Hi, folks,

Exciting news!

I’ve created a new website for my business, Robin Hardman Communications, and incorporated my blog into it directly. (Meaning, you can go to my website, www.robinhardman.com, and find all my posts, rather than having to go to www.robinhardman.wordpress.com.)

From now on, I’ll be posting directly to the new website, rather than to wordpress.com.

What this means for you is:

  • If you signed up to follow my blog, and don’t have a blog of your own on wordpress.com, you don’t have to do anything. You’ll continue to get my blog delivered to you via email. You’ll also get the occasional other bit of news or mail about my business, but I promise you, you will not be inundated. I don’t have the time!
  • If you signed up to follow my blog, and you DO have a blog of your own on wordpress.com, I can’t just transfer you over to my new site. You have to take the initiative to do that yourself. But it’s easy: just click here and sign up. You’ll get one of those pesky confirmation notices in your email box—click on that to confirm and you’re all set.

Of course, anyone can unsubscribe at any time. But I hope you won’t! In fact, I hope you’ll spread the word. Know anyone else who might enjoy my blog? Suggest they check it out on my website: www.robinhardman.com/blog where they can also sign up to follow me.

Thanks and best regards,

Robin

The

Portrait of Henry VIII, King of England

Warning: today’s post may seem a bit esoteric. I think it’s pretty darn interesting, and I  know it has real-world implications for anyone trying to communicate anything, but if you want to cut to the chase you can always scroll down to the end.

What a difference a word makes!

I’m reading Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall is a massive historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, who, as a trusted counselor to Henry VIII, helped usher in the English Reformation. Although I have my share of interest in history and read plenty of historical fiction as a kid, I rarely read it now. Why? Because I hate clumsy exposition. There is nothing so deflating as to be caught up in the middle of a fictional world, rooting for a character, crying over a sad turn of events, eager to see what happens next, only to be swiftly dumped back into the 21st century when the author stops to explain something. It’s even worse when that something is stuffed, with all the authenticity of a plastic pear, into a character’s mouth.

For example, I somehow missed the much-praised television series, West Wing, when it first aired. My 15-year-old daughter, a latter-day fan through the magic of Netflix, is now eagerly introducing me to what I missed. And, several “seasons” in, I’m very much enjoying it. But I squirmed through quite a few episodes before I got to this point.

Here’s why: West Wing, as you probably know, is about a fictional modern-day U.S. president and his closest staff. He’s got the kind of liberal politics that make it highly unlikely he’d ever have been elected in real life, and his ironclad integrity is even more unbelievable, but these stretches of reality are not what make me squirm. What drives me crazy is that at key points throughout nearly every episode a character will suddenly say something like, “What do you mean, the bill has to be voted on in both houses of Congress?” and another character will answer, “Well, every bill has to be passed in both the House and the Senate…blah, blah, blah.”

This is ridiculous. People who work at the White House don’t ask these questions of each other. Why? Because they work at the White House. They know the answers, and the writers know they know the answers, but they put those words in the characters’ mouths because they want to be sure you, the audience know the answers. And though dialogue like this does serve the function intended, it also yanks us viewers right out of our cozy involvement with the scene, back into our chairs in front of a television screen.

The fact is, the very best television (I’m speakin’ to you, The Wire) manages to avoid this kind of exposition. It does this in part by getting the message across much more subtly, in part by respecting the audience’s ability to catch on. The very best writing does, too.

Which brings me back to Wolf Hall. It’s not easy—at all—to create a work of fiction set in a time or place that’s unfamiliar to readers without inserting a lot of heavy-handed exposition. But Hilary Mantel manages to do it with an awe-inspiring grace.

In some cases, it comes down to one word.

On page 295 of my hard cover edition, a character tells Cromwell he is going to try for permission to visit “our brother Bainham.”

At this point, we’ve never heard of anyone named Bainham and need to be told who he is. A lesser author would come right out and do so (or, worse, have some minor character pipe up from across the room, “who’s Bainham?”) Mantel, writing in present tense as she does throughout the book, does this:

Bainham is the barrister who was taken up by [Sir Thomas] More last year and tortured.

(The brackets are mine—readers of the book know by this point who “More” refers to.)

What’s significant about this sentence is what Mantel could have said, instead:

Bainham is a barrister who was taken up by More last year and tortured.

Had she done this, had she used “a” instead of “the,” she would have been talking directly to me, the reader. She would have been bypassing her characters completely and, in the process, lifting me right out of their world and setting me down, with a thud, in 2013. Because both the characters in the room know who Bainham is. They don’t need to know he is “a barrister, etc.”

But it is perfectly within reason that they might need to search their memories for a moment, recollecting for themselves or reminding a friend who he is, in which case they might well say, “You know who I mean—Bainham is the barrister who was taken up by More last year and tortured…”

Do you see the difference?

One little word: the instead of a, and it turns from clunky exposition to a flowing internal conversation.

Yes, I have written this entire post to expound (as it were!) on the tiniest word in a 500+ page novel. But when I read that paragraph, that “the” jumped right out at me. It was so simple. And so perfect.

Ok, I promised you this would relate to the kind of writing you and I do, every day. Chances are, you’re writing neither historical fiction nor television screenplays. But you are writing for an audience, and you need that audience to stay with you, in whatever “story” you’re telling. So you need to remember:

  • If you use meaningless jargon—you will lose them.
  • If you sound inauthentic—adopt a voice that is too self-consciously hip, or an attitude that is too filled with rah-rah boosterism, or anything that strays from honesty—you will lose them.
  • If you are not inclusive—if you use sexist language, or project implicit assumptions that don’t apply to some part of your audience—you will lose them.
  • If you make too many careless mistakes in either content or form—you will lose them.
  • And if you can’t demonstrate the relevance to them of what you have to say—you will lose them.

Not to scare you or anything, but every word really does matter.

I’m working on some posts now about National Work and Family month, comedy in the workplace and a cool scheme to communicate work-life programs at Johns Hopkins. Some will be published here, some on Huffington Post, some on both…but you’ll only catch them for sure if you’re on my mailing list—sign up to Follow Me! 

Staring blankly at a “Best Companies for Multicultural Women” application? Overwhelmed with benefits open enrollment content? Need content for your employee newsletter? Hand those stressors off to me—that’s my job!

The Pronoun Problem

We

(Photo credit: Mike Kanert)

What to do about gender neutrality?

It was so easy when I was growing up. We were taught that “he” referred to all humans, of either sex, and we believed it.

In fact it didn’t and, as an excellent analysisI just came across points out, throughout history it hardly ever has. (Carolyn Jacobson, the University of Pennsylvania graduate assistant who wrote the piece I just linked to back in 1995, uses this wonderfully oddball example to prove that we don’t read “he” as referring to both men and women: “The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his pantyhose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day.”)

In fact, the use of “man” and male pronouns to refer to human beings reflects a society in which men are the only beings considered fully human. As the second wave of feminism came along to spread this news, we looked for alternatives. It was relatively simple to substitute “human” for “man” and “humanity” (or even “people”) for “men.” But the problem of singular pronouns—what to do about “he” and “his”—was a much greater one. The problem first arose sometime in the 1970s. Forty-plus years later, we still haven’t figured out how to deal with it.

What to do about gender neutrality?

First, some ground rules. Some folks are still on the fence about this. Hold-outs continue to use “he” as a universal pronoun. But every major stylebook advises against it, and I, personally, think it is inexcusable.

“He” and “him” refer to a man, a boy, or a male animal. Period. You can no more use “he” to refer to people of both sexes than you can use “boy” to refer to a grown African-American man. This is not something anyone should have a choice about anymore–it is part of the evolution of our understanding about human rights and the role language plays in creating—or shutting down—change.

Beyond that, however, you have some choices. Sadly, none of them is very good:

1. You can replace he with “he or she” and him with “him or her.” He or she who hesitates is lost.

2. You can skip the “or” and say “he/she,” “him/her,” or opt for a slimmed down look and say “s/he” (which, however, begs the question of what to do about “him” and “her”). S/he who hesitates is lost.

3. You can try to re-write the sentence completely to leave out pronouns: The person who hesitates is lost.

4. You can turn every problematic singular sentence into a plural one: Those who hesitate are lost.

5. In certain contained circumstances, you can alternate the use of “he” and “she:”

A person who isn’t quite sure what to do next has several choices:

  • She can consider her options carefully, and make a thoughtful decision..
  • He can ask others for advice.
  • She can hesitate, and be lost.

The problem is, solutions like these are cumbersome at best, unworkable at worst. “He or she,” which is more clear than alternating the use of “he” and “she,” and just slightly more professional and formal than “s/he,” can result in impossibly convoluted language, especially when it involves other pronoun forms. Consider:

“Every employee should talk to his or her manager about what he or she needs to do in order to complete his or her project.” It’s enough to make the writer gag and the reader jump off his or her ledge.

Option four, re-writing a sentence to turn it from singular to plural, is the one I see recommended most often, but it works better in some cases than in others. “Employees should talk to their managers about what they need to do in order to complete their projects,” is not too bad, except for the possible confusion about whether individual employees each have multiple managers or projects or just one apiece. But compare these alternatives:

Every man must listen to his conscience, following the voice in his head.

All people must listen to their consciences, following the voices in their heads.

Not only does the original sentence lose quite a bit of poetic (if clichéd) punch in the pluralized version, it veers dangerously close to a prescription for mass schizophrenia.

Reader, there is a fifth option. It’s in common use informally, but represents a radical step for formal grammar and is far from universally accepted. Nonetheless, it is out there, being debated and approved by even some among the grammatical establishment. It’s the use of the singular “they.”

The fact is, as grammarians will point out, the singular “they” (if a person hesitates, they are lost) has been around for a long time. As Arnold notes in the link above, it can be found in the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, among others. The arguments against its use seem to have originated in the same misguided attempts to mold English around Latin that led to the now-abandoned  argument against splitting infinitives.

The singular “they” allows us to put away convoluted attempts to neutralize gender in one swift move, no muss, no fuss. Although it can sound odd, I have gradually come to the conclusion that it is the most elegant solution we English-speakers have to this problem-that-will-not-die.

That doesn’t mean I use it. Most of my work involves writing communications for others and I know usage of the singular “they” in formal writing is still unacceptable to most. Even in my own work, it still often sounds awkward and grating, and I find myself re-writing sentences to avoid it. 

But having decided it is, ultimately, the best solution, I have vowed to start using it more. It’s a matter of conscience for me, because ultimately, it’s about removing the language’s built-in bigotry. As for you, you’ll have to decide for yourself.  Everyone must listen to their conscience, and do what they think is right.

Have you seen my new website? It’s still a work-in-progress (and probably always will be), but stop by to learn more about what I can do to help you tell your story. 

Benefits Communications: The Basics Still Apply

The signatures of President Barack Obama, Vice...

Just about now, as fall tiptoes ever closer, benefits administrators everywhere are dreaming not of crisp new back-to-school outfits or a bountiful harvest, but of benefits open enrollment. Those dreams are not likely to be the happiest during the best of circumstances, but with regulatory changes big and small brought on by the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare), they’ve probably turned into nightmares for some this year. (Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against Obamacare. I just know it’s giving headaches to a lot of benefits administrators and their communications departments.)

How much your company’s benefits plans and policies will change depends on all kinds of factors, from how big your organization is to what you’ve offered in the past. And it’s likely you’re still scrambling to figure out what many of the changes are going to be, as well as what you need to communicate and when. In fact, if you’re still depending on old-fashioned print for open enrollment materials, this may be the year to explore some more easily-updated electronic formats.

But whether you are communicating via quill pen or Yammer, the cardinal rules of good communication still apply:

Put yourself on the employees’ side of the desk. Chances are, employees will most care about:

  • Cost: Will health benefits cost more (or less) than what I’m now paying, and by how much? Remember that cost usually comes down to numerous factors that not all employees will be considering, so it’s up to you to fill in those gaps. If they choose the new lower-premium plan, how much higher will their deductible be? If they opt for the more expensive plan, will they still be saving as much on co-payments as they did last year? Ideally, give them some concrete examples to illustrate your points.
  • Coverage:  Are there any important differences in service coverage among the different plans I can choose from? Are there any changes from last year? While coverage questions may be a little more straightforward than questions of cost, you still want to be sure to direct employees’ attention to things they might not have considered. Have there been any major changes to the prescription drug formulary? To the networks? Are referrals needed in order to see a specialist?

Remember a key rule of the late, great crime-writer Elmore Leonard and “leave out the parts that people skip.” The things your employees will likely not care to know about include arcane bits of legal mumbo-jumbo. Sure, some of that stuff has to be included in your communications. But, as much as possible, try to get it out of your central text and into fine print or, better yet, links.

Be clear. You, yourself, may eat, sleep and—as I mentioned earlier—even dream in benefits jargon, but many employees wouldn’t know a PPO from an IPO from HBO. Stick to the simplest possible terminology and define it every step of the way. (Remember, this has nothing to do with education or intelligence. Most people not steeped in the benefits world really don’t know how coinsurance differs from co-pay.)

Be detailed. The details you don’t want are those the lawyers want you to include. (Ok, yes, you may have to include some of them anyway.) But the details you do want are the what, how, when and where of benefits enrollment. What do employees need to do, how and when do they need to do it and where can they get more information?

Be available. The best benefits communications, provided in the best possible formats, can’t cover every employee’s situation or answer every question. Set up a hotline or a dedicated email box. Invite employees to text you. Do it however you want, but make a live human being available—ideally not only to employees, but to their family members.

Be honest. If the options aren’t quite as comprehensive as last year or costs have increased (or both), say so up front. With luck, you’ll also be able to communicate that costs are going up everywhere, that your organization is still delivering a tremendous amount of value, and that you’ll continue to look for ways to bring coverage up and costs down. If your company has made a habit of honesty in its communications, your employees may even believe you.

Need some help with your benefits communications? Drop me a line: robin@robinhardman.com or give me a call: 718-628-4753.

I’ve been trying to figure out how the Affordable Care Act is affecting benefits communicators this year. If you have any thoughts to share, please, please contact me and let’s set up a time to talk—on or off-the-record, it’s up to you!

Check out my newly-refurbished website at www.robinhardman.com and, while you’re there, sign up to get this blog delivered directly to your mailbox.

Writing in Between-Time

Between a rock and a hard place

Hello!

After a four-month hiatus, my blog is back. You might not have noticed the gap, but in case you did—my apologies for the long wait. In a minute, I’ll tell you why it happened and how I might have done things differently, if I’d been just a wee bit more disciplined…but first…

I’m proud to announce my blog has once again received an Apex Award for Publication Excellence in the category of Blog Writing. This is my second consecutive year winning the award and I’m thrilled. 

I’m also surprised, because I assumed I wouldn’t even be in the running, given how long it’s been since I last posted. About that:

Last April, for the first time since I launched this blog at the close of 2011, I became overwhelmed. It was the start of Great Place to Work season, the time of year when I help companies complete their applications to the Great Place to Work Institute, required for consideration on Fortune’s annual “Best Companies to Work For” list. I was helping a number of companies with this process, plus doing some other work, plus trying to upgrade my website (more on that soon). The end of the school year was approaching, followed by (what ought to be) luxurious lazy summer, and my two teenagers, each in his/her own way, needed some time and attention. I was busy night and day, and, more importantly, my creativity was being tapped to the max.

But while all that might have served as an excuse to blog a little less, it was no excuse not to blog at all. Because I am in possession of a magical power, one that I’ve employed in many such situations in the past. It’s the power to get work done—especially writing—without taking up any actual time. If I were to name this power, I’d call it “writing in between-time.”

Writing in between-time simply means getting beyond the “uninterrupted block of time” approach to writing. Yes, sometimes sitting down with a nice open chunk of hours can give you the psychic space you need to think creatively, and the focus you need to get it all down on paper. But you might be amazed at how much you can get done by jotting things down during the moments in between—while you’re flipping through magazines in a waiting room, maybe, or in the ten minutes between checking a task off your to-do list and the start of an upcoming meeting. As a New Yorker, I get an enormous amount of writing done on the subway—and I’m not talking about long rides, necessarily. One of my most common commutes takes about 22 minutes. I’ve gotten a lot written on that one. For the daily car commuters among you, I’d recommend writing during all that sitting-in-traffic time, but the last thing I want to do is encourage distracted driving. Hmm…maybe consider switching to mass transit?

Over the years, I’ve accomplished quite a bit with this trick. I’ve used between-time to revise or proof drafts, or, on occasion, to write entire blog posts. But most often, I’ve used this magical non-time to get past the hardest part of writing anything, the empty page. Without vast amounts of time stretching ahead of me, it’s less daunting to just jump in and get something—anything—down on paper. Once I’m back at my desk, I have a place to start. I type up my scribbled draft, rearranging and refining it as I go, and skip right over the paralysis of the empty screen.

In fact, seen in this light, between-time writing is more than just a trick for busy seasons. It can sometimes be the most effective, efficient approach you can take. You know you have just a few minutes—so you plunge right in. (It’s similar to the effect of waiting until the last minute before a deadline—but with the added advantage that you can do it days or weeks ahead of time.)

I read somewhere about a writer who, when he (or was it a she?) was stuck, would go out for a walk or run an errand, then, upon returning, race to his desk and start writing immediately, without even taking off his coat. (I can’t remember where I read this, and I may have made up the part about the coat, but that’s the way I’ve always pictured it.) Sounds like an SNL skit, on one level, but it resonated with me immediately. He was creating his own between-time.

Of course, it’s not a fool-proof trick, as the four month silence of this blog demonstrates. (Although, in fact, I did do a lot of between-time work during those months—it just wasn’t blogging work.) But it is a useful bit of magic to remember, especially when between-time is the only time you have.

I’m still working out some of the kinks, but soon you’ll be receiving these posts directly from my new website. You can take a sneak peek, if you like—you’ll find it at the same address as my old website: www.robinhardman.com. 

Read Like a Writer

Brooklyn Museum - Artist Sketching

You know how art students are forever hanging around museums with their sketch pads, copying paintings? My bet is you haven’t spent a lot of time wondering why they do it, because it just makes intuitive sense. To understand how the artist placed a line, created a sense of space, got those proportions right—it surely helps to walk a mile with his pencil.

So why doesn’t it occur to aspiring writers to copy text?

Actually, I have heard of the concept, odd as it may seem: somewhere I remember reading about a writer who taught himself the trade by copying out literature he liked. And of course it’s out of fashion now, but a few generations ago schoolchildren were regularly put to work memorizing poetry.

Still, copying out well-written prose probably seems like a bizarre exercise to most of us. I’ve never done it myself. Nonetheless, if we’re not going to literally sit down and copy something, we can still find ways to bring the same kind of attention to work we admire—or even work we don’t. You read things differently when you read them like a writer. But it takes some practice.

Maybe you’ve heard of lucid dreaming  (also called “conscious dreaming”). It’s the dream state most of us experience on occasion, when, while still asleep, we become aware we’re dreaming. Often it happens in the last moments before we awaken, or just as we’re falling asleep, and it happens without us trying. But it turns out that for centuries people have tried to consciously induce lucid dreaming, for all kinds of reasons. Some have used it as a way to control the direction of their dreams. Today one of its uses is to help people who suffer from nightmares. (Go ahead, google it. You’ll find dozens of websites, seminars, and products claiming to hold the secret to producing lucid dreams.)

Reading like a writer is like lucid dreaming. Even as you immerse yourself in the text, you maintain a smidgeon of awareness at another level, paying enough attention to consider why the author did what she did in the way she did it.

When you read an article that pulls you through from one paragraph to another, creating curiosity and suspense, you stop to consider what it is about the writing that creates these responses. When you find a word that surprises you, you stop to think about why it is surprising, how it is more typically used, and whether it works in this new context.

Sometimes I bring my writer-consciousness to bear even when nothing in particular has caught my attention. If I’m reading the narration of an event, I stop to think about how the author got from Point A to Point B. What details did he include? What did he leave to my imagination—and did that work? How did he use quotes (if nonficition) or dialogue (if fiction) to advance the narrative?

Reading like a writer is most pleasant when you’re reading something that’s well-written (well, reading is most pleasant when you’re reading something that’s well-written) but it can be just as useful when you’re reading something that’s not. If I have trouble understanding something, I try to fight the immediate assumption that the problem lies with my inadequate brain, lack of sleep or rapidly declining attention span, and instead consider what about the writing is making it so difficult to grasp.

Similarly, if I’m finding something boring, I stop to consider what has made it that way. Sometimes, of course, it’s simply a topic that doesn’t interest me. But I’ve noticed that in the hands of a really good writer almost any topic can become interesting.

Another kind of bad writing, which I think is unique to fiction, is when the writer inserts herself too strenuously into the narration. This often happens in stories that take place in other times or unfamiliar (or imaginary) locales, when the writer tips over some invisible line from providing necessary background into creating a dumping ground for her research notes. Although I don’t write fiction, I still find it fascinating to try to figure out where this invisible line lies—how much does the writer need to say and how much should be left to the intelligence and imagination of the reader? Surely understanding this helps me write better informational prose.

You might wonder if taking this approach spoils the pleasure of a good read, but I’ve found that not to be the case—it only enriches it, letting you more consciously savor the experience. So if you’re not already taking your mental sketchpad out every time you open a newspaper or power up your Nook, give it a try!

If you’re not seeing my blog as often these days, one reason is it’s Great Place to Work application season and I’m hard at work helping companies tell their unique stories. Have questions about the application process or need someone to lend a hand? Download my free tipsheet—or just drop me a line!

 

 

 

“Email Communication” Doesn’t Have to Be an Oxymoron

We agonize over our web content and print pieces, but many of us don’t give a second thought to the emails we compose all the time, often to convey important information. Meanwhile, messages pour into the inboxes of those we’re trying to reach. What are the chances of survival for our besieged bit of communication?

When I google “email tips” I find dozens of articles and blogs expounding on the fine points of email etiquette—very important of course, but what about email as communication? How do you get employees and others to open and read that critical bit of information you need them to have? How do you ensure they’re going to hear what you have to say,  do what they have to do, get back to you with what you need?

That’s why I was pleased to find Bryan Garner’s post in the Harvard Business Review, focusing not on email etiquette but on email communication. I agree with Garner on the importance of an informative subject line, of providing background, of trying to walk the line between brief and non-communicative, etc. But, naturally, I couldn’t resist coming up with some additional pointers of my own.

So here, forthwith, are the Robin Hardman Communications (additional) keys to getting your email read:

  • Give readers a heads-up about what’s coming. While it’s true, as Garner says, that emails shouldn’t be too long, sometimes you can’t help it—you just have a lot of ground to cover. Make sure your reader doesn’t take any shortcuts by laying it out from the start: “I’ve got four points to make about the Benzene letter” or even “Be sure to scroll all the way down, as there are important next steps at the end of this message.”
  • Keep it short(er) by remembering your audience. As a loyal follower of this blog, I’m sure you’ll know this thread pops up a lot—including in my very last post. But once again, apropos of today’s topic: include all the stuff your readers will want and need—and none of the stuff they won’t.
  • Make judicious use of bold. Nobody wants to open an email that’s shouting at them, which is why everyone hopefully knows by now not to type in all caps; use bold sparingly for the same reason. However, if you have some nugget of vital information to get across, or something you need your reader to do when they finish reading, don’t let them scroll by it, unnoticed. Go for the bold.
  • Summarize links and attachments. Links and attachments can be incredibly useful, but don’t depend on them to convey your message. Summarize the salient points and use your attachments as back-up. It’s a busy world!

 And, on a note that may be more about etiquette than communication, minimize “oops” moments with these two tricks:

  • Always attach documents FIRST. How many times have you sent (or received!) an email saying “I’ve attached xyz”—with no attachment? It’s so easy for this to happen—you get your document ready to send, then, while you’re crafting your email, you forget all about it. Make a habit of attaching it first, and it’ll never happen again.
  • Always address your email LAST. This is a really helpful way to avoid that moment when you lean over for a pencil and accidentally hit “send” mid-sentence—or mid-word. It also is a nice little electronic speed bump that might slow you down just enough that you don’t send something you’ll regret. (It doesn’t work, of course, if you’re replying to someone else—unless you take the time, as I sometimes have, to remove the return email address and only type it back in when I’m good and ready.)

If you follow this blog (and thus have received it via email) I hope you made it to the end! If you don’t, sign up to follow it now!

And if you’re looking for someone to help you with any of your communications projects, from email to tome, give me a call!

Render Unto Caesar

Plagiarism is rarely a concern for internal communicators. In many cases, whatever corporate program you’re writing about has been written about before, and you’ll have heaps of existing material to steal from.

It’s not only fine to do this, it’s often important to do so. The way you talk about a program or policy is part of its branding. It generally makes sense to have some sameness in your messages.

But, as with Spellcheck (and, Lord help us, Autocorrect), cutting-and-pasting brings dangers of its own. Just because someone has written about a program before, doesn’t mean what they’ve written is right for what you’re writing now—even if you’re the one who wrote it in the first place. (Got that?)

I can’t say it enough: always remember your audience.

  • If you’re writing to promote a program for employees, tell them what’s in it for them and tell them how to sign up. Don’t tell them the arcane details of arrangements you’ve made with the program’s vendor.
  • If you’re writing to describe a policy in a “best place to work” application, don’t include the mechanics of enrollment or list the legal restrictions you include in your internal benefits materials.
  • If you’re writing to urge a behavior that would be helpful to you (say, using online benefits enrollment instead of handwritten forms), don’t focus on how it makes your life easier, write about how much easier and faster it is for employees.

As with so many rules of communication, this all probably seems rather obvious. Advertisers don’t say “buy our smelly overpriced soap so we’ll meet our quarterly revenue projections.” They say, “buy our smelly overpriced soap so you’ll find a date.” (Note, by the way, that they also don’t usually say, “buy our yadda yadda soap so you’ll smell good.” That’s just an intermediate benefit. Another marketing rule of thumb is to focus on the ultimate benefit—in this case, catching that elusive man.)

But, perhaps because of how easy it is for those of us churning out internal communications to cut and paste, remembering your audience is a rule that (ironically) is often forgotten. Need some copy on the merger? Here, take it from this press release. And in goes the copy, without ever a thought put to the fact that the what the public wants to know about the merger (or what your company wants to tell them) is probably very different from what employees want to know. Introducing a new manager? Let’s just throw in the bio she uses for speaking engagements—never mind that it has little, if anything, to do with who she’ll be managing and what projects she’ll be overseeing.

We’re all busy. We already have to put the copy together and edit and proof the copy along with whatever millions of other things our job demands of us. But taking the time to take just one last look at whatever we’re about to publish, checking to see that it actually communicates what needs to be communicated—that can save a whole lot of time and trouble down the line.

Need some help communicating with your audience? Got too much to do and too little time? Contact me—I do this stuff  for a living and, believe me, I’m good at it!

AWLP 2013: What’s in Store in Baltimore

Although this is primarily a blog about writing, I occasionally veer off-topic to write about my other area of expertise: work-life effectiveness. Last year at around this time I published an interview with Kathie Lingle, Executive Director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress, in which she described their upcoming annual event—known at the time as an “un-conference.” The post was very well-received, as was the event, so last week I called Kathie up to find out what was in store for this year’s, scheduled for late February in Baltimore. Here’s how it went:

I see you’re calling this event a forum again. Is it another “un-conference?”

We’ve dropped that label. I think we’ve made our point. We can show we’re different by what we’re doing, rather than by what we call it.

Actually, the agenda looks pretty different from last year’s.

Every one of our forums is quite different. We listen to the feedback we get every year. This year, two very important recommendations came to the fore. One was, “Can we have new blood, can we hear from companies that are not the usual suspects?”

And the other thing people told us, which is a big overarching driver this year, is, “Last year was all about talking about the future of work. Let’s stop talking about what work will look like and let’s make it happen. Give us tools. Give us people and practices so we can go get it done.”

So we’ve brought in some very different companies [more on that below] and a big theme running through the whole forum this year is tools. We’ve also got a different spin from most conferences because maximum interactivity is a big priority. We don’t want the usual workshop format, the talking heads.

So tell me about the tools.

Well, we’re starting with Ellen Kossek who will present the first tool, the work-life indicator, and going on from there…

And the work-life indicator is…?

You may know the book she published a few years ago, CEO of Me. It’s all about diagnosing yourself into one of four quadrants based on how you manage your own work-life boundaries. She’s partnered with the Center for Creative Leadership, in North Carolina, to create an assessment tool called the work-life indicator. You take a ten minute survey that assesses how you manage the boundaries between work and family. On the basis of that you get a report with tips on increasing your effectiveness in all spheres.

So we’re inviting up to 30 people to sign up for a pre-conference session. Anyone can sign up but there is an obligation. They have to take this assessment online in advance. Their results are sent to the CCL, which will analyze them and create personal reports for each participant. Ellen will come to the session armed with people’s reports, hand them out, and the session is all about getting your feedback and then a discussion about how to use this organizationally with managers and employees.  So that’s a super-powered tool.

By the way, anyone can do one of these work-life indicators any time but it costs about $30. We’re covering the cost for people who do it at the forum, because we think work-life people should be the first to know what their own work-life management issues are.

What are some other tools?

There are a couple sessions with Leslie Hammer and Erin Kelly from the Work, Family and Health Network, who are going to be talking about their very messy interventions in real organizations. They’re going to talk about the work they’ve been doing as part of this huge National Institutes of Health funded project with many different private companies and industries involved. They survey what’s going on in real organizations, change some things and then measure the change. And what’s radical about what they’re doing is that they’re not just looking at behavioral change, they’re down at the level of biometrics.

Biometrics? Can you elaborate?

They go in and do interventions—train managers and employees for some kind of change, often around flexibility—and they collect biometrics on people. One of the things I think is pretty fascinating is they’re detecting changes at the biometric level sometimes independent of behavioral change, which can lag quite a bit.

What kind of biometrics are they collecting?

Well, cholesterol, for one: good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, total cholesterol. Cardiac rates. And then there’s one study they’ve done of low-wage workers in interaction with their supervisors where they did saliva tests to measure cortisol, the stress hormone. They’ve done some fascinating work where they’ve been able to get cortisol readings of employees who’ve had interactions with their supervisors at work and then look at the cortisol levels of their children 24 hours later and can see the impact of stress.

So we’re looking at work-family interaction at the organic level. That’s what so radical about this. These are the kinds of measures that we work-life people have been looking for. And you know, many, many companies are already collecting biometrics of their workers as part of health intervention initiatives. Why couldn’t work-life people give them the tools and information they need to make new connections with it? Not just, “ok, we know who’s got diabetes, let’s have a diabetes seminar,” or “we know who’s smoking, so let’s get people to stop smoking.”

Okay, hold up. The cortisol is amazing and it also makes sense that there’d be a direct connection between employees’ interactions at work and their cortisol levels and even their families’ cortisol levels. But are they also finding connections with things like cholesterol?

Yes! A lot of this research was presented at last year’s Work and Family Researchers Network conference. There are several notable studies showing what work-life people have been asserting forever: that it’s all about stress reduction and as you add more flexible work practices and culturally embed it (in other words, to the degree that you’re not just publishing policies but you’re changing people’s work practices), cholesterol improves. Cardiac measures show a beneficial impact, too. This is what I mean by radical: we’re now getting to the point where we can actually measure, at the body level, the impact of what we’re doing.

That’s totally incredible.

When I said tools, I meant tools.

Are companies part of these presentations or is it mostly going to be researchers?

Real companies have been a big part of the project Erin Kelly and Leslie Hammer are presenting, but they aren’t going to be involved in that presentation. But that session’s going to be followed by four different workshops about transformational change with four specific companies. These are other companies, other practices, so we can expose people to multiple tools and practices.

And also this year the number of participants in our Work-Life Seal of Distinction, which we launched last year, more than doubled. Fifty-four companies got through our threshold and got the Seal and a lot of them will be at the forum. We’ve invited the top 10, who have the most remarkable things going on, to show their tools and solutions in an Innovation Showcase.

So that’s going to be some kind of exhibition?

Yes, like a poster session, on opening night. Our three Innovation Excellence award-winners will be there, too.  One of them is State Street Bank. They have a fabulous twist on flexibility where it’s their managers who go about tapping people on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, you need some help.”

Wow. That’s unusual.

It’s an antidote to what we hear all the time: “How do you get managers involved?” This turns the whole thing on its head.

And then there’s Banco Santader.  It’s this Spanish Bank that captured our attention because they’ve literally built the perfect work environment for work-life. They built it ten miles outside of Madrid. It’s got everything from a church to a clinic and now they’re working on a forest. They have ISO-certified child care—have you ever heard of ISO certification for a child care center in this country? They’re pushing the boundaries like we’ve never seen.

Wait, did you say they’re building a forest?

Well they’re not building a forest. They built a city, and they’ve got all the internal stuff done and now they’re working on the outside environment for employees, with walking paths, etc: the natural world brought to the workplace. It’s extraordinary.

Then, as we were hearing from them and looking at what they’re doing, we found out that Zappos is about to do the same thing out in San Francisco. So this is not as far-fetched as it might seem as first.

And then our third Innovative Excellence winner is the USDA, a government agency. So these will all be more solutions and tools. We’re exposing people to as much as we can. I think people’s heads will be spinning.

Who else is presenting?

We’ve got Cali Williams Yost, who just published a new book about personal work-life effectiveness, and Theresa Hopke, who’ll be leading a best practice sharing session, and a session by the Red Cross about disaster preparedness. And then, as I said, some big and small companies and some other groups, like Bright Horizons.

And it’s really exciting, we’re accomplishing our objective, which is that a lot of the people attending the forum, and exhibitors, are ones that none of us would identify as being in the work-life field. Some of them are names you know, that just haven’t been involved in the work-life world. Some of them you’ve never heard of. For the first time, I’m in the position of not recognizing more than three quarters of our audience this year. This is a whole new field of energy and activity and I think it’s wonderful.

Last year’s forum was pretty small. This one sounds bigger.

We try, deliberately, to keep it reasonably intimate. I can promise you it won’t be a 500-person conference. I think the number will land somewhere between 75-100. Not so huge so you can get lost, but big enough so you have a strong influx of ideas.

Who should come to this conference, if they haven’t already signed up?

I wouldn’t label the kinds of people who should come, I think it’s going to be a very interesting, eye-opening look at ways to connect the dots between functions. Anyone who is really involved in talent management and people strategies and workplace effectiveness. There are health care people coming, communications people, general heads of HR.

That’s really what AWLP is all about: we cut across boundaries: universities, corporations, the federal government, hospitals… And we also don’t stay in a box about work functions. We tend to be bridge-builders.  In fact, ideally people should come with a team that might include several different practitioners, because some of these tools are pretty sophisticated and will require involvement across organizational functions.

Thanks, Kathie. I’ll include a link for anyone who wants to sign up. See you in Baltimore!

And here it is: 2013 AWLP Work-Life Forum

The Working Mother “100 Best” application deadline is around the corner. Need some last minute help?