Avoid IT: How not to inspire dread in your audience

Recharged after the weekend and eager to start my day, I was quickly skimming my emails to prioritize my tasks when I saw “IT”- the dreaded email from my department chair directed to “All.”  Most of my colleagues would have stopped there and deleted the message, but as a writing consultant, my natural inclination was to keep reading. I glanced at the subject line and opening sentence thinking “IT” might get better. The purpose was to announce a beginning of the semester kick-off meeting and happy hour, but the terse greeting (if ALL can be considered a greeting) was followed by the lackluster statement, “I am writing to…” My department chair didn’t mean to dampen my Monday morning spirits, and like many people, was probably immersed in his own “to-do’s” instead of considering the impression his words would make on me. 

Having just finished summer break, I should have been excited to attend and catch up with colleagues but instead felt like I was receiving a reminder to arrive 15 minutes early to my next dental appointment.  No offense to dentists, but cleanings are not on my top-10-fun-things-to-do list. Come to think of it, meetings probably aren’t either.  However, the “IT” should have engaged me from the start with a courteous, welcoming greeting. Greetings set the tone for our messages and often determine whether we’ll continue through to the end.  A sincere, courteous greeting with a pleasantry conveys warmth and establishes rapport, the same as walking down a hall smiling and saying good morning to the people you pass.  Referring to a person by name makes that individual feel even more valued and respected. 

Keep the emphasis on your readers by following the greeting with an opening sentence that frames the context from their perspective.  Instead of “I am writing to…”, contemplate how a sentence could be rephrased to a “you” perspective which focuses on them.  For example, “you are invited to….”  Better yet, describe reader benefits so they know what’s in it for them.  For example, “Friday’s meeting is your chance to catch up with colleagues and express your thoughts about x, y, and z.”  Then, expand on the details your reader needs or wants to know.

Take a moment or two before you write an email to place yourself in the position of your audience and consider what words would demonstrate that you are genuinely interested and care about them. Try to anticipate their reactions to your requests.  The more you focus on them, the more likely you are to achieve your desired outcomes.  Had more thought been given to the readers of “IT”, the word choices could have generated enthusiasm instead of reinforcing obligation. And maybe, four subsequent “ITs” would’ve been unnecessary to encourage people to attend a happy hour. 

Grammarly--the most useful spellcheck, grammar check, tone tool I've seen

This spring, I noticed that my undergraduates were writing much better than they had in the previous 5 years I’d been teaching. It was the first semester that I hadn’t read a paper that talked about a house when the sentence actually meant a way: “In this manor, we’ll be able to meet virtually.” More commas were in the correct places, fewer semicolons and colons were tossed into the essay in an attempt to make it appear more “professional.” Generally, it seemed that my students had discovered some way of improving their writing rather drastically.

During a class presentation, a student mentioned that she had Grammarly Premium and that this was how she was securing As on her papers for class. Other students laughed. The majority of them, it seemed, was using the free version, which was helpful, but wasn’t getting them As (the assignments aren’t only graded on spelling and correct grammar, but it does count for about 30% of an assignment grade).

I downloaded Grammarly to see how the tool worked and what advantage it was giving my students. Now, I’ve had the Grammarly plug since March, and overall I’ve been impressed with it. The plugin monitors everything that I write on the internet and offers suggestions about spelling, hyphenation, punctuation, and more. It also allows me to decide whether to accept its suggestions or not and provides explanations of the rules or suggestions as they come up.

Microsoft Word’s spellcheck has long annoyed me since several words are incorrectly prioritized in its algorithms. Misstype “perform” and Word’s spellcheck might autocorrect it to “preform” (apparently, the concrete and rebar used in framing a new construction). For most of us, it’s unlikely that we meant preform rather than perform. And Word’s grammar check is worse, insisting that every “which” phrase requires a comma or that complex sentences are too wordy.

So far, I’ve agreed with Grammarly’s suggestions for the most part, and let me say that it is no small deal for an English person to see value in an AI-based language tool. The suggestions are good and, most importantly, consistent. They are also educational because the suggestion is explained to you rather than just fixed for you. Also, you get a weekly report that gives you some stats about how you are doing. My report this week said that I used more unique words than 93% of Grammarly users, so I’m feeling pretty good about my extensive vocabulary.

Since I discovered Grammarly, I’ve mentioned it in many of my business writing seminars because my clients know that grammar mistakes can affect credibility. They genuinely want to write clearly and correctly so they can develop trust with their customers. I think Grammarly can help them do that; it’s certainly helped my undergraduates improve both their writing and their grades!

3 Easy Strategies to Improve Company Communication Culture

“Company culture” is a phrase we hear a lot these days, most often in relation to either a company having one that is “toxic” or striving to create a “positive” one. We hear about companies redesigning their office layout to be more open and community-based, or allowing employees to pursue creative projects alongside their usual tasks, or offering flexible hours. 

While all of these could contribute to making a company culture more positive, there is also a very simple, inexpensive, and important way you could improve your company culture: you could write better.

Think about the number of emails, documents, or instant messages you write in a day – then try to figure out how many you read from your colleagues and clients and partner companies. How many of them have personality? Warmth? 

I think we all know at least one person who writes emails well – someone who checks the “clear content” box, but also checks the “personality” box, too. Maybe s/he is a little funny, always friendly, and communicates genuineness even in writing. Who do you know who writes emails you actually enjoy reading? 

Now we can flip that and think about which emails or documents we have read that come across as (at best) short, flat, and abrupt, or (at worst) irritated, abrasive, or insensitive.

Ultimately, what is the major difference between the two kinds of messages? 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I wade through emails, and ultimately I think there are just a few simple strategies the “good” writers use that we could all try to implement and create a better communication culture at work.

Here are 3 things I have noticed that you could reflect on as you write your own messages this week:

1. While the subject line should say what the most important content point is, the opening of the body of the message should lead in to the content with some warmth and personality. Too often people jump right to the “business” of a message but lose the opening that communicates a) we are starting a conversation and b) we see the audience of the message as real people. Think about how you’d start a verbal conversation with someone from your work right now. You might start with, “Hi! How are you? How is your summer going?” Do you often start emails with the same sort of audience-centered warmth in your greeting, or do you jump right to talking about the big meeting coming up in August?

The people who write particularly enjoyable messages often acknowledge how their audience is feeling and show empathy for that or connect to it in some way. Here is one example: “I know it may feel like summer has just begun and planning for this August meeting might not be on your radar yet, but if you are like me, the summer is already filling up and it is a shock that June is already almost over! Because I know we all have lots of BBQs, nice cold beverages, and family plans as our priorities right now—as we should!—we might all appreciate splitting up the work for this August meeting across several weeks so we don’t lose our summer cool by getting stressed out in late July. So here’s what I suggest…”

 

2. When it comes to closings, people who write good messages often acknowledge how they are trying to help their audience, how their audience may help them, or end on a light and humorous note.
Think about closings that help build a sense of connection rather than just ending a message. For instance, “If we each took on those pieces of the workload, I think we could all be prepped by August but continue to enjoy our weekends all summer. I know at my house, we have nearly every weekend filled with hiking, camping, someone’s wedding, or cornhole tournaments! I hope your weekends will be equally fun-filled and I am excited to see you all busting a move on the dance floor after Jerry’s wedding in a few weeks.”

 

3. I have also noticed that most writers who come across as warm and friendly just use simple language. If you typically use things like “aforementioned” and “see attached” and “ASAP” or other business quick-speak, you might think about breaking those down into more conversational language that sounds like how you would speak to a group or clients or colleagues. 

 

While writing a message with these ideas in mind may take a little more effort – mostly to break out of your “default” way of writing – the effort is mild but the returns can be great. Imagine if all the emails you sent and received were like the few that you currently enjoy reading. Wouldn’t your company culture be more positive? You may feel like you know people a little better and that they know you, just by writing more audience-centered openings and closings as well as writing in simpler language. Give it a try this week!

The First Step to Becoming a Better Writer

I recently held a workshop with a great group of professionals there to learn about better business writing strategies. They were kind, energetic, and good-humored about spending a day in a professional development seminar. As the day went on, though, it became clear to me that some people were going to benefit from this seminar and some were not at all. It made me realize something. 

There are a lot of tips we can share about how to write better. But before all of those tips can do anything, there is one thing you need to consider first -- your attitude toward changing

To become a better writer, first you have to see yourself as someone who is always learning about writing. To get a little philosophical, you might say you could see yourself as someone always becoming a better writer, but never arriving. I think this view requires equal parts humility and eagerness, which somehow combines to foster curiosity and growth.

In my experience, this is a rare quality. There are many people who are open to reading some quick tips, but don’t have the right attitude in place to actually apply those tips. This is like the difference between “hearing” and “listening” in relationships, right? If you “hear” then it stayed pretty external, but if you really “listened” then you engaged, empathized, and understood. 

It’s about attitude. If I don’t view myself as someone who could get better at writing, then I won’t really “listen,” I will just “hear” the strategies. I won’t look at my own writing and see areas that could be better, I’ll think of other people’s writing that could benefit from those strategies. I might be friendly and think the class was “nice” or “helpful,” but I will probably do what I need to do to “complete” whatever is asked of me and will not actually be transformed beyond that day. 

In a teaching podcast I listened to recently, they talked about the difference between “transactional” education (completing tasks/earning grades/passing) versus “transformational” education (actually being transformed by what you learn such that you apply it beyond the course). That idea applies here, but I think we need to look at the attitude as the soil to be prepped first for the seed of transformational education. 

I work with a lot of undergraduates in courses that are required as part of their degree program, and rather than viewing the courses as “required = really important” they view them as  “required = I won’t learn anything.” (I don’t see the logic here, but I think their view has less to do with logic and more to do with the innate human resistance to being told to do something.) I also work with people who have been writing, teaching, or working for a long time, and they can struggle with a slightly different attitude – one that values their own habits and experiences so much that they’ve come to the conclusion they “know” already and therefore have more to say about writing than to learn about it. 

This is what happened in the seminar I described before. There were a few people who had decided before they knew the content or started the seminar that they were already good writers (they had “arrived”) and their minds were closed to everything I presented. Rather than to take on the attitude of learner, they sought opportunities to chime in to sort of co-teach with me. They left that class thinking it was nice for the other people, but they hadn’t needed it. I don’t condemn these people, because the truth is, we’ve all had that attitude about something, at some point or another.  

We miss so many opportunities to learn and grow, in all areas – our relationships, our jobs, specific skills – because of the attitudes we shape before we even face the learning opportunity. Humility. Eagerness. We can all get better at this, myself included.

 So as you read our tips and blogs, try it. Ask yourself – are you open to learning to be a better writer? How could your writing be transformed?

Try it other places, too. Choose to look at a meeting, a professional development opportunity, or feedback from a colleague as something that could help you become better. “Listen” rather than “hear.”  

Creating a more positive tone

Yesterday, a student came into my office to ask for help with an assignment. While reviewing his work, I spotted this sentence:

Bluetooth was removed from consideration since all the cars evaluated had this feature.

The context for this assignment is that students are writing a report to an imaginary boss explaining how they chose a particular vehicle to purchase for the company. In this sentence, the student was pointing out that bluetooth capability wasn’t a factor in his decision since all the cars had it. But what stood out to me was that he had framed that as a negative: “Bluetooth was removed from consideration…” There is no reason not to frame this idea as a positive: “All the cars evaluated had bluetooth capabilities, so the decision focused on comparing other vehicle features.”

The content of these two sentences isn’t very different, but the way we feel about the content is a little different. In the first version of the sentence, that fact that all the cars had this feature is presented as a negative or at least as irrelevant. But the reality is that the bluetooth feature made all the cars better choices for the company.

One of my favorite examples of unnecessary negative perspective in writing is this sentence:

Our charity works to reduce illiteracy in children around the world.

This sentence appeared on the website for a non-profit. They try to help children around the world learn to read. What an awesome goal! But the sentence focuses on the negative, lessening illiteracy, which is a good thing, but it’s not the best way to present this idea. Making something smaller is generally perceived as negative, while making something bigger is generally perceived as positive—we gravitate toward growth.

Again, there is no reason the non-profit needed to focus on the negative version of this idea. The positive version would be “Our charity works to increase literacy in children around the world.” The content of the sentences is the same in terms of what the organization is doing, but how we feel about it is different. At best, the original sentence feels neutral, but increasing literacy feels positive, optimistic.

Lots of elements affect our perception of tone in writing; tone is hard to hear in writing, and because it happens in our heads, every word matters. To create positive tone—positive feelings in your audience as they read your messages—work to focus on the positive aspects of your message wherever possible, especially if the central idea is the same but the feelings of the reader will change depending on how you phrase the idea.

Try not to be afraid to write; instead, focus on showing the audience you are competent and you care

Last week, my main sewer line collapsed and backed up into my basement. It was disgusting, and infuriating, and resulted in lots of men tromping through my house doing expensive things to help.

When a few of the contractors nicely asked what I did, and I said that I teach business writing, the responses were a lot of throat-clearing and awkward requests not to judge their communication with me. I tried to assuage their insecurities by saying that I was really appreciative of what they did know that I didn’t: plumbing, cleaning up basements, etc. and I wouldn’t be evaluating their work based on their written communication with me. This did not seem to make them feel a whole lot better.

When I received the first email from one of these contractors, I was actually pretty impressed by his writing. Sure, there were a few grammar errors, but it was also clear (and had been in his face-to-face and verbal communication) that he was incredibly attuned to his audience. His messages showed a lot of care for me as the customer with phrases like “as you requested” and “thank you for allowing us” and “I will look for your response”. They also showed an awareness that the messages would be read by a larger audience, not just his team and bosses, but my insurance company, so he made sure to detail every single step that had been taken and what was left to do. The level of awareness of audience in that first email superseded most of my undergraduates and many of the employees that I work with.

People are afraid of writing to writing instructors because they are afraid that all the little things they don’t know or remember about grammar and spelling will be judged. But in my role as a writing instructor, it’s my job to notice those things and point them out to people so that they can learn, grow, and improve. If those mistakes aren’t brought to their attention, they continue to make them or start to believe that errors aren’t important. And while one or two grammar mistakes in a message are usually ok, more than a couple will probably lead to negative judgment on the part of most readers.

But grammar errors are a superficial way of judging people’s credibility. The reality is that grammar errors don’t tell us whether a person is actually credible or not, they are only a sign that we use to guess whether they are credible or not. The fewer grammar errors there are, the more people focus on aspects of writing that actually matter: whether you know what you are doing and whether you care about the people you are working with.

My contractor’s email showed that he knew exactly what he was doing: the work itself, managing his team, and handling the details for the future insurance claim. It also showed that he cared about me, his customer, and was concerned that I had what I needed, that I understood what had been done and what would be happening over the next few days, and that he expected to be in conversation with me on a regular basis. The content of his message proved that he was credible. And the way it was written—short paragraphs, appropriate formatting, clear sentences—supported that assessment of his credibility.

Yes, I did notice a few word choice errors like “please no that you do not need to be home.” Most of us probably see the incorrectly spelled word immediately and understand the mistake. But it was far more important to me that the contractor focused on my needs, explaining processes clearly, and detailing how we would communicate over the next few days.

When you are writing, try not to be afraid that you’re writing isn’t good enough. That’s a concern only we professional writers and editors need to have. Your main writing concern, as a person trying to conduct business, should be on showing the audience that you care about them by 1) actually engaging in a conversation with them, 2) providing complete and thorough information that reassures them you know what you are doing and can help them in a meaningful way, and 3) writing clearly with short sentences and short paragraphs that are organized in a logical way. Write a draft, step away from it for a few minutes, read it over again and fix whatever grammar errors you can see (you can’t see all of them; none of us can in our own writing). Show your audience that you care enough to try.

What Words Do I Capitalize in a Title?

Whether you are putting together blog posts, newsletters, website content, social media updates, or presentations, you are going to run into the tricky task of writing titles and headers. We all know that it can be difficult to come up with a catchy title, but then you inevitably face trying to figure out which words of the title should be capitalized and which ones should not. Although it would be ideal if I could just list some clear-cut rules, it turns out there are actually just a lot of "recommendations" and "guidelines" but not one agreed-upon set of rules that everyone follows.
 
However, there are some recommendations that are more consistently followed and others that are more about personal preference. Let's look at a few possible capitalization choices on a title so you can see which ones you react to as "more correct" and which ones are "less correct.”

  1. how these “tiny houses” could shake up the housing industry

  2. how these “Tiny Houses” could shake Up the Housing industry

  3. How These "Tiny Houses" Could Shake Up The Housing Industry

  4. How These "Tiny Houses" Could Shake up the Housing Industry

  5. How these "tiny houses" could shake up the housing industry

  6. HOW THESE "TINY HOUSES" COULD SHAKE UP THE HOUSING INDUSTRY


Looking across these variations, you might be immediately struck by some seeming "wrong" and others seeming "right." That may be because you've run across some of the "recommendations" before. 

For instance, the first example avoids capitalization all together, and the second example uses it at random. Most people would view these as incorrect, and it might be because of the common recommendation to capitalize the first word and last word of a title. Others may view the third as problematic because they've heard another recommendation, which is to not capitalize articles, prepositions, or some conjunctions (in this case, "the" might strike some as odd to capitalize).
 
Others recommend that you only capitalize "principle words" like nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. A similar recommendation is to capitalize words that are more than four letters long but not words that are less than four. These may cause you to view example three and five as incorrect but example four as more correct. However, contradicting that advice, another recommendation is to simply capitalize each word of the title, which we see in the third example.


Some would view example six as incorrect because it is entirely capitalized and may come across as yelling, while others may view this as a style choice to ensure the title text stands out from the body text on a document. 

As you can see, it can get a little tricky to figure out how to capitalize titles. While there is not a "one size fits all" approach -- just scrolling through Yahoo.com's homepage, which collects headlines from dozens of sites, will show you how the approaches vary --  there are some things you can take away to help you decide what to capitalize.
 
First, make sure you think consciously about capitalization as you craft your titles or headers. It isn’t something that should be done at random.


Next, you could look at the list of common recommendations and pick those that stand out to you as most important and basically make them “rules” for your particular company’s written communication.


That leads to the next step, which is to be consistent. Any website, blog, or writing guide you find will tell you that being consistent will be the key thing when it comes to capitalization of titles. You don’t want to have a seemingly random, unorganized approach to titles and headers across your company’s website, report, social media, etc.
To help you review some of the key “recommendations” and identify which ones you want to implement as “rules” for your own titles and headers, you can check out this helpful guide from GrammarGirl’s Quick and Dirty Tips page: https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/capitalizing-titles

Ethos, Part Three: Good Moral Character

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This is the third post in the series about the appeal to ethos, which is the appeal which is often reduced to an over-simplification of “an appeal to credibility.” We all want to convey strong ethos in our business communication, but this simplistic definition of ethos may limit our thinking and reduce our ability to convey it in dynamic ways.
 
The first two pillars of ethos that we already captured were “good will toward your audience” and “good sense.” Now, we’ll consider the last piece Aristotle mentions, which is “good moral character.” This ties most closely to the word that sounds a lot like "ethos" – it means showing you are ethical. Other words associated with this component of ethos may be words like integrityvirtuous, and someone who lives by a strong set of values and morals.  

It is important to consider how you could convey a good moral character to your audience because then the audience views you, and the message you are conveying, in a certain light. They may feel they can trust you, that you have a conscience, and thus that your message (whatever you are asking your audience to do or think about) is coming from the mind and heart of someone they view as just and moral. Reflect on a time that a person you view as immoral or untrustworthy has asked you to do something, and recall the tone and intention you read behind their request, and you can see the negative impact of overlooking this important appeal to ethos.
 
To consider how you could appeal to ethos in this way, when you write any kind of persuasive message to your work communication, whether it is to convince your readers to attend a training or change a procedure or buy a product or meet a deadline, you can consider how you appeal to ethos in this way.

Ask yourselves these questions as you prepare to write to your coworkers, employees, or clients:

  • Do I communicate integrity (about myself and my reasons for whatever I am arguing for) by justly and honestly  acknowledging strengths, weaknesses, and flaws?

  • Do I communicate a set of values that are vital to our workplace ethics by showing in my writing that I am truthful, fair, authentic, and have good morals?

  • How do I show my audience that I can be trusted?

  • How do I show my audience that I have authority on this subject?

  • Do I show a dislike/abhorrence for unprincipled tactics?

  • Do I avoid making any statements or word choices that could suggest to my readers that I may do something unethical or support something that they would view as immoral? 

The cure for perfectionism

It's a new semester, so I've been sharing the wisdom of business writing with an entirely new set of undergrads. Once again, they want me to show them examples of what I am looking for in their writing. "Why don't you just show us what a good email looks like?" "Yeah, just post an example that we can all imitate." And you see the problem. 

Writing doesn't have easy answers, and I'm certainly not hoping/expecting/wanting all of my students to write the exact same message. That would be a) very strange and b) not useful to them at all. They have to learn the tools for writing well and deploy those strategies in their own unique ways. But that is a lot of work.

On the other hand, I understand their frustration when I show them examples and talk about what is working in it and what can be improved. The undergrads just want to know how to get 100% on their assignments, and I can't show them 100% because they would just copy it.

What they will learn in time, and what most of us already know, is that there is no 100% successful writing. Writing can always be better. And that fact is both a frustration and a relief. It's frustrating because you might agonize over whether to write "Please let me know if you have any questions." or "If you have any questions, please let me know." What is the difference? Which will be more effective for your audience? Here's the thing:

Writing and editing only stop when you reach your deadline.

Some days that may be a week out; some days you tell yourself you have to send this email before you are allowed to use the bathroom. Either way, the restriction is on time, not when you create the perfect message. Because

There is no perfect message.

And that should be a relief. At this point, there is no way to 100% translate a message from inside my brain to inside yours. Every act of communication is an act of translation. So we have to settle on what's good enough for right now.

Sure there are techniques we can learn that will make "good enough for right now" more successful, but writing is, I think, the cure for perfectionism because as a writer, you will never be perfect. You will never craft "THE BEST MESSAGE EVER" that wins over 100% of your audience. So you can let that go. Right now.

Ethos, Part Two: Good Sense

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So we have a previous blog post that talks about ethos, particularly that simply calling it an appeal to “credibility” is an over-simplification, and that one of the aspects of ethos is demonstrating “good will” toward the audience (and how we could benefit from appealing to ethos in that way through our business writing). There’s another element of ethos to look at – actually, two. According to Aristotle, there are three elements of ethos; goodwill toward the audience, good sense, and good moral character.

For this post, let’s examine the idea of conveying “good sense” through your writing, and thus building your ethos in your audience’s eyes, and improving the likelihood you’ll achieve your purpose.

To convey “good sense” you can think about two things.
1) You want to show yourself to have common sense and logical thinking. This may mean that you consider explaining the “why” to some of the points you bring up in a message, and those explanations should be sensible to the average person.
2) You want to show that your decisions and ideas are well-informed. You want to show you understand the context around the topic you are discussing, that you are well-read or knowledgeable about the things you are discussing.

Here are a few simple ways you could take the more specific idea of “good sense” of the appeal to ethos and put it to work in your business communication:

  • When communicating to your team about something that needs to be done at work, take a moment to add the word “because” and include your reasoning. This shows your team members that you are the type of person who thinks through things logically and can communicate them, thus improving your ethos.

  • Make sure your reasoning demonstrates good logic in the eyes of your readers. For instance, if you are in a management position and you are writing to new employees, you might consider whether you are only communicating good reasons from a management perspective, or if they are good reasons from a new employee perspective, too. Considering this and making sure your reasons are sensible to your readers will impact whether they see you as having good sense. Remember that Aristotle’s appeals of logos, ethos, and pathos are also called “audience appeals,” so they are centered on attending to your readers.

  • When you do bring up reasons, consider whether you can indicate where you got your information. This doesn’t mean that you need to do extensive library research before sending an email at work, but if you did pick up some information from a recent meeting you had with an important client or from a business-focused podcast you listen to, it can make a difference in your credibility if you mention that when you bring up the information you learned. This can show that your knowledge is formed from many good sources, not just personal experience.

  • Show you understand the context. If you are addressing an issue at work, a task that needs to be completed, or looking ahead to something coming down the pike, frame your message as one that directly ties to and addresses that particular thing. If there have been problems or setbacks or new discoveries that have impacted the thing you are writing about, showing you understand those within your message can not only help you show your readers you are knowledgeable about the situation, but can also provide valuable framing so they know why you are writing and what you are trying to address.

 
Good luck writers, and go make good sense!