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!




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?

Just Call Me The Woman With the Hammer

You know the saying, “To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” It came to mind last week when I was at the Working Mother Work Life Congress, an annual conference built around the release of the magazine’s  famous “100 Best Companies” list. Sure, people were there to talk about work-life, but as a communications professional, everything I heard seemed to be about communication.

It’s not surprising, really, because ultimately a lot of what makes work engaging and do-able for people who have lives outside of it comes down to good communication. Since it’s National Work and Family Month, let me show you what I mean:

When keynote speaker Beverly Kaye, Founder and Co-CEO of Career Systems International, spoke about employee development, a lot of what she had to say was a case for more communication.  Kaye was referring to spoken communication between managers and those they manage, but many of her comments could also apply to the ways companies communicate to employees, in general (or don’t).

Take her “five myths” that prevent managers from talking with employees about their careers. At least three of these (paraphrased below) are widely used by senior leaders in companies as an excuse for not sharing crucial information with employees:

  • If I open the discussion, it will be a Pandora’s Box. (The truth is, your employees are talking about it already. You’re not releasing anything into the world that isn’t already there. You’re just bringing it out into the open and providing yourself with a chance for input.)
  • Employees own their own careers—it’s not my job to give them the answers. (The truth is, employees don’t generally expect definitive answers—they just want support and information.)
  • I can’t deliver on their desire to move up the career ladder, so talking about it will just lead to disappointment. (The truth is, not everybody aspires to move up. Employees want jobs they care about—“meaning is the new money,” as Kaye says. Translated to more general employee communications: don’t second guess what your audience wants to hear. Be open in what you say and be open to hearing what they say, too—what they want and need might surprise you.)

In a break-out session, Suzanne Vickberg, Senior Manager for Inclusion at Deloitte, spoke about data forensics—specifically, how to use data about your workforce to tell a story that demonstrates the value of work-life programs to leadership. Here (again paraphrased) are some of the points she made:

  • Most companies already collect data about their employees. By connecting these data in thoughtful ways, you can tell a strong story. For example, connect data from last year’s talent survey to current attrition rates—how do what employees said about their work-life balance correlate with whether they’re still with the company a year later? Through an analysis like this, Vickberg’s team was able to show leadership at Deloitte that addressing employee concerns about work-life fit had six times the impact on retention as addressing concerns about pay.
  • Numbers don’t mean much in isolation. Find ways to bring them to life. By way of example, Vickberg  showed a chart that used proportionately-sized dots to illustrate the dramatic difference in effect on turnover among a variety of factors. A small thing—but a big effect on communication.
  • Speak the language of your audience. For example, if you’re reporting to leadership in finance, talk about the relative cost to the business of providing work-life policies and programs and losing employees.
  • Understand what will and will not be heard. If you are addressing the problem of workload, recommendations that workload simply be reduced are unlikely to go very far. But you can probably use the same data to show how much better employees are able to manage their workload when they have control over where and when that work gets done.
  • Respect your data—it might not always tell the story you expect it to tell, but chances are it does have something to say.

Finally, keynote speaker Patrick O’Neill, President of Extraordinary Conversations, introduced the “Rule of 13.” Describing the vital role clear communications play in strong leadership, O’Neill said leaders should be able to state the vision behind any initiative in 13 words or less—and the statement should be “understandable to your teenager.”

For example? There’s the head of an entertainment company whose 12 words–“One of every five CDs sold will be sold in our stores”—helped take his company from $28 million to $200 million in three years.

There’s the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation, which laid it on the line in 5: “Conquering cancer in our lifetime.” (Admittedly, this begs the question: “whose lifetime?)

And then there’s another guy you might have heard about, who said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade.”

Hmmm.. wonder how that one turned out?

Thinking about trying for next year’s “Best Companies” list? You can’t get on the list if you can’t tell your story.  Download my free tip sheet and put your best foot forward.


Killing the Monsters

On the whole, I don’t believe in synonyms. Such is the magnificent complexity of the English language that only rarely do two words mean exactly the same thing. Even if the dictionary gives two words the same definition, they almost never carry the same connotation, which is what makes using the thesaurus such a treacherous game.

But sometimes, in some contexts, one word can be used as easily as another. That’s when some corporate communicators can always be counted on to reach for–the longer word. After all, why say something in one syllable, when the same thing can be said in two or three?

Hence we substitute “difficult” for “hard,” “utilize” for “use,” “assist” for good old “help.”

If we’re lucky, we land the big one: a whole phrase that can be substituted for a simpler word. Hence the steady creep of phrases like “at this point in time” and “in this day and age.” (“Now,” anyone?)

I assume this tendency stems from a misguided concept of how “formal” or “professional” language should sound. But it’s absurd. The fact is, professional language should (generally) be free of slang. It should steer clear of taboo or derogatory words. Spelling and punctuation should be correct. Grammatical rules should generally be followed. But there is absolutely no reason to use a cumbersome word or phrase when a simpler one will do. And there’s a major benefit to using simpler language: your communication will sound more natural–closer to the spoken word.

Think about it. When’s the last time you used “attend” rather than “go” in spoken conversation?

Even if you’re talking to your boss, do you say, “I need to make a determination about whether this project goes forward?” or do you say, “I need to decide whether to continue this project?” Most written communications benefit from being as close as possible to casual speech. You want your audience to be able to take in and understand your words as easily as if you were explaining something to them in person.  More easily, in fact, because on paper you’ve had time to organize your thoughts. You’ve left out the “ums” and “uhs” and “I means.” You’ve checked your facts and explained your terminology.

When you get ready to write, write down what you’d say to someone standing in front of you. Then clean up the grammar, spelling and organization, check your accuracy, root out clichés and jargon. You’ll be writing professionally, without hardening your language with an artificial veneer of “professionalism.” To see how well you’ve done, read your copy out loud. If you find stuffy, unnatural, “professional” language, kill it.

No need to feel conflicted about this act of violence. Consider it self-defense. If you don’t kill your monster words and phrases first, they will kill your communication.

This is a short post, coming to you from Florence, where I’m basking in the sounds of another gorgeous language. But I’m still available to talk to you via email. How about sharing some of your examples of misguided professional language?

Are you applying for the Best Companies for Multicultural Women List? Or entering a local “Best Place to Work” competition? You can’t win if you can’t tell your story. The essays I write for companies  are routinely cited by clients and judges as among the best they’ve ever read. Use the Contact me page to let me know what you’re working on, and let’s make some time to talk. 

The Goldilocks Rule

Subtlety has its place in writing, of course. Specifically, it has its place in literature, where it’s often agreed that the more interpretation possible, the better the work. But subtlety has no place in employee communications. And it certainly has no place in “great place to work” applications. At least, not in the actual part you write down.

If you’re working on the latter right now, do yourself a favor and think in terms of Dick and Jane, not Virginia Woolf.

This is not, of course, because the judges read at a first-grade level. It’s just that they’ve got a job to do and to do it they need information. The last thing you want to do is make them read between the lines. (Or worse, read your mind.)

This may seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. I’m constantly seeing Great Place to Work submissions—and myriad other “best employer award” submissions—that omit the most important facts.

Here’s how it works: You set out to answer a bunch of open-ended questions about your work environment and culture. You’ve got a good company that works hard to support its employees, so you know you have a shot. You reach the question about how well management listens. Easy! First, you assure the reader that management does, indeed, listen. Then, you mention an event in which management listened. “Done!” you think, and move on to the next question.

But you’ve left out the most important part. The part that describes how management listens. The part that all but proves management listens.

For example, lots of companies have town halls. In some, leaders show up, make speeches, provide prepared answers to a few questions that have been submitted in advance, and leave. In others, leaders invite discussion, candidly answer questions from the floor, promise to personally provide an organization-wide answer to any emailed questions that should follow, and ask what else employees need. Do you see why it may not be enough just to say you have town halls?

Or say you have a system for employees to submit suggestions. Great. You write that down. But do employees know about it? Do they use it? And if they do, what happens then? Does anyone respond to their suggestions? Have any suggestions actually led to changes in the way things are done? That’s the kind of information that demonstrates you’re a company that listens.

In some ways, writing about management communications is relatively easy. Other kinds of questions actually do require some subtlety—not, as I said, in your writing, but in the way you think about your response. Maybe you have an organization with a real sense of mission—employees are passionate about what they do and feel they are making a difference. You can’t convey this by simply stating it’s the case. You can’t convey it by copying out your mission statement.  (Although you probably should do both these things.) Somehow, you’ve got to show that employees feel that way. This can be tough, but there are several ways you can approach it. Maybe you’ve got quotes from employees about how they feel. Maybe you’ve got quotes from customers about the level of committed service they received. Maybe you’ve got stories about employees going the extra mile—demonstrating by their actions that they care more about their mission than their job description.

Connecting the dots in this way is critical. But it’s equally important not to be distracted by some dot that has no business being there. According to my secondary sources, it was Chekhov who said: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” In other words, include the details that make your point—any other details are a distraction.

For instance, if you’re describing a policy supportive of employees, you’ll want to say how it works and who it benefits. You might have some statistics on usage, or feedback on how helpful it’s been. But you don’t have to go into details about how employees go about signing up for it, or include fine print from your legal department about the occasional exception to the policy. The extra detail just confuses the message, requiring the reader to figure out what matters and what doesn’t—a variation on having to read between the lines.

Which brings us to what I’ve just dubbed the Goldilocks rule: Good communications have not too little, not too much—but just the right amount of information.  Apply this to your “great place to work” submission, and at very least you’ll ensure you’ve gotten your message across.

Thinking ahead to benefits open enrollment? Ask me how I can help you make it easy.

To my loyal readers: sorry my posts have been a bit less frequent lately. It’s busy season here! Be sure to click on “Follow” to be notified when I next manage to post.

A Thoroughly Idiosyncratic Overview of Three Days in Scottsdale

Yes, I write about writing. But I also occasionally write about  the field of work-life,* one of my areas of content expertise. Those who don’t come to this blog to read about work-life might still enjoy this post, as it’s really about communication. (Frankly, to my mind most everything comes down to communication.) But I can also assure you that I’ll be back to writing as a topic in my next post, “Communication: The College Tour Edition.”

*work-life, for the uninitiated, has come to refer to the universe of programs, policies, benefits and culture-changing initiatives employers, policy-makers and others offer to support people’s efforts to be whole, fulfilled, responsible people in both their personal and work lives.

The future of work-life may depend on our ability to tell stories.

That might have been my greatest lesson from last week’s Work-Life Forum, sponsored by the Alliance for Work-Life Progress — except I already knew that. It’s all about communication, baby. And communication nearly always improves when stories are involved.

But that didn’t make the forum any less interesting. It drew an entertaining mix of thinkers and practitioners from corporations, consulting firms, non-profits, think tanks and academia. Since it was designed to be highly interactive, and since many attendees have been in the field and known each other forever, it took on a relaxed, late-night-in-the-dorm feel: lots of intense conversations, lots of bad jokes.

It opened with storytelling.

We spent the entire first afternoon together in a workshop on the topic led by Mark Guterman, co-founder of Guterman had a lot to say about how and why stories work: fascinating stuff that I will no doubt pick apart and admire in future posts. But in relation to advancing the work-life field, the main takeaway is that they do work. Data alone rarely convinces an organization’s leaders that it makes good business sense to trust employees and provide them with the supports they need to navigate their many life commitments. Data alone rarely breaks through the information-overload to connect employees with programs and policies and benefits that can help them. Data alone rarely changes public policy.

Storytelling was not officially on the agenda for the second day… 

…but it was in the air, nonetheless, as participants traded real stories to get their points across or dramatized their points with fictional scenarios. (Really. A talent scout would have found it worth the trip.) We spent much of that day in break-outs called “imaginariums,” discussing the real and the ideal of leadership commitment to work-life; of methods companies use to spread wellness initiatives into the community; and of what work will look like in the future. (We began the morning with a catch-up on research, which often tells a story, too. My favorite nugget from a report called Networked Families, as reported by Judi Casey of the Sloan Work & Family Research Network: Technology allows families to connect when they are apart and keeps families apart when they are together. There’s a prize-winning novel in there, somewhere, don’t you think?)

It’s a stretch I can’t quite make to say that the final event, late on the third morning, had anything to do with storytelling, but it did have to do with communicating.

Six leading work-life practitioners were each given 60 seconds at a time to deliver advice on a work-life-related topic.

Time limits were strictly enforced through the use of a mélange of (highly amusing) sound effects that loudly drowned each speaker out after her/his minute had passed. This went on for ten rounds—an exhaustive and exhausting display of communication-on-steroids.

It was interesting to hear what they had to say, but it was equally instructive to hear how some managed to tie up their messages in a neat 60-second package while others were caught at the buzzer with a tangle of unfinished ideas. This is not to disparage those who couldn’t quite pull it together in the time allotted—I have absolutely no doubt I would have been one of them, given the chance—but just to once again point out how dependent communication is on context. In this case, the context depended on the ability to work with sound bites and the kind of small detail that brought the message home quickly: the striking statistic, the aphorism, the metaphor.

And speaking of sound bites

The actual greatest lesson I learned from this forum (since, as I said, I already knew the one about storytelling) was how to tweet. I already had a Twitter account, but I rarely used it. With help from some more digitally-savvy folks like Casey Carlson (@caseylcarlson) and Kyra Cavanaugh (@lifemeetswork), I stepped more firmly into the Twitter universe. I’m not promising I won’t step right back out again. I still have trouble understanding its value in many situations. But for now, you can get a good sense of some of the ideas flying around the AWLP Forum by checking out my tweets and those of others, at #awlp2012.

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Ten Great-Place-to-Work Conference Takeaways

I’m still relatively new to this blogging business but regular readers will have already figured out my dual (and not unrelated) professional commitments:

  • writing that communicates in the most powerful and effective way possible and
  • organizations that are fabulous places to work.

Today’s brief post centers on the latter. Here are ten  things I took away from last week’s “Great Place to Work” conference (sponsored by the Great Place to Work Institute, of course) in Atlanta. (The company presenting  each tidbit is credited in parenthesis):

  • Work is the fifth most important thing in employees’ lives, after (in order) their roles as parents, as spouses, as friends and as members of their religious communities. (Bright Horizons,  apparently based on research by Peggy Thoits.)
  • Storytelling is a critical element of culture and it works best when it’s plastered across your walls (or better yet, scrawled there by employees.) (Kahler Slater)
  • An organization’s mission matters most when every single employee recognizes his or her role in it—like the woman on the Mayo Clinic’s housekeeping staff, whose job includes disinfecting surfaces in patient rooms. She told a television reporter (apparently without prompting) that her job was  “saving lives.” (Mayo Clinic)
  • Companies can put together some pretty darn impressive videos.  (Corollary: I can never pack too much Kleenex.)
  • A successful business doesn’t get there by cajoling and coercing people to get things done. It gets there by hiring great people, then stepping out of their way. (W.L. Gore) 
  • Organizational values are just words on paper. Defining the behavior that represents the value is what makes it come to life—even for engineers. (Novozymes) 
  • The folks at DreamWorks get free breakfast, lunch and dinner. And they get to work at Dreamworks. (DreamWorks) 
  • It’s much better to share too much information with employees than too little. (Whole Foods) 
  • Employees get a kick out of managers who are willing to make fools of themselves. (CarMax) 
  • Breakfast sandwiches are better when eaten hot. (Robin Hardman Communications)

How are things at your workplace?

I’m lucky: my boss (here at Robin Hardman Communications) is letting me take next week off to visit some colleges with my son. The following week, I’ll be in Phoenix for the Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP)’s “un-conference.”

It being the twenty-first century, I’ll have my various electronic devices with me during these trips. So don’t be afraid to contact me if you have questions or need anything at all. It may be a few weeks until my next blog post, though.  If you want to be notified when the next one arrives, just click on the “follow” button in the column to the right.

You Know You’ve Got A Great Place to Work. So How Do You Get On That List?

On Tuesday, I’m heading to Atlanta, where for two-plus days I’ll barely step out of the Hyatt Regency. Am I excited at the prospect? You bet!

That’s because I’ll be spending those two days at the Great Place to Work Conference, run by the institute that developed and administers both the Fortune “100 Best Companies to Work For” and Entrepreneur’s “Best Medium and Small Company” lists. The annual conference draws hundreds of representatives of organizations on these lists—including an impressive number of CEOs—and hundreds more of list wannabes.

The program is always inspiring and frequently quite entertaining, as leaders get up one after another to show off their ultra-cool workplaces. Over the years, I’ve heard about companies where you can opt to slide between floors instead of taking the stairs, companies where top leadership runs meetings in drag, companies whose ethics-training videos are actually laugh-out-loud funny.

But the folks from the Great Place to Work Institute (GPTW), as well as many from the “Best Companies,” themselves, would be the first to tell you that you don’t have to have nap pods and ping pong tables to be considered for these lists. You just have to have employees who feel they are trusted and empowered, treated fairly and respectfully, and encouraged to enjoy their work.  And you have to make sure the folks at GPTW know that.

There’s no shortcut to getting on the 100 Best list.

It’s an in-depth application process. You can’t fake it: the heart of the application—two thirds of your score—is a confidential survey of your employees. No one gets on this list unless the vast majority of their employees agree that theirs is truly a great place to work.

But the final third of your score is based on what you say about your organization. It may not count for as much, but it does count, and you ignore it at your peril. This third of the application is called the Cultural Audit, and it has two parts. Part 1 is a long list of short-answer and yes/no questions about demographics and benefits. This part isn’t so bad; it just takes time and care to get it right.

Part 2 is the one you may have heard about. In its current iteration, it comprises sixteen open-ended questions, such as “What are the distinctive ways in which managers share information with employees and foster a culture of transparency?” “How does your company promote a sense of fairness?” “How do you encourage fun and camaraderie…?” etc. And when I say open-ended, I mean open-ended. No word counts for the GPTW: you are free to write as much—or as little—on every topic as you like.

This fact—no boundaries—instills an existential terror into some who open the application. How much should I write? What should I include? In how much detail? The simple (and obnoxious) answers are: write until you have answered the questions. Include everything that’s relevant, in as much detail as is necessary to get your story across. But since I realize that isn’t necessarily terribly helpful, herewith are three tips for attacking the GPTW Cultural Audit, Part 2:

Get Beyond “What” to “How” Cultural Audit Part 2 is your chance to brag about the things that make your organization unique. You can’t do that with platitudes and broad generalizations. For example, I don’t think there’s a company in the U.S. today that doesn’t “value teamwork.” So the question is not whether or not you value teamwork, but how you act on that: how does your structure promote teamwork? what kind of rewards do you have for it? what specific recruiting or interviewing techniques do you use to ensure you’re hiring people who will work well in teams?

Likewise, anyone can say that senior leadership is available to answer questions (and everybody does), but how does your company show that? A senior leader at one organization hands out extra vacation time to employees who ask questions spontaneously at Town Halls. Now that’s a good story to tell.

Remember What Matters, Even if It Isn’t Specifically Asked. For example, the folks at GPTW care a lot about employees having a chance to contribute their thoughts and ideas. They ask about it specifically, with three whole questions out of the sixteen falling under the category of “Listening.” So don’t limit your mention of employee input to these three questions. If you’re writing about your training program, and some of the courses were developed in response to employee requests, be sure to say that! If you’re writing about rewards programs, and some awards are based on recognition by peers, make that clear!

But DON’T Say It Ad Nauseum. I’ve helped a lot of companies with their Best Company submissions. And many times they don’t say nearly enough—they err on the side of generalities, leave out all examples and stories, focus on the what and not the how. But sometimes I see a company that is so proud of one or two particular aspects of its culture that it can’t stop talking about it. Over and over again. The same exact examples, the same exact data. This can happen easily if you’re writing by committee, with different subject matter experts assigned to different questions—and no one editor overseeing the whole thing. It can also happen if you get confused by the questions—you’re not quite sure what question your story fits best, so you put it down in answer to all the questions.

Either way, it’s a mistake. As GPTW makes clear in its instructions, you only need write about something once. You can then use a word or a sentence to refer back to it elsewhere in the submission. The folks at GPTW probably stress this mostly to make both your and their lives easier. (After all, they have to read through this thing—twice over, in fact, as part of their scoring process.) But I have another reason for saying this is a mistake, and it has to do with strong communication.

There’s a rule of thumb among communicators that once is not enough; you have to say something repeatedly to get your message across. And while this is absolutely true, I offer one caveat: not in the same piece of writing! Say it once, it’s a great story. Say it twice, it’s a trifle annoying. Say it three times, and I think, at best, that you have nothing else to say and, at worst, “the lady doth protest too much”— maybe this thing you’re writing about isn’t so darn special, after all.

So There You Have It:

Write until you have answered the questions. Include everything that’s relevant, in as much detail as is necessary to get your story across (and no more). And see if you aren’t the one up there showing off at next year’s Great Place to Work conference.

Still rather not do it all yourself? Contact me for customized help with your GPTW submission. Or, if you, too, plan to spend the better part of next week in Atlanta, just look me up!