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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Direct and Indirect Language

It is as difficult to hear how we sound to others as it is to see ourselves as others see us.

I run into that sometimes with students who have a tone of voice in their work that is off-putting, sometimes screeching, sometimes angry, vehement, overbearing and unintentionally rude.  Insecurity often masquerades as arrogance on the page.

It is difficult to explain how someone sounds to him or herself, for if the news is surprising, the person who needs to hear it simply can't.

When I am trying to help a student recognize a problem with tone, I begin by recommending two stances in writing that fit different purpose-driven documents.

Good news can take the tone of direct language.  It can be heard like this:  Congratulations. You won.  Here's the good news.  Wait.  There's more. 

See how the sentences are strong and punchy.  Because the content is positive, direct language can be used this way.

Bad news can't.

Even news that is simply less than good can't.

Bad news needs indirect language to achieve a more pleasing tone.

Indirect language sounds like this:  What a good effort you made on that latest project.  However....
It was wonderful meeting you, but......Thank you for the invitation; unfortunately........

Bad news needs a softener at the beginning.  It thrives on a warm good bye. 

After delivering bad news, you can thank the person, wish the person well, say the sun will come out tomorrow.

The tone of your voice will match the indirect language, and you, as the voice of that bad news, will leave a kinder echo in the listener's ears.

Paper Trails (Living in Self Defense at Work)

In a writing class, we eventually get around to one of the jobs business writing does:  create a paper trail.

Paper trails exist to create a shared understanding of a commonly experienced event at work, to document progress in problem-solving (or not), and ultimately, whatever the goal, to establish a history that can be argued if a conflict erupts about what happened why at a future time.

When a business reaches that point, the paper trail becomes a first line of defense.

They are necessary, but, at times, they feel false to me, as if I am always thinking about having an alibi in case I ever need one.  I don't like living like that.  I prefer to work companionably and in good faith, and the constant creation of a paper trail feels like I am planning something mean.  Like I'm smiling while I have my dukes up and ready, tucked behind my back.

I have never really put up my dukes for any reason, preferring to lose a battle or be smacked around than pummel someone else.  But that's my preference. In a job situation, I represent the company, and my dukes are their dukes. So, my dukes help create paper trails that serve many purposes--most of them good ones:  record-keeping documents, transmittal documents, accounting documents, and the other kind that tries to make sure that if trouble comes, it hits someone else harder than it hits you.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Bar Room Prayer Isn't Funny

It is true that I would rather be in a coffee shop than in a bar which is why I went to the cafe on board a cruise ship to have some afternoon java and stare out the window at the ocean and think deep thoughts.  At the other end of the cafe is a bar where people who prefer alcohol can get the drink they prefer and stare out the window too and think their deep thoughts.  It is a congenial way to spend an afternoon cruising from one port to the other.

I don't object to that at all.  What I did object to was a round up of people bellying up to the bar and cheered to spending more money on alcohol by being led by a ship employee in the chanting of what I discovered later had a name:  The Bar Room Prayer, which to my Christian ears, began to sound unbelievably like the Lord's Prayer.  Later I learned that it was a parody of the Lord's Prayer, an invention in such poor taste as to certainly not be funny and, truly, to those of us who view the Lord's Prayer as a model of how to pray, was unwise, disrespectful and, here's the business problem, alienating for the business who was providing an employee to lead this parody in a public setting with little regard for those of us who were cafe-goers and happened to just be standing near enough to hear it and be repulsed by not only the abuse of a beautiful prayer's rhythm but the encouragement of customers to get drunk in order to earn greater profits.

It's a pitful way to do business but a very efficient way to drive off customers.  For there were far more people drinking coffee than drinking beer, and I was not the only one to leave the room.  I went down to the main deck and filed a complaint about using this parody of the Lord's Prayer in a public forum and which was led by a company employee who was in a hurry to finish this chore and get on to the next.  The parody was led by rote, with little thought for the effect it was having--driving customers away, leaving a very bad impression and a bad taste in my mouth about an experience on a ship that had been otherwise quite pleasant.

In an age when businesses compete always for more customers and greater word of mouth, the story I tell of this company is that it doesn't know the product it is selling.  Renowned for setting the bar high for good taste as a ship for people who prefer civility and quiet, in an unchecked moment without anyone monitoring the good taste of the entertainment by a young person who did not know better, this event happened and will most likely happen again.

It shouldn't.

For those of you who think I am exaggerating, here's the parody as I heard it:

Our lager,
Which art in barrels,
Hallowed be thy drink.
Thy will be drunk, (I will be drunk),
At home as it is in the pub.
Give us this day our foamy head,
And forgive us our spillage's,
As we forgive those who spill against us.
And lead us not to incarceration,
But deliver us from hangovers.
For thine is the beer, The bitter, The lager.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What's in a name? A rose by any other.....

Before Shakespeare provoked us to consider the power of a name in his famous play about young lovers from feuding families, a person's name counted.

Plato mattered.

Socrates mattered.

All the famous despots in history mattered.  Still do, if you want to understand how not to repeat the same mistakes.

It's the first rule of salesmanship and also the first trick of a hostage negotiator's trade:   What shall I call you?  What's your name?

He asks those questions because using someone's name builds an instant bond.  Makes that person feel recognized.  Seen. Valued. Important.  A relationship can grow between people who know each other's names.

Recently I have had occasion to ask three different clerks at three different stores the names of their respective bosses. 
The three answers were:
1. I dunno.
2.  Wes.  Don't know his last name, but he's from Prattville.
3.  Tommy.

I didn't have a complaint--just had a question, but my desire for more product information dwindled because the clerk didn't know the name of the manager, his own boss.

It says a great deal about someone in the workplace who doesn't know his boss's name.  It says something about the impression a boss makes on an employee if the clerk can't remember him (her).

It says a great deal about a company when the employees don't know the names of the people with whom they work.  What it says isn't very good advertising, is it?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Black Holes and Spam Catchers

One more time I learned my lesson about attaching large documents to an e-mail that I expected someone to answer quickly.  By quickly, I just mean a couple of days. When six days passed, I sent the follow up that tried not to sound like I was pestering or complaining:  "Did my e-mail go to your SPAM catcher?"

The reply:  Nope. Got it.  Just haven't read it yet.

That's okay.  I'm a realist, but it could have happened the other way:  my e-mail could have gone to the SPAM catcher.

It has before, and it has happened when deadlines were involved and people were changing e-addresses, so that there was a great deal of where are you now?  Do you still use that account?

One more time I have learned:  It is wiser to send a separate e-mail when attaching a big document so that the e-mail that has the key piece of information you also need to send has a better chance of reaching the person on the other side of the screen.

It's not foolproof.   But it increases the successful odds of communication happening.