I have a new mission. I want – no change that – I need to help women be more confident about speaking up, speaking out, and letting their voice be heard everywhere. I want women to step up to the stage at work, at church, in boardrooms, conferences hall, and rallies. Wherever there are ears in a room, I want women at the front, talking! I want this for women no matter their religion or political party or opinion. And it’s not just me that needs women to speak up, it’s our entire world.
"Wherever there are ears
in a room, I want women
at the front, talking!"
In my organization, Speak Up! I help women become more comfortable, confident and compelling public speakers. Most of them are jittery about public speaking. Some are stomach-churningly, sweat-drippingly terrified. In fact, some women have turned down job or advancement opportunities because public speaking was required. I would really like to stop hearing that. I don’t blame the women; I blame our sexist world. But I want to help the women step up to that podium gladly – or at least willingly.
The weird thing is, these women may not be reticent about leadership – they will take risks and responsibility, manage projects, keep teams in line. It’s not the leading that scares some women, it’s the speaking. So many women already walk the walk, but they don’t talk the talk!
Women have understandable reasons for being nervous. Our world judges women more harshly than men, devalues their offerings, and even actively silences them. And many women grew up at a time when they were not encouraged to speak up and lacked role models.
So there’s lots of rational reasons for “podium avoidance syndrome,” but my work is telling women why they should get over it. And I’d like to share three big reasons with you.
Three reasons why you should overcome “podium avoidance syndrome.”
1. You can have a larger say in your profession and your world. Those who can speak – and do speak – carry the persuasive power. In our world, anywhere you look, you see that women are vastly underrepresented where important decisions are made – in the legislatures, the boardrooms, the churches. There are many ways to make women more visible, but a crucial one is women speaking out publicly about issues that matter to them. If you want to see things change anywhere, you have got to be able to say something about it, often repeatedly, and often to large groups of people. That’s how stuff happens.
2. You will get to know yourself in a whole new way. Public speaking yields rich insight not just into your topic or you audience, but into yourself! As you see how much the audience responds to your talk or presentation, you develop more respect for your own ideas. And as you gain practice, get feedback, try new things, you will see rapid improvement. For women who are interested in self-development for personal, professional, or social reasons, there is no more effective accelerant. Not to mention the gigantic boost to your self-esteem. And the good news is, this is all within your reach. Once you get over the fear, getting the skills isn’t really that hard. (Don’t tell that to the people who pay me a lot of money!)
3. You will be a model for other women – and girls. If you care about seeing more women have influence and visibility at work, in politics, and everywhere, then lead by example. Each time a younger colleague, a daughter, or a niece, sees you getting up to speak, they inch closer to seeing themselves in that role. This is what’s been happening with men – for centuries. Now let’s get it started with women – with you speaking up or out, in a small way, making a presentation at work, addressing the congregation at church, talking about your business at a networking meeting, or standing up for a cause at a rally. You can do it. The world needs you to.
Humor is truth, only faster.
“Should I add humor to my presentation?” “How can I make my talk funnier?” These are questions that clients routinely ask me. And I am happy to tell them why they should “find the funny” and how to use it to boost the impact of their presentation. As a communication consultant slash stand-up comic, I know that humor is the “special sauce” that engages audiences and makes your message unforgettable.
Why does humor work so well?
Here’s just a few reasons: Humor “keeps it real”; it reveals more of your personality, failures, challenges, etc. to the audience so they can form a relationship with you. And when you are able to get a laugh at your own expense, it shows your resilience and optimism. It also makes you relatable to the audience because it shows you to be human and fallible, just like them. Humor, like stories, create bonds between you and your listeners that go deep. And humor doesn’t just make people love you, it makes them remember you. Laughter activates our attention so that we easily remember what we heard right before and after we laugh.
But what if I’m not “naturally funny”?
Many people I work with tell me that they are not “naturally funny,” (even when they’ve made me laugh at something seconds before). The problem is that they are comparing themselves to famous professionals. It’s as if expert status - like Jerry Seinfeld or Amy Schumer level - is the only acceptable standard of funniness. “Well, I don’t have an HBO special or a job on Saturday Night Live, so I guess I shouldn’t even try.” The truth is that most of us get laughs occasionally, and if people laugh at what you say, even once in a while, then you are officially and “naturally” funny. And more importantly, you can learn to be even funnier.
Scared straight – fear mongering the funny
If you search the internet for tips on using humor, you’ll find some good ones, but you’ll also find plenty of warnings and "THINGS TO AVOID." I think all these “don’ts” scare the crap out of the average person – hey, it’s not as if you want to get on stage naked! So it’s my mission to encourage you to add more humor. If you’re in front of audiences regularly, then you can try stuff, tweak it, and try it again, just as you do with other talk: story, sequencing, gestures, visuals, etc. And then you’ll be like the professionals - honing your chops.
Here’s how to find your funny
Click link below for specific how-to-be-funny-tips. But remember, as you find your funny, don’t expect instant miracles. Be patient, allow yourself to experiment and refine repeatedly. Remember that this is supposed to be fun for you too. If you enjoy it, that’s great, keep going and maybe even take an improv class to boost your skills and creative thinking. And if you find that humor isn’t really for you, that’s okay too. These tips may help you just have a bit more fun with your audience.
To get my free tip sheet on exactly how to add humor to your talk click here.
Have you tried to add humor to your talk or presentation? How did it go? I’d love to know and so would everyone else. Please share your experiences and thought in the comments!
Ask young professionals about the challenges of the workplace, and I'll bet they say email. I've worked with hundreds of millennials as a communication trainer, and I know they find writing a headache. It’s not that millennials can’t write; they can write academic essays and research papers very well. But they struggle with the peculiar demands of the style I call “American Professional Email,” or APE.
Workplace communicating makes young professionals nervous
They’ve just spent 16 years seeing “adults” as teachers, bosses, coaches, and themselves as “kids.” The relationship was one of deference, and often close to parental. And then one summer day just after they graduate, when they should be sitting around playing “left4dead2” and drinking beer, they have to put on extremely expensive clothing, work all day, every day, and interact with older adults as colleagues for the first time in their lives.
Why "American Professional email" can be tricky to master
In person, communication can be awkward; but in writing, or A.P.E., its much worse. After all, most young professionals who work in finance, tax, or engineering didn’t go into those fields because they loved writing. They like spreadsheets and schematics, and they do not like using writing to handle the constant negotiations, requests, and reports that are part of the job. And sometimes emails have to be used to convey bad news, so getting the tone right can be a challenge. One engineer fairly new to the workplace told me that “The worst thing is having to tell someone older and more experienced than you that they are wrong – in an email!” And since most interactions with colleagues, managers, and clients take place through email, their writing skills are on display all day every day.
What happens if you fail to nail email? (Hint: they’re judging you.)
For many these millennials, mastering American Professional Email (APE) takes time and training, but as I assure them, it’s worth it. Communication skill is THE differentiator in professional life, especially when you and your peers have equal technical skills. Poorly written emails annoy readers. And it’s probably unfair, but ineffective emails can cause readers to make conclusions about a writer’s competence.
Here are the three writing problems common to young professionals and how to fix them.
1. Over-politeness. There is such a thing as being too polite, unless you’re talking to your grandma. Because millennials are raised to be courteous, many of them write emails with a painfully excessive politeness which can make the writer look guilty and needy rather than confident. Many struggle to even call colleagues by their first name. (In fact, at one employer I worked with, new hires had to be continually reminded not to add “Miss” to female colleagues' first names.) Many new hires are way too quick to apologize for any request, or show fawning gratitude for any small task done.
The FIX for over-politeness Okay, you’re often the lowest status person on the team. But you’re still a professional, and you don’t need to sound like a supplicant kneeling before the king. It’s great to be polite, but it’s important to tuck manners into the point, not keep the point waiting for all the bowing and sniveling. Learn to express your politeness in short phrases that get the job done fast. For example, “I would really appreciate it if you…” Or “If you have time, can you…?” can be fast ways of showing that you’re thoughtful and efficient.
2. Too many words! Like the over-politeness, wordiness can result from insecurity about how to communicate at work. Lots of words can be like comforting blankets which make us feel safe, but often end up smothering our point. And of course wordiness is also a direct result of having an education. School has made all of us masters at larding our point with extra words, and so much the better if they can be "SAT words." In school, the more words the better; at work messages are expected to be concise and to the point.
THE FIX to wordiness If your sentences tend to average 20 words or more, you are probably too wordy. Look hard at your emails before they go out: Could you cut words, say things more concisely? One tip to find the shortest way to express something? Ask yourself how you would say it in conversation. We tend to speak in a more direct and natural way than we write. Also, ask a friend to find “deadwood” in your sentences – others can see extra words faster than you. And of course, do the same for your friend.
3. Not getting to the point. This email problem is the one that’s most annoying to readers. Readers usually have just two or three questions when they read an email – what do you want me to know? What do you want me to do? And is there a deadline? But young professionals (they are not alone in this of course! ) often bury the lead beneath lots of background (“first this happened, then that happened.”). They make readers do the detective work to find the point. And busy distracted readers do not want to do extra work! We can place part of the blame on school again, because academic writing often builds up to a conclusion. But in American Professional Email (APE), we always put the most important info at the top.
The FIX for not getting to the point. First figure out what the main point of your email is BEFORE you start writing. I promise it takes about 60 seconds to do this. Then try to put that point right at the top – or close to the top - of your email. Make it extremely easy for the reader to see the message and the reader will adore you! (Professionally of course.) If you need to put in some background, see if you can put it in below the key point. You can even give it a headline like “Here’s why I ask,” or “Rationale for Request” if you like to be fancy. The military has a shorthand reminder to help people remember to get to the point pronto: BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front). Make it yours too.
So millennials, (and anyone else whose emails need tweaking) you can do it. It’s not hard! And if you need coaching on any of these issues or other communication challenges, give me a holler.
One piece of advice turned “Serial” into a podcast powerhouse. It can help you become a better presenter.
Each episode of Season 1 of the podcast “Serial” was downloaded over a million times. Yet creator Sara Koenig says that the early drafts of the podcast were not good.
Early on in Season 1, “Serial” podcast creator and host Sara Koenig was having big problems with her plan for the show. Over the course of twelve episodes starting in the fall of 2014, Serial would tell the story of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high school student. Her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, a classmate, was convicted of the crime.
“The first episode came pretty easily” Koenig told David Remnick on the New Yorker Radio Hour. Then came trouble. “The second episode we did edit after edit; it was taking weeks. My colleagues were telling me, ‘It’s not working. It’s not good.’” Her true crime story was dramatic and exciting, but something was missing. Everything changed when Koenig’s producing partner Julie Snyder told her exactly what was wrong. “I need to know what you, Sara Koenig, make of all this. Otherwise I don’t care.” Snyder said. “I don’t know why you’re telling me about these high school kids. I need you to make me care.”
"I need to know what you, Sara Koenig, make of all this. Otherwise I don't care."
And the rest is podcast history. Serial went on to be the most popular podcast in the world, with each single episode of the 12-episode season being downloaded over a million times. And Koenig’s close relationship with the audience was a major reason for the show’s popularity. She would share her skepticism, her questioning, and her willingness to constantly change her mind about the case. She was smart, she was human, and there is no doubt that the millions of people who listened around the world did so because they liked and trusted Sara Koenig.
So, what does the Serial podcast have to do with your presentation?
A lot. Koenig had a great story with facts and evidence, but her audience was going to need more; they were going to need to form a relationship with the “teller.” Listeners needed to trust the person who was presenting this mountain of evidence, to know that the storyteller wasn’t biased. Or if she was biased, she would own up to it.
I know that presentation audiences feel the same way about the presenter. They want to know how you, the presenter, feel about the material you’re presenting, how you came to your conclusion, what your doubts were along the way. Sharing your personal thoughts and feelings about the content creates a relationship between you and the audience and builds trust and credibility. And that relationship is far more powerful than your data.
Four presentation tips to make your audience care about what you are saying
1. If your presentation shares data, tell us your response to that data. Were you surprised by the data you found? Glad? Disappointed? Tell us why.
2. If your presentation presents a solution to a problem, why not tell us how you experienced the problem. What were your personal frustrations dealing with the problem? Can you share an anecdote dealing with your experience?
3. Why are you personally happy about this solution? Even if it doesn’t directly impact you, can you be happy about how it will help colleagues at the company?
4. If your presentation gives bad news or makes difficult suggestions, can you share disappointment or empathy for those who might be affected?
It doesn’t have to be all about you, but adding your personal perspective builds your credibility and establishes trust and likability. Show us why you care, and maybe we’ll care too.
How do you make your audience care about your presentations? Please share your ideas in the comment section.
We’ve all had that awkward moment when we can’t find the word we need. But what if it happens in front of 200 people?
An engaging and confidant speaker came to me recently in a slight panic about an upcoming talk. Twice in the past year while speaking to large groups, she found herself searching for a word that just wasn’t showing up in her brain – or in her mouth. Even worse, one of these times was when she was introducing a well-known speaker, a woman she personally admired. She remembered each millisecond of the lapse because it made such an impact on her.
We call these desperate word searches “mind blanks,” and we all experience them. But what’s annoying in informal conversations can be harrowing when we’re at the center of attention. Like all speakers, my client imagined that the audience was focused on her mistake and judging her harshly for it. In truth, the audience probably didn’t notice it, of if they did, they certainly forgot it instantly – unlike her. Now as she prepared to emcee another big event, she was dreading a repeat of the problem. She wanted to ensure that it did not happen again.
I couldn’t guarantee that her words would line up tongue-side like little verbal Oompah Loompahs ready to deploy the second they were needed. But I could offer strategies to help her avoid mind blanks . And if she did find herself in the dreaded word search scramble, I made sure she had some tips to respond gracefully – and fast.
Just in case you worry about blank mind, here’s some tips.
We use the term “presentation” to describe all sorts of things. But “presentation” is a generic term, which, like “presidential candidate,” can mean a lot of different things. Usually what we mean is that slides are used, and someone is using those slides to talk to an audience. A presentation can be a routine update, a pitch deck to motivate investors, or a “how to” for a new process. It can be live, virtual, projected, or on paper. But no matter what type it is, every presentation must do three things well to hold an audience’s attention. But even more than that, if you do these three things with your presentation, people will want to listen to it, will be glad to get its message, and will remember it.
1.Your presentations need to make life better for the audience – in some way.
When you stand up in front of people, you make a promise to improve their lives in some way. Good presentations fulfill that promise. (As we know from the epidemic of boring presentations, this promise is the frequently broken.) A good presentation tells the audience something they need to hear, helps them understand something worth understanding, suggests a way of thinking or believing that will benefit them. Show the audience right away why and how your presentation solves a problem, answers a questions, or makes their lives better.
2. All presentations must have one big message. And everything in the presentation must support that message.
Audiences are tired, distracted, and a little bit lazy, and if your message doesn’t leap out, they will miss it. Or they will remember the wrong thing. (“Oh, Steven is from Germany!”) To ensure your message drives the presentation, you must answer one question before you even think of slides: “What do I want my audience to know, feel, and do?” Imagine the answer to this question is a bouncer at the door of your presentation. Only elements that help you reach your goal can enter, no matter how hot they look.
3. All presentations need to have an audience-grabbing flow.
Most presentations bore us simply because they are organized in the most boring way possible: the category system. This format feels orderly to the presenter because everything fits into a generic slot like “background,” “issues,” “implications,” “conclusion.” The category system is not only a buzz killer; it also guarantees that the key message of the presentation will be buried on bullet #3, slide 17.What audiences want in a presentation is tension and resolution. (In fact, when people say that your presentation should tell a “story,” that’s really what they mean.) Two great ways of incorporating tension and resolution are to organize your presentation into “problem-solution,” or “proposal-reasons.” These methods not only engage audiences and help them retain information, they help highlight our main message.
Of course there are LOTS of things you can do to have a great presentation, but these are the three musts. Would you add anything?
What would you do if you got an email from a stranger with this subject line: “SCT #4675711001574222”?
Well, if you’re like me and received this email in the early 2000s – when you were terrified that spam could vaporize your big desktop computer – you would probably press delete immediately.
So delete I did. And I kept on deleting that re-sent email daily for 2 weeks, even though I was getting curious.
Then I got the phone call
“Attempts to reach you have been unsuccessful,” the recorded message said. “Please contact Enterprise Rental Cars immediately to resolve your insurance claim.”
The case of the mysterious subject line solved
It was all beginning to make sense. A few weeks before I had been driving a rental car in New Jersey when a large metal ring the size of hula hoop fell off a truck, rolled across the median, and collided with my car. Nobody was hurt, but as I learned, a rental car accident is complicated. And there are a lot of numbers involved.
And that subject line contained one of those numbers. The rental car claims agent who sent the email (I later learned), always put the incident report number in the subject line to help her keep track of her emails. That number meant everything to the agent. It meant nothing to me. Annoyance happened.
Even if they don’t contain 16-digit numbers, most subject lines need help
We did work it out, finally. Obviously, most email subject lines aren’t quite as obscure as a 16-digit number string, but many subject lines are bad, and most need fixing. If fact, I’ve seen the problems of bad subject lines hundreds of times in my career as a writing coach and consultant.
Recently a friend told me about a subject line hassle she dealt with at work. She was frustrated because she had to schlep over to a colleague’s office in another wing and floor of a giant building to get information she had asked for by email a couple of days before. Her colleague hadn’t answered her email ,and she and her team were mighty annoyed.
“This guy basically kept my team waiting for two full days when he didn’t need to", she said. "He knew we needed an answer and he just sat on it. Why don’t they just respond to emails when they know you need the info?”
She got the info she needed but only after taking a long walk and collaring her colleague in the flesh. "This happens all the time," she said.
“What did you put in the subject line?” I asked.
“I put in ‘For your review!!”” she replied, in a tone of voice that said “you can’t get much clearer than that!”
I didn’t tell my friend quite so bluntly, but “For your review” is not a great subject line – unless you are happy to get NO RESPONSE EVER.
A subject line like “For your review,” is code for “It would be nice if you would read this in the next several days or weeks, but it’s no biggie, so chill.” It’s kind of a more formal cousin of “FYI.”
Subject lines are info-starved – and so are our readers
In much business writing, we often write subject lines so generic and vague that they offer no information for the recipient. They'd be just the thing if you’re a spy and need to give NO INFORMATION WHATSOEVER, but for the average non-CIA employee, without camera pens or shoe phones, the no-info subject line has got to go.
Here’s some other favorite bad subject lines:
You get the idea. I’m sure you have some like these in your inbox right at this second. And maybe there are one or two in your sent box too?
Subject lines matter
Your inbox is probably the most important screen you look at all day. It offers a kind of to-do list - a snapshot of all the stuff you need to do. And the subject line tells you why you need to read the email. So readers need specific action-focused subject lines.
We humans are busy. And a tiny bit lazy.
To be efficient, readers have to prioritize when they don’t have time to read every email. Most readers will take advantage of any excuse to ignore or delay reading an email when they are rushed. So if your subject line stinks, they can easily "forget" to read yours. Because right below your lackluster subject line is one from someone else that’s specific, clear, and easy to read and answer. Which one is the busy reader going to click?
To make sure you write subject lines that get your emails answered, here’s what to do
Bad subject lines Good subject lines
Client information Client X needs 1054 forms by Friday
Please read Please confirm you’ve read this email by 4-14-16
Update Accounts receivable moving to South Campus this summer
Assignment info Clinical assignments for your team
And what about my friend and her “for your review”? She said that she should have written “Please approve by 4-8-16 so we can print.”
You’re constantly being told that your admission essay must STAND OUT, right? But what does that even mean? And isn’t “standing out” a ridiculously high standard for normal teenagers who haven’t been an astronaut or assisted with heart surgery after school?
Too much stress
The pressure to “stand out” from all other applicants is not only unrealistic, it can lead to stress for those of us who aren’t uber-humans. It can blind us to what is unique about us: our individual one-of-a-kind way of getting up every day and interacting with the world. And the pressure to stand out can cause us to make some essay blunders, which I’ll address in a minute.
So you don’t need to “stand out,” but you do need to “reach out.”
By “reach out,” I mean that your essay helps you makes an authentic human connection with the reader, in this case, an overworked admissions counselor. It doesn’t mean you speak directly to the reader, or try to be their best friend. It means that your essay allows the reader to see your personality, form a specific and positive mental image of you, and imagine how you might fit at that college. In other words, an effective essay lets the reader “get you.”
You can do this!
And the good news is that you, normal human high school student, can write an essay that reaches out and connects. Sure, you have to work at it a little bit, be willing to reflect and revise, and be open to feedback from counselors or teachers. But it’s much easier than trying to endow yourself with sainthood, genius, or artistic brilliance.
So how do you make a connection through writing? The same way you do in person: you show the other person that you are honest, relatable, and interesting. Of course in the essay, you have to do it all with words.
Here are three ways to reach out through your writing.
1. Be a human being. (And don’t put down your fellow humans.)
When applicants think they have to “stand out,” they sometimes try to show themselves as “different” (that is, better) than everyone else. And by doing so, they can come off as less than reliable and honest narrators of their own life. Either they are the lone “sensitive artist” at their school, or the teenage saint who spends her Saturday nights volunteering at the nursing home when all the other kids are out beating people up. When students elevate themselves over their peers in this way, they can risk being seen as naïve, or lacking the emotional intelligence that colleges really want. The human being that’s reading your essay probably is NOT thinking, “Wow, Emily is so amazing, but everyone else at Central High is a selfish, untalented, soulless loser. Emily is going to be the last person we accept from the that failure factory.” Rather, he or she thinks, “Geez, what’s wrong with Emily that she looks down on everyone else? She might be talented, but she is clueless about other people.”
When you want to use your essay to “reach out” to your reader, don’t put others down to make yourself look better. Unless you’re talking about your internship with ISIS, you probably want to find the goodness in the other people you write about.
2. Be your wonderful, imperfect self.
Just as we can’t make ourselves look good by dissing others, we also don’t connect if we take ourselves too seriously. Think of the people you admire – your friends, a teacher, an artist, maybe even a parent. Are they perfect? Probably not. Nobody can really engage with “perfect” people, or people who try to come off that way. Most of us like – and relate to - fellow humans who can admit shortcomings. College admissions counselors are no exception, especially since they are looking for people who can grow and change. So if you can share an example of a time you made a mistake and learned from it, you’re on your way to connecting with your reader and showing your character. Maybe you took the wrong class, had a bad relationship with a teacher, or made a dumb mistake at work. You might consider working it in, even in a small way. You don’t have to trumpet your failings, or fill the essay with your screw ups, but do consider showing a wart or two.
3.Be yourself – specifically.
If you want to connect with the admissions counselor reading your essay, you’ve got to paint a picture of yourself that the reader can see and hear. You can only do that with concrete language, not generalizations. You should avoid sentences like these: “I was recognized as a leader as a result of my hard work.” Or “I’ve always been a people person.” Why? Because they can be boring and they don’t say enough about the specific writer, unless there’s a concrete example attached. Anyone could make those statements – and many students do. Can you imagine the admissions counselors gathering after receiving hundreds of essays filled with empty generalizations? “Okay, I’ve got 70 hard workers, 35 people persons, and yep, everyone is a leader again this year.”
Ditch the abstractions and cliches if you really want to engage your reader and be interesting. Instead focus on giving your readers concrete images, sounds, even smells! Let them feel that they are there with you. Here’s a couple of tips: don’t let three sentences go by without some specific concrete details. And if you’ve got a generalization, try saying it out loud. Does it sound phony? Does it sound like BS? The take it out or make it more realistic.
So as you write, remember: you can do this! Show your own specific wonderful personality, share an imperfection, and show some love to your fellow humans. You don’t need to stand out, you just need to reach out.
I can’t guarantee that writing as essay that shows you to be honest, relatable, and interesting will definitely get you into every school you apply to. But I can promise it will help.
Readers: Am I right? Wrong? Do bosses want big words? Please share your experience!
“Sure, using regular everyday language is fine with my team, but with the partners, I have to use my ‘ten dollar words.’ You have to impress them.”
As a communications coach I hear statements like this all the time. “The ‘higher ups’ are smart; they expect complexity.” One consultant even claimed recently, “Some clients just want to read all that fluff. They think it justifies why they are paying us.”
We can’t help it – school made us that way!
I’m pretty skeptical about those generalizations, but I get it. I studied for the AP test. No teacher ever asked me for the “most concise” paper possible. In school, we’re basically paid by the word, preferably multisyllabic ones. By the time we graduate and go to work, we’re ready to unleash our well-stocked word-horde and augment it with our new job jargon.
But after years of working with professionals in every industry, I know that the VPs and partners of the world do not value big words or long sentences. Imagine a senior partner at a major firm reading a report and complaining, “This document is so ^*$$%%!!…readable. It’s clear, I get to the point right away, and it’s easy to respond to. I am definitely going to fire whoever wrote it.”
That’s about as likely as the CEO promoting someone for writing the longest sentences in the company.
People at every level want one thing as readers: clarity
From the mailroom to the boardroom, we all want to understand a message clearly and quickly. Just because you’re a senior leader doesn’t mean that you develop a taste for complexity in communication, or that you want the challenge of deciphering a jargon-filled proposal. In fact, at these higher levels, you probably have a more critical need for clear, direct language.
Research into “big word disease”
In 2005, Princeton Psych professor Daniel Oppenheimer conducted a fascinatingstudy to see what readers really thought about documents filled with long words. Oppenheimer’s study, humorously entitled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” found that readers rated the authors of the “needlessly complex” documents as less intelligent than those of documents with simpler writing. By the way, that work won an Ignoble Prize that year, which recognizes research ”that makes people laugh and then think.”
Oppenheimer tells us that the people most likely to “pad” writing with big words are college students and those new to the work force. He found that nearly 2/3 of the Stanford University students he studied admitted to using a thesaurus to find more complex words so that they could impress the professor with their intelligence.
As a business writing instructor at Boston University and in the nation’s largest corporations, I know he’s right. It’s the people who are the least secure as writers that make their writing unnecessarily complex. In fact, several people in my corporate writing workshops have confessed that they added big words to their documents to raise their grade level of the Flesch Kincaid score in Microsoft Word. They all wanted to look more “educated” with their bosses.
But none of this word bloat is necessary. Smart people, busy people, people with designer underwear, they all just want to get your point without working too hard to do it. Here’s a great tip for writing to them – and to everyone else: Just think of how you would explain something in spoken words to your reader, and try to stick as close to those natural words as possible. And try to avoid jargon too. Sure, sometimes you have to use technical terms and complex sentences, but mostly you don’t. If you avoid needless complexity, you’ll be a better writer, and the senior people at your company will be grateful.
And for inspiration, think of the great John F, Kennedyspeech in which he said “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
Notice how he doesn’t say, as Chip Heath and Dan Heath point out in their great book Made to Stick, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.” If he did say it that way, it’s unlikely there would have been "one small step for man... "
So step away from the thesaurus and know that your boss, and your boss’s boss, don’t need your big words, they just need the right words, which are usually simple and direct. So the next time you need to go all “Recontextualizing” and “operationalizing the forward initiative to gain agreeance,” just stop! Think of how you would say the same thing in “human.” And if you need a thesaurus, try a reverse thesaurus that finds you a smaller word version of your long word.
I think you’ll find it’s a paradigm shift, whatever the heck that is.
We all want to sound smart. And one shortcut, especially when we are office newbies, is using the same expressions our boss uses, or copying what we read in a manager’s email. Kind of like a verbal rent-a-suit, right?
But this shortcut works only if your boss avoids tired meaningless jargon. And many don’t. (They learned from their boss.) So lots of pompous “fluff” words get passed around the workplace word-pit until they become “The Official Language of Everyone Who Works Here.” But you know what else gets passed around an office? Norovirus, a.k.a., the stomach flu. And just like the flu, hackneyed verbal pathogens spread from the reception desk to the auditing department over to HR. The flu eventually leaves, but the fuzzwords never do, and you’re left to “circle back” or “reach out” until the next outbreak.
So today I’m going to try to inoculate you against one of those fuzzwords so that when you feel an infection coming on, you’ll be able to resist.
What not to say: “That being said,” (and all its cousins: “all that being said,” “that having been said,” “with that being said,” “having said that” etc.)
Why people say it: People generally use it to signal that what they are about to say is somewhat contradictory to what they just said.
“Now, this doesn’t mean that a new volcano might not form in Santiam/McKenzie Pass at some point in the future.
That being said, if there is any location in the continental United States that any real volcanophile should visit, it’s Santiam/McKenzie Pass area in Oregon.” From Wired Magazine http://tinyurl.com/huroxg3
Why you shouldn’t say it: First, it’s trendy, which means that using it can make you look like a poser who can’t think for yourself (see: “low hanging fruit”). Second, people sometimes confuse audiences by misusing it as “furthermore.”
“We want to give everyone a chance to give feedback for the session today. That being said, we’ll provide comment cards at your seat.”
Thirdly, it has a weird passive grammatical construction that makes it sound pompous and vague at the same time. And finally, It’s simply not needed.
What to say instead: It’s much simpler and more direct to signal a change in perspective with words like “However,” “Still,” or “Despite the …” Look at the following excerpts and see if they could be improved by one of these everyday words.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican who chairs the National Governor's Association, said gun safety was primarily a state issue. "We have different cultures and different politics," he said. "That being said, I certainly believe in background checks," Herbert said. "We want to make sure that the bad guys don’t have access to guns, but the good guys do." From USA Today http://tinyurl.com/ztgmzdy
“So while coffee may lead to a significant reduction of risk for liver damage, it won't necessarily treat any of the other negative side effects associated with heavy drinking. It's important to drink responsibly, regardless of how much coffee you consume.
That being said, there are plenty of reasons to continue your coffee habit, other than a potential reduced risk in developing cirrhosis.” From Bustle.com http://tinyurl.com/hf5wk3p
So help me out: Does “that being said” annoy you? Do you have other “fuzzwords” you think we should avoid? Please let me know. And don’t tell your boss.