You knew this, right?

I got an email yesterday from Kristin Willoughby, Senior Manager, Editorial and Research Initiatives at the Working Mother Research Institute and—as anyone who’s ever gone through the Working Mother application process knows—all-round incredibly helpful resource.  She was alerting me to a mistake on my website (and no doubt in some blog posts here, too): it’s not the “Best Companies for Working Mothers list,” it’s the “Working Mother 100 Best Companies” list.

What’s the difference, you ask?

Well, as Kristen puts it, “this survey is dedicated to finding companies who are the best at family-friendly policies that benefit everyone, not just moms.”  That, of course, is an important distinction. For the record, I did know this, and my first thought was, “isn’t that great—they’ve finally changed their name to reflect the facts.” But it turns out that I’m not just recently wrong, I’ve always been wrong. On following up with Kristen, I discovered the name for this recognition has always been essentially the same—and has never involved working mothers. Apparently, it was writers for other publications who dubbed it the “best companies for working mothers” list.

I’ll be fixing my website as soon as I can tear a few minutes away from the work I’m doing helping some clients with their “Working Mother 100 Best Companies”submissions. In the meantime, just remember, while moms are swell, it’s about supporting the personal lives of all your employees.

What’s Your POV?

Remember that high school English teacher who kept harping on passive voice? That professor who made you write a paper on the narrator’s perspective? That communications teacher who talked on and on about your “target audience”?

To some extent, what they were all yammering on about is Point of View. (I’m going to stop right here and admit that Point of View, in the world of literary criticism, means something a little different from what I’m talking about here. It’s all about who the narrator is and how wide or narrow his/her field of vision is. But Point of View is the most descriptive name I can think of for the phenomenon I’m about to describe. If you can think of a better word or phrase, do let me know.)

The point is, a good story can get buried in bad telling, and one surefire way to tell a story badly is to lose sight of who the story is really about. When you want to describe something about your organization, whether for a press release, grant proposal, or that “100 Best Companies for Working Mothers” application, your goal should be to emphasize why this thing you’re describing matters to the reader (your target audience). That means focusing on what or who this thing affects. And more often than not,  that means an emphasis on people, not programs. They’re who your story’s about. It all comes down to Point of View.

For example, let’s say you want to describe your company’s executive leadership program for women. Here’s the kind of thing I’ve seen a lot in corporate materials:

The goal of Ice Tray International’s executive leadership program is to strengthen the development and retention of women. The program comprises leadership opportunities and assessments, executive coaching and skill-building. Training in executive presentations, networking and communication strategies is provided and participants are required to complete a professional development plan. Annual participation in the program is fifty.

Is there anything wrong with that paragraph? It’s grammatically correct (it even gets “comprise” right–a potential landmine word). It contains a certain amount of useful information. It’s (yawn) very professional, isn’t it?

If you define “professional” as dry and boring then yes, it is. But personally, I need to read a paragraph like that a few times over before I can fully take it in, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I have a thoroughly unscientific theory for why this is: we absorb information better if it forms a picture in our minds.

Think about a novel you enjoyed recently. Remember a scene. Do you recall the actual words you read in that scene? Maybe a line stands out for you, here or there, but by and large what you remember is the picture that formed in your mind as you read those words.

To make text digestible, whether it’s a piece of fiction or a corporate message, you need to turn it into something your reader can picture. What if the paragraph above read something like this, instead?

Each year, fifty Ice Tray employees participate in our executive leadership program, “You, Go, Woman!”  Each participant works one-on-one with an executive coach to assess her skills, style and career goals and create a professional development plan. Participants also attend training in creating dynamic executive presentations, networking and effective communications.

This paragraph contains information nearly identical to that in the first paragraph, but what a difference! Is it easier to read? Do you get the information the first time around? Do you come away with a better sense of the impact this program is having on actual, living-and-breathing employees?

Is it any less professional?

Not only does the second paragraph tell the simple facts of this program in a more direct, hard-hitting manner, but it adds some important details. Now we know that the program is called “You, Go, Woman!” (Ok, not essential information, but it does humanize it a bit.) We know what the assessments cover. We know the meetings with coaches are one-on-one. In fact, the only thing missing from the second version—which uses five fewer words— is the goal of the program.  And I submit that that goal would mean a whole lot more if it were stated in terms of results:

Since 2007, 250 women have completed You Go, Women. Turnover among these women has been 3% less than turnover among all women at Ice Tray during the same period, and promotion rates have been 23% higher.

Besides adding some colorful details, what else did I do to turn paragraph 1 into paragraph 2? For one thing, I got rid of the passive voice, replacing “training…is provided” with “participants…attend training,” and “participants are required to complete a professional development plan,” with “each participant works…with an executive coach…to create a professional development plan.”

There is nothing grammatically wrong with using passive voice. Yet consult nearly any style guide and you’ll be admonished to use it rarely. Why? I believe one reason is that passive voice can prevent your reader from forming a clear picture. By changing two phrases in the paragraph from passive to active voice, I changed the emphasis from the program to the people that benefit from it. And instead of having to picture a professional development plan (what would this be, exactly–a piece of paper?), you imagine an employee huddling with her coach to develop the plan.

Passive voice isn’t the only culprit in the first example, though. Sentences like “Annual participation in the program is fifty,” are about statistics; changed to “Each year, 50 Ice Tray employees participate in our program,” it became a sentence about people. Then, by using one of the sentences to hone in on each, individual employee, I humanized it even more.  A picture of dozens of employees working with coaches is a vague picture, at best; a picture of a single individual working one-on-one with a coach  is an image I can hold on to.

In short, by shifting the paragraph’s language from a focus on program details to a focus on the employees benefiting from the program—by shifting the Point of View—I humanized the facts and made them easier to absorb. And I made sure the reader’s attention would be on the benefits of the program, rather than the program, itself.

Are you getting tangled up in the essay portion of the Working Mother 100 Best Companies application? Trying to communicate a tough topic to funders or employees? Tell me what you’re struggling with and I’ll help you sort it through. Or, just hand it off to me and get on with the stuff you really want to do.

Conquering the Tyranny of the Empty Page: For Those Applying to “100 Best Lists”– and Everyone Else

Today’s entry will get you started thinking about the essay question in the “Working Mother” and “NAFE” Best Company lists. But really, it’s Writing 101. Even if you’re not planning on applying for these lists this year, you probably face the occasional writing task. The tips here apply to any blank page you may need to conquer.

If you’re applying for the Working Mother “100 Best Companies” list,  you’re facing at least one 2,500-word essay. If you’re applying for the NAFE “Top Companies for Executive Women list at the same time, congratulations—you win the 2-essay jackpot.

You’re probably not looking forward to writing these essays. The fact is, even professional writers like me will do pretty much anything we can to delay the moment when we’re face-to-face with an blank page. (That’s why they invented Facebook and You-Tube, right?) Writers have all sorts of techniques for conquering this fear. Some are highly personal and idiosyncratic; others are widely agreed upon. You may have come up with your own methods over the years—I’d love to hear what they are. Here are some of the techniques I use to get myself going:

Write an outline. Or don’t. Outlines work great for some people and if you’re one of those people, go for it. But don’t be shamed by your memories of English class into struggling to produce an outline if it’s just not in you. Sometimes, it’s impossible to organize your thoughts until a much later stage of the writing process. The most I do when starting a writing project is to jot down a list of ideas I hope to cover—in no particular order. I keep this list at the top of the page and add to it or revise it as I go.

Put something down—anything. Sometimes the first thing I do is type a row of nonsense letters, or type a stern command for myself to get started: “Ok, party’s over, let’s get going.” Often, I restate the question (literally re-typing the question I’m answering). There’s something about the very act of typing that fires up one’s brain. I’m sure there’s some physiological explanation for this, but all I know is, it works.

Start in the middle. The second-hardest part of any written piece is usually the opening. (The hardest is the conclusion, but you’ll leave that to the end, anyhow.) So forget about it. In fact, unless you are the detailed-outliner type, don’t worry about order at all. Just pick one of the topics you want to cover in the essay and start writing. In the old days, writers kept scissors and tape handy at all times. Thanks to Microsoft Word, we can now do the same thing with no muss, no fuss.

Turn off your internal editor. You know the one I mean. We all have that little voice telling us it’s not professional enough, it’s not elegant enough, it’s just no good… Switch that voice right off!  You’ll want to turn it back on , later, but the job of a first draft is just to get it down on paper. Let yourself be silly, if you want: “At ABC Company, we have the best darned child care program in the world!” You’ll change it later (I hope). But the fact that you have a child care program has made it onto the page and now it’s an easy step to begin describing it.

Skip that word you can’t think of, or that name you need to look up. If the word refuses to get off the tip of your tongue, or you’re missing an important fact, fuggedaboutit. Find a way to notify your future self that something’s missing, and move on. My first drafts are littered with “xx,” the quick-and-easy way I’ve chosen to represent a missing piece. I use Word’s highlighter function liberally, too, to remind myself of passages I need to come back to.

(When “later” finally arrives, I also have a trick for getting hold of that word that still stubbornly refuses to reach my conscious brain: I think of the word that comes closest to the one I’m looking for—even if it’s not at all right—and type it into Word’s thesaurus function. Often, the word I’m after appears. But if it doesn’t, there’s usually a word on the list that’s a bit closer to what I’m after, so I look that word up in the thesaurus, continuing this way until I find exactly the word I had in mind.)

If you get stuck, call me. Ok, that’s a different sort of self-help trick, but it certainly is an option. I’d be happy to help you with your Working Mother or NAFE essay, or with (almost) any other empty page you’re looking at just now. I can help talk you through it, I can take what you’ve done a step further, or I can take the writing off your hands, altogether. Check out my website to learn more about what I do, in general, learn how I can help you with Working Mother, in particular, or just contact me.

Three (Working Mother) Resolutions for the New Year

If you’ve downloaded the Working Mother 100 Best Companies application and it’s moved from your inbox to the center of your desk, you may be fighting rising panic just about now. All those questions! All that data! How will you match the titles and job categories used at your organization with the titles and categories used in the application? How will you calculate spending for your work-life programs? Who can you ask about the history of succession planning at your firm?

And then there are the really tough questions. How many employees are telecommuting? How many use flextime? How many men vs. women participated in mentoring last year? What about affinity groups? How many dependents used back-up child care?

For some organizations, the heartsick feeling as you look at these questions will be about how you will gather these numbers. For others, it may be about what these numbers look like; despite your best efforts, participation hasn’t always been what you’d hoped.

So, since it’s that time of year, why not resolve to make this the last year you have to face this? Allow me to suggest three New Year’s Resolutions worth sticking to:

1. Start tracking. Or at least get the systems in place so you can start the tracking soon. There are all sorts of ways to do this; your solution will depend quite a bit on your organization’s size, structure and culture. You can make it a part of managers’ jobs to collect data. You can build tracking into the flexible work proposal  process. You can even hire out for help. One consultant that has recently added a customized tracking tool to his resources is Rupert and Company.

Tracking usage of all sorts of programs—not just flexible work arrangements—sends a message that you take these programs seriously. It also helps you build your business case for maintaining and growing programs and policies. That’s one of the reasons the folks at Working Mother ask for all this data. One of their stated goals is to: “challenge corporate America to better serve its working mothers.” You can’t manage what you can’t measure, as they say.

2. Promote, promote, promote. Like everyone else on the planet, your employees have got too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Like most of us, they delete a lot of email unread, sort through interoffice deliveries faster than you can say “recycle bin” and routinely ignore fliers and posters. When it comes to certain HR and work-life programs, you’ve got the added problem that they don’t need the resource you’re  promoting—until they do. 

All this means that the adage about saying it, saying it again, and saying it a third time  is even more true when it comes to communicating what your organization has to offer in the way of work-life programs and benefits. Resolve now not only to keep the communications coming, but to keep them creative. One organization posts entertaining intranet profiles of employees making dramatic use of flexible work arrangements. Another has a running soap opera featuring characters who take advantage of the company’s programs and policies to support them in their over-the-top life crises. Consider applying some tricks of the marketplace, too, like the company that periodically offers no-copay months for its back-up dependent care program.

3. Collect stories. Unlike some of the other “best employer” applications out there, Working Mother doesn’t go directly to your employees to ask them what they think. That means, you’ve got to do it for them. Telling a story about how one of your programs or policies made a difference in an employee’s life paints a picture like no amount of data can do. Quoting a satisfied customer makes your claims credible. Gathering stories can also be a handy evaluation tool, providing you with insight into what’s most useful in your offerings—and how, in turn, you can do a better job promoting them. (See above.)

So resolve now to turn your attention to collecting stories. Set up an online forum. Design a survey. Distribute flip cameras to local HR managers. Have a contest. Yes, you’re looking for true stories, but that shouldn’t stop you from applying all your creativity to gathering them.

Questions? Need some help with the Working Mother application process—or with your Working Mother-related New Year’s Resolutions? Let me know how I can help.*  And check back for upcoming blogs with more tips.

*If you tried to contact me through a link like this in my previous blog—my apologies. A technical glitch ate all such comments. I promise to get back to you this time.