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.