism.  I lose my focus and become fretful. I clench up in frustration, and become fatigued by the effort of trying to steer, white-knuckled, down the too-narrow road of my own high expectations.

Here are some ideas that I -- and you -- can use to get out of that state of paralysis, and back into the easy-going, curious, nimble frame of mind that is the key to composing a fine and fun piece of prose.

1. Writing is Care-Giving

When I get so charged up about writing wonderfully, I need to pull myself aside and give myself a smack-down talking to.  I need to remind myself that writing is not about impressing. It's about helping. Writing is, in a sense, an act of caring.  You care about your message -- you care about getting other people to understand it -- so you carefully construct a verbal framework that helps people get from where they are (in their understanding right now), to where you want them to end up (after you tell them what you want to tell them).

An awesome author named C.S. Lewis once said that the act of writing is like shepherding a flock of sheep down a country lane.  Your main job, he said, is to close off all the gates and doors that lead to the side alleys and backyard gardens where you don't want your charges to go.  When you've removed all of those false assumptions that would allow your readers to go off track, and you cause them to understand the correct thing by default, you have done your job. Searching for the right words is not as important as removing the wrong words so your "flock" can find their way safely home.  (I wish I could find the source of this C. S. Lewis  quote which I remember reading long ago, but it's lost to me now.  If anyone knows where to find it, please tell me!)

If you can put yourself in your reader's shoes -- or brain, I guess -- and serve up a series of words that helps him find his way, then you are doing your utmost to care for him.  And there is no one right way to care for people.  Rather, caring puts the emphasis on the outcome, not the output.

2. Writing is a Craft

As writers, we need to remind ourselves that we're engaged in a craft, and each of us is formulating a distinct style of craftsmanship.  Differences are good.  Like the photo above, where each row house wears a different color that proudly reflects the tastes of its owner, each of us applies a different perspective to the writing we do, and it's all beautifully and randomly appropriate.  Writing's not just plain, stark construction.  Neither is it pure, sweeping creation.  It's a mix of the two.  Some days we'll feel more in tune with our inner artist than others.  But carpenters can still make a bench, even when they don't feel inspired.  We need to pay practical attention to our craft, and be diligent about pursuing artistic excellence -- but not to the point of getting upset with ourselves.  There's a job to be done.  Let's bang it out first, and sand it down later. Just get the project underway.

3. Writing is Kitschy

Don't take yourself too seriously, you writing fool.  It's all so subjective, after all.  Fads, fashions, common knowledge, connotations, persuasions and your own perceptions all change constantly.  You're not writing for the ages.  You're writing for the moment.   Just get over it.  Realize that you may very well recoil in embarrassment some day in the future when you read again the words you just put a final polish to ten minutes ago.   It's very likely that some of the phrases that sound so elegant at this present stage of your writing career will cause you crushing mortification later on.  It doesn't matter, because the opposite is also true: someday you will unearth a utilitarian piece of writing that you forged in haste today, never giving it a second thought -- and you will be astounded by its brilliance. In the kitschy words of a current catchphrase: "What-ever!"

4.  Writing is Just Kindergarten, All Over Again

It never pays to get too rigidly self-absorbed with your writing.  We're all kindergartners, trying our best to write the alphabet on our paper, our tongues sticking out and our erasers at the ready.  What was it that our kindergarten teachers used to say?  "Just do your best."  And then, when we cast our eyes enviously over at our classmate's solid capitals marching stoutly across the page, then woefully looked back at our own limping letters, what did our kindergarten teachers do?  They circled the best A on our tablet and said, "That's wonderful!  Try to make the rest of them like that."   

We need to speak the same self-encouragement into our own writing efforts, today and every day.  And when we get frustrated because those efforts don't result in perfection, we need to remember:  There is no perfection.  There's just a story to tell.  Then we need to affirm, "There's a million different ways to tell this story... " and forge ahead, applauding ourselves for giving it a shot.

How do YOU talk yourself off the ledge of literary perfectionism?  Leave a comment and let us know!  

Monday, September 24, 2012

Manager Mondays: The Gap in Customer Expectations, Part 2

In this week's Manager Mondays post, we tell a horror story as we revisit the problems that pop up when employee performance doesn't match your brand messaging.

This blog's first post on this subject talked about the critical importance of making sure your employees are aware of your website's current content.  But there's another dimension to the gap between your glossy brand image and your customer's actual experience.

Swindled By The Shack

My son Pete arrived last Tuesday from Europe, where he now resides full-time.  He was looking forward to a month-long visit back in the United States.  One of his first tasks was to start up his iPhone, since his regular cell phone service contract doesn't extend to this continent.  He wanted to get it to function stateside for four weeks, data plan and all.  Where to go for help?

Radio Shack was nearby, and having been told about its new brand emphasis as the one-stop shop for smart phones, Pete walked in. He hadn't been inside a Radio Shack for years, so the store's drastic redesign elements were new to him.  Expensive shelving installations, displays, and signage gave the premises a fresh, techno feel. Radio Shack has done a lot to revamp its image in the past few years, both on its website and at its locations.  It certainly seemed like a cool and different world in there.

The coolness extended to two staff people who were stationed behind a modern-looking circular counter in the center of the sales floor.  One of them, a woman, looked up.  She did not smile.  (Maybe it's not cool to smile?)  "What's up?" She said. (Her greeting sounded more like a tweet.)

Pete held up his phone and explained what he wanted.  The Radio Shack man asked one question: "Is it a 4 or a 4S?"  He pulled out a SIM card in a blister pack, which he sold to Pete for $25.00.  Pete asked what his new American phone number was, and he was told that to get it he would need to install the SIM card, then call AT&T.  Transaction over.

After going home and following these instructions, Pete learned the following during his call with AT&T:

  • he didn't have a new phone number;
  • his phone wouldn't work without a contract;
  • his new SIM card hadn't come with a contract;
  • AT&T could sell him a contract;
  • if he gone to an AT&T store first, he would have been sold the same contract -- and given the SIM card for free.  
Pete went back to Radio Shack to complain and ask for a refund.  "Sorry, we can't refund SIM cards once they're out of the box," the "What's Up?" woman told him. When Pete said that AT&T would have given him one for free, her male compatriot pointlessly pointed out that SIM cards cost Radio Shack $24.99 and they weren't making any money on the sale.

Politely, Pete clarified that since he had clearly stated that he wanted to equip his iPhone with an American phone plan, he felt that he had been misled to believe the SIM card came with a plan.  He said that when the Radio Shack people said to call AT&T, he had assumed that the call would be about activating a plan -- not purchasing one from scratch. So now he was wondering, if they couldn't take their SIM card back, what else could the Radio Shack people do to make it right?

What do you think should have happened at this point?  Should the Radio Shack representatives have:

  • made an exception, taken back Pete's card, and issued a refund?  
  • called AT&T to try to get him a better deal?
  • offered to pay for at least part of the AT&T plan?
  • offered him one of their own no-contract phones for free for a month?  
  • offered him store credit?
  • given him a coupon?
  • at least let him pick out a nice iPhone case from their beautiful redesigned product display wall, to partially compensate him for his trouble?

Here's what did happen.  The Radio Shack man said:  "Look, you asked for a SIM card and I sold you a SIM card."

Whoa.  That's right.  Go back and read it again.  Radio Shack didn't give him anything, except a revised history of the problem which placed the blame on Pete, the customer. Pete's communication had been faulty. So now Pete was stuck.

This is Exhibit A for what NOT to do, and Radio Shack did it.

What's the moral of this story for you?

If you're a sales manager, no matter how well-informed your sales staff may be about your product line, if they don't know how to listen to the client, then tailor your company's products and services to the client's needs, they're still not knowledgeable enough.

Lost Connections

People expect a lot when they speak with your company representatives. They expect what they hear from your people to match what they saw on your website.  They expect your folks to at least try to fulfill the promises you made in your advertising.  But most of all, they expect to get something they want or need.

In my opinion, you're already approaching the danger zone when your staff starts a conversation with "What's Up?" instead of "What can I do for you?"  And you're certainly in trouble when your staff is so eager to sell something that they don't take the time to make sure it's what the customer had in mind.

A huge part of brand identity is simple quality of service.  If your staff can't treat your customers right, your glitzy new promotional campaign doesn't matter, and neither does your store decor.  No matter how glamorous your website is, if your staff isn't paying attention to your customers' needs, your company is still doomed to sink into the crowded field of mediocrity that makes up the bulk of any industry.  Without skilled, enthusiastic and responsive service, all your highly-engineered "wows" will turn into one big expensive "meh."  Or worse.

Pete held onto his useless SIM card, took it to an AT&T store and bought a plan from AT&T.   With his iPhone finally working, he immediately called several friends to arrange his stateside social calendar.  The next day, he met up with his old college posse at a Manhattan dance club.  The day after that, he had breakfast at a diner with relatives, then attended a wedding in Brooklyn.  And so on.  And he did it all with his iPhone in his hand.

How many people do you imagine have heard his "I Was Swindled By Radio Shack" story by now?

How many of your clients are carrying around -- or driving in --or looking at -- or using on a daily basis -- things that remind them of the disappointing service they got from your company?

Have you communicated a clear service delivery plan to your client-facing staff?  Do they know that you want them to listen first, and sell later?  Or are they going for the sale so diligently that they are wrecking your service image in the process?

Training programs cost time and money, so a lot of companies don't have them (though I think they would see a big spike in revenue if they did).  If you're in charge of a sales team, and your company hasn't provided a customer service training program, guess what -- you're their training program.  You need to give adequate messaging about the importance of customer service so that your sales staff at least knows to do four things:

  1. Listen to the customer.
  2. Meet the customer's needs.
  3. If you can't meet the customer's needs, find someone who can.
  4. Never blame the customer.
If your troops can't cover those four bases, you shouldn't stay in business.

By the way, if anyone out there is looking for a great customer service training program for their client-facing staff, check out this link: 

Even if you're not in charge of a sales staff, if you're in charge of ANY staff at all, tell your people to treat people like people.  Make sure they have the systems and tools to do it.  Make sure their compensation plan and employee recognition programs reward them for good people skills, not just productivity -- because in the long run, success comes from helping people, not from being productive.

Keep communicating the importance of putting people first, not only by your lofty words, but by your living example.

When was the last time you coached your team on how to listen?

When was the last time you listened to your team?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Remarkable Handouts

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, where we present tips and tools to help your communications achieve maximum impact.  Today we're handing out ideas about meeting handouts.

In Bel Kaufman's 1964 novel  Up The Down Staircase, the opening chapter finds the protagonist, new high school teacher Sylvia Barrett, distributing materials to her first class of students.  She starts to announce, "I'm passing out..." but gets no further as a class comic shouts "She's passing out!  Give her air!"

For a teacher, trainer, speaker, or other event communicator, the stress of producing and passing out effective participant handouts is real.  The whole situation can be enough to make any live presenter faint.

Why are handouts so problematic?  Because they:

  • load an extra layer of complexity onto any live presentation project; 
  • are a pain to print, copy and ship;
  • balloon an event's budget (for the above printing, copying and/or shipping, plus storage fees in some cases);
  • need an accurate audience count to avoid producing too many or too little;
  • tend to cause delivery angst -- such as when you're minutes away from start time and your UPS tracking report still says "on truck;"
  • often require time-consuming collating and staging at the venue;
  • are cumbersome for recipients to handle as they pile up on laps or under seats;
  • present difficulties if users must write on flimsy pages without desks or tables to lean on.
For all these reasons and more, handouts are usually the source of eleventh-hour issues which you, as a content creator or event producer, would much rather avoid.  That's why lots of people skip handouts altogether.  Others contract with print on demand services to produce them, but this can be extremely pricey.  I've staged events where the print-on-demand handbooks cost significantly more than each person's catered dinner.

For many projects, fluidity is an added issue.  It seems that event organizers always feel that they can keep adding to or changing their presentation right up until show time -- and then they want the handouts to be revised, too.  This means they can't be finalized until right before the event.  Sometimes,even when you hold off production till the last minute, your handouts still turn out to be outdated and inaccurate in some embarrassing fashion.  Once, at a national manager training conference, I sat in a hotel storeroom and clipped out the full-page bio of the CFO from a couple of hundred staple-bound booklets -- he had mysteriously left the company the day before.

So I want to present my preferred method of handout production, which mitigates some of these issues and eliminates others altogether.  

The Pocket Packet

Solution # 1: Pre-stage the folder.  If you invest in a large-quantity purchase of two-pocket folders, you can produce professional-looking handouts quickly and flexibly.  A folder is easy to stuff, convenient to carry, makes a strong impression, provides a sturdy surface for writing, and is much less likely to be thrown out or left behind -- meaning it will automatically strengthen your presentation's effectiveness simply because your recipient will keep the material.  To go the folder route:

a. Shop the office supply websites for good deals ahead of time.  If you have no budget to speak of, just choose the cheapest two-pocket folder you can buy and order it as-is.  Try to share costs with another colleague within your organization who also has a handouts-inclusive project.  Or get a donor to buy the folders as a sponsor, and promise that you'll include the donor organization's logo or promotional flyer in the finished packet.
b. If you have the budget for it, you can have folders custom printed with your own organizational logo.  Don't print anything event-specific on the folder, though -- you want to be able to use your extras for other projects once your presentation is over.   
c. You can customize plain folders with your own own labels, produced with Microsoft Word's Labels function (found on the Mailings tab in Word 2010), Avery precut labels, and your own printer.

Solution # 2: Separate the elements production.  Now that you have a vehicle in which to house your handouts, you can put each one on a separate production schedule as necessary.  

a. If you have many contributors to your event's materials, you can simply make each originator responsible to get you their finished material by a comfortable deadline, in appropriate quantities.  This removes you from the crisis-crunch of last-minute revisions.  Your contributors now have that hassle, not you.
b. If you will be the one supplying the content, you can plan to subdivide it according to relative time sensitivity.  This means that you can hold off printing anything that is not yet finalized, but reduce costs by printing ahead of time any elements that are approved and ready to go. No more holding up the works because you have one blank spot that still needs to be filled in. 

Solution # 3: Use "pick and pack your own packet" distribution.  Depending on your event, you can often stage your handouts so that recipients pick them up and put them together as they enter the room.  

a. Start the ball rolling at the reception desk, where you hand each person a folder when they register.  Then direct them to a table by the room entrance where your produced pages are set out in stacks, buffet-style.
b.  The folder holders go down the line, stuffing their own materials.  Surprisingly, no one ever complains about this do it yourself approach. You save time, and your audience gets a bit of a teaser about the presentation as they look over the handouts prior to start time. 
c.  If you don't want to reveal some handout contents until later, give the folder first, then do a pass-around for each insert at the appropriate point in the presentation. 
d.  If different subgroups need different sets of handouts, you can set up your pick-up point with signs to guide recipients to the exact complement of pages targeted for them.  This beats trying to create different subsets of materials ahead of time in sufficient quantities for each audience type.
e.  If the handouts are better distributed after the presentation, place the folders and contents on a table by the exit during the event, so they're ready for recipients to grab on their way out.  Tip:  You can still organize them buffet-style and have people stuff their own folders, but you might want to have personnel standing by to remind tired event-goers to take all the sheets that are coming to them.

Solution #4:  Use email as an easy remedy for materials shortages.  If the quantity was underestimated and you run out of some materials, circulate a sign-in page so that people can request emailed copies.  Since your materials are only pages for insertion -- not printed booklets -- they can easily be emailed as attachments.

Handouts are sometimes vital, and even when they're not, they enhance live presentations in so many ways that they are worth the time and effort to produce.  With  the Pocket Packet system, you can create customized handouts that look great, fit everyone's needs -- and never cause you to faint.  Remarkable!

Do you have other handout solutions that you love?  Share them!  Leave a comment below.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Manager Mondays: "Friendly-Formatting" Documents for Success

This week's Manager Monday's post is a a further elaboration on the ideas from last week's Friday Fundamentals post.  If you haven't read that post yet, you can click here to link to it now.  Read about Visual Space and Symmetry first, then read on to find out more about the concept of formatting documents well for good workforce messaging.  

The other day, while sorting through past projects, I came across a booklet that I had produced some years ago.  It was an orientation guide that outlined the responsibilities for a particular role at my old firm called the Location Coordinator.

Before I produced this booklet, this role was usually assigned to individuals by their manager in a very informal way -- typically via a hurried phone call.  Since it was poorly defined, involved many varied tasks, and managers tended to put their own spin on what was involved, people hardly ever knew exactly what they were agreeing to; they tended to take on the role as a favor, or to build up their hours to become benefits-eligible.  So it was no surprise that after a while each Location Coordinator seemed to have their own definition of exactly what their job entailed.  Plenty of rogue, unauthorized behaviors resulted as different people interpreted responsibilities differently.

The orientation booklet's mission was threefold:

1.  Make sense of the mishmash that this role had become, and give everyone a clear and standardized picture of what success looked like.

2.  Give managers an easy tool to use when they walked through the role's responsibilities with potential candidates.

3.  Give existing Location Coordinators a document that they could check to see if their own assumptions about the role were complete and accurate -- and that they could use as a basis to self-correct if they had been doing things wrong.

To accomplish these objectives, and to help users have the most positive experience, I developed the booklet using a distinctive process that I call Friendly Formatting.

1.  First I documented all of the actual Location Coordinator tasks.  Which parts were real, and which parts were urban legend?

2.  I then sorted all the actual tasks into different buckets according to category, such as Promotional Activities, Inventory Control, Facility Upkeep, Manager Support, etc.

3.  I gave each category a single page in the booklet, and put all of its relevant information on that one page only.  

4.  Each page's task overview followed the same progression:
   - the category title;
   - a check list of all regular tasks in that category, with short descriptions;
   - an additional "From Time To Time" check list for other tasks in that category that needed to be performed less often.

5.  To enhance the user-friendly tone of the document, I included some other design elements on every page:
     - a clip art illustration that represented the category in a perky, can-do way;
     - a Getting Started section with tips about what to do first;
     - a bank of blank lines for note-taking;
     - plenty of white space between sections and in the margins.

The booklet was a success.  Its cohesive formatting allowed managers to walk through the job with their prospective new hires and explain, point by point, how everything fit together.  Now all it took was a short conversation for a new hire to feel informed and equipped to succeed.  Existing Location Coordinators could now make sure they were spending their time in task-appropriate ways.  If questions arose, they could point to their booklets to verify whether something was their responsibility.

Certain key elements of this piece's "friendly formatting" style resulted in particularly big wins for the project:

  • The One Task, One Page structure meant that each big idea had its own space to live.  The structure helped users take it one page at a time, and this made the role seem more doable.  Otherwise, the wide variety of tasks might have seemed arbitrary and confusing, and newbies might easily have been overwhelmed by all their responsibilities.
  • The checklists gave reassurance.   They enabled both employee and manager to feel confident that nothing was omitted, and that each knew what the other expected.  They gave solid boundaries to each aspect of the Location Coordinator role, and ensured that no one would be blindsided later by new obligations they hadn't known were part of their commitment.  They also limited the range of initiatives that new Location Coordinators could assign themselves, since the booklet clearly said to consult the manager before doing anything else.
  • The spatial balance on each page implied simplicity.  Having lots of empty space in the margins and between each section invited users to "sit down and get comfortable" with each group of ideas before going on to discover the next.   When managers used it as a walk-through orientation document, these breaks gave them natural cues to ask their candidate, "Any questions?  Are you good with that?" before they moved on
  • The Getting Started section helped people ease themselves into transition mode as they mentally rehearsed the first action steps they would need to do.  It was, in essence, a transitional game plan.  People want action-oriented specifics when they contemplate taking on new responsibility.  This section gave them that.
  • The blank Notes section encouraged ownership and initiative by inviting people to record their own ideas, reactions,  questions and strategies.   If something came up later that the text didn't address, they could add new information as they continued to make the role their own.   This was also the place to record more mundane location-specific details that would enhance their ability to do their job, such as when dumpster pick-up happened, or the phone number of the plumber.  
In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how small details make a big difference in people's perception, acceptance, and compliance with behavioral cues. Friendly formatting is all about the small details. The way information is formatted can give a powerful boost to its ultimate effectiveness.  This is especially true when dealing with subjects that require readers to accept change or visualize transition.   When you're depending on a printed document to take your audience to a new level of  awareness, then the all aspects of your presentation are pivotal -- from the font size, to the paragraph size, to the number of items in a checklist, and even the amount of white space around your words.

Leaders, you need to be sure to feed people ideas in right-sized bites so they can absorb them thoroughly and act on them appropriately.  Friendly formatting helps you do that.

A word of warning, though: friendly formatting requires adequate space.  You may have to increase your page count to limit the amount of words on a page, so that you can curtail visual density and keep your tone user-friendly.  For printed documents, this can become a cost factor when you run into additional charges for added pages, so be prepared to get push back from the budget-watchers.  Don't give up your space without a fight, though.  The cost of going to extra pages might seem frivolous, but the return on investment is real.  People pay much more attention to any content if it's presented with enough visual "breathing room."  

Need-to-know information deserves good formatting.  This is part a homegrown communications philosophy I have developed which I call Stage To Engage.  If you want to engage your audience, you need to stage your messaging so that it stands out, stays interesting, and sticks in their memory. But that's a subject for another blog post!

Think about the current vehicles that your company uses to give direction to employees.  Are they online training courses?  Emails?  Posters?  Handouts?  Company website pages?

No matter what medium is used to present them, performance guidelines need to be easy to read and apply.  Are yours formatted for ease of use, so that learners can navigate them quickly to find what they need?  Do they allow transitioning employees to absorb small chunks of newness at a time?  Do they encourage learners to quickly put into practice what they learn, before the new information "goes stale"?

Champion the use of friendly formatting techniques for your workplace's performance-related communications.  If people can easily read, reference and understand what is expected of them, they will be much more likely to remember it and do it.

And isn't higher performance more important than lower page count?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Visual Space and Symmetry

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a great place to fuel up your writing skills with weekly blog reminders of basic tips and tools.  Today we're growing our audience by growing articles that have room to breathe and space for sunlight.

Entering a cafe the other day, I sat down with my friend Tim at a table next to a book rack.  Tim's eyes wandered to the books on display and lit up with recognition.  "I have to show you this!" he burst out, grabbing a title from the shelves.

Judging by his enthusiasm, at first of course I assumed he had found a fabulous read to recommend to me, but another look at his face told me I was wrong.  The glint in Tim's eye had a glimmer of gleeful mischief in it.  He opened up the book in the middle and shoved it under my nose.  "Who would read that?"

Tim, an artist and an animator, is a visual person, and he was showing me a visual nightmare.  The words on the page were cramped and condensed together in small font size.  The font type was a form of serif that was especially difficult to decipher.  The sentences were grouped into paragraphs so lengthy that each one formed a solid square on the page.  The whole effect was miserable -- and that was before my brain even registered any meaning from the text.

"Unbelievable!" Tim exulted, his voice a shade too loud for our urban chic surroundings.  "Who would print something like this?  It's offensive!"

I had to agree.  Flipping through the pages, the sheer density of the content assaulted our eyes like a brick wall.  Even the most sympathetic reader would find it rough going.

"The worst part is, it's is a pretty good book," Tim went on.  "This is a reprint.  I know they were trying to keep costs down by cramming as much text as they could on each page, but..."  He returned it to the rack and shook his head.

I finished his thought. "It doesn't do the book buyer any good if he pays less for the book but then can't get through it because it's so hard to read."

"Exactly." Tim and I sipped our coffee and talked about the perils of publishing.  Whether you write content, like me, or package and illustrate it, like Tim, you quickly learn that presentation dictates reception.

Scroll up to the picture of the tree at the start of this post.  Take a long look at  it. What makes it look so peaceful and bountiful?  Its natural order and symmetry.  Each branch is linked to the others at its root, but each branch has a place of its own in the whole.  Branches do not crowd and curl around each other in competition; there are spaces between each one to let in sunlight and air.

Content should be placed the same way on a page or a screen.  Sentences and paragraphs need to be separate and distinct.  As my high school calligraphy teacher put it, "The space around the letters is just as important as the letters themselves."  Otherwise, a subliminal tension takes over.

Don't waste your brilliant writing by forgetting to format your content so that it is reader-friendly.  Expecting your target audience to wade through dense blocks of text is not only rude, it does your own ideas a disservice.  No one wants to have to thread through a needless thicket of verbiage to stay on the trail of a story.  Avoid eye fatigue.  Keep your sentences short.  Keep your paragraphs pure. And embed your thought stream with spatial resting spots.

In next Monday's post, I will give a practical illustration of how visual formatting plays a pivotal role in employee compliance to behavioral standards.  Be sure to read it!

In the meantime, take a weed whacker to your own writing and see if you can prune away the density and let in more light and air.  You may just get your readers to stick with you.  After all, as you may have noticed, my sentences and paragraphs in this post have been uniformly lean, and the spaces between have been airy -- and you're still reading!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


There are many ways to remember and pay respect.  Societies choose many different ways to mark an important date in history. Their choices tell as much about their priorities as they do about the event they honor.

On the eleventh anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, here in the New York area, bells will toll, names will be read, lights will pierce the sky, prayers will be offered, and leaders will address gatherings.  Also on this day, arguments will continue to rage.  About what needs to be done to ensure a long-term memorial.  About who needs to do it, and who needs to fund it.  About why it's been taking so long to accomplish.

What does this tell us about our society?  I think it says that we New Yorkers are as splintered as ever in our opinions.  That we are impatient, action-minded, and diverse.  That we care about commitment, but we also calculate costs.  That we look for solutions, but lack solidarity.

In short, that we are Americans.

It was that rich combination of traits that inspired the  World Trade Center in the first place.  And I'm just wondering, today, if the most commemorative aspects of 9/11 are the very controversies that still go on about its commemoration.  After all, they capture and showcase the dialogue of a free people.  They mirror the passionate Continental Congress interchanges that are the root and hallmark of our democracy.  They are Norman Rockwell town meetings, fast forwarded into the Internet Age.  They are who we are.

Free communication, free choices, free debate.  It's the heart of America.  It's the precious value that inspired one group of airline passengers to storm the cabin of Flight 93 and bring down those who would destroy it.  It's the hearty cacophony that was suspended that day, as a cloud of dust descended and a hush froze over our skies.

The truth is, most of us here in the New York area don't need any memorials to recall that day.   We lived through it in such harrowing proximity that it is permanently seared on our psyche.  The images that come to mind years later are still as fresh as last week.  Even today's glorious morning weather comes with a painful realization: that day started out just like this one.

But not everyone carries those memories.  Younger New York residents, and younger citizens of the world, need more explicit reminding.  For many of them, that day in history is only a blur of confusion.  The unique audacity of evil that emerged out its clear blue sky has now become a too-familiar theme.   The stories of human bravery that emerged in its aftermath -- bravery that caused all good people of the world to marvel and mourn -- have faded into cliche.

Today I'm sharing an essay I originally posted on September 10th, 2010 on the blog of my esteemed friend, Dr. Bret L. Simmons.  It was originally a response to the 9/11 Tribute Center's call to observe 9/11 memorials in American schools and  preserve its study in students' history classes.  I agree with that plan as a fitting ongoing commemoration of 9/11's story of love and loss. I present that essay again today, below, in heartfelt sympathy and solidarity with all those who were robbed of their friends and loved ones that day, especially my friends Diane, who lost a firefighter nephew, and Loretta, who lost a son-in-law.

There will be many memorials today, all of them different, all of them difficult.  Many diverse people will pause to honor the heroes and victims.  We will allow our memories to drift back again and relive that tragic time when all New York was one in its shock, grief and compassion.  We will be one again.

To "commemorate" means to remember together.   We do.  And we always will.  --  Beth


In Memoriam

The imprint of the Twin Towers attack is deep and personal for those of us who lived and worked in the New York area at the time.
My daughter was in a 7th grade classroom on that day, with her classmate Lauren whose dad worked in the towers. After the second tower fell, I arrived at the school with other anxious parents. We wanted to reassure our kids. The principal met us in the hall to tell us that they had only made a brief announcement, and the kids were having school as usual. She also told us that Lauren’s father was all right. Through a fluke, he had started for work late that day. Driving into Manhattan, he had seen the column of smoke, turned on the radio — and joined dozens of other drivers who were making U turns on the eight lane highway.
Not all parents of seventh graders were so fortunate. Around here, those of us who did not lose a loved one that morning invariably know people who did. Our impressions of 9/11 encompass not only that day, but the days that followed: the frantic phone call, and the relief or pain that resulted. The silence overhead in a sky normally dotted with commercial airliners. The rage and fear each day as we struggled back to our jobs, dreading to hear about another co-worker’s loved one being confirmed as a victim.
We asked, and were constantly asked in return, the code question: “Is your family all right?” We watched fluttering missing persons fliers (“Have You Seen…?”) collect on telephone poles. We held drives to collect bottled water and clean socks for rescue workers down at “the Pile” who ultimately had no one to rescue.
We lived through night terrors and winced at loud noises. Some of us started going to church again. Some of us stayed home. Some of us went into therapy. Some of us should have, but didn’t. Most of us just kept on (and still keep on) getting on the commuter trains, the subways, and the elevators to our cubicles on the 17th, or 27th, or 67th floor.
Today in the New York area, one routinely comes across memorial parks for the fallen — a ring of fifty markers in one community alone. The annual reading of names evokes real faces. The local newspapers’ obituary pages are thick with pictures placed by proud families of young, strong first responders who were last seen heading up a hot stairwell. The sound of the ringing bells echoes down long corridors of memory, bringing back the past in waves of sadness.
Yesterday [Note: this article was first published on Saturday September 9th, 2010] was a day just like that first 9/11 –sunny, bright, in the high 70’s. Crisp and fresh, with a breeze kicking up from the harbor, and a hint of fall in the air. By evening, high clouds had drifted in. I drove with my daughter (who is now 21) to the shore, to a spot where we could see, on the western horizon, the beams of the two searchlights that are lit each year in memory of 9/11.
Unbelievably, she barely remembers anything unusual about that day. We shielded our kids so well. Because of the sadness, and because of the random ferocity of the attacks, it may be understood why parents like me did everything we could to keep things as normal and non-threatening as possible.
For those same reasons, I can understand why we as a society have not taken action yet to show our kids the real truth of 9/11. But looking at those twin beams lighting up the darkness with their fragile shafts, I realized last night that memorials are only as strong as the empowerment we continue to consciously give them.
I applaud the Tribute Center’s efforts. On September 11th, I don’t think our kids should be having school as usual. I hope that instead, our memories, and our sadness, can continue to shed light not only on the events of nine years ago, but on our path going forward.

Read more:

Monday, September 10, 2012

Manager Mondays: A Communications Culture of Respect

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a weekly series of posts about good workforce messaging.  Today we're serving up a mild and mellow brew of ideas about everyday speech patterns that convey respect.

In his thought-provoking book, How Starbucks Saved My Life, Michael Gates Gill describes his transformation from Madison Avenue marketing mogul to broom-wielding, bean-grinding barista.  Along the way, he makes some staggering discoveries that change his perspective about work, life, and happiness.

One thing Gill realizes very early into his tenure at Starbucks is the difference in the communications culture there. For one thing, he notices that his boss, Crystal, never raises her voice at the workers, no matter how aggravated she becomes.  She also never uses crude "street language" to get her point across, and she corrects workers who do.

Gill comes to realize that these small disciplines are meant to uphold the Starbucks "uncompromising principle" that is posted on the wall: "To create a great work environment and treat each other with respect and dignity."

Have you set similar boundaries for yourself regarding your workplace communications style?

As a new Starbucks "Partner," Gill is especially struck by another universal trait of the Starbucks world: whenever anyone wants anyone else on the team to do something, they always ask rather than demand.   "Can you do me a favor?"  "Would you mind restocking the condiments for me?"  "How about working the register today?"   Communications that could have been barked as mandatory commands are gentled into the form of open-ended requests.

Gill observes that this simple choice of sentence format -- phrasing direction as a question instead of an imperative -- makes a profound difference in the atmosphere at his Starbucks store:  "There was never an order given."  He concludes that this practice empowers everyone to care more about each other.  By contrast, he becomes more and more aware of the times when he wants to revert to his "old habits of wanting to be in control, to get people to do things I needed them to do."  Instead of yielding to those impulses, he begins to absorb the concept of teamwork  as he learns to give and receive respect.

Gill notes, "Crystal and my partners at Starbucks... had given me a chance to work and live and see things a new way.  The least I could do was help them by not reverting to my old, prideful, control-freak self.  Yes, I had to admit, I had been a control freak... I had loved ordering people to work overtime or change a headline or even bring me a cup of coffee. I had been a real bad boss.  It was time to be a real good Partner.  I promised myself that I would not get so pumped up with ambition or a crazy self-righteous pride in anything I did that I lost my perspective again."

Ambition?  Crazy self-righteous pride?  Both of these attitudes can take root and manifest themselves all too easily in speech patterns, particularly when one person has a little bit of power over another. It especially shows up in the way some employers give commands to employees.

I have a term for this kind of speech.  I call it "Deal With It" messaging:  the boss issues the edict from on high, and the underlings just have to deal with it.

Would your team say that's your default messaging style?

"Yeah.  So what?" you may shrug.  "They do have to deal with it.  They should get used to the fact."  Maybe you're among the majority population of bosses who assume that it's their right to sound "bossy." If so, be my guest.  But as a workplace communications maven, I have to tell you that the ego-boost of such verbal arrogance comes at a huge cost. You may get legal compliance, but you'll never get loyal camaraderie.   Workers are much less likely to go above and beyond for a boss who makes them feel below and beneath.

On the other hand, asking people to do something, instead of telling them, tends to defuse the polarization that comes with power.  It does so in three ways:

1.  A request implies face-saving limits to authority.  Asking for a person's Yes is a sign of respect for his or her right to say No.   You're not a slave owner, or a dictator. You may own the conditional power to command, but you do not own the absolute power to control.  A request tacitly acknowledges this.  It can elicit the same obedience as a command, but it allows the requested to retain his or her human dignity.  (This is the Starbucks rationale that Michael Gates Gill presents in his book.)

2.  A request results in a voluntary verbal commitment.   "Would you be able to do this?" requires a clear "Yes" or "No" answer in response.  On the other hand, "Do this!" does not. Why does this matter?  Two reasons.  Externally speaking, once a person verbally agrees to take action, that person can be held accountable for follow-through.  Internally speaking,  in the minds of most people, when they agree to take action, that action moves one step closer to reality in their mind's eye -- so it becomes more likely that they will actually do it.  In both respects, the requested person assumes greater ownership of the outcome.

3.  A request loads the pipeline for greater levels of compliance.  Anyone who's done any sales training knows that a person's Yes is a powerful thing.  Sales dialogues are intentionally structured to elicit as many Yeses as possible so that, at the final close, prospects are so used to saying Yes that their final Yes falls right into place.   Asking for action instead of demanding it has a similar effect.   Workers who are given the choice to say Yes to a task will react more positively to the task.  They will also be more predisposed to saying Yes the next time, and the time after that.  A string of verbal commitments given to a series of requests can result in a strong habit of  behavioral compliance.  From the worker's point of view, compliance given to requests feels more evenhanded -- founded on mutual benefit, not merely forced by arbitrary mandate.  It leads to patterns of positive behavior that are powered by an ongoing authentic relationship, not an authoritarian chain of command.

Got it?  Okay, we're out of all that deep psychological water now.  Let me just underscore the idea of respect by saying that, without it, you won't get far in the workplace.  One of my tenets of training design goes like this:

Authentic respect brings enduring results. 

By this I mean that, if you as a leader want the best performance from your people, you need to cultivate respect for them in every way you can, and convey that respect to them in every way you can.   

Do you take the iconic value of respect seriously enough to consistently:
- moderate your voice tones so you never raise your voice?
- limit your workplace to strictly G-rated vocabulary?
- phrase your commands as requests?

If not, now might be the time to revise these aspects of your everyday communications strategy.

Sometimes it takes a major career plummet, the way it did for Michael Gates Gill, before we become aware of how caustic we can sound to those we lead.  Don't wait for that to happen to you.   Don't be the kind of person who needs to have her house of cards fall before she realizes she's been playing the "boss" card way too frequently -- or who has to lose his dictator status before he realizes that everyone is deserving of dignity.

How Starbucks Saved My Life  illustrates many concepts that Starbucks has used to build a dynamic and accountable team culture.  I recommend it!  It's a quick and engaging read for anyone, but especially for anyone in a leadership role who is concerned about improving their team's performance.  A word of warning, though: the performance that you find needs the most improving could be your own!