“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?

The Uncanny Valley of Communication

Uncanny Valley graph (updated)

Uncanny Valley graph (updated) (Photo credit: Elif Ayiter/Alpha Auer/…./)

Here’s a fascinating question. How aware do you have to be that you’re being sold a bill of goods before you put up your defenses and refuse to buy it?

Who hasn’t been swayed—or at least tempted—by a cleverly-worded (or hip-looking) ad, choosing one product over another even while knowing they were probably about to pay a premium for something that wasn’t objectively any better than anything else? Or for something they didn’t really need at all?

Good old Shakespeare took this up (sort of) in one of his most famous sonnets, which has the fabulous opening lines:

When my love swears to me that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies.

As the sonnet goes on to explain, much more gracefully than I’m about to, the speaker is a bit long in years, but is flattered that his girlfriend assumes he’s young enough to believe her nonsense. She, in turn, is pleased that he believes her (even though, presumably, she knows he doesn’t, really).

It all leads up to the closing couplet, complete with Elizabethan sexual innuendo:

Therefore I lie with her and she with me
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

Altogether a stunning sonnet, but that’s not why I include it here. There’s a lesson, or at least a thought experiment, in this for us contemporary writers of somewhat (ok, a whole lot) less creative copy.

The sonnet popped into my head when I was pondering the question I began with. How is it that I can watch or read an ad or listen to a sales pitch, knowing full well the message has been artfully crafted to draw me in, and still find myself drawn in? How is it that I can sit in front of a schmaltzy movie, listen cynically to the swelling music, and still feel my eyes fill with tears?

And how, if at all, does this phenomenon relate to our work as internal communicators?

I spend a lot of time in this blog and elsewhere promoting my belief that when employee communications aren’t honest they lose all credibility. I moan about the misuse of words like “challenge” and “opportunity” to mean “problem” and “weakness.”

And yet, I also believe in the power of words to create actual concrete change in the world. After all, that’s the theory behind much of what’s often derisively called “political correctness.” Gender-neutral language, for example: as a woman who can remember a world in which “he” was still considered a universal designation for humans of either sex, I can attest firsthand to the power language can have to affect not only our feelings but our understanding and beliefs.

So it seems to me there is a line to watch for, especially when you’re conveying not-so-happy news: on one side is language that is aspirational—it paints the best possible picture of any given situation—and on the other side is, well, BS. There’s nothing wrong with trying to put your message in the best light, as long as you don’t step over that line.

People in the world of animation speak of the “uncanny valley.” The idea is that as animation has gotten more and more realistic-looking, it sometimes reaches a point where it falls off a cliff into creepy. The story goes that when the folks at Dreamworks first tested Shrek with a group of children, the kids were terrified. The animators had made the princess character so realistic that she looked almost human, but at the same time she was missing some essential element of humanness. The result was monstrous, in the eyes of these kids, and the animators had to backtrack, re-creating her character in a purposefully less realistic manner.

So, here is the challenge (yes, I’m using the word correctly) for internal communicators—really, for all communicators: get as close to the edge as you dare, but don’t fall into the uncanny valley of communication. In our case, it probably won’t actually scare your audience, but it will scare them away.

Do you have something that needs to be written or revised? Join my dozens of satisfied clients. Contact me here or just give me a call: 718-628-4753. 

Is Writing Dead?

Death

Photo credit: tanakawho

I was talking to someone recently about some possibilities for presentation topics at a conference. She’d suggested a few options relating to work-life communications or social media. I said, “What I’d really love to do is a writing workshop.”

“Writing?” she asked. “Who writes anymore?”

I sort of understood what she meant. When we talk about communications, about media—social and otherwise—we’re all encouraged to think in grand terms: video, tweets, Powerpoint, info-graphics, podcasts, etc. And it’s true that any twenty-first century communications plan does have to include at least some of these media. But I still get most of my information from the written word—don’t you?

I’m starting to get the hang of Twitter, but mostly because I’ve discovered what a good source it can be of links to articles elsewhere. If I need to research a topic, or am seeking some “how-to” information, I start with Google, just like everyone else. I don’t reach for a book or head to the library. But nearly every Google search leads to written web content, a PDF, or a book.

I know we all have different favorite ways of getting our information, but I’ll bet there are plenty of others like me who, when finding that a search result links to a video, click away and move on to another link that will give me the information in writing. If I want to know how to do something, or learn more about a topic, I don’t have the patience to watch a video. A video organizes the information for me, in a way I may not want it organized, forcing me to wade through a lot of stuff I’m not interested in without being sure I’ll find the information I do want. I want a piece of text that I can search, skim, or read end to end, as I please. I want to control the pace, not have someone else’s idea of pacing fed to me in video form.

Anyway, not to put too fine a point on it, even if you are taking in your information (or putting it out) in the form of a video, podcast, or PSA, someone still has to write it first.

It’s the new year, progress marches ever forward (I suppose) but words remain timeless. Don’t be deluded by technology—whether your audience is going to find you by linking from a Tweet or from Facebook, read you on an iPhone or a Nook, or listen to you through iTunes, in the end, you generally have only words to get your point across. Remember that at one time a printed book was a technical innovation. But it still made use of the same communication building blocks used by the ancient oral poets and the monastic scribes that came before: words.

No matter how you cut it, you need words to communicate, and to communicate effectively you have to know how to use those words effectively.

Writing lives!

Overwhelmed by that application for the Working Mother 100 Best Companies list? I’ve helped lots of companies get through the process and earn their place on the coveted list. Contact me and let’s set up a time to talk. 

Happy New Year: This blog in review: 2012

While I’ve been busy baking cookies and catching up on my bookkeeping, the folks at WordPress have been pulling together a 2012 annual report for this blog. It’s kind of fun–especially the number of countries represented among my readers! Take a look…

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 3 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Reflections on the Lowly ‘Graph

I’ve been thinking about paragraphs.

Increasingly, I find my paragraphs devolving into single sentences, like the one above. Surely this isn’t how I was taught? I remember concepts like: “A paragraph is a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic.”

I remember something about a topic sentence, followed by at least three sentences to support it.

I remember something about indenting, too.

When I write now, though, I usually just work on one paragraph until it seems like it’s time to go on to the next. As with so much else in writing, I don’t think about it a whole lot. So I’ve been thinking, do those rules I was taught still apply?

I looked it up.

It turns out the statement above, “a paragraph is a collection of related sentences…etc,” can be found in the Purdue Online Writing Lab, known to fans (like me) everywhere as the “Purdue OWL.” . (All right. I copied it from there.) The OWL is an excellent resource for basic information about grammar and writing conventions. So I must assume it is right in this case. In fact, I recommend checking out the link if you’re at all confused about paragraphing, because I’m here to say it contains some highly useful information.

For instance, it also addresses the topic sentence/supporting sentence structure question. And it turns out to be more lenient than my junior high teachers were on the subject, saying:

Although not all paragraphs have clear-cut topic sentences, and despite the fact that topic sentences can occur anywhere in the paragraph (as the first sentence, the last sentence, or somewhere in the middle), an easy way to make sure your reader understands the topic of the paragraph is to put your topic sentence near the beginning of the paragraph.

But, despite what the OWL says, I’m still not convinced a paragraph is always defined by its subject matter anymore. At least not in the case of online content.

Because here’s what’s happened since I went to junior high. Actually, since way after I went to junior high, but let’s not dwell on that. Most of the written matter I consume has migrated to a 14” screen. Or way smaller. And, not the least bit coincidentally, my attention span has diminished dramatically, along with, I suspect, the attention span of just about every other sentient being. This last phenomenon, I think we can agree, is a direct result of the ease with which we can (and do) switch among reading matters, pause for some viewing matter, stop to change Pandora channels, get interrupted by the chirp of a new text message, etc.

(Speaking of short attention spans, I was bemused to hear that one of my literary heroes, Philip Roth, had announced his retirement. Can a writer retire? Really? But I was also fascinated, horrified and just a little relieved to read  that he—even he— claims to now spend a good amount of time daily playing with his iPhone.)

Ok, where was I? Paragraphs.

I submit that on paper, paragraphs have a dual function. They organize ideas into discrete, content-driven bundles. And they make text easier on the eye. Paragraphs on a screen have the same dual function, with this important difference: thanks to all the myriad distractions inherent in getting information from a screen, easier on the eye moves from a secondary to a primary function of paragraphs.

In other words, when you’re writing for a screen, your paragraphs need to be short. And shorter.

Often, they will be one sentence.

Or less.

And even with short paragraphs, you may still need to guide your harassed reader down the page with judicious use of boldface, bullets and other such tricks.

You still need to think of organizing information according to subject, just as you were taught. But you also have to think in terms of organizing according to visual appeal.

Oh, and about those indents. They’re still doing it in books and newspapers. My kids are still doing it at school. But I sure haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence of indented paragraphs on the small screen. My guess is indents just make it harder to take in information, and are easily replaced by judicious use of line spacing.

The application for next year’s Working Mother 100 Best Companies list is due to be released this week. Need some pointers? Download my free tip sheet, or just contact me and I’ll be glad to take your questions: 718-628-4753.