Archive for July, 2012

Want to improve your writing? Start with these 7 tips

Writing is becoming a lost art. Between the unique style created by the explosion of social media and the old school belief that “more is better” lies a style that’s simple, clear, and effective. Getting there takes a bit of thought, but everyone can improve the effectiveness of their written words, and these tips will help you find the right path.

Get moving
Too often we write chronologically or start with background information. In most cases, however, you’re better of hitting your key message quickly.

Old school: “XYZ Company has a long history of valuing our customers and employees. XYZ was formed in 1952 with three staff and has grown steadily to over 500. Unfortunately, the economic uncertainty and shifting customer preferences are forcing us to close our doors.”

Better: “After 60 years of producing high-quality widgets, economic conditions and changing customer tastes are forcing the company to close its doors. President Judi Smith says the organization considered every option, including …”

Skim it
If your message will be read on a computer or handheld device, the reader is more likely to skim the copy. In addition to the tip above, this means you should break up your copy with bullets and sub headlines. Studies show that these catch the eyes’ attention.

Old School: Tuesday’s lecture will address a variety of First Aid topics, including treating open wounds, splinting broken bones, aiding a choking victim, responding to a potential poisoning, and performing CPR.

Better:

First Aid topics included in the lecture:

  • Treating open wounds
  • Splinting broken bones
  • Aiding a choking victim
  • Responding to a potential poisoning
  • Performing CPR

Drop a few
Picture a bucket of golf balls. Three are orange; the rest are white. The more white golf balls in the bucket, the more effort required to find an orange one. It’s the same with words. Give a reader too many, and you’re increasing the odds they’ll miss the key points of your message — or simply will give up. Focus on what’s really important.

Adopt a style
In addition to a dictionary — online or paper — your toolbox should include a style guide, such as the AP Stylebook. These easy-to-use guides give you tons of useful information, from abbreviations to the correct spelling of ZIP code.

Start writing
Early in my career, a senior PR person and I were charged with drafting a sensitive message from our CEO. I was hemming and hawing about the lead when he shook his head and said “Just start writing.”  He was thinking big picture and was stuck on the first sentence. While this seems almost counter intuitive, he was right. If I’m struggling to find the right opening, I’ll start with the second paragraph.

Tell someone
Speaking of lead sentences, a neat trick to beat writer’s block is to imagine telling the story to a spouse, friend, etc.

For example, a writer for a company newsletter might pen the following:  “Ronald Hood, president and CEO of ABC Corporation, visited with employees in the company’s Portland plant and announced a 5 percent bonus will be paid to staff…”

But you’d more likely tell your spouse: “Guess what? I’m getting a 5 percent bonus….Yeah, Mr. Hood told us today…”

So, perhaps a better lead would be: “Thanks to another record-breaking year, ABC employees will receive a 5 percent bonus, company President and CEO Ronald Hood announced today…”

Read more
Times are changing, and a shift in writing styles can be seen in magazines from People to Money. Open one and you’ll see short, crisp copy, with lots of photos and graphic, and fewer long stories. These publications’ editors recognize that readers are stressed for time, distracted by countless other messages, and searching for bite-size information. Your readers likely feel the same.

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You made a mistake? Good!

If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.
                          – Tallulah Bankhead, actress (1903 – 1968)

Mistakes. They scare us, embarrass us, and sometimes scar us, yet they may be our best teacher.

So why are we so afraid to make mistakes?

Perhaps you’re a perfectionist. Or you dread the thought of telling the boss about an error.  Many people worry about the impact a mistake would have on family.

Yes, certainly, some mistakes bring horrible consequences. But in most cases, we can — and should — view them as a lesson that will make us better next time.

Years ago, while preparing to move into my first house, I noticed the electrical box had some blank circuit breaker slots. I brought new breakers to fill the empty slots. It’s a pretty simple fix, but I accidentally touched two contact points and received quite a zap. It was a tremendous wake-up call; a reminder of the need to respect the dangers of working with electricity.

So, I made a stupid mistake, and although no damage was done, the “bite” I received at the electrical box serves as an ever-present reminder to exercise great caution when working with electricity.

Let mistakes happen
In the 1992 movie, Mr. Baseball, Tom Selleck plays an aging ballplayer given a last chance by a team in Japan. In one scene he speaks of mental shift that took him from wanting to hit the ball when batting, to not wanting to miss. A seemingly subtle statement on the surface; more profound in action.

Simply put, he was afraid of making a mistake. When the game is on the line, great players want the ball. In the office, high performers want to give the critical sales presentation, tackle the toughest projects, and answer the CEO’s most difficult questions.

If you’re the boss, create a culture that accepts mistakes. People know when they’ve screwed up, yet some bosses make it a point to rub it in. That’s counterproductive. A staff afraid to fail will second-guess itself, and produce work that falls short of a more confident team.

People generally know when they made a mistake —let them off the hook and they’ll appreciate and remember the gesture.

Face fear
Like Selleck’s character, you can confront and overcome your fear of mistakes:

  • Remember that you’re human, and everybody makes mistakes. This includes your boss, clients, and coworkers.
  • Acknowledge that you may fail, but will be okay. Then envision how you will succeed.
  • When you make a mistake, fess up. Acknowledge what went wrong and take responsibility. Share what you learned, and if appropriate, how you plan to fix the situation.
  • Practice, practice, practice. A singer performing in front of thousands of people has spent hundreds of hours preparing.
  • Take risks. People who take the safe route seem to magnify the impact of mistakes.  The more you try, the better your odds of success.

Your turn. What mistakes brought your greatest learnings?

When I woke up this morning my girlfriend asked me, ‘Did you sleep good?’  I said ‘No, I made a few mistakes.’
Steven Wright, comedian

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Career and life advice, A to Z

Throughout my career, many people have graciously guided me along with way. Some offered words of advice and encouragement, while quietly others led by example.

In appreciation of their lessons, here are some favorite tips, from A to Z.

A
Always do your best. Whether you’re meeting a potential client account, interviewing for a new job, or working on a critical project, you’ll never regret giving 100 percent.

B
Books. Read more. They open your world, change your perspective, and can improve your work skills, lifestyle, favorite hobby, etc.

C
Count your blessings.

D
Doing the right thing is always the right thing to do.

E
Everybody brings something of value. Years ago, our team was working on a new product launch. One of the campaign’s best ideas came from an intern.

F
Find your passion. Life is short — do something you enjoy.

G
Google, Facebook, Twitter … the internet and social media are great tools that can make your life easier (and more fun).

H
Honesty really is the best policy. If we can bend the rules and add a second “H”, humility is pretty cool, too.

I
“I” is the most overused word. Use “we” or “you” to improve your communications.

J
Jack-of-all-trades or specialist? Not sure where I stand on this one, but it seems that the Jacks are widely appreciated for their versatility, but the specialists seem to be promoted more regularly.

K
Kill them with kindness. My late uncle’s favorite saying. And he was right.

L
Let people off the hook when they make mistakes. They know they screwed up, and don’t need anyone rubbing it in.

M
Manners. People notice when you use them — and when you don’t.

N
Noon. Eat lunch with coworkers, run an errand, or go for a walk. Just don’t eat at your desk.

O
Overtime is the new 40 (hours, that is). Plan on it, but remember that you have a life outside of work, too.

P
Persistence really does pay off. Set a goal and work toward it. Remember the words of Thomas Edison: “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.”

Q
Quitters never win, the saying goes, but sometimes you just need to move on and direct your attention and efforts elsewhere.

R
Relationships are critical to success in work and life. This may be the most important of the list.

S
Share credit. Other people probably played a role in your success.

T
Treat people with respect. Especially those who work for you.

U
Understand people and what makes them tick. An exercise like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) can teach you volumes about others — and you’ll learn some things about yourself, too.

V
Volunteer. Studies show that people who give back are happier.

W
Writing is becoming a lost skill. Don’t lose your ability to communicate in clear, understandable terms.

X
Xiphoid process — the small chest bone that you use to align your hands when doing CPR. Basic First Aid is great to know, just in case.

Y
You are responsible for your actions. Accept the blame when things go wrong. People respect that.

Z
Zumba and other forms of exercise. Don’t forget to make time for yourself.

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Red Sox and Yankees know marketing baseball is more than just a game

Baseball fans from Beantown and the Big Apple are catching their breath after a three-day, four game series between the Red Sox and Yankees. Some call it the greatest rivalry in sports. Perhaps it is.

Regardless of which team you support, it’s clear that both clubs know how to build their fanbase.

The long and storied histories of these two teams are evident to even the most casual fan. The Yankees, winners of 27 World Series, are one of the most success sports franchises; Boston fans are still basking in the glow of their 2004 and 2007 titles.

But these days, the fan experience goes well beyond wins and losses. Many years ago, writing a Master’s thesis on sports marketing, I found that while a winning team boosts attendance, adding to the fan experience goes a long way, too. And that’s something — in addition to fielding competitive teams year after year — the Sox and Yankees do well.

Give a nod to tradition
Few teams in professional sports have a history and tradition that can match these two, and that’s something people want to be part of:

  • The “B” and “NY” logos are simple, recognizable, and can be found in every state and many countries. Any attempt to change either would likely bring a groundswell of opposition.
  • Boston’s Fenway Park marks its 100th anniversary this year, and the team is pulling out all the stops in a year-long celebration: Fenway 100 hats, multiple books on the park, a dedicated website, and a celebration that brought back hundreds of former players.
  • Yankee Stadium was built next to the predecessor it was modeled after, the original Yankee Stadium, the “House that Ruth Built.” Fans in New York begin each game with a Roll Call, chanting the name of every player on the field until he acknowledges the crowd.

Thanks for the memories
These two teams list some of the game’s greatest players, as well as many of the sport’s most memorable moments: Carlton Fisk’s home run in the 1975 World Series, Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech, Yogi Berra embracing Don Larsen after the latter tossed a perfect game in the 1956 Series, etc. These and other great moments are etched in the memory of fans from Eastport, Maine, to Northport, Long Island, and for those too young to remember, they can be seen in television promotions, on the big screen at the game, even on YouTube.

Recalling great moments is a powerful tool, and both of these teams do that well.

Legends played here
In 1941, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games. That same year, Ted Williams finished the season with a .406 batting average. No player has come close to either mark in the 71 years since. A late boss of mine often spoke of boyhood fights that resulted from the Williams vs. DiMaggio debate. And that was before the arrival of Mickey Mantle.

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, 23 players whose primary team was the Yankees are in the Hall, including Babe Ruth, arguably the greatest ever to play the game. The Red Sox have 10 former players in the Hall, led by Williams, considered by many to the best hitter of all time.

Both clubs look to add to those numbers with their current and future stars. The banner atop the Yankees website reads “Heroes Remembered. Legends Born,” connecting the past to the present.

First class
Outfielder Darnell McDonald, recently released by the Sox, signed a contract with New York a few days later. In addition to his wardrobe change into Yankee pinstripes, McDonald got a haircut. Appearance matters to the Yankees, and the team has a policy against long hair.

The player most aware of perception may have been the great DiMaggio, who was said to have guarded his image carefully. He was once asked why he played so hard, even when hurt. To paraphrase his reply, “because someone may be seeing me for the first time.”

Think outside the box
As part of an effort to increase the attendance capacity at tiny Fenway Park, Boston’s owners committed an act that was considered sacrilege at the time — putting seats atop the Green Monster, the 37-foot left field wall. Guess what? They’re the hottest seat in the park and among the most difficult to obtain. The Sox added a similar section overlooking right field. Yeah, these seats aren’t cheap, but they are very, very cool.

Me at Fenway Park’s “Fisk Pole.”

Fan friendly
Speaking of Fenway, the Sox offer tours of the park, for just $12. I went on a cold November afternoon. My group, one of many that day, had well over 100 people. The current owners, more than any in my lifetime, have made the experience fun for fans, with player meet and greets, opportunities to walk on the field, a seat upgrade contest on Twitter, and much more.

When the Yankees moved into the new Stadium, they brought Monument Park, a museum that pays tribute to the greats who have worn pinstripes (another tradition). The Park is open prior to games, but arrive early — the line is very long, and many people (including me) are turned away.

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Lessons from our founding fathers

More than two centuries ago, our founding fathers built a nation from the ground up, and did a pretty darn good job at that. So, in honor of Independence Day, here are some lessons they taught us.

Stand up for what you believe
Taxation without representation? Not here.

Take risks
Oddsmakers in Vegas wouldn’t have given the Colonists a chance against the British. And becoming an independent nation was just the beginning — the founding fathers then had to build a nation, create laws, establish trade with other countries, and become self-reliant.

Create an environment that allows people to flourish
‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness …’ America was, and remains, the land of opportunity, where millions have come to realize their dreams, whether that’s owning a home or making a better life for their children.

Value people
From the creation of a democracy to the belief of innocent until proven guilty, the founding fathers established what President Abraham Lincoln later termed “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The rights and freedoms established given by our Constitution are as relevant today as when the documents was written, nearly 250 years ago.

Keep it simple
The Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most important document in our nation’s history, is a tad over 1,300 words. The Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments, is less than 500 words. I’ve seen corporate memos that are far longer and not nearly as interesting.

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