Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 4: Martin Luther King Jr. on Injustice

Toward the end of his fabled 8,000-word "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" (April 1963), Martin Luther King Jr. juxtaposes these two sentences:
If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable patience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
While King's essay served as an open letter to society for any newspaper or magazine that would publish it—and many did—he actually opened it with "My dear Fellow Clergymen," in response to those ministers, priests, and rabbis who claimed that his brand of civil disobedience was not akin to Gandhi's nonviolent protest movement of a generation earlier, but tantamount to a criminal conduct that threatened to undermine the very goals he set for his civil rights campaign. 

Why are these two sentences so powerful? I can think of at least three reasons.

  • Rhetorical repetition figures prominently in King's speeches and not so much in his prose, but not here. The first 18 words of both sentences are identical, except for the one in polar opposite of the other (overstatement and understatement), creating a rhythm that makes the prose dance.
  • Dramatic contradiction is another device King uses, not at all unique to him. (Remember "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," or "Some men see things as they are, and ask why; I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.") He shows his human limitations by admitting to the possibility of overstating to the point of inappropriate fervency toward jurisprudence and law enforcement, as well as understating to the point of unforgivable indifference to humanity. 
  • Divine refutation borders on divine fallacy in most cases, but we must remember the men of the cloth who were the intended recipients of these sentences. They are in the God business. King asks them to forgive his overstating his point, which he believes can hardly be overstated; however, he asks the far greater authority of God to forgive any chance of his standing where his opponents do. And, of course, we can forgive impatience toward injustice quicker than we can a contempt toward brotherhood.
"Letter from Birmingham City Jail" contains numerous other rhetorical devices that make it worth reading in full.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 3: Steven Pinker on Human Progress

Steven Pinker, award-winning Harvard professor and author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, among many other outstanding books, wrote this sentence in his article "Follow the Trendlines", appearing in The Economist special issue The World in 2019:
Since the 18th-century Enlightenment, life expectancy across the world has increased from 30 to 71 years, extreme poverty has fallen from 90% to 10 %, literacy has risen from 12% to 83%, and the share of people living in democracies has leapt from 1% to two-thirds.
The obvious optimism of this 45-word sentence is refreshing, but what impresses me more is how Pinker hits these high notes after rendering a realistic picture of how we get news about our world. Reporting failure, he writes, is the job of journalism while reporting success seems like public relations. He uses statistics to make his indisputable case that humanity has continually progressed for the better over the centuries. Numbers are rarely sexy, but they are here.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 2: Stanley Karnow on the Vietnam Memorial

Stanley Karnow chose to begin his reportorial and historical masterpiece, Vietnam: A History, with an image of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. The third sentence epitomizes the Memorial's significance:
The names of the dead engraved on the granite record more than lives lost in battle: they represent a sacrifice to a failed crusade, however noble or illusory its motives.
Karnow's choice of crusade could not be more apt a comparison, as he concludes the sentence with noble and illusory, simultaneously contradictory and complementary descriptions of the two-century religious wars nearly a millennium earlier.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 1: James Baldwin on Artists

The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society—the politicians, legislators, educators, scientists, et cetera—by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. — James Baldwin, "The Creative Process" in Creative America, 1962

I can read hundreds of James Baldwin's sentences a hundred times, and the 66-word sentence above is one of them. His syntax often surprises and his meaning just as frequently suspends, occasionally dangles, and ultimately satisfies. Baldwin's longer sentences twist and turn, meandering toward a destination that will unsettle, agitate, and challenge, inspiring readers to simultaneously marvel at his syntactic and semantic intents. Whether we agree with his ideas is beside the point; what matters is how we emerge from absorbing them certain of his self-reflective, uncompromising honesty, which is an undeniably transcendent truth in its own right. Notice the last 6 of those 66 words: the mystery of the human being. What a way to capture our imagination by ending on the cryptic and keep us reading!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Vassallo Featured on Consulting Website

One of my recent training  successes is featured in an article on the website of The McMullen Group, a burgeoning consulting firm. The post, "Using Employees Strengths to Overcome Their Weaknesses", summarizes my deeply customized training course for a major investment banking firm. The 12-week program was so successful that we repeated it four times. It's worth a read. A big thanks to Karen McMullen, Founder and Principal of the McMullen Group for the highlight!

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Value of Plain Language

Writing in plain language requires the use of a simpler word and clearer sentence construction for maximum understanding by the intended audience. Using plain language matters to people who work in bureaucracies or other technically complex businesses if they want their readers to understand and act on their message. This practice is especially useful where the message needs translation into multiple languages; the simpler the word, the easier and more accurate the translation. 

Beginning with a post on the need for plain language and ending with one on word choice, I wrote a nine-part series on the topic that gained some attention. It's worth a look by searching "plain language" on this blog.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

In Recognition of Election Day: Vociferously Obfuscating

When it's time to vote, we might think of the slogans and sound bites of incumbents and challengers. It's time for doublespeak, the term coined by novelist George Orwell in his landmark book to mean language that pretends to communicate but really confuses. 

Numerous examples of doublespeak come to mind, but two resounding ones come to mind. The first is by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for his infamous truth isn't truth comment in defending why President Donald Trump should not submit to testifying to the Mueller investigation team. The second is by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo for calling "inartfulhis statement "We're not going to make America great again—it was never that greatin response to President Trump's mantra.


Keep seeking, dissecting, and reporting examples of doublespeak in the name of plain language. Our freedom of speech depends on it. 
  

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The "I" Understood

Since more examples of I understood keep popping up, I wonder whether this rhetorical device will become an English language standard. 

We learned in elementary school and from hearing everyday speech that you is understood in imperative sentences, so we naturally—and correctly—drop the bracketed you in these sentences:

  • If you have any questions, please [you] contact me.
  • [You] Send the report to the president.
  • [You] Stop when you approach Security.

But dropping I? Here are some examples from official business emails I've received of a dropped I in sentences of various tenses, with the words in brackets omitted by the writer:
  • Past Tense: [I] Spoke with the broker yesterday.
  • Present: [I] Craft speeches for the CEO.
  • Present Continuous Tense: [I am] Completing slides for the presentation.
  • Future: [I] Will inform you by the end of the day.
Chances are people write sentence fragments like these as a gesture of humility, because they want to deemphasize themselves. They also may be attempting to limit the repetitious or selfish-centered use of I

Language is dynamic, especially English, because multilingual speakers of different non-English languages who need to communicate with each other generally default to English. While I understood might seem distasteful, most of us who have not been trapped for decades in a linguistic straitjacket agree that the following sentence is acceptable: [I] Thank you. Therefore, it's normal to muse about whether the other sentences will become standard in contexts where they're clearly understood in this fast-paced age of communication.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Is # a Punctuation Mark, Word, or Some Other Symbol?

Punctuation is changing. Or are words? Depending on how you google a topic, you will get different results by adding the hashtag. For instance, try #lovemusic then love music. The clipped communication world we live in creates a conundrum for disciples of semantics.

What does # mean? As of this date, Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster won't touch it, and Oxford does, albeit with the old-fashioned meaning: The hash sign or pound sign, used as a symbol on a phone keypad or computer keyboard before a numeral , or to represent a pound as a unit of weight or mass

I think in internet language # means the whole wide world of whatever it is attached to.

Thanks to Twitter and its brethren websites, we keep adding subtleties to the meaning, or sense, of words and symbols. Think about the layered meanings of 😉,😊, and😞, among many other emojis. In communication between two close friends, one of those emojis can have an entire paragraph of meaning. We intuitively know what these symbols mean, or at least think we do. We are not making the machine more intuitive; we are becoming the machine.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

In or Out? Those Crazy Quotes

A common question in my writing courses is whether to place commas and periods inside or outside quotation marks. If you read both American and British publications, you'll surely be confused because they follow different rules. The American Psychological Association (APA) Style Blog and the Modern Language Association (MLA) Style Center offer helpful viewpoints on this topic. 

When quoting verbatim, the American method works well enough: place the punctuation inside the quotes, as in:
Barry said, "We will have a meeting."
"Will it be tomorrow?" asked Harry.
"Yes," said Larry. 

But the American method can cause problems, as this acceptable sentence includes punctuation marks within the quotes although they are not part of the poems' titles: 
While I was reading Sylvia Plath's villanelle "Mad Girl's Love Song," she was reading Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle "One Art."
The application of this rule doesn't bother me, as I have far greater problems to concern myself with when writing. Here is a solution for those who do not like the rule: Create your own organizational style book that breaks the American standard.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

BOOK BRIEF: The Choices That Summon Us—"Strange Paradise: Portrait of a Marriage" by Grace Schulman

Grace Schulman’s Strange Paradise: Portrait of a Marriage surpasses its restrictive subtitle. Of course, the 57-year marriage the author describes could only be hers, but her narrative transcends an exposé of the life of two individuals made one unbreakable couple, even when separated. Schulman’s tome is a tribute to writer friends, deceased and still thriving, who compose a veritable who’s who among the literary establishment. It is a testament to the remarkable healing power of poetry. It is a psalm to music, indeed the soundtrack of her life of the mind. Ultimately, it is her ode to love, a love song in itself about her remarkable life and union with virologist Jerome Schulman, who passed away in 2016. And it is even more—an opportunity for all people in a deep relationship to reflect on the kind of partner they have been and could be.

Schulman’s prodigious achievements include the Frost Medal for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in American Poetry and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry. Beginning her writing career as a journalist, she became poetry editor of The Nation for 34 years and director of the 92nd Street Y for 22 years. She remains Distinguished Professor of English at Baruch College, where she has inspired students, including me, for more than four decades.

Reading Strange Paradise is much like experiencing Schulman’s poetry. She continually steps into the fresh air after an encounter with her husband, a friend, a colleague, or her work to capture the turning points of her life. Consider some of these lyrical gems: upon choosing between a long-term relationship and her freedom: “My love was losing me the resolve to go my own way.” About learning to write better poetry from her dear friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Marianne Moore: “I woke to her verbs.” Of her youthful, bold border crossings in Israel to the Arab village of Qalkilya: “Borders summoned me.” When she and her husband visited Greece before their marriage: “In Hydra we looked death in the face. Or was it life at its highest elevation?” Of her many choices: “Despite its happy sound, freedom is terrible because of the entire responsibility for each choice among alternatives.” Reflecting on the death of her husband: “However close your union, you live apart, alone. Your freedom of choice, terrible in its way, is existentially important.” And of the finality of loss: “My walks through the city and country were not cures but bandages.”

Yet Schulman’s spirit summons us to triumphs in the depth of despair: “I’ll go through a normal morning when suddenly grief arrives in a high whitecap wave: after another lull, the comber rises and flattens me. Still, I find the breaker’s aftermath a place for work that clarifies. In the northeaster at sea a dinghy comes, splintered, in need of repair. I climb on board and try to bail it out. I go on.”

Schulman’s life-affirming book reminds us of the binary existence in which we find ourselves, not an either/or, but an acceptance, an appreciation of the pleasures, pains, joys, and sorrows that we must embrace if we are to live a life worth living.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 14: Keeping the Door Open

For this final installment on tone tips, I will not recount the numerous suggestions that I made in this series, but I do encourage you to review them. My thanks to the many people who have liked these tips on Linked In, Twitter, and Facebook. Heeding the advice in these posts will keep the door open to your readers. I close this series with three new recommendations that will cultivate and cement enduring relationships.

1. Check in. Staying in touch isn't always easy when you're bombarded with countless e-messages, yet it is a sure way to stay connected. Here are possible openings to emails that your readers might find endearing if they are well-timed: "Glad to hear from Charlie that your project is progressing smoothly" ... "I just returned from New Orleans and was thinking about your great advice to make the business trip a hit" ... "It's been a while since we last communicated, so I want you to know that we are continuing to look for ways to bridge the gap between our services and your needs." 

2. Acknowledge. Never let an opportunity pass to congratulate or simply thank someone. Examples: "I'm excited but not surprised about your recent, well-deserved, and long overdue promotion" ... "Without a doubt, your support on this project made it a success for countless reasons" ... "I greatly appreciate not only your diligence on all your assignments but the respect that you have shown all your collaborators." 

3. ReferYou can forward a useful article: "I thought you would be interested in this piece about succession planning, which I know has been at the top of your agenda." You can connect two people: "Anita and Zhou, I am sure that with your mutual aims in bioinformatics, you will benefit from knowing each other." Or you can write a commendation for a promotion, award, or program acceptance: "Brenda Gross is worthy of recognition as Employee of the Year for her creative, efficient, and ethical approach to all she does."

Checking in, acknowledging, and referring will go a long way toward gaining forgiveness if you unintentionally breach some of the best practices posted in this series. More importantly, it will keep the door open to the people who matter most to you.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 13: Preferring Language to Emojis

Most people who email me use emojis, but that doesn't mean I have to. While I do not find them silly or offensive, I know some of my clients see using them as unprofessional. They see it as an excuse not to use language to express what they mean.

I agree with those critics, even if you might think they take their work and themselves too seriously. That's why I avoid using emojis. Instead, I let my words do the talking. Yes, they can get me in trouble just as emojis can, but I want to cultivate my communication skills.


So how do I express emotion? Thinking a bit longer about how I want to congratulate you for a recent promotion rather than just throwing a smiley at you will touch you more. And expressing a subtle reaction in words over dropping in a wink gives me an opportunity to sharpen my writing skills and you the chance to reflect more on the situation.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 12: Avoiding "I Can't"

Here's an easy one—so easy that I'm surprised how few people practice this principle. For the sake of good tone, avoid placing side by side I and can't. (The same applies to we can't or the company can't.) Especially if you are in a service business, the point of your job is to tell your readers what you can do, not 
what you can't do. 

In the examples that follow, the first draft seems defensive, dismissive, or accusatory, while the second draft appears positive, committed, or considerate.

Draft 1: I can't help you until you pay me.
Draft 2: I can help you when you pay me. 

Draft 1: We can't process your application since you did not complete the form.
Draft 2: We can process your application once you complete the form.

Draft 1: The company cannot finish the work because the client did not supply the materials.
Draft 2: The company will finish the work upon receipt of the materials.

At times, we may have no choice but to use a negative construction. For instance, we might have to write we can't when a customer insists on the assistance without the prerequisite after we have already used the positive expression. But we should make I can our default. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 11: Using a Complimentary Close

Salutations and complimentary closes should match in style. We wouldn't want to open with a "Hey Kim" and close with "Sincerely", or open with a "Dear Ms. Patel" and close with "See ya later." 

What I wrote in the last post, about salutations, applies to complimentary closes. I also referred to a 2009 WORDS ON THE LINE post advising how to choose the best salutation and complimentary close in email. In general, the best close ranges from none at all when rushed to Thanks when grateful to My best when hopeful to Sincerely when formal.

A final suggestion: let your organizational culture guide you. Notice how respected employees in your company close their messages and follow suit. If you run a single-person or small business like me, then notice how the good writers among your clients and vendors write. Chances are you'll choose well. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 10: Using a Salutation

I posted on salutations before, but the question comes up at least once a week in training sessions, so this series on tone seems a perfect occasion to resurrect the issue.

I still stand behind the two suggestions in the second paragraph of that post; first, address your readers as you would when talking to them; second, follow the lead of respected coworkers. After nearly a decade since that post, I would add a third: walk a mile in your readers' shoes. If they merit a communication from you, they deserve the respect that comes with it. 

Yes, the world has gotten quicker, and yes, we communicate more informally with people. Most people do not get offended when total strangers start an email by greeting them by first name, as in Hi Phil. If they did, they'd be angry most of the time. But such a familiar greeting gets under their skin like a stubborn tick when writers, regardless of their age, are selling them. And it makes them hit the ceiling like a loose spring when they are receiving customer service for the first time. 

If you're unsure of the best way to greet someone, err on the side of formality. Better to be called a stuffed shirt than to be called rude. Start with Dear Dr. Mailer, Dear Ms. Miller, or Dear Mr. Muller. Then wait for your readers to break the wall of formality, and let the first two tips from that 2009 post kick in.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 9: Apologizing Unconditionally

"We're sorry you're upset about the options available to you, but our policy states ..."

"I apologize for the late arrival of your package; however, higher than usual demand ..."

"The company regrets this price increase, but rising expenses ..."

Puleeze. Puleeze. Puleeze. We see through your shallow, insincere apologies. The word apology can mean a justification or an expression of regret. If we want to justify, then we have nothing to apologize for; if we want to express regret, then we should not negate the regret. 

An apology should be unconditional. We should clearly assert it and follow it with an acknowledgement, assurance, adjustment, or all three, as you can see in United CEO's Oscar Munoz's apology email to MileagePlus members. An acknowledgment is a statement telling our readers they deserved better treatment. An assurance is a promise to clean up our act. An adjustment is a means of making up to our readers by granting a favor. Here is a rewrite of each statement at the beginning of this post:

1. With an Acknowledgment: "We're sorry the options we've made available to you do not suit your needs. We know how important a wide range of choices is to a discerning customer, and we realize we have fallen short of that expectation ..."

2. With an Assurance: "I apologize for the late arrival of your package and want you to know my commitment to make this a one-off situation ..."

3. With an Adjustment: "The company needs to increase prices to cover rising production costs, but we will stand by our pre-increase rate for this order ..."

Make those apologies sincere, and they will be believable.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

On Writing Terrific Emails


Students in all my courses tell me their key takeaways, so I know my tips on writing help them. And it's especially nice to hear when one of my books benefits someone, so I was thrilled to learn from Richard O'Rourke, Associate Director, Office of Admissions Recruitment and Outreach for the University of Illinois at Chicago, how The Art of E-mail Writing transformed an entire department. 

Mr. O'Rourke wrote, "Your book is amazing – we incorporated it into our counselor training here at the University of Illinois. It’s made a very positive impact on the quality of our work. Every new hire now gets a copy." 

O'Rourke's own highly instructive, thought-provoking, and well-written article on email marketing in a hectic environment is a must-read for social media managers and online content developers in any field. In it, he crystallizes a process he has cultivated to enable his staff to write with authority. I appreciate the proactive approach he and his team have taken to ensure their writing shines. Go, Fighting Illini!



Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Don't Judge a Banana by Its Cover

Check out that banana. Before today, if that were your only banana and you offered it to me—and if I were really hungry—I'd politely decline your gracious offer. I would have decided based on the assumption that I know a good banana when I see one. My experience over six-plus decades told me that bananas ripen from green (ugh) to yellow (uh) to traces of brown (yum) to full brown (oh-no) to black (yuk), but they are not quite right if they evolve into a weird mix of forget-me-not green, barely yellow, and specks of brown. You can keep your banana, thank you.

But I've been reading a lot of books lately that have confirmed my conviction to argue with my own data: Hans Rosling's Factfulness, Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now, and Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project, all worthwhile reads. I have always been skeptical about data, a disposition I regularly urge my students to take. I tell them to see not only both sides of an argument but multiple ones. Such thinking may reverse their opinions, strengthen some they already have, and maybe even create new ones. Then how could I not accept your banana?

Realizing my hypocrisy, I peeled the banana and took a bite. It was delightfully delicious, and I was decidedly wrong in my banana analytics. After devouring that banana in seconds, I realized the need to reinvent my entire banana hue spectrum. Of course, I won't go monochromatic in choosing bananas, but I'll have to add more data to my choosing, such as their feel and smell. What a world I've opened to myself!

Come on, you know you've been wrong about your data too. Can you think of an instance? Keep analyzing in all you do at work, school, home, and playground.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 8: Starting and Ending Positive

In the previous post of this WORDS ON THE LINE series on tone, I noted that the tone of a written message improves when following but with a positive thought, not a negative one. Of course, we would do well to  avoid the negative altogether.

So little can you do to offset starting a message with a negative tone. That's a sure way of having it disregarded by most of your readers most of the time, even when ending on a positive note. In fact, they'll likely not get to the positive part. Kicking off a message with "You wrote three glaring errors on your report" or "You made two blunders during the staff meeting" usually sets up a combative situation between writer and reader.  

Writing with a positive opening and a negative ending also has its troubles. Beginning with "I hope you're have a nice day" only to conclude with "I expect you to correct these problems immediately" will surely be seen a insincere or thoughtless at best and sarcastic or belligerent at worst. 

The best bet is to start and end on positive notes when you want the message to be read in a positive way. So the aim would be to open with "This is the way we would like you to do it" rather than "Don't do it that way," or to close with "I know you'll get this done on time and with quality" rather than "Don't be late and don't make mistakes." Tone matters as much a purpose.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 7: Watching Your "But"

We all know what's going on in the mind of insincere communicators who say, "I agree with you, but," or "You did a good job, but." They really don't agree with us, and they actually think we did a bad job. We especially see through such disingenuous expressions in writing, since we assume writers took the time to craft their point.

But they either don't always take the time to reflect on their readers' feelings, and even if they do, they might not have the same writing awareness as they do reading awareness. So here are three tips for watching your but if tone matters to you.


1. Explain your positives. Instead of writing "I agree with your proposal to move our corporate offices to New York, but it's too expensive," describe why you agree—or don't write that you agree. Let's see how both situations would work.

If you agree, but with reservations, you might write:
I believe your proposal to move our office to New York makes sense for three reasons: 1) it will give us greater visibility in one of the most important financial centers in the world; 2) it will give us greater access to more prospective clients; and 3) it will expand our talent pool selection. For these reasons, we need to do a cost analysis of these potential gains against the moving and increased rental expenses.
If you simply disagree, you might write: 
Your proposal to move our corporate offices to New York is too expensive, as it will cost us $109,000 in moving expenses and an annual rent increase of $531,000.
2. Replace but with so. Most times, finding another word for but is a no-brainer. And I don't mean however, which is just a fancier but, implying the same meaningOne I commonly use is so. Examples:
Replace "Your report was on schedule, but I found two mistakes" with "Your report was on schedule, so we have time to fix two mistakes in it." 
Instead of  "Your presentation is credible, but your conclusion isn't focused," write "Most of your presentation is credible, so you'll want to revise your conclusion to better focus your audience.
3. Use but after negatives, not positives. Decide which of these two sentences has a better tone:

  • You handled that difficult client well, but you could have offered him another choice. 
  • You could have offered that difficult client another choice, but you handled him well.

If you think the second one is an improvement, as I do, then you'll want to end on a positive note by placing but after the negative, not the positive point. 
   

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 6: Knowing When to Send

It's all in the timing. Sometimes readers might get annoyed by a written message only because of when they receive it. Ill-timed emails and handwritten notes can escalate workplace tensions, so we would do well to avoid becoming the agent of tension tightening, fury fueling, or party-pooping.

Before sending a message, we should consider not only whether we should put something in writing but when we should. An email requesting help five minutes before the end of the business day might not be as thoughtful as at the top of the next business morning. A message counseling a staff member for making erring near a project deadline might work better when the pressure simmers upon project completion. Also, we might wait for the dust to settle in a misunderstanding between two associates before we fire off a note explaining our expectations for their future conduct. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 5: Knowing Whether to Send

One of the best lessons a business writer can learn is this: some things should not be put in writing. If you are reading this, you surely can think of a time when an email irritated you. Maybe the writer merely needed to give you instructions or a simple heads up, but the inappropriate tone derailed the business purpose. With this thought in mind, keep these three tips close in mind to guard against falling into a tone trap:

1. Do not send the message if you know you're upset. Use means other than writing to resolve a heated issue.

2. Remember annoyance, belligerence, condescension, and sarcasm never belong in work-related writingEven the most skilled writers run the risk of stoking the rising flames when sending an email in a tone-sensitive situation.

3. Take the high road. If you can't find a way of directly getting to the business point, then back off and do something else. Return to it later and, bingo, you'll figure it out.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 4: Checking Your Tone

We now have a definition of tone, an understanding about the risks of a bad tone, and knowledge of the influences on tone. So here are four good ways of checking your tone:

1. Allow a cooling-off period. If a message, business situation, or reader annoys, angers, or astounds you for any reason, realize that your tone might reflect that emotion. Nearly everyone I talk to on this point agrees: The heat of the moment chills over time. Sometimes walking away may help you determine an appropriate response. Other times, you might return to the message to see it's not as big a deal as you first thought. 

2. Read the message with your purpose in mind. Every work-related message has a business purpose, whether it is a transmission of information your reader needs to know or a call to action. That purpose might be about complying with a policy, changing a procedure, relaying lab findings, relating a root cause of an incident, or requesting resources, among many others. Sticking to that point will keep you in a politically safer, all-business state.  

3. Look at the message from your reader's viewpoint. We've heard the wise expressions, "see it through my eyes" and "walk a mile in my shoes." Truer words are hard to find. We all have feelings: kick us and we scream, punch us and we cry, scratch us and we bleed. Hurting feelings is unprofessional conduct. If we remember point 2 above, then getting even, firing off a zinger, or delivering a nastygram have no place in business communication. And seeing your message from your reader's viewpoint is easier than you might admit, because you know what's motivating you is your own upset.

4. Ask a trusted associate to read the message for tone. Here's another piece of timeless wisdom to which most experienced, sensible people subscribe. Buddies removed from the emotions of the situation will tell you straight out whether they detect a tone problem. Defer to their judgment. It might not be infallible, but it's better than yours in the swirl of a dramatic moment.   

Monday, July 09, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 3: Understanding the Influences on Tone

With a definition of tone and an understanding of the risks of a bad tone, we should look at the many factors affecting it. I'll mention five of them here, and I'm sure you'll come up with some of your own after reading this post.

1. The message you are sending. Let's face it: some news is bad no matter how you spin it. You fire someone, or you tell a good employee that she did not get that coveted promotion, or you establish a company-wide pay freeze, or you announce the death of a beloved employee. A little bit of simpatico would not hurt in these situations. Expressions such as "We're sorry that ..." or "Unfortunately" may seem hollow, but they're better than nothing. The best approach is an entire paragraph connecting yourself to your readers, showing that you understand the affect your announcement has on them.

2. The writer's attitude. Sometimes you may feel a situation is urgent, so you express the message accordingly. But your readers may not see the situation with the same level of urgency. They're too busy dealing with their own concerns to pay any attention to yours. If you are sufficiently sensitive to see these situations, you'll write in kind. 

3. The reader's attitude. Sometimes readers see situations differently from you. They might not want to donate to your favorite charity because it doesn't align with their values or because they ardently give to their own causes, which your organization may not directly support. Perhaps they don't prize your call to action about a safety best practice because they don't get how it will keep them out of harm's way. Or maybe they don't buy into something you're suggesting simply because you are the one suggesting it. They don't know you well enough, or they don't value your position, or they don't like you. It's possible. Maybe in such cases you'll need to invoke a higher authority with openers like, "On behalf of the  CEO," if you can get away with it. 

4. Your personal culture. Think about what matters most to you. Wisdom means a lot to me; I buy into people I consider wise. Of course, I don't do so blindly, but their opinions matter to me. Yet many people I write to believe honesty supersedes all else, so I will not impress them with the latest review of literature or with a snippet from a New York Times op-ed piece. Try to remember that the next time you write someone about something that matters a lot to you but maybe not to them.


5. Your corporate culture. Regardless of our values, inclinations, and behaviors, we are beholden to the our organization. Even though mine is a one-person organization, I try to maintain a party line when I communicate on behalf of my business. Believe it or not, my business attitude does not always reflect my personal one. For an innocuous example, I don't like neckties, but I mostly wear them when meeting clients. You do the same, no doubt. Think about the differences in your own style and your organization's style. Then see how well you accommodate the style of the people who show you the money.

Since so much is at stake when we write in tone-sensitive situations, it makes sense for us to consider ways to check our tone in the next WORDS ON THE LINE post. 


Monday, July 02, 2018

BOOK BRIEF: We’re Not As Bad As All That


Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Ann Rosling Rönnlund (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018)

The paradigm-shifting ideas in Hans Rosling’s Factfulness emerge rarely in one’s lifetime. It’s one of the books you might borrow from the library because of the great things you’ve heard about it, then renew the loan since you want to reread the author’s well-reasoned conclusions from irrefutable data, and ultimately decide it’s worth owning as you’ll find the sage’s arguments useful whenever you might find yourself in a squabble over issues of healthcare advancements, global education, social inequality, or human progress.

Rosling fans familiar with his legendary TED talks know how passionate he was about his subject matter before his untimely death, which preceded the publication of this book. Factfulness works on multiple levels. It can be read as a self-test of one’s comprehension of the general welfare of our planet; as a clearinghouse for worldwide social, economic, educational, and medical trends; as a guide to research on historical human progress; as an applied means of understanding where people and nations fit in income levels (mixed), improvements (high), and world knowledge (abysmally low); and as an autobiography of Rosling’s illustrious career as a physician, researcher, and teacher in places as remote as the African outback and hallowed as the Karolinska Institutet, as well as an engaging presenter on the most prestigious stages in international affairs.  

Rosling was neither liberal nor conservative, but he surely was practical. Factfulness cogently explains why nearly everyone distorts the facts. Nuclear power activists espouse hypocritical and short-sighted agendas. International relief organizations misrepresent statistics on poverty. Journalists report an exaggerated story of the world we live in. Politicians cherry pick to drive self-serving legislation. And we—the guiltiest party—hold on to ten undeniable illusions that paint for us an outdated, unrealistic picture of how things really are. No one knows this better than Rosling himself, who on at least three occasions in the book admits that even he blindly clutched romanticized ideas of the human condition. His delusions triggered wrongheaded decisions that caused a loss of human life.

The ten collective and destructive instincts we share, Rosling argues, make us see the world not as it is but as it was. By pointing out these misjudgments and offering commonsense antidotes to them, Rosling delivers in his magnum opus a veritable manual for perceiving the planet we share, and an indispensable resource in changing only those parts of the world that need changing—starting with our own ignorance.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

BOOK BRIEF: Knowing When to Say When

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink (New York: Random House/ Riverhead, 2018)

Duke Ellington, the American composer, bandleader, and pianist whose astounding productivity was exceeded only by his prodigious talent, once said, “I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.” Daniel H. Pink gives us plenty of reasons to believe in that wisdom. The author of the excellent, best-selling A Whole New Mind posits in his latest book that we begin most things with a bang and end them with an explosion, but somewhere in that interminable middle is a monotonous muddle. That midpoint of our day, week, month, year, education, project, job, romantic relationship, or lifetime constitutes an inevitable ennui, a time when we should take care not to assume we are operating at our greatest gusto, fullest faculties, or peak performance.

Pink notes early in When that this is a book about timing. He infers from numerous studies that our optimal time of enjoyment, alertness, and accomplishment is most likely to be anytime but at halftime, when a break would serve us better than anything else. He then suggests practices for everyday life to heighten awareness, mitigate malaise, and reverse bad habits. If you like the structure of Pink’s books—as I do—you will find When a quick read full of interesting curiosities and useful tips that may improve your approach to work and maximize your output.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 2: Knowing the Risks of a Bad Tone

Now that we have a definition of tone, let's look at the risks of writing in a bad bad tone by reading the list in the illustration from the bottom up.

1. Your message is ignored. At best, really, the offended party will simply avoid returning the message, regardless of its business purpose.

2. An email war begins. Worse, the recipient may fire back a nastygram, beginning a pointless, venomous war of words. 

3. The work is not done. Meanwhile, the warring factions are concerning themselves with the rise in their blood pressure and the cruelty of their retaliatory responses rather than focusing on their jobs.  

4. Your message is forwarded. These matters don't stay private for long. Sooner or later, the entire office knows about such petty, lingering linguistic skirmishes. 

5. Management intervenes. Now management has to divert attention from the business to chastise or counsel the quibblers. Such interventions can include meetings, follow-up documentation, and maybe official proceedings, all because two people could not  maintain their professionalism.

6. Your job evaluation suffers. The incident has just given the manager something new to write about on the offender's employee appraisal. The issue doesn't just disappear. It could even cost someone a raise or promotion.

7. You lose your job. It has happened. Often, people are fired when management perceives them to be naysayers, complainers, thin-skinned, or rabble-rousers—perceptions whose seeds were planted by the email with the problematic tone.  

8. Your reputation is damaged. It doesn't stop there. These diatribes grow into the stuff of legend, extending beyond the department, company, and even field, irrespective of the magnitude of the organizational culture.  

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 1: Defining Tone

This post is the first in a series on tone in business writing. I begin with four posts on theory, including this one. This one defines tone in writing, the next describes the risks of writing in a bad tone, the third explores influences on tone, and the final lists general practices for checking tone. The ten posts following these introductory ones present practical strategic tips for creating, improving, or maintaining a reader-centered tone.

What is tone?
The tone is the writer's underlying attitude that the reader infers from the message. What writers think about their own tone is insufficient. An employee might succeed in conveying a gracious tone to 11 of her 12 teammates, but the other one might find her tone to be ingratiating. A vendor might believe his emails appear focused to his clients, but some of them might actually find him to be demanding. A manager wants to seem confident to his staff of 40, but half of them might feel he is pompous and the other half strident. Indeed, most people read tone in their own special way, and most usually don't doubt their assumptions. They are certain that they're reading the writer's tone correctly.

Why is tone so important in writing?
Purposefulnesshaving a point, getting to it, and sticking to it—is paramount in business writing. But tone is a close second. At the least, people might ignore the simplest of email requests because they perceive a caustic tone in the requester. 

How can a bad tone prove worse than the work not getting done? The next post will explain.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Elmore Leonard's Tips on Writing

Elmore Leonard was a fiction writer and a wise guy. Many of his best-selling fiction novels became major motion pictures. His top ten tips on writing—and a surprising eleventh—appear in The New York Times article, "Writers on Writing; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle".

Enjoy his tongue-in-cheek approach, but take his suggestions seriously if you want to succeed as a writer. This essay is definitely worth a read.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Will Handwriting Disappear?

Many people are lamenting the disappearing act of teaching cursive writing in schools. Even teaching print is declining in deference to the Common Core standard of teaching typewriting. Those who dread this change argue that a deep connection exists between handwriting and cognitive skills development. 

I have always been skeptical about this claim, because typewriting also helps develop cognitive skills. In a New York Times opinion piece, author Anne Trubek doesn't think this evolution will harm childhood education. 

Should handwriting be left to museums and libraries solely for scholarly analysis  of future generations like Ancient Greek and Latin?