Saturday, April 01, 2017

Financial Management Network Talk on Time Management

I had the great pleasure of being a featured speaker on the Financial Management Network (FMN) for an April 2017 talk, "Time Management: Are You Masterful?

For three decades, FMN has been viewed monthly by as many as 44,000 corporate financial executives, who rely on the network's expert commentators to keep them up to date with recent developments affecting their profession. Here is how FMN describes the event:

To most people in a business environment, it seems as if there is never enough time in the day. Yet, since we all get the same 24 hours, why is it that some people achieve so much more with their time than others do? The answer, according to well-known author, instructor and coach Phil Vassallo, lies in masterful time management. In this segment, he shows you how to shift your focus from “activities” to “results,” in order to work smarter rather than harder.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

BOOK BRIEF: "The Essential Pinter: Selections from the Work of Harold Pinter"

I remember reading one of my favorite writers, Harold Pinter, on the eve of my wedding at age 22. As tomorrow marks my fortieth wedding anniversary, I remain struck by how Pinter's method and themes, if anyone has ever adequately described them, reflected my life and mindset then, and still does. The ideas he expresses have always been rooted in my pathos, and they surface for the first time when his characters utter them.

Forty years ago today, I was living in a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom basement apartment in the Bronx, just a four-block walk from the noisy 180th Street train station, whose tracks ran behind a high concrete wall topped with barbed wire to the noisy 180th Street train station. In one semester, I would graduate with a B.A. in English from the City University of New York. My earnings as a part-time taxicab driver and homework tutor for a social services agency were not much more than $100 a week, which was not bad considering my rent was only $100 a month and the subway was 50 cents a ride. But my prospects of becoming a high school English teacher were dimming at a time when the New York City Board of Education was not hiring because of budget problems. The new responsibilities of becoming a husband, college graduate, and licensed teacher were weighing on me.

Yet without any good reason, I thought somehow everything would turn out all right. Even back then I knew that life was inexplicable. Just six years earlier, at 16, my ambitions as a denizen of the James Monroe housing projects were like those of many of my friends: to drop out of high school, find a job for six months, and figure out a way to get fired so that I could collect unemployment. I certainly had no idea that I would find a job with a nonprofit organization, where I would stay for 19 years before running my own communication consulting business for the past 20 years.

I saw my first Harold Pinter play at the Classic Stage Company's 1973 production of The Homecoming. I was 19, in my second year of college, liberated by having changed majors from business to English. I believed that since New York City was in its worst fiscal crisis ever, I had nothing to lose by focusing on what I loved. Sure I might not find a job right away. But why chase after a career I would later regret?

What I saw on stage that evening hypnotized me. I had no idea what these characters were talking about, but I knew every word was meaningful. Without seeing any overt act of violence or hearing one subversive statement, I was certain I had witnessed the most disturbing sort of subversive violence, the kind we either don't recognize or dare not acknowledge as violence. Without completely understanding the dialogue, I believed that the actors' words could not be more real. I walked away from that theatrical experience transcendent, realizing the limitless potential of drama to depict the human condition. I have measured every other play I've seen since The Homecoming against that standard.

Is this a review of Pinter's work? You bet. I cannot separate the very details of my life from The CaretakerThe HomecomingOld TimesNo Man's LandBetrayalFamily VoicesMoonlight, and many of Pinter's other plays and sketches. His dramas unfold as my life has, does, and likely will.  

The Essential Pinter: Selections from the Work of Harold Pinter 
offers a good starting point if for those new to this playwright's playwright. It includes a sufficient sampling of his plays to make readers want to discover more of them. The poetry does not reach the same level as the drama, but this volume also includes Pinter's defiant 2005 Nobel Prize controversial and underappreciated acceptance speech.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

BOOK BRIEF: James Baldwin's Collected and Uncollected Essays.

I would recommend any nonfiction work of James Baldwin. He is masterful in his reasoning and elegant, and at times surprisingly abrupt, in his prose. Years ago when Baldwin was still alive, I read his magnum opus, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985, marveling at how adept he was whether reflecting on race, jazz, language, politics, sexuality, literature, economics, or urban life.
The Library of America edition, pictured below, collects that volume along with nine more essays. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings includes speeches, letters, and book reviews, among other pieces, which did not appear in Baldwin's earlier books. 
Collectively these books offer a deep look into the American psyche during Baldwin's half-century of remarkable composition, a key examination of a writer's unique style, and a powerful testament to his enduring influence on world literature. 
Image result for james baldwin library of america
Image result for cross of redemption amazon

Sunday, May 22, 2016

BOOK BRIEF: "Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose"

Constance Hale's second book on writing, Sin and Syntax, offers a simple structure for looking at sentences: the parts of speech, followed by the parts of a sentencejust as most of us learned in elementary school. And she does so with excellent results. Her love of authors' inventiveness and trenchant commentary about what make bad writing bad make this a useful reference book for writing students.

After Parts 1 (Words) and 2 (Sentences), Hale concludes with a third part she titles "Music," an apt name for a study in how the writers who employ the rhythm and lyricism of language engage readers. The eclectic examples will keep you reading.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Email Tips from the E-Universe, Part 2

The Inc. website generally offers useful tips on productivity. Since time management is critical component on productivity, you can find some practical email time management suggestions in Inc's "12 Email Tips to Increase Your Productivity" by David Finkel. 

Two of Finkel's gems you've got to like: 

  1. Understand that every time you do that one "quick" email, that interruption radically diminishes your concentration and flow on the other, higher value work you were doing.
  2. To get less email, send less. 
The other standard suggestions are also good reminders: 

  • Turn off your auto send-and-receive function.
  • If you're involved in a frustrating back-and-forth conversation by email due to hazy understanding on either side, just pick up the phone or speak in person.
  • In replying to a long conversation thread, pull up the key information to the top of the email.
If we took such advice, Inc. wouldn't be giving it.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Email Tips from the E-Universe, Part 1

A lot of email advice is readily available on the internet just by typing "email tips" in your favorite search engine. Brittney Helmrich's "15 Ways to Make Your Emails More Professional" offers such tidbits, some of them obvious (be clear and thorough, don't forget to proofread, use the right email address), some helpful reminders (remember that anyone can read it once it's sent, put the recipient's email in last, know when to avoid email altogether), and some smart novelties (take it one point at a time, create templates for frequently used responses, timing is everything). What make her counsel so valuable are her sources: career consultants. Worth a read ...

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 7: Watch You But!

The tone we set in writing business messages goes a long way in getting our audience to read them. Since we do not benefit from body language and vocal intonation when writing,  we need to choose words carefully to set the right mood.  Choosing positive expressions will help.

For sure, we sometimes have to be the bearers of bad news. But many writers are either unconsciously negative or unable to turn a negative into a positive, so this simple tip may be useful in coming across as a more supportive businessperson.

Watching Your Buts
Just writing but can cause a tone problem. Imagine receiving this message: The quality of your project report is excellent, but you submitted it late. The compliment before but seems disingenuous, as if the writer really wants to focus only on the disappointingly late submission, not at all on the report quality. Imagine if the ideas in the sentence were reversed: You submitted the project report late, but its quality is excellent. Now the message seems more positive, especially because it ends on a positive note. 

Balancing Your Observations
Even more disingenuous would be a paragraph that read something like this: The quality of your project report is excellent, but you submitted it late. As a result, I had to request a waiver of the deadline, which took a considerable amount of time and effort. While you told me you'd be a day late, you were unavailable to help me with the waiver request, so I had to rearrange my work schedule.

In this example, only 8 words (13%) are positive and 53 words (87%) are negative. In this positive rewrite we strike a better balance by removing the but mentality altogether.

The quality of your project report is excellent. Your focus on our mission, comprehensive assessment of data, organization of ideas, and command of language are impressive. It reflects well on how you manage your department and exemplifies how we want our staff to communicate.

Fortunately, your fine work was saved from being rejected for missing the deadline. Your request to extend the deadline without being available to submit a deadline waiver caused considerable time and effort for me to submit it and made me rearrange my work schedule.

To avoid a similar situation, please give me at least a week's notice that you'll be late and submit the deadline waiver on time. These steps will ensure that your work rises to the highest communication standard and reinforces management's positive impression of you.

This 132-word rewrite has 3 paragraphs, one for the positive (44 words), one for the negative (44 words), and one for the recommendation (44 words). It still gives the needed bad news but begins and ends on a positive note. Sure it increases the word count of the original by 149%, yet sometimes the situation calls for us to add ideas to sound supportive of a worthy employee. So get off your but. 


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 6: Let Sentences Be Sentences!

Email tempts us to break language conventions when we shouldn't. Generally, standard sentences are easier to quickly grasp than run-on sentences and comma splices for educated Americans because proper syntax is ingrained in their reading method.

Most people have no problem with these sentence fragments in a business email:

  • Thanks.
  • OK.
  • Done.
  • See you then.
  • Looking forward to it.

These are common expressions we've all grown accustomed to. But these recently received sentences made do a double-take:

  1. Do you teach presentation skills, I have a salesperson who needs to sharpen his openings and closings.
  2. Please call me at my cellphone I'm having trouble getting incoming calls I just want to see if I can get them.
  3. Chris said he'd be there by 9 but got stuck in traffic, if you give him some more time I'm sure he'll get there.

The first example, a comma splice, joins a question (interrogative sentence) and a statement (declarative sentence). A question mark should replace the comma.

The second example joins three complete sentences without appropriate punctuation or transitions. Admittedly, inserting periods after cellphone and calls would result in a collection of choppy sentences. But if the writer kept only the important information, he would have written something like Please call me at my cellphone because I want to check if I can get incoming calls.

The third example is a perfect illustration of not starting with what matters, which I discussed in an earlier post. The problem isn't so much the comma after traffic but not thinking hierarchically. The writer could have simply wrote Please give Chris more time because he'll be in after 9, or, Please give Chris more time because he's stuck in traffic.

Clear writing requires clear thinking; let sentences do their job of being sentences.     

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 5: Start with What Matters!

Consider this sentence:

If the inspector confirms a structural flaw in the building, she should immediately contact the project manager to solve the problem with the contractor.

This 24-word sentence seems simple enough to understand for an inspector, project manager, or contractor. It is logical, actually chronological: first the inspector confirms a structural flaw, then she contacts the project manager, and then the project manager solves the problem with the contractor. Writers need to know the importance of chronological order in certain types of business messages, such as narratives, processes, instructions, histories, incident descriptions, and root-cause analyses.

But chronology is not the only way to convey ideas. Business writing is about action. We need people to do things that move the business forward. For instance, your manager might want you to report on an industrywide conference. At that event, you attend four sessions, in this order: 

  1. New Reporting Requirements for the Industry Regulator 
  2. Industry Trends in Staff Recruiting 
  3. Breaking Communication Protocols for Social Networking 
  4. Transferring Technology from the Laboratory to Your Business
Your likely organizational pattern in this situation would not be chronological but hierarchical—what matters most to your manager. She would not care when you attended what but what you learned that can affect the business.

We can apply this same principle to writing sentences. In the opening sentence, three actions are explicit (the inspector confirms a structural flaw, she immediately contacts the project manager, and the project manager and contractor solve the problem), and one action is implicit, (the project manager and contractor collaborate). Some writers might think the collaboration is as obvious as the fact that the inspector had to perform an inspection to confirm the structural flaw. They may be right, but they would not be if collaboration has been a problem in the contract management. If we start with what matters, we have numerous options, depending on our mindset. Here are some, starting with the original:
  1. If the inspector confirms a structural flaw in the building, she should immediately contact the project manager to solve the problem with the contractor. (The inspector confirmation seems most important.)
  2. The inspector should immediately contact the project manager about confirmed structural flaws in the building for resolution with the contractor. (The immediate contact seems most important.)
  3. The project manager and the contractor should solve building structural flaws confirmed by the inspector. (The problem-solving seems most important.)
  4. The project manager should collaborate with the contractor on solving building structural flaws confirmed by the inspector. (The collaboration seems most important.)
My preference would be number 3, but I am not an inspector, project manager, or building contractor, so you make the choice by starting with what matters. I would not be surprised if you created a fifth, sixth, or twentieth option.     

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Found Around—Random Writing Tip 4: Loose Those Noun Chains!

The previous WORDS ON THE LINE post about nominalizing showed how business and technical writers tend to eschew verbs in favor of nouns. This post shows just how enamored of nouns they some of them really are.

When nouns join forces uninterrupted by verbs or even prepositional phrases, expect clarity issues. Three nouns in a row are easy enough to understand, especially in job titles such as Assistant Marketing Director or Case Management Supervisor, and even in technical applications like wound dressing technique or sound wave mechanism. But things get trickier once we get carried away with nouns. Here are four examples:
  • 4-Noun Chain — epoxy coating life expectancy. Technical writers might think they're more concise in writing the noun chain than in writing life expectancy of the epoxy coating, but the prepositional phrase in the six-word rewrite is just a tad easier to understand.
  • 5-Noun Chain — undersea pipeline intrusion detection system. We might get it. A system exists for detecting intrusions in pipelines under a sea bed. But admit it: you had to read it twice, right? Maybe intrusion detection system for undersea pipelines would be an improvement.
  • 6-Noun Chain — data communication network efficiency inspection report. Whoever made up this one is either an automaton or someone with a cruel sense of humor. Actually, all six words are not necessary in this phrase. Reasonable readers would prefer any of these three because the deleted words can be inferred in the context: report on data network efficiency, or report on communication network efficiency, or efficiency report on the communication network.
  • 7-Noun Chain  standard M1 brake erosion acceleration rate analysis. Gimme a break! In this case, we should create a verb to anchor some of those runaway nouns. Perhaps analyze the acceleration rate of the standard M1 brake erosion would do, though it isn't much better. Maybe analyze the standard M1 brakes for the acceleration rate of their erosion would work better—but not the original, please.