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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Don't stalk your co-worker. Make an appointment or call instead.

When e-mail isn't fast enough and you really need to see a business contact in person, it is a very good idea to make an appointment.

Before you do something you'll regret, pick up the phone. Phone calls can connect the way they always have, just as we hope that, ideally, e-mails do....and will.

Persevere politely.

If you need information, keep trying to take the courteous route.  If you don't, you may fall prey to one of the greatest temptations that happens when we are driven by personal ambitions to obtain answers we need to what we consider very pressing questions. 

(Unfortunately, the questions that most often feel urgent to us may not seem as urgent to others.  Additionally, it has been my experience that people who frequently have urgent questions are really urgently just seeking some kind of reassurance that he or she is liked. Truly.)  This unfortunate need for attention and how it is expressed becomes especially awkward when you decide to follow your colleague into the bathroom and ask your pressing question while he/she is otherwise engaged.  Even when you loiter politely by the towel rack or hot air dryer that stance is not a wise choice or allows for sufficient space to help someone to feel at ease who is shocked and aware that you are waiting, waiting, stalking, stalking.  (That mumbling you hear from the other side of the stall door is that person calling home or the security patrol, and they are calling about you.  Yes, you.)

Second to this choice in bad judgment of following someone into the restroom is what you consider the more polite choice of waiting outside the restroom to waylay the person on his/her way some place else, like a scheduled appointment for which he/she is focusing his/her thoughts in order to be ready for the meeting. 

Now, it's true the person you have stalked to the restroom might greet you cordially upon exiting, but he/she most likely will have grown cold inside after realizing you have been waiting there, and smile only with the coldest of intentions right after he/she has decided that the flight/fight response triggered by the adrenaline rush of being startled and stalked by you has abated, along with her/his powers of concentration about the forthcoming meeting.

To avoid receiving a cold and deadly smile from someone who now sees you not as a person with a problem but who is one, remember that Queen Elizabeth was once accosted inside her toilette and she had the interloper's head chopped off. 

One can't resort to such extremes in the workplace when one is stalked by people who frequently have emergencies that others have to handle for them or urgently need reassurances that he/she is liked.  One can only say, no, to whatever favor you might urgently have wanted to ask and later post on one's blog:  If something bad ever happens to me, go ask this stalker where he/she was when it happened.

The next time you have pressing issues at work, remember to respect the laws of courtesy and you will have a much stronger chance of receiving a favorable response to whatever urgent issue has driven you to become, instead of a co-worker, temporarily, a stalker.

Monday, October 18, 2010

How to Lose a Sale: Give your philosophy of life instead of answering questions about the product

Grading mid-terms I often write the words "non-responsive to the question" in the margin.  It isn't that the student doesn't know the answer; rather, sometimes the student will write something to justify his/her opinion about the noun located inside the question rather than respond to the question as a whole.

Here's an example:  What are the three main concepts that drive the production of all workplace documents?
The correct answer begins with naming these three concepts:  reader, purpose and occasion.

Instead, a student might begin by writing, "I think emails are important because everyone uses them and format is important because everyone needs to know formats, and I believe that proofreading really counts!"

The three nouns inside that response are good choices to mention in a business writing class but not the answer to the question: they exist to prove that you have picked up some words about writing but you have missed the big picture and settled on details that fit in the margins of the discussion.

Why this matters is because most people going into the workplace will eventually have a product to represent, and not knowing how to answer a direct question directly often allows you to maintain a behavior of not answering the questions that a prospective client or customer might ask. 

Here's an example:  A prospective client asks a fledgling company web-page designer for a rate card, time frame for production and simultaneously provides all of the copy that will need to be on the web page. 

The web page designer, who needs to close the sale before proving himself, replies with a form, saying:  "Fill this out." And then offers a philosophy of doing business with the added claim, "We really believe in ourselves."

No sale.
No sale.
No sale.

That response is about justifying one's self rather than meeting a client's needs.  That void of meeting a prospective client's needs is quite similar to not being able to answer a direct question on a mid-term exam.

If you are working your way through college on your way to working in the non-academic world, pay attention to the words "non-responsive to the question."  There's a fair chance that you will continue that behavior in the workplace where the price paid isn't a poor grade on a test but less money in the profit margin.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Have a great day!

Your day, like mine, is flooded with sentences like "Have a good one!"

We mean it.  But, sentences flung over our shoulders or used as an exiting strategy because saying good-bye when you are leaving feels so final, can also lose their significance.  Further, they can camouflage sentences that look like them in structure but still have real, intentional power.

In short, there are many sentences that look and even sound alike, but they have a different purpose and different levels of powers.

Parting shots:  Have a good day.  Take care!   These are breezy sentences that aid us in transitioning from one place or person to the next.  They don't mean very much in the scheme of human relationships.  And, they have no intrinsic wisdom.

Slogans:  Eat more chikin.  You can do it, we can help.  Have it your way. 
Companies try to sell the spirit of their identity in slogans that they hope we will repeat and associate with them.  They are memory builders.  Oddly, because they sound and look like other types of sentences, cliches, for example, they rarely have power, except for a short while when they exist as buzz phrases or tongue twisters. 

Mantras:  I can do it.  I can do it.  Just do it.  Nike's slogan is also a mantra.  These sentences are meant to be motivational, and for people who believe in the power of talking yourself into a more successful way of life, they have meaning for the people speaking.  But one person's mantra cannot be another person's mantra in the same way that your personal epiphanic moments can't translate into other people's places of catalytic change.

Cliches:  The early bird gets the worm.  A stitch in time saves nine.  Watch your p's and q's.
Often cliches are practical portions of wisdom reduced to a memorable nugget. They are meant to help keep you on the straight and narrow, working for success, while keeping your hands clean and your nose to the grindstone.  Get the idea?  They resemble the kind of advice your mother gave you:  Always say thank you, obey the speed limit and if you don't have anything good to say about someone else, don't say anything.
Cliches help us to feel safe because they are so familiar, but they don't necessarily have motivational power in them.

Proverbs:  Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

Here you have one of many proverbs from the Bible that alerts you to the power of language and how to use it.  The meaning is not readily clear, and you have to live with the idea for a while before the fruit of its meaning blossoms in you,  which is the pace of wisdom growing, not the pace of technology or how fast you can type or read.

That's the primary difference between proverbs and other types of sentences that look like them.

I invite you to read through the book of Proverbs and post your own favorite words of wisdom in a comment for others to see.  Chances are they won't know it, and you will be doing them a favor.  It's always a good idea to share wisdom, and sharing proverbs is as simple an act as telling someone to have a good day. The difference is that proverbs can actually help a person to do that.

Monday, October 11, 2010

D is for Deduction

In a culture that thrives on exploring emotion and confessing deep personal needs and believing that lots of appetite for worldly goods justified the consumption of them, we often forget that there is a different way to approach solving problems in the workplace--and beyond.

That approach is called deductive reasoning, and some people do not even know what it is. The reason that word seems foreign is because there is such an emphasis on feelings and personal experience that the discipline of assessing dispassionately is a skill oft forgotten.  For some it doesn't exist.

But whether one uses it regularly or intentionally, deductive reasoning exists anyway.

Deductive reasoning is the ability to place your personal preferences in the background while you assess the pieces of a puzzle you need to solve.

While there is much to be said about trusting your hunches and your intuition like betting on a horse or not getting on an elevator with a shady character who makes the hairs on your neck stand up, when solving workplace issues, deductive reasoning will more likely serve your cause, and consequently, your career best.

The temptation is to believe that inductive reasoning works everywhere all the time.

But it doesn't.

When people at work don't pay for their own coffee and they're supposed to, having a hunch that you know who the secret sippers are won't be worth much if  you accuse someone who is innocent and you're wrong, and you could be wrong.  Even if you're right, if you don't have proof, there's not much else to do after the accusation is made.  Better to install a nanny cam if monitoring the coffee fund matters that much.

And while trespasses against the coffee fund might not be worth the price of a nanny cam, the emphasis on evidence here is worth it.

If you have a point to prove or a case to make, get the evidence. Free the argument from personal bias, hunches and intuition, because when it comes to arguing your position, you can't assume that other people's hunches, biases and intuition will parallel your own.

But others might view the evidence if you present it.

The next time you have a problem to solve at work (or anywhere), check to see if you are operating on instinct or relying upon analysis of the evidence.  If you have the pieces of the puzzle to solve the puzzle with, use them.

They are much more reliable than the hairs on the back of your neck--or that famous gut instinct.

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.

When was the last time you apologized for making a mistake or for being selfish to the point that someone else bore some unpleasant consequences for your thoughtlessness?

It happens all the time in daily life and in the workplace.

The measure of a professional is how well and how truly he/she apologizes for making a mistake or for causing someone else an inconvenience.

The good news is that we all make mistakes and must, sooner or later, apologize to someone.

In this way, we all share the same burden to know how to apologize well--and what it looks and sounds like when someone doesn't mean what the word "Sorry" says.

I read this apology quite often.  It is an all-purpose word that supposedly covers a multitude of infractions.

It means:  I'm sorry I asked you urgently for help, but when you gave it at midnight, I didn't see your response for a week because I forgot to check my e-mail.

It means:  I forgot to do my job and this caused a ripple effect down the hierarchical ladder, a domino effect that created more work and confusion for more than just you:  Sorry.

When there is no definite explanation for what you are apologizing for, chances are you are only paying lip service to what is expected of you.  People know that.  People take note of that.  No one will tell you that people are drawing conclusions about you from the way that you run over them with your personal ambitions, calling over you shoulder "Sorry" that feels to you like enough--but it's not enough for other people to excuse your action, or ideally, to forgive that misdeed.  And that needs to happen.  It needs to happen because people in a workplace environment need to get along with one another, and they can only do that when the scales of justice are in accord:  all the apologies that need to be said have been said.

Reconsider how you feel about apologizing and what you hope to accomplish.  If you are just getting the apology out of the way by saying one word or even a sentence fragment like "sorry about that" know that people who understand what an apology is supposed to accomplish and what a sincere one means also know what a casual, insincere one represents.

It means you aren't sorry at all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Navigation is not about the writer; it's about the reader.

The successful construction of workplace documents rests upon fulfilling the purpose with regard and respect for the reader and the occasion when the reader will encounter the document.

But once the document is ready, another event must happen:  the reader must be able to navigate the document--that is, use it easily.

For this to happen, there should have always been a "reader first" attitude at work in the writer or builder of the document so that not only will the logic move in concert with the reader's mind but the eyes of the reader will easily interpret the visual cues set up by the writer.

These cues or signals include every symbol on the page--from the words chosen to planting of the art work that leads the eye to the headings and subheadings that keep pointing like arrows:  this way next.

Here you go.

Turn here.



Now, let's move on.

For providing navigational cues for the reader is a step not unlike providing directions to a destination.

Some people are better map followers--better readers--than others.  For those who are word and symbol challenged, respect for design that results in greater ease of use by readers is key to leaving that reader with the impression:  That was not only well written, it was easy to use.

Think about all elements of design when you are planning your next workplace document.  Make sure your ideas are clear. But also make sure that your reader doesn't have to figure out your lay-out design strategy.

The more you develop a "you first" attitude toward the reader, the more successful your workplace document will be. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ethical Writing

Persuasive writing often gains its power to move others because of a moral imperative that we loosely associate with positive moral values.

Because language has this potential power, people who use it well have a responsibility to work from an ethical system.

There are many.

Using language authentically is part of each one.

Using facts honorably is another aspect of ethical writing.

But there are times when you must argue a position, and will rely upon a strategy of presenting your argument that falls into three broad-based categories:   rules-based writing, rights-based writing and utility-based writing.

You probably already know each one represents, but in case the ideas are foggy, here's a quick rundown:

1. Rules-based writing uses a document with rules to justify the logic of the argument.  A company's handbook with the policies in it is an example.  But lawyers rely upon the law and religious folk rely upon their respective holy texts to argue their positions.  Any system of rules that is codified somewhere and is used to justify the position of the writer is considered rules-based ethics.

2.  Rights-based ethics.  In this position, the writer will need to establish a common understanding of what the rights of people are.  These may be referred to in general terms or even assumed. They could even tie-in to different types of rule books where the rights of people are characterized, but the ethics of the position will reflect a respect for human rights.

3.  Utility-based ethics.  Here, the end result, when achieved, justifies the means one takes to reach it.  The profit is the bottom line, and the ethical concern is that you achieved your profit.

Often you are the best judge for whether you are writing ethically or not.  Becoming more aware of your own motivations for writing will help you to judge more accurately if you are arguing ethically.  Respecting your reader will also keep you on the straight and narrow of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

It's not an either/or world just because someone asks you to choose A or B.

Choose A or B is classic sales set up designed to cause you to choose something, most likely something you will pay for.

We are conditioned in our country to want choices.  When we see a choice, we automatically think, yes--now, which one?

That's one of the ways that people mislead or misdirect others in the workplace in all sorts of workplace documents.

Beware of either/or set-ups because you can find yourself on path A or path B when you didn't want to go anywhere at all.

That's one lesson to learn from the focus on making a choice that someone else might set up for you.

But there's more.

Recently, I asked my niece what did she want for breakfast.

"A sausage biscuit," she replied.

"Hardee's or McDonald's?"  I inquired.  A or B?

She shrugged. "A sausage biscuit is a sausage biscuit," she said without equivocating. 

A or B didn't matter.  She just wanted a sausage biscuit.

We found one. 

Not every decision is as simple as that one.

But moments to choose can be as simple, if you can remember to think about the question and what the purpose is behind it.

The next time anyone offers you one or the other, you can easily say, neither--or, you could say both.

It's not an either/or world just because someone sets up the question that way.  Be ready to rewrite the question to fit what you need or want to do and you take charge of this powerful set-up that you can use when you need to while not letting anyone use it to manipulate you.

Writer's Block at Work

You stare at the screen and the words don't come.

You have been there before--in that uncomfortable place where you are supposed to write something and no words come out.

The phone rings.  You eagerly pick it up.  "How are you?"  the caller asks.

You moan:  "I've got writer's block!"  Your body hunches over the receiver that you cup with one hand, and you moan some more about how hard it is to write.

The caller doesn't say much after that.  It's as if the phrase that means "I have no words" makes other people clam up.  You don't have any words, and people who come into contact with you lose theirs in your company.

Writer's block is not contagious, and it's not as mysterious as the history of its use implies.

Automatically the phrase traditionally refers to writers (and other artistic types) who have been producing words and works that tell something true to people who want or need to know it.  When they stop writing, it's called writer's block.  The reason that's so scary is that their lives are usually built around their art, and when they dry up--having nothing to say--it's not just the works that fade away, they are concerned about the very meaning of their existence. 

At work, the purpose of putting words on paper or the screen is different, and any claim to writer's block has a different association.  It certainly doesn't have the consequences of an implied identity crisis.  It just means you have a problem you need to solve.  That is actually true of most jobs at work, and writing is just one more job.  Perhaps it is your least favorite job.

Some people are just more verbal than others, but everyone who is human must use words to communicate in the workplace.   Falling back on the excuse of writer's block in the workplace is a habit you need to break, because claiming that as the cause of not being able to put words on the screen will not help you to put words on the screen.

Here's what will:

Make sure you know the answer to the question posed of you, because most work documents have a question that is being answered by the writer.  That answer is the purpose of the document being created.

Know the purpose.  Know the question.  Make sure you know the answers.

Eighty percent of the time people in the workplace who claim to have writer's block have this condition instead.  They can't write because they don't know what to write.

Stopping to think through the purpose and find the answer will break that immobility you are calling writer's block.

And don't call it that at work, anyway.

You are supposed to have the answers at work, and using the excuse "I've got writer's block!" gets interpreted by people who have nothing to say to you afterwards as this:  'You don't know what to write, and that's why you aren't writing.'

That may not be the only reason other people go quiet on you, but it's probably one of them.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Visual Aids in Workplace Writing

A word is a visual aid, because a word is a symbol for that which it represents.

Sometimes many words are needed to communicate ideas and concepts.

When you reach the stage where many complex ideas are being presented in your document, one of the choices you may need to make is to find a visual aid that can tell the story of what you are trying to say faster through a visual image.

Choose that image or visual aid in the same way that you approach constructing any type of document:  use your deductive brain to select the image that tells the most the fastest.

Think about your resume.  It is a visual aid.  It tells the story of you work and education history fast, telegraphing key ideas quickly using words. But the whole page (or pages) of words is a visual aid. 

Most documents have the capacity to be seen as a visual aid, but there will be all kinds of flexible occasions when you will select from a growing assortment of possible images that include charts, graphs, photos and video clips.

You may even use clip art.

There's nothing wrong with clip art if you you choose it because it fits the purpose and occasion of your document and won't offend or repel your document.

The most obvious problems with clip art is that there is a clip-art feel to the elements.  That may not matter to you.  What should matter is that you don't take the first piece of clip art that is vaguely associated with the idea you want to telegraph. The visual aid tells a story.  The right visual aid tells the story you want to transmit.  The wrong--or not exactly right-visual aid will have an undesirable effect of confusing your reader.

Beware of sending mixed messages through your visual aids.
Be especially careful of tone.  You don't want to mix and match real photos with cartoon characters, and you certainly don't want to use cartoon figures for an occasion that is more serious than that.

Remember too that the artwork or visual aid that you select may show up on a piece of paper, on a computer screen or be displayed on a very large screen if it is part of a PowerPoint presentation that is projected so a crowd can see.

In short, visual aids are powerful tools to help workplace document creators tell the stories of business.

Just remember, it's not about decorating or playing with bells and whistles; it's about telling the the truth of what you need to share.  Keep that serious ambition in mind, and your selections of visual aids should fulfill the purpose, attract the reader, support the tone of the occasion and fit the environment of the reader.

Considerations in Writing Notes of Condolence

The way to write this document is the way you approach writing any workplace document where the boundaries are set for you by the professional tone of the relationships established inside the environment:

Who is the reader?  To a person who has just experienced a great loss

What is your purpose? The express your understanding and sympathy for this great loss

Occasion?  Something serious has happened to a coworker outside of the workplace but the behavior and productivity of the worker will most likely be affected and needed to be understood and taken into consideration until such time as the shock of loss fades and the adjustments begin.

If you do not know the person well and don't want to write a fulsome personal letter on your notecard or a sheaf of fine cream-colored paper, find a sensitive card and send it.

However, if you work closely with the person, follow the guidelines for content after answering the questions you always ask and answer before writing a workplace-affiliated document.

Spell the person's name correctly.
If you have read the obituary, mention the deceased person by name and recognize the relationship.
Do not immediately recount a major story of your own loss and explain how hard that was for you.
This letter is about the reader's loss, not yours.
Offer to help in any way you can.
Sign it sincerely.

Until you have experienced a major personal loss due to death, you won't fully understand how to write this note or choose that card.

Until then, express your condolence and offer your abiding presence as a help in time of trouble.

That's what someone needs, and it is all that is expected of a mature and caring co-worker.

Two Examples of Emotional Appeals

While certainly tears and begging come to mind as examples of making emotional appeals at work, there are two other types of making emotional appeals that stand out more than all others. Both are insidious because they are so common.  The first is the frequent, habitual knee-jerk response of whining that something is expected of you.  The only other emotional appeal that wars with this one for preeminence in the workplace is complaining.

Did you think that whining and complaining were really only modes of self expression that you have a right to exercise because you live in a culture that promotes freedom of speech and the right to happiness?

Of course, but there is something else in the workplace called decorum, and neither complaining nor whining support the desired decorum of workplace discourse.

Additionally, both whining and complaining cost you great credibility in the workplace.  While people might listen sympathetically, it doesn't take long for others to decide that you are a cry-baby.  Immature. A slacker.  Illogical, too.

Illogical? Not because emotional appeals do not present a reasonable argument for making workplace decisions, but because making emotional appeals in the guise of whining and complaining undermine your reputation in the workplace.

They are, at their heart, a form of emotional appeal that other people who are task-driven listen to and then have to work around to get their jobs done.

What whining is:  a form of sloth.  People who whine don't want to work, but they don't want to say that.  They complain about the workload, the insurmountable problems, or accuse someone else in the workplace of being the reason that the work can't be done.  Anytime you hear someone begin a sentence with, "What you don't understand..." you are most likely about to hear someone whine.

Complaining is similar. It's a way of avoiding exertion or taking responsibility for the outcome of an assigned job.  But people don't want to say, "I don't want to be held responsible for how this project turns out," so they say something like this:  "There's not enough time.  There's too much to do.  You should have asked me yesterday.  They are going to have to pay me more if they want me to do that.  Nobody told me that I was going to have to do that. Nobody trained me to do that.  How am I supposed to know how to do that? They didn't teach me that in college!"

Complaining lays the groundwork for later making an excuse for failing.  It's not even a slippery slope.  It simply leads to that.  I told you it couldn't be done.

The antidote for the problems caused by these types of emotional appeals is simple. Listen to yourself. If you are the one complaining and whining, stop.  If you are listening to someone who chronically whines and complains, cut to the chase.  Instead, just say, "We'll talk about that later. Let's get to work now."

Then, get to work.

A Good Steward of Your Words

As I listened to Tim Tebow’s mother address a full house of people who support a pro-life ministry, I heard her use the word mission instead of the more common word that folks in church settings often automatically use: ministry.
It made a powerful difference in the message of her speech.  She recapped the history of her marriage and how, as missionaries, she and her husband and now her children had followed their respective missions to serve Christ. I thought:  That’s what makes the difference.  Knowing that you serve the Lord with talents, gifts, and money with the mission of building the kingdom, not only ministering to it but acting on behalf of it. 
As someone who occasionally (and with no more expertise than an interest in how language is used) advises others on how to raise money for various ministries, like organizations in the pro-life movement, I told the serial writer of fundraising letters for the pro-life movement:  Hold onto that word mission.  It motivates people more than the word ministry does.  That word mission gives meaning to work; ministry puts it in a category.
Substituting the word mission for ministry has strengthened her persuasive argument that people who support different ministries can find more meaning in the investment of their treasures when they understand—and are renewed in their understanding—that people with a mission build.  They act.  Caregivers in a ministry have a different set of verbs and they are not lesser activities; but when you are trying to motivate other people to move, the set of action verbs associated with building a mission have a greater capacity to motivate others to join the mission.  
Furthermore, I think it likely that people who know how to use that word mission authentically become better stewards of their gifts and their time because they keep their eyes on the One whose Great Commission established the plan that makes our lives meaningful in Him. Their progress is understood inside His pleasure—and not because of the dollars or numbers that may or may not grow according to his good pleasure.
Good stewardship happens in many ways and through many choices, but sometimes the most powerful first step can be the substitution of one word for another: the exchange of the word ministry for mission in this instance. When you do, you actively ally yourself with the One who actively came here to fix what Adam broke, and actively does it now through the good stewardship of his followers’ gifts in motion.