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If In Doubt, Leave It Out

if in doubt leave it out

One of the workshops I run is business writing for professionals. It’s hard to avoid getting a bit English-101 so we do dabble in some common errors of grammar, syntax & misused or confused words. (Are you disinterested in this topic? I suspect you mean uninterested but hopefully not that either).

I raise a few ‘rules’ of English & the inevitable myriad of exceptions. It’s not for academics or novelists. It’s for practical business communicators concerned with impact, risk & reputation – all of which can be effected (I think you mean affected) by our writing. So, I get the groups to generate their own rules / guidelines / principles for the real world. I’ve done this dozens of times & the results are always similar.

Reading efficiency, consistency, the writer should do the heavy-lifting for the reader, reader centricity, ambiguity is the enemy (97% fat-free & gluten free, anyone?) & my favourite: if in doubt, leave it out. Whom would have a problem with that?

How does your writing measure up?


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Bill Hicks’ Principles Of Comedy Applied To Professional Communication


If you don’t know who Bill Hicks was, you’re clearly not in the comedy business (art?) He is iconic and controversial – a comedians’ comedian. This blog isn’t about comedy though. Why mention him? He spoke up for what he believed and wore a ton of trouble for doing so. He kept on. I’m pretty sure most sensible business commentators / mentors etc would advise strongly against basing your professional communication on the model that was Bill Hicks.

I dunno though. The list below may or may not actually be from Hicks himself. Its one of those urban mythical things. That’s not important; Let’s assume that the principles are his. Have a read of the list. Put yourself in the picture. In your mind, change the references to being on “stage” to being in your market, role, industry, profession, whatever. You might want to change the word “funny” to whatever it is that you’re supposed to be. Change “audience” to “clients” or “customers.”

Go on. Give it a go. See how it makes sense now…

1. If you can be yourself on stage nobody else can be you and you have the law of supply and demand covered.

2. The act is something you fall back on if you can’t think of anything else to say.

3. Only do what you think is funny, never just what you think they will like, even though it’s not that funny to you.

4. Never ask them is this funny – you tell them this is funny.

5. You are not married to any of this shit – if something happens, taking you off on a tangent, NEVER go back and finish a bit, just move on.

6. NEVER ask the audience “How You Doing?” People who do that can’t think of an opening line. They came to see you to tell them how they’re doing, asking that stupid question up front just digs a hole. This is The Most Common Mistake made by performers. I want to leave as soon as they say that.

7. Write what entertains you. If you can’t be funny be interesting. You haven’t lost the crowd. Have something to say and then do it in a funny way.

8. I close my eyes and walk out there and that’s where I start, Honest.

9. Listen to what you are saying, ask yourself, “Why am I saying it and is it Necessary?” (This will filter all your material and cut the unnecessary words, economy of words)

10. Play to the top of the intelligence of the room. There aren’t any bad crowds, just wrong choices.

11. Remember this is the hardest thing there is to do. If you can do this you can do anything.

12. I love my roots. Get to know your family, be friends with them.


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Once a month you’ll get a single email digest of the article postings and updates from Terry Williams – keynote motivational conference or after-dinner speaker and leadership author. Sometimes funny, sometimes inspirational, often provocative. A unique New Zealand perspective from a thought leader generating and challenging ideas to help you learn to lead, motivate, influence, engage and move your team. Engage people; Improve results!

The Communication Issues That Prevent Effective Leadership (According To Employees)

comms issues

I found a short and snappy graph today about where workplace leaders are supposedly falling short. This is from the US, is a survey of a thousand workers and I haven’t delved into its methodology at all but it might be a conversation starter. It asked employees but it was clearly offering a pre determined list of options – I’m pretty sure someone isn’t going to refer to themselves as a “subordinate.” Myself, most days, I feel at least ordinate.

I’ll probably trial this in the communication workshops I run. I might give my participants that list (without the results) and ask them where they think most managers fall short, or where their own manager falls short, or where they feel they themselves fall short, or all those things. Then reveal the results. To start a conversation.

Pretty shocking that 36% result for bosses not knowing their own employees’ names! (Employees now, not subordinates. Consistency please.) I’m self-employed and I manage to remember my employee’s name.

Employee Engagement – Affected By Gossip?


Gossip is a disease. This article makes several sensible correlations between the spread and effects of behind-backs-chitchat and that of actual disease. In both cases, it is better to catch it and cure it early. I’ll add my own 2-cents’ worth to the imagery – it’s far better to immunize beforehand than ever have to cure anything at all. Prevention better than cure said someone’s grandmother, I’m sure.

WikiHow has its 8-steps to solving office gossip, including such classics as “Know what gossip is” and “don’t participate in it yourself.”

This Forbes article does suggest that it’s really only ‘negative gossip’ you should crack down on while actively encouraging ‘positive gossip.’

The simplest solution would be not to employ people at all. If an organisation has 3 people, it’s going to have (at least) 3 separate gossip streams going at any one time. Best to employ robots. They don’t gossip and can be programmed to take the blame if things go south.

Buzzwords & Employee Engagement


Here’s an entertaining and illuminating interview transcription with a chap who has become a ‘Buzzword’ guru, or perhaps more accurately, an anti-buzzword guru. He moots an inverse relationship between the volume of buzzwords in a workplace and it being conducive to employee engagement. His name is Steele Champion. Awesome.

Companies Engaging Customers Via Social Media. (The Importance Of Sock Etiquette)

Barkers Panel

It’s interesting to observe how some businesses are trying to engage their customers or potential customers via social media. Clearly, if your company name is being ‘talked’ about online, you’d like to know. And if not the details, then the general mood of the room. I know some celebrities (and some real people) run little robots to search their names to run reports so they can fret &/or respond to perceived trolls and so forth, or bask in the glow of perceived adoration. Some do it personally rather than run the robots but who has that kind of time? Oh yeah, celebrities.

I’m no social media expert or even much of an expert on business communication or marketing. I’m just a customer and low-rent user of social media myself. This is more of a story. It started with me buying some shirts online. Risky you might think but there are basically three providers of shirts I generally use for me and my son. Again, I’m no marketer but to my mind they seem to inhabit three different strata.

Hallensteins is where my mum bought my clothes decades ago. They’ve updated themselves and very successfully polished themselves up but they’re still proudly in every mall and very much an affordable and accessible chain of stores. If my teenage son and I walk into one of their stores, the staff will talk to him which is great as that gives me time to complain about the music to myself and wonder, given that the store also houses a hairdresser, why do all the staff need a haircut? They’re great, good value for money and a successful retailer in even tough times. That said, once you know what range they have and what size you are, clothes are a commodity that a mere male can purchase online.

The same can be said for Barkers and 3 Wise Men. Barkers is younger, classier and more expensive. It’s great quality and I have many a Barkers item. 3 Wise Men is younger still, upmarkety exclusive, only have a few very-non-mall locations and quite business-oriented or, at least grown-up oriented. “3 for a hundy” is their catchphrase. Their adverts are witty, provocative and subversive. They explain their shirt logic and technology. I dig them even if I don’t buy much.

Anyways, I saw some shirts I liked in-store at Hallensteins with my son and went back online to buy them. I believe what I did to that bricks n mortar retailer is called ‘showrooming.’ They did the legwork in real time and space but they didn’t get the sale. This happens a lot and will do so increasingly. I did the same with a camera tripod recently.

The woman in my life Mandy observed and complimented me on one of my new shirts. I took it as a compliment but it may have been phrased along the lines of, “Oh, that’s new. It’s nice. Did you get that by yourself?” That’s probably a side issue, the analysis of which would need a blog by a psychologist or counsellor so let’s park that for now. What it did do was prompt me to write a joke. I then posted a couple of different versions of it. The one on my comedian FaceBook page got a couple of dozen ‘likes.’ That’s pretty good for me. Here’s the other version from my personal FB page. My family liked it and they know Mandy.

FB extract

I then posted it on LinkedIn and it got a lot of ‘likes.’ So I thought I’d experiment and tweet a version for Hallensteins, a version for Barkers and just see what might happen. Could be some co-promotional love for a future show if I could schmooze a clothing retailer ahead of a comedy festival? (Nope BTW.)

Hallensteins never responded at all. I don’t know if they scan social media for references to themselves. They might do. Maybe they only respond to glaring complaints. I’ve seen good and bad examples of that. Some companies strip out negative remarks, failing to address them, leaving only seemingly overwhelmng positives. Some like Air NZ fall on their sword and do something about them as much as they can, and, more importantly, get seen to be doing so which often gets them likes and retweets etc. The reality is that businesses are going to get justified and unjustified noise about them from customers online. They need a plan. Doing nothing might be a good plan – why pour fuel on a fire, right? But doing nothing out of ignorance, laziness or disinterest will bite back eventually.

Barkers however did respond:

Barkers Tweets

Did they fail to get the joke. Are they over earnest? Or, is this quiet and clever marketing? I suspect that they got the joke. They did ‘favourite’ it. But they used it to everyone’s advantage in a non-pushy, non-manipulative way. And they did so to promote a feature of their site that would benefit anyone who has ever wondered what the hell “smart casual” or semi-formal” means on an invitation!

Barkers online have a panel function – an online forum where your burning questions about tie-knotting or hat-matching can be dealt with professionally by experts. Or smart casual or semi-formal. Neat. Really neat. I always did wonder about short-sleeves for work and the woman in my life at the time was of little help either. Barkers’ panel is definitive on the subject. I’m not sure if Barkers’ experts are anonymous or female but it’s a great idea. Certainly I would’ve liked that function for my camera tripod purchase online. I’m sorted tie-knot-wise (Windsor) and hat-match-wise (no hats unless sunny then a Breakers 3-peat championship cap.) But on photography, less so.

Retailers could learn from @Barkers. Maybe they got the joke and chose to ignore it? Either way, they intrigued me and via social media got me to discover one of their functions that is a point of difference for them and got me to blog etc about it. Short of them sending me some FREE SHIRTS, or SPONSORING MY NEXT FESTIVAL SHOW, everyone wins out of the whole experience. Except maybe Mandy but she’s used to that.

I’ve subsequently tried the joke out on stage and it kills. It’s not got me any free shirts but it has got me free drinks.

Feedback: What Happens In Vagueness Stays In Vagueness


Here’s a blog post about the dangers of non-specific feedback. The blogger references the work of psychologist Carol Dweck who I also quote in my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ on the subject of fixed versus growth mindsets. Here’s an excerpt:

The work of psychologist Carol Dweck is germane here. What she’s found is that, when children are praised in abstract–“You’re so smart” or “You’re so creative”–rather than concretely about how they improved their performance–“You put in an enormous amount of work, and it paid off”–the feedback is diminished. How come? Because the child takes from the teacher or parent the idea that she is innately smart or creative, and that she doesn’t need to work at it–so she doesn’t.

On the other hand, very specific feedback–especially about something an individual can control–can work wonders.

Quite rightly, the blogger points out that general statements such as ‘Good job’ might make you feel better and make you think that you’re dishing out some positive feedback but it needs to be more than merely positive to be useful and conducive to enhanced productivity. That phrase would need to:

  • be said at the time the specific action warranting praise occurred or as immediately afterwards as possible.
  • be said to the specific individual performing and controlling the praiseworthy action that you’d like to see more of.
  • contain a few more details and expectations than 2 words of generality (what exactly was the bit that was good?)
  • some connection to a greater goal, the wider team or higher purpose.

So, here’s some specific feedback to several new Twitter followers I’ve gotten recently – If you’ve only got 17 Twitter followers yourself, best not describe yourself as a ‘social media guru.’

Employers delude themselves over staff engagement levels

Depressingly but unsurprisingly there may be a gap between what bosses think workers think and what workers actually think, or at least what they say they think.

This article references a couple of surveys making these ‘revelations.’

Supposedly, two out of five employers described staff morale as either ‘high’ or ‘very high.’ A different survey, this time of employees, showed that almost three out of five seemed to have adopted a ‘not bothered’ attitude to work.

Have a read and have a ponder on the implications. To me, one of the fundamental underpinnings of genuine employee engagement is a  sense of common purpose and clear shared expectations between everyone involved in the work – be they employer or employee. A lack of that will lead to lower engagement and a subsequent loss of productivity and profitability benefits. The trouble with the results of those UK surveys (if they’re accurate) is not only is there that lack of a sense of common purpose and clear shared expectations between everyone involved in the work but there’s an absence of any meaningful and systemic communication to capture that gap and reduce it.

We shouldn’t be relying on external, averaged and general surveys to tell us what is entirely predictable and, if not avoidable, at least simply mitigated through observation and enquiry.

There’ll always be gaps between perceptions of employers and employees. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them change their spots.

Do You Keep Repeating Ineffective Management Behaviours?


This blog post by Kevin Herring kicks off by referencing the popular definition of insanity often credited to Einstein – that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. (If I’m going to write a blog called ‘The Brain-Based Boss’, it’s only fair that I entertain some metaphors and allegories on mental illness.)

Kevin supplies a great case study from his work with one manager and one high-potential / under-achieving employee. Years of repeated and ineffective ‘pep talks’ took place. They did the same thing over and over again and expected a different result. The boss chose to break the cycle and got a different (and better) result. If you want the details of the happy ending, go read Kevin’s post.

Maybe it’s a potentially great quote or maybe it’s something wise I actually thought of myself but I find myself saying sometimes that the two best times to change how things are done is when things are going badly and when things are going great. I am not a big fan of the ‘if things aint broke, don’t try and fix ’em’ school of thinking. The rate of change and the level of interdependence are such these days that to expect the external marketplace to keep on some hopeful status quo path is pretty unrealistic. Change when you choose to before you have to change when you’re forced to.

Kevin calls it a ‘conversation inventory’ – a deliberate, proactive and scheduled effort to catch yourself falling into these tickbox patterns of management behaviour, repeated cycles of failed attempts to influence the behaviour of others.

Worth a go. Be crazy not to.

Can Crowdsourcing Improve Employee Performance?

This recent item from CBS News considers how looking to co-workers for feedback might be an improvement on the traditional linear boss-worker performance reviewer-reviewee relationship. According to a study it cites, 45 percent of HR leaders don’t believe that employees’ annual performance reviews accurately reflect the quality of their work. As an employee, I certainly never believed that (unless it equaled or exceeded my own expectations.)

The article doesn’t go into the practicalities of how it could or should be done but they stipulate 3 benefits:

  1. Capture feedback continuously
  2. Widen the circle
  3. Feedback is genuine

For all its downsides, the traditional one-on-one approach is simple. (But is that sufficient reason to keep it alive?) Probably all the benefits of a peer-to-peer feedback system could be incorporated into a traditional approach – if the manager could be bothered getting out and seeking and aggregating the feedback. Which is, of course, where it falls down.

The aggregation is important to keep it honest and timely so it’s not just all warm and fuzzy cuddle feedback but open and honest corrective feedback too. As grand as crowdsourced feedback would be if it could be practically done, there definitely needs to be a means of keeping a practical ratio of positive and negative.

Psychologist Marcial Losada’s 1999 study looked at communication in teams, particularly the ratio of positive to negative statements. Various teams were tagged as being high, medium or low performing teams based on profitability, customer satisfaction and evaluations from management. The lowest high performing teams has a ratio of positive to negative statements of 2.9013:1. (For us non-academics, let’s round that to 3:1.) The highest performing teams averaged around 6:1. But there were diminishing returns and eventually a negative effect. Some of the worst performing teams had an 11:1 ratio so everyone must have been so busy hugging and bestowing warm fuzzies on everyone else, that no one ever did any actual productive work. That level of positivity is over-the-top, unrealistic and evidently not productive.

What’s so special about this magical zone of positivity? Losada says a highly connected team balances internal and external focus while also balancing enquiry and advocacy. If you’ve ever been in a highly negative workplace, you’ll know what he’s talking about. If you do something and make a mistake and you get slapped with blame and negativity, that drives the behaviours of avoidance and defensiveness.

Isn’t that right, you moron?

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