Let’s Write Right: 5 Tips for Professional Business-Writing

If I wasn’t paranoid before, then nothing will generate anxiety quite like writing an article about writing. The apostrophe, colon, and hyphen in this article’s title are staring right back at me dauntingly, as is the Oxford comma in this sentence after the word ‘colon’. And, yes, those are a pair of inverted commas around ‘colon’, not quote marks. Makes you want to abandon writing altogether, most of speech, and get back to the good old days of grunting around fires outside caves.

By professional business-writing, I’m not aiming at English literature professors or wannabe Shakespeares. (My spellchecker doesn’t like ‘Shakespeares’. It thinks there should be a comma indicating that Shakespeare possesses something. I’m blowing its mind by having plural Shakespeares). And, I’m not holding myself up to be the golden boy of the myriad of competing rules and guidelines of the English language. To me, professional business-writing is about clarity, meaning, efficiency, and effectiveness. What is the POINT of what you’re writing and what are you doing that is helping or hurting that effort?

Not everyone needs to be an English professor but one sure way to diminish your professionalism in the eyes of your staff, customers, or prospects reading what you’ve written is poor business-writing basics. Communication is the single most critical element in engaging people. In an age of text-speak and consulting jargon, one sure way to stand out positively from the crowd and noise is clear, simple, and persuasive written communication skills.

I’ve had several books published, as well as being a regular columnist in industry media. I watch with amazement at professional proofers doing their job. Neither you nor I need to have that level of skill and precision, but we can all improve our results and lessen our regrets by following a few simple principles. I’m not calling them ‘rules’. The thing with English is that every time you have a rule, you soon find many exceptions. I before E anyone?

In one of my workshops, I met a trainee who ran a clothing boutique. They’d sent out a mailbox drop in their neighbourhood promoting their latest fashion arrivals. Their intention was to communicate that many of the shoes matched up nicely with many of the trousers on offer. They referred to this matching as, “These shoes are complimentary with these pants”. Unfortunately, what they meant was, “These shoes are complementary with these pants”. You see, one of those words means ‘matching’ but the other one means ‘free’.

Here are what I think are five useful tips. Insert colon to indicate the beginning of a list… or an ellipses to be cute which is probably professional for me but perhaps not a law firm…

1.    Write from the reader’s point of view

Are you including information useful and relevant to the reader or just brain dumping to get it out of your head or make you look like an expert? They don’t have time to read everything and there is a lot of competition for their attention. How often are you using the words “you” and “your” compared to “me”, “my” and “I”?

 2.    Ambiguity is the enemy

I saw a billboard advertising ice cream that was, “97% fat-free and gluten-free”. Can a gluten-intolerant person eat that ice cream? It’s ambiguous. I saw a magazine cover, “Rachel Ray loves cooking her family and her dog”. How do her family and dog feel about this?

 3.    If in doubt, leave it out

If you’re not sure, how can you be sure they’re sure? If you can’t explain to me where and why you might use the word ‘whom’, then don’t use that word.

 4.    Less is more

Do I need to expand this? I hope not.

 5.    Purposefulness

What is the purpose of your document? Is it to sell, influence, or inform? Should that one email be three emails instead? Check all your ideas that you might include back against the over-riding purpose of the document. If it isn’t working for your purpose, it’s working against it. Leave it out or append it.

Become A ‘Hub’​: How knowing who knows is more important than knowing

I was running a public workshop on sales skills. I wouldn’t say there was a real mix of folks. With one exception, the participants were pretty experienced salespeople. Some were up for a refresher. Some had hit a wall or ceiling, or had hit a rough patch or they’d had a particularly frustrating or negative sales experience. Some were taking on new people themselves and wanted help codifying what they inherently knew so they could teach others.

The one exception was a young man. I don’t know how young exactly. If I was on the door at a pub, I’d card him without hesitation. He worked for a marine equipment outlet. They serviced boats and sold boat bits. This chap had been an avid sailor as a child and via a family connection had scored an after-school job sweeping up, tootling around on small deliveries, etc. He said he’d enjoyed those days; an income, immersion in the behind-the-scenes of a world he loved, and motivation to aspire to work his way up the ladder. An employee discount! He impressed the employers enough that, upon leaving school, he became a full-time employee.

At the point I met him, he’d been on the shop floor as a retail assistant for six months. This wasn’t your typical entry-level retail role. If you’re selling shoes, sure you might have to learn about the specifics of certain shoe brands but you know what shoes are and how they work. With these yacht parts, it was technical with a breadth and depth of complexity. After six months, my trainee was awash in frustration at not already being an expert in everything. Even most people’s default reasonable response to technical customer enquiries of, “I don’t know but I’ll find out and get right back to you” was wearing thin. It wasn’t like he’d say it a couple of times a day. He said it seemed like every single customer. And, that continual reinforcement of his own perceived inexpertise was a vicious downward morale spiral. In his time on-site outside the shop, he was expected to sell – by observing what the customers were up to and how their products and services might add value.

For myself, my starting position is to ask questions of my own clients or prospects when I’m in that situation. I don’t sell boat parts; I sell myself. All my clients are different and I have little chance of ever knowing everything about all of them so why bother. I accept that I don’t and can’t and turn it into an advantage. I ask questions. I show interest. I don’t pretend to know more than them. As a sales technique and as a self-care technique. It works well for me.

So, I asked my trainee some questions: what have you learned in your six months; does everyone know everything; how much new stuff is there to learn even for those who have been there a while? It turned out he’d learned quite a bit. His employers were fine with his rate of progress. The frustration was his alone. He also learned that, apart from him, the average employee in that firm was been there near 30 years. I set him a challenge: how can you turn what you perceive as a failing and turn it into a strength, a competitive advantage? How can you ‘flip it’? How can continuously having to take customers to other staff members be a good thing, for you, the store, and the customer?

And, he did it. He flipped it.

What he did know, better than anybody else, was who did know. All his hand-holding of customers to other staff had taught him who the specialists on different topics were. He knew that more than anyone else, even the boss, especially around new and changing technologies. He developed a bit of banter that sounded confident, “Great question. I’m not THE expert on that but I know who is. They’ll be free in a minute. I’ll take you to them and introduce you and your question…” He would then listen in and learn with them, both about the product and the customer.

It worked. He would go on to become the ‘glue guy’ that other, more experienced, staff would turn to when they faced questions outside their specialised expertise. He became a hub and is now extending that outside his shop’s staff to wider industry people. Give him a year or two and he’s going to be quite the influencer and salesperson. Networks. Connections. These are terms both in sales and technology. And both rely on hubs. Be a hub.

As a sales-person, we should probably put a decent amount of effort into learning about the products and services we sell. But, increasingly the pace of change is such that we cannot hope to know it all and keep up to date. But, we can proactively create and maintain our connections, not as a weakness but as a strength.


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Choice, Bro?

People value choice and try hard to get themselves into positions of choice but choices often undercut our happiness. When it comes to being a ‘chooser’, people fall into one of two categories. Maximizers seek out the best possible choice. They make social comparisons, eventually make better choices on average but are less happy afterwards. Indeed, maximizers are more prone to depression generally. Satisficers are happy enough when good enough is good enough. They make less good choices but are happier afterwards.

Social psychologists Sheena Lyengar from Columbia University Business School and Mark Lepper from Stanford University conducted a famous study in 2000 that involved observing people at a jam stall offering samples and sales to passers-by. They showed that when shoppers are given the option of choosing among smaller and larger assortments of jam, they show more interest in the larger assortment. But when it comes time to pick just one, they’re 10 times more likely to make a purchase if they choose among six rather than among 24 flavours of jam.

When faced with too large an array of choices, people are less likely to make any choice at all or, if they do, they feel less satisfied. After all, what are the odds, given the large numbers of choices, that you picked the best one? People are less confident, feel greater regret and bear a greater opportunity cost, particularly in lost time.

Yesterday I did my weekly grocery shopping. I counted the number of varieties of toothpaste available to me – 17. I keep getting the same variety, not because I think it’s especially superior but because changing seems like awfully hard work. I’m prepared to work hard for a lot of reasons. That is not one of them. The research shows I’m not unusual. (I’m pretty sure I’m very unusual in lots of other ways but not in this regard.)

In case you’re thinking jam buyers are simple folk who can’t handle complexity, Lyengar did effectively the same study on investors. They looked at 800,000 employees from 647 companies investing their retirement savings, choosing between two and fifty-nine options. Referring to retirement plans in the U.S. (401Ks), Lyengar said, “People are given enormous incentives to participate through tax shelters and employer matches. So, essentially, if you choose not to participate, you’re throwing away free money”. Guess what many of the people with too many choices did? They threw away free money. With two choices, 75 per cent took part, but when given 59 choices, only 60 per cent did. The more options there were, the more cautious people were with their investment strategies.

What are we supposed to do about this? How are we supposed to guide those we lead to deal with choices? Social psychologist Alexander Chernev of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management’s research suggests the best approach to avoid the problems that come with too many choices is to enter the decision-making process with an ‘articulated preference’. You then accept the first choice that at least meets that preference. Yes there may be better options available but there is a cost attached to bothering to look.

I’m not suggesting that if your company is looking for many expensive new computers that you shouldn’t test the market and receive and thoroughly assess a multitude of proposals. But when individuals are faced with choices, this is their human reaction. Schwartz says, “You may do slightly less well objectively, but you’ll feel better about the results”. And you spend all that time you save and better feelings being more productive.

Social Ability

Loneliness is a disease. Conversely, hanging with true friends can cure or, at least, prevent or mitigate actual diseases. Sociability is a double-edged sword – it depends who you socialise with. Good friends are good for you but not all friends are good friends.

A study published in the journal Cancer followed women with Ovarian cancer. Those with high levels of social support had lower levels in their blood of a protein called Interleukin 6 (IL-6.) This protein is linked to cancer aggression. This group also responded better to treatment. Those with low levels of social support had 70% higher levels of IL-6 and in the organ where the tumour was, the levels were 250% higher.

A study by David Siegel published in Lancet found in women with breast cancer that high levels of social support doubled the survival and recovery odds, as well as lower reported levels of pain.

This isn’t all touchy-feely stuff. There are simple practical benefits to having a close network of friends. Quite apart from the emotional support, for which there are demonstrable physiological positives, they can provide resources and information as well as advocate for you when you may well be least able to. They can round up others or raise money or do things for you. This is obvious and simple, yet dangerously impactful when absent. Maybe your butler could do a lot of that if you had a butler? You’d probably need a team of butlers. This might be the screenplay to the movie Arthur 3. (Here, good friends would tell you that there should never be an Arthur 3. There should never have been a second one.)
Tom Valeo wrote: “People with social support have fewer cardiovascular problems and immune problems, and lower levels of cortisol — a stress hormone,” says Tasha R. Howe, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Humboldt State University. “Why? The evolutionary argument maintains that humans are social animals, and we have evolved to be in groups. We have always needed others for our survival. It’s in our genes. Therefore, people with social connections feel more relaxed and at peace, which is related to better health.”

“One thing research shows is that as one’s social network gets smaller, one’s risk for mortality increases. And it’s a strong correlation – almost as strong as the correlation between smoking and mortality.”

I prefer to spell ‘sociability’ as ‘social-ability’. It’s an ability, a skill, which some of us should get better at.


Persuade via Tangibility

When it comes to influence and persuasion, a visual approach can be more effective. Jeni Cross, a Sociologist at Colorado State University, speaks about a campaign in her State to encourage homeowners to insulate their houses. Education and publicity managed to get 20% of homeowners to insulate. The new campaign tripled that rate achieving a 60% insulation rate. What did they do?

Their presentations applied three approaches:
·              Tangibility
·              Personalised
·              Interactive
For example, instead of reporting to a homeowner that they had sixteen metres of gaps letting out expensive heat. They showed them what that looked like in total. It was a hole the equivalent size of a basketball. They knew what a basketball looked like and its scale.

You know conceptually what 7 grams is, but when that 7 grams is represented by a photo of a can of coke with 10 sugar cubes next to it, that has a dramatic and pragmatic effect on actual behaviour.

Thinking About Thinking

The Anableps is a type of fish found in Central and South America. It is also a metaphor I use in my training and writing. Its local nickname is ‘the four-eyed fish.’ It doesn’t literally have four eyes but its two eyes each have two divisions that function, effectively, as separate eyes. It’s primarily a surface-dwelling floater and, as such, can be preyed upon from above by birds and from below by bigger fish (there’s always a bigger fish).

The Anableps can see above and below the waterline at the same time! I don’t know if you believe in a God or Gods or mother-nature or pixies. That something like the Anableps can exist and evolve through random chance is, if not a miracle, mother nature having a good day at the office.

Coolness aside, it’s also a cool metaphor as it represents the need to look at a situation on two levels at the same time. One of the primary means of developing yourself is receiving feedback on your performance. It’d be great if you had a coach following and observing you and providing you with behaviour-based, esteem-building, specific and timely feedback at all hours. But you don’t. No one does. But – wherever you go, there you are. To be able to observe yourself in action, as objectively as possible, and give yourself feedback is a major development accelerant.

Just like the Anableps, you watch the person you’re having a sales conversation or performance discussion with and, at the same time, observe yourself in action.

It’s called ‘Metacognition’ – thinking about thinking. Our awareness of other people’s states depends on how well we know our own. It’s the starting point to get away from ingrained behaviours and habitual responses.

So, forget Bette Davis Eyes, put on your ‘Anableps Eyes’.

#personaldevelopment #selfimprovement #coaching #leadershipdevelopment

Improving culture and engagement

I’m onto the 2nd day of a 2-day workshop I’m running with some new leaders in an organisation in the sports ‘industry’.

Had a quick ole brainstorm yesterday around some commonalities between sporting leadership and business leadership, especially when you are both. Here are a few off the list. Gotta say it’d be hard to argue that if you targeted one of these a week for a couple of months, you wouldn’t make some decent inroads into improving culture and engagement:

·     Alignment of personal and team goals as much as practicable.
·     Becoming active, if not necessarily perfect, communicators.
·     Eliminating “they” and “them” when teammates are talking about each other.
· Self-generated peer-to-peer recognition.
·     A consistently understood and agreed sense of building something together.
·     The elimination of defensiveness.

#leadershiptraining #leadershipdevelopment

The problem with challenges is that they’re challenging

Responsibility and being needed aren’t just things that society tries to convince us we should have because it’s morally virtuous. They’re things that keep us alive, purposefully active, and connected.

An Ellen Langer study of nursing home residents created 2 groups. One group was encouraged to make decisions for themselves – where and when to receive visitors for example. They were given a houseplant to look after. The other group were equally as looked after but were not offered the responsibilities. They were given the houseplants but told not to worry about them and that they would be looked after for them. The mortality rate of the group with added purpose was half that of the other group.

Our body & mind get used to a constant amount and grade of workload. You do not build muscle by lifting the same weight over and over again. The entire basis of progressive resistance training is that, as your body does get used to workload, you increase the workload. The body adapts. Our physiology is set up for this.

Nassim Taleb in his book ‘Antifragile’ writes about how just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension, many things in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil. What Taleb has identified and calls antifragile are things that not only gain from chaos but NEED chaos in order to survive and flourish. I think, to a degree, your entire life is one of those things, as long as you get to initiate and control the chaos. Rather life on a rollercoaster than a conveyor belt.

The problem with challenges is that they’re challenging, but your self-selected challenge doesn’t have to be dangerous or big. If you’re right-handed, spend some time attempting things with your left hand. Rearrange your kitchen cupboards so you’re operating less out of habit. Tackle a foreign language. Zelensky seems even more hardcore in his original Ukrainian.

I’m no expert on geo politics. I know some things about leadership development. A graph of Zelensky’s life and career is no straight line; it was a roller coaster. No one could be prepared for what he is leading but he never got stuck in a rut or settled for a comfort zone. That he won Ukraine’s ‘Dancing With The Stars’ in 2006 may seem silly or irrelevant but he put himself out there. Now, he is REALLY putting himself out there. His mindset did not start the day he got the job of ‘legend’.

None of us are ever going to find ourselves in anything close to his situation. But if you want to effectively lead a family, work team, or community, that doesn’t start the day you get the job. We have to work out our ‘change muscles’ ahead of time. We need to test ourselves so we’re ready when life tests us later.

#personaldevelopment #growthmindset #traininganddevelopment

‘Troika’ – An internal Consultation Process

I am reading up on facilitation techniques so I can customise a workshop I am running for an upcoming client. I discovered something called the ‘Troika Liberating Structure.’ (I ‘discovered’ this in the same sense that Europeans ‘discovered’ America).

Weirdly, the term ‘Troika’ means a political regime ruled effectively as a collective authority of three powerful but separate individuals. OK, is this a facilitation technique or a cool, new NetFlix drama?

The bones of it are:
1.  Form groups of three and invite them to explore the questions “What is your challenge?” and “What kind of help do you need?”
2.  Have the groups sit in small circles, preferably with knee-to-knee seating. In each round, one participant is the “client”, the others are “consultants”. Everyone has an equal opportunity to receive and give coaching.
3.  Invite the participants to reflect on the consulting question (the challenge and the help needed) they plan to ask when they are the clients (1 min.)
4.  Round one starts with the first client sharing his or her question in a more detail (1–2 min.)
5.  Consultants ask the client clarifying questions (1–2 min.)
6.  Client turns around with his or her back facing the consultants
7.  Together, the consultants generate ideas, suggestions, coaching advice (4–5 min.)
8.  The client turns around and shares what was most valuable about the experience (1–2 min.)
9.  Groups switch to the next person and repeat the steps.

I’ve been doing variations on this for years but there are some subtleties in the Troika that could make a real difference. I can see it working with virtual teams using tech. I can see it being more inclusive of introverted personalities, and different cultures.

I’m posting about Troika because the fundamental premis of it is that the answers a team needs probably already lie within the team itself, not some external provider of consulting wisdom, nor some inherently gifted leader with good intent. Better still, the ‘internal consultation process’ isn’t mutually exclusive, and you can still spend time and money on external folk if you wish. Each source of info can either corroborate each other, or raise a flag by contradicting, thus driving a search for a tie-breaking source.

Certainly, I find that an external independent facilitator / trainer is usually a good investment but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

#facilitationskills #leadershipdevelopment #brainstorming

No, thank YOU for getting touch

I’m not sure if this is a good news story or a bad news story. It is a story, and it was an adventure. Not for me, but for a parcel sent to me from Arkansas USA on May 5th.

I received it Oct 27th. Hey, I get it. Plagues. Lockdowns. Political interference in the system. Supply chains. Most days, I’m not a moron and I’m not an insensitive monster. I figured it would take a while. It wasn’t mission-critical. Honestly, I’m amazed anything ever arrives anywhere ever. It’s a big planet and parcels are relatively small and reliant on a whole bunch of people not losing, destroying, damaging, misdirecting, ignoring it etc. I have no doubt there are stats showing a 99 point something percent success rate.

The adventure began thanks to online tracking. I checked in after a couple of months and followed the history of erratic and, to me, unpredictable lurches around the continental US. I think Pixar could make a movie about the travels of my parcel, anthromorphed ‘Cars’-style. I’m not saying Tom Hanks should play my parcel but I’d be OK if they gave someone else a chance, like Paul F Tompkins. I guess in a prologue, the parents of my parcel would have died tragically? Ooh, I know that post offices do have a ‘dead letters’ department. That is soooo Pixar.

Then, suddenly, (Movie Act 2 turning point) it lurched from Chicago to Dallas then TOKYO. After almost 4 months touring route 66’s offshoots, it spent a single night in Tokyo before appearing in Auckland at the end of August.

I’m not going to lie to you. I was disproportionately excited. Auckland was entering lockdown week 3 level 4, so I tried to temper my enthusiasm. I figured it might get stuck in customs for a while.

It didn’t move or get re-scanned for a month. Then, it spent a month in maybe one or maybe various “regional mail centres” being scanned many times. Mid-Oct “out for delivery”. Next day “redirected due to misdirection”. (Note to Pixar director: get Hans Zimmer to do one of those Christopher Nolan-style deep chords here).

At this point, I use NZ Post’s online form to ask what’s going on. I’m being chill. I get that they’re busy in turbulent times. I get an auto-response of “we’ll get back to you in 2 working days”. I did that twice in 2 weeks. Never heard back. There were banners advising 5 day delays in Auckland due to COVID and lockdown. Trying a 3rd time, I found that they’d disabled the contact form entirely.

Again, chill-as, I DM’d them via their Twitter and FaceBook. I got a human response within the hour and within 3 the status changed to “with courier”. Later that afternoon, the parcel arrived.

Stories require a moral – a learning takeaway. I’m not yet sure what this story’s SHOULD be but my behaviour change as a customer moving forward is to bypass whatever customer system businesses have and backdoor it as soon as I can.

Oh, my parcel’s name is Shannon.

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