Category Archives: Writing

Business Words Losing Meaning

Sometimes words and phrases lose their meaning. They get so diluted by overuse that they end up meaning nothing at all. And that’s important to track when we use them in business.

I first noticed that phenomenon back in the early 1980s with the phrase “user friendly,” as in “user-friendly” software. That phrase was so attractive to users and advertisers that publishers swarmed all over it. Within a matter of a year or so, “user friendly” lost all meaning. Ironically, lots of software, then and now, is actually user hostile. But we in the industry had to look for different wording. That phrase was empty. We all laughed at “user friendly.”

And isn’t this awesome? When I was a kid, “awesome” was reserved for a very few things that truly inspired awe, like Yosemite Valley, the Grand Canyon, and the powers of God (or gods). Hurricanes and earthquakes were awesome. Awe was the active word. You could look it up.

I wonder how much we were all influenced by one particular sportscaster (Howard Cosell) who liked to call a really good play awesome. We had awesome tackles and awesome catches. Whether it was that in particular, or just evolution, awesome now means “good.” Or even “nice.” We have awesome sandwiches, awesome suggestions, and awesome t-shirts. 

Think about some of the business phrases we use all the time. How quickly we lose meaning. Nobody thinks inside the box anymore. There are no worst practices, not even intermediate or common practices, just best practices. And good luck with the basic math of giving 110% to anything you do. Even when the hold time is half an hour, the menu is nine levels deep, and the answers scarcer than user hostile software, we are still told, as we’re waiting, that customer satisfaction is that organization’s priority. It’s hard to image what customer service would look like if it weren’t a priority.

Take a look at your business messages. Are you using meaningless phrases?

The Beauty Of Data Visualization

I really like business charts. I think I always have. I’ve been in the business of communicating about numbers for a long time. And here is a master of it. David McCandless, a British journalist, also calls himself “a data detective,” and we see why in his Ted talk shown here, The Beauty Of Data Visualization.

This is spectacular thinking. Watch for his visual patterns of fear, of global spending, even of relationships breaking up.

If for any reason you can’t see this here, you can click here for the source on the TED.com site.

Good News, Bad News, And True Story on Blogging and Editors

The good news and bad news about blogging is editing and editors.

Good news: anybody can blog without going through an editor as a gatekeeper. Back in the old days we used to strive to “get published.” Now we just publish. Hooray, we’re free.

Bad news: nobody is so good that good professional editing doesn’t make them better. I consider myself a good writer and I’ve been doing it professionally for several decades. But everybody makes mistakes. Everybody who cares benefits from having somebody on their own side, reading, suggesting, commenting, and correcting. It’s just a fact of life. If you think you’re too good for editing, you’ve never had the pleasure of dealing with a good editor. Consider that an extra pair of watchful eyes.

True Story: By the time I was in my middle 20s I thought I was pretty hot stuff with journalism and writing. At that point I had honors degrees in Literature and Journalism. But I learned to write simple English (I hope) from the overnight editor at United Press International (“Berry, you write like a god-damned literature major“) named Norberto Swarzman. And I learned about structure (I hope) from a foreign editor at Business Week named Hugh Menzies, who rewrote every story into nine paragraphs with subheadings after the third and sixth paragraphs, and topic sentences for every paragraph.

And, while I’m on the subject, I have the luxury of editors for this blog, a team at Palo Alto Software, who catch errors and suggest changes.

Suggestion: If you’re out there on your own, with no editing whatsoever, maybe you could find a freelance editor as an ally. Think of innovative compensation, and maybe you can afford the help. I’m just suggesting, so don’t be offended.

Editing is a luxury, not a problem. Who wouldn’t like an extra pair of eyes?

3 Blog Titles and One Novel in a Single Sentence

This sentence was at the end of the lead paragraph:

In this Q&A, he warns of the classic mistakes of manager-wannabe-leaders, the perils of too many bullets and not enough Zen, and why CEOs are like dogs.

Isn’t that great writing? Page ViewDoesn’t it make you want to read on?

There are three blog titles in that one sentence:

  • Classic mistakes of manager-wannabe-leaders
  • Too many bullets and not enough Zen
  • Why CEOs are like dogs

And that middle one, “Too Many Bullets and Not Enough Zen,” is intriguing enough to be the title of a novel. I may use it (apropos of my recent Zen/not Zen post) myself.

That sentence is from What Breed Is Your CEO? Randy Komisar on Leadership and Management, by Kermit Pattison, on Fast Company a couple days ago. Too bad that title isn’t as good as any of the three in the sentence above, but I think I know why: The Fast Company website isn’t a blog, it’s journalism. It’s supposed to be news more than opinion.

And at this point in this post I’m tempted to quote Kermit’s interview with Randy to explain his intriguing come-on sentence. But I won’t. You can click the link. This post is about the writing.

Journalism and Blogging: Both Sides Now

Jolie O’Dell is a journalist who blogs. She cares about journalism, I gather, because of the way she writes about it in posts like How to Tell a journalist from a Blogger and Not all bloggers are journalists and not all journalists are jerks on her own blog. Most of the time, though, she’s a very prolific tech writer for Mashable. Blog PageAnd what she does for Mashable, one of the top techie blogs in the world, is technology journalism.

I really like her vision of what makes a journalist, as opposed to “just” a blogger. In that journalist or blogger post she says journalists are trained in journalism (and she means they have a degree in it), they aim for objectivity and truth, they care about form, they’re skeptical, and they serve the people. She makes it sound like a profession; like the quality matters.

I loved this down-home real-world description of a critical difference between journalists and bloggers. I’m quoting her here, journalists, she says, get used to editing, which she calls “having your work get ripped to shreds.” This is good writing. I’ve been there myself:

As a result, you do not get offended when your editor tells you, and I quote, “Jolie, this sentence fell off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.” (Marshall Kirkpatrick, ReadWriteWeb) You begin to look at your writing the way a stranger would. You see the errors, the ugliness, the factual haziness, the sloppy turn of phrase. And you or your editor make repairs as needed without much fuss.

These words aren’t your limbs, your children, your masterpieces. They’re simply another grouping of column inches or another few hundred words to fill up the “news hole.” You’re not married to them, because you’ll be on to a new collection of words within an hour or two. With any effort, the next article will be better written than the last as you quickly learn from your mistakes.

The blogger is an autonomous creature, not accustomed to being under the scrutiny of a professional editor. He hasn’t had his work and soul trampled quite as mercilessly — although commenters can be cruel bitches, it’s true — so he’s a bit more attached to his words. Also, his words are more frequently tied to his personal ideas. More on that in a bit.

This brings back my own fond memory of UPI overnight editor Norberto Swarzman, who managed the New York Latin America desk for United Press International (UPI) when I was on the night desk in Mexico City, back in the early 1970s. I was very young, and he wasn’t. He was a frequent caller.

“Berry,” he said, more than once, “you write like a god-damned literature major.”

I’d finished class work for an MA in Journalism to add to the lit degree by then, but the only way to soften the abuse, long term, was to write better. In his terms, not mine. Later, when I finished a thesis and actually got that MA in Journalism officially, the Dean of the J-school at University of Oregon told me his only complaint with my thesis was:

“Your writing style is not academic enough. You write like a wire-service journalist.”

You might guess, if you knew my background, that I was going to like Jolie O’Dell’s respect for journalism. I do have the degree, and I did spend nine years as foreign correspondent in Mexico before quitting to get the MBA. And I’m delighted to see a 20-something professional journalist come up with the same kind of respectful view of why journalism matters that I’d learned 40 years ago.

I’ve come full circle, from journalism to entrepreneurship and lately to blogging. And I have no problem at all with her saying blogging is easier. Her kind of journalist researches and interviews to generate actual information, not just good writing. And then cites sources and quotes people with their actual words. I used to do that. Back then, as a journalist, I couldn’t write anything ever just because I knew it was true. That was really hard. I couldn’t just write what was true, back then; I had to quote somebody.  And we didn’t have the Web, not even cell phones, so I actually had to get that somebody on the phone, at least, and talk to them, I have no problem recognizing that blogging, which is basically me writing to you about whatever I can come up with as long as I don’t bore you, is a whole lot easier. Today, as a blogger, I get to be me. I can have opinions.

As you probably guessed, controversy followed Jolie O’Dell’s journalist vs. blogger piece. A lot of bloggers don’t like to be told they’re not journalists. And journalists without degrees don’t like to be told they need a degree. There’s a reference to “English-degree journalists” who don’t like to be told they’re not journalists unless they have a degree. And a lot of people think any hack getting paid to fill news space between ads is a journalist. I followed the controversy from the original post to some heated words (and a lot of praise) on Twitter, and a thoughtful follow-up post by journalism professor and journalist Kirk LaPointe, punctuated by some surprisingly emotional comments.

The “trained in journalism” mention is galling to many. and O’Dell distinguishes journalists from writers, casts some doubt on “English-degree journalists,” and accurately predicts the objections that followed. I loved her best-defense-is-a-good-offense conclusion:

If you’re a blogger and you’ve been offended somehow by my piece, ask yourself why — I highly suspect it’s because I called some behavior of yours out as not being “journalist-y” enough. While it’s true that we all hold ourselves to different professional standards, the above are pretty basic. If you feel threatened or attacked by what I’ve written, I suggest you get back at me by taking a couple journalism classes at a community college and doing an internship at a local newspaper; it’ll change your writing and your life.

So why do I care? Why does anybody care?  It’s because we still need journalism and we’re starting to confuse blogging with journalism. But then it gets confusing when we have excellent journalism showing up on so-called blogs like Mashable, or the mix at Huffington Post, which gathers the news – including with its own reporters – but also indulges in lots of blogging opinion. Mashable is a blog. Jolie O’Dell, writing on Mashable, is a journalist. If you have any doubt, look at her work on Mashable.

There has always been an awkward gap between journalism as trade and journalism as profession. Doctors need med school and exams, CPAs have their boards of standards, and dentists, vets, psychologists, and other so-called professionals have their licensing and standards. And we do have schools of journalism and professors and degrees and journals and standards. But still, give any hack a few dollars for writing anything that gets published as news, and then we call that hack a journalist.

And then you add in the ease of entry in blogging – sign up at WordPress or Blogger or TypePad and start publishing – and I for one am glad to see the occasional reminder of what journalism is supposed to be.

On the other hand, do you know who H.L Mencken was? One of the best journalists ever, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, as famous a journalist as any in his time. Google “H.L. Mencken quotes.” He first wrote “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” And he didn’t have a degree in journalism.

Twitter Didn’t Invent Hilarious One-Liners

I just read The Rise of Comedy on Twitter on Mashable. The tweets they reproduce there make me jealous. I love Twitter, but I’m not funny on Twitter, or at least not on purpose. But then I’m not particularly funny off Twitter either. And then there’s also Top 7 Hilarious Fake Tweets on Huffington Post a week or so back.

Mashable asks:

But is Twitter humor different from “traditional” humor? And what happens when the television, publishing, and performance industries are set aside in favor of direct “social” comedy? We spoke with some hilarious tweeters to get their take on these trends, and on what it means to get a laugh in the digital age.

The post generates some interesting opinions from several comedians. My favorite is where they don’t like that Twitter has no gatekeepers. Winners who’ve passed gates like gatekeepers.

Is there a different style of humor for Twitter? Hey, I think the so-called one liner has been there forever. 140 characters ought to be plenty for funny. Does it take another style? Consider the following:

I’d kill for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Bills travel through the mail at twice the speed of checks.
Borrow money from pessimists-they don’t expect it back.
Half the people you know are below average.
99 percent of lawyers give the rest a bad name.
42.7 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.

None of those are from Twitter, but all would be great as tweets. They are all from comedian Steven Wright, from long before Twitter started. They’re on a website collection called Steven Wright quotes.

And how about these, that come (without attribution, I’m afraid) from a site called Famous One Liners:

Some drink at the fountain of knowledge. Others just gargle.
Some people are only alive because it is illegal to shoot them.
Success always occurs in private and failure in full view.
Suicidal twin kills sister by mistake!
Support bacteria, they’re the only culture some people have.
The Bermuda Triangle got tired of warm weather. It moved to Finland. Now Santa Claus is missing.
The colder the x-ray table, the more of your body is required on it.

Twitter’s a great place for funny one liners. But come on, they were there long before Twitter.

The Problem With Crowd Sourcing is Crowds

Crowd sourcing sounds good to me, but then I remember, we humans are a difficult bunch. We like complaining more than praising. We post nasty, negative, and aggressively personal comments on blogs. We’re easily swayed by a few bad apples. Anonymity makes us really mean. Revenge makes us happy.

And we behave particularly badly in crowds. Don’t we?

For example, think of reviews. Remember when we were able to depend on popular reviews to figure out which books to read, movies to see, and products to buy? I say “not so much,” at least not any more. Coming off of a tough marathon of business travel, no more than a week at home since late March, I’m disappointed with how poorly review sites are working for me. I’ve been using Trip Advisor to help me book hotels and, with the gracious help of Trip Advisor reviews, ended up in a particularly unpleasant hotel with particularly pleasant reviews. Somebody’s been gaming the system.

Take a good look at reviews these days. On Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon.com, Google, or whatever. Weed out the ones that are obvious plants by self-interested people, like the owners or friends of owners. Weed out the disgruntled people pushing grudges, like one I saw recently who hated the restaurant that kicked her out because she was drunk (and she says so in her review). What’s left?

And then there’s the problem of nasty or meaningless comments on blog posts. Another problem of crowds. Not on this blog, of course – and thank you all for that – but I just read Website Editors Strive to Rein in Nasty Comments from NPR’s All Things Considered. Should comments be moderated? Does it cut into the interest level or authenticity of a site? Here’s a quote:

Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford University, says when you have an environment where thousands of people are vying for attention, people know intuitively that it’s the nasty stuff that jumps out.

“Ironically and tragically, if you want people to respond to what you say, say something outrageously negative,” says Nass.

The Web, while it’s obviously a powerful possibility for crowd sourcing, brings out the worst in us. This is also from that NPR story:

It’s easy to lose your temper on the Internet. Anyone who reads — or writes — comments on blogs and news sites knows that the conversation can quickly stray from civil discourse to scathing personal attacks. For years, many websites just let users go at it, and free speech reigned. But now editors are rethinking just how open their sites should be.

The story goes on to suggest some ways to moderate comments and manage the conversation better. While controversy can build traffic and content, scathing attacks are just ugly; not really interesting to anybody, but quite common. And when it does turn personal, kind of creepy too. Anonymity seems to increase the nastiness level, for obvious reasons; but signing and adding an email address doesn’t make much difference.

And then there’s this new rash of annoyingly automated blog comments. If you moderate a blog you know what I mean. Lately there’s been a flood of inane generic comments placed by Web robots for some obscure SEO gains. Things like “nice post, food for thought, I’ve bookmarked this” that can be applied indiscriminately to thousands of posts.

Question: is this dark side of crowds part of the reason that celebrity gossip is so overvalued in news and media these days? We’d rather read silly celebrity stories than darkly disturbing stories of political chaos and environmental disasters. Or so it seems.

Because we humans are difficult. We like to be negative. And we often behave badly in a crowd.

(Image: by Philippe Leroyer via Flickr CC)

5 Words You Probably Misuse in Business Writing

Did you ever look in a mirror after a business meeting and discover a glaringly obvious piece of food in your teeth? Or a coffee stain where you hadn’t seen it before? You know that embarrassing feeling you get at that moment? That’s how you look when you misuse the language.

Yes, I know, many people, even some well-educated people, seem to think grammar and spelling are as obsolete as a VCR. And some rules are easily broken. I’ll start a sentence with “But” sometimes and I sometimes use periods for phrases rather than complete sentences. But I know it when I do it. When these are mistakes, they make you look bad.

awesome
Awe is supposed to be “an overwhelming feeling of wonder or admiration,” or “a feeling of profound respect.” Awesome doesn’t mean good, or cool, or nice, interesting, or convenient. The enormous power of nature might be awesome, a dish in a restaurant isn’t. A view, a storm, a cliff, a mountain, a waterfall might be awesome, a good cup of coffee isn’t.  I suspect this started in the 1970’s when Howard Cosell (a sportscaster) used that word way too often to describe a good football play or a talented football player on Monday Night Football.
I just saw a business plan rating sheet that included “awesome” as one of the possible ratings of certain factors in a plan. No offense to anybody, but no business plan has ever been awesome about anything. And I like business plans.
incentivizing or incenting
Say motivating instead. It’s a real word, it already exists, and has a perfectly obvious meaning. Incentives are supposed to motivate employees, not incentivize them, and not incent them.
hopefully
If you mean I hope, say that instead. When you say “hopefully our team wins” you said our team wins and is full of hope as it does. Did you mean “I hope our team wins?”
Hopefully is like quickly or softly; it gives more detail about how something is done. She runs quickly. He speaks softly. Many people voted hopefully.
unique
Something unique is one of a kind, like no other. It’s unique or it isn’t; there are no degrees of unique. More unique or less unique makes no sense.
criteria
The word criteria is plural. The singular is criterion. This is a lot like phenomena (plural) and phenomenon (singular). I think the world has given up on data, which is technically the plural of datum. I have.

And while we’re on the subject of bad English, here are some other common word and grammar mistakes, some in business and some not, that didn’t make my top 5 list:

then and than
One of my pet peeves: Then is sequential, than is comparison. You have more than I do. First we generate options, then we make a decision.  And the illustration here is from TheOatmeal.com, by the way, a nice post there listing 10 words you probably misspell.
break even
The phrase is poorly defined. It means different things to different people. The most common financial meaning is about the break-even point, which is when revenue for some time frame is equal to costs and expenses. There is a specific financial calculation involved. But many people use “break even” to mean something like payback period, a point in which return from an investment equals the original investment.
turn over
Another poorly defined term, used in a lot of contexts. It often means sales, but sometimes refers to the opposite of employee retention, people leaving a company, and also has some specialized meanings related to business ratios for inventory.
those annoying apostrophes
Some people think you can’t have more than one of anything without an apostrophe. The apostrophe shows contraction (don’t) or possession (Tim’s), not plurality. It isn’t cars’ or books’ or table’s just because you have more than one. Cars’ would indicate possession, something that belongs to more than one car, like the cars’ exhaust. Books’ would indicate possession, something that belongs to more than one book, like the books’ covers. And table’s would be something that belongs to a table, like the table’s legs.
migraine
A migraine is not just a bad headache, and a bad headache is usually not a migraine. A migraine is a special kind of headache, much more common in women than men, usually affects only one half of the head, and often involves dizziness, nausea, and sensitivity to light.

Zen Habits and the Art of Focus

Every so often I’m struck with the beauty and eloquence of simplicity. Like this blog, this post, this simple look and feel:

I particularly liked this post, but it reminded me that the blog itself, zenhabits, is a wonderful example of how well focus actually works within a real business, small business, context. As the tag line suggests, it’s about “simple productivity.” I love how much both the design and the actual content reinforce the “simple” focus. It’s surprising how rarely that kind of deep conceptual integration actually happens.

This is a great example. You might also try 30 Things to Do to Keep From Getting Bored Out of Your Skull at Work, or 20 Things I Wish I Had Known Starting Out in Life. Or any of the other posts on this blog.

Say it Ain’t So Joel

This is disturbing on several levels. No, I don’t know Joel Spolsky but I feel like I do because I’ve been reading his work for years. He’s not just an expert on software development, he’s a very good writer and thinker. I’ve quoted him a lot.

So what’s disturbing? In Let’s Take This Offline Joel’s saying he’s going to stop blogging. That’s bad enough, because there aren’t that many thoughtful eloquent software developers around. But what’s worse is his reason (quoting):

The truth is, as much as I’ve enjoyed it, blogging has become increasingly impossible to do the way I want to as Fog Creek has become a larger company. We now have 32 employees and at least six substantial product lines. We have so many customers that I can’t always write freely without inadvertently insulting one of them. And my daily duties now take so much time that it has become a major effort to post something thoughtful even once or twice a month.

The best evidence also suggests that there are many other effective ways to market Fog Creek’s products — and that our historical overreliance on blogging as a marketing channel has meant that we’ve ignored them. I realize now that blogging made me, and Fog Creek, a big fish in a very small pond. As a result, we have the undisputed No. 1 product among the 5 percent to 10 percent of programmers who regularly read blogs about programming. Meanwhile, we’re almost unknown in every other demographic.

I think that’s a real business mistake. As I write this and as you read it, of course, we should both recognize that I know absolutely nothing about the specific business of Fog Creek software, so I’m probably way off base here. But then, in defense of what I’m about to say, I am relying on Joel’s own words. I’m taking him at his word.

The mistake here is related to one of my favorite quotes: “I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everybody.”

I think every company needs to recognize its strengths and weaknesses. Sure, you try to bolster the weaknesses over time, but never give up a strength. Here’s my message to Joel:

Joel, your blogging is your stronghold. It’s all about focus. You can’t do everything. Having a clear and well-identified strength is really important. Keep it. Use it to defend your business while you expand elsewhere. You don’t have to give that up in order to broaden channels. You’ve got a business going, you have revenue, you can hire people to do those other things, open those other channels. If you look, you’ll find people who know how to do that, and can do it better than you will. Keep your writing and build on it.