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! 

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Read Like a Writer

Brooklyn Museum - Artist Sketching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Render Unto Caesar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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!

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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.