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!