Trade Show Conversations

I was at a trade show last week, talking to a federal employee who, upon learning that I am a word nerd, asked me how he could go about writing better.  “I’ve taken classes,” he said, “and I feel like I’ve got the grammar thing under control, but no matter what I do, my supervisor always has edits to what I write.  How do I write so that my supervisor doesn’t change what I’ve written?”

There are several issues at hand.  First, his supervisor’s edits are distressing because he’s taking them personally.  As previously opined, writing is a vulnerable act and to have someone suggest changes often feels like you’re being told that your thinking isn’t good enough.  It isn’t so much that an edit is a comment on your thinking as it is that, if someone else is going to sign the document, they have to feel like it is their own.  One official I wrote for used the term “moreover” a lot.  It was his verbal tic and so we knew we might as well drop the term in at the outset rather than waiting for him to work it in to the text at some later point.  When you write for someone else to sign, you just have to get comfortable with the idea that they are going to want to make it their own.

Second, we are all served by keeping the 5-paragraph essay structure in mind.  Even if you modify it for longer or shorter documents, it never hurts to tell the audience what you are going to tell them, substantiate your conclusion with evidence, then conclude by telling the audience what you told them and why.  Repetitive, perhaps, but you’re going to have a structured document that makes people think that your synapses are incredibly organized and logical.

Next, I brought up that wonderfully reassuring Earnest Hemingway quote – all first drafts are shit.  Good writing isn’t in the first draft, it is in your commitment to the second, third, fourth and fifth draft.  Good writing is about relentless rewriting.  Setting the piece aside, looking at it again a day later, rewriting, reading as your audience might and editing accordingly.

The fourth consideration I offered was to spend time getting inside your audience’s head.  You write differently for Congress than you do for your mother.  Know your audience and proceed accordingly.

Finally, and I didn’t think to bring this up over the course of our conversation, it might help to relax into it a little bit.  Often when we want to write really well, or we want to leave a distinctive impression with our writing, we try too hard and end up with stilted, unnaturally formal prose.  Let your writing reflect the ease of your face-to-face interactions.  Yes, you’ll cut out the “ums,” “ers,” and “you know’s” that often clutter oral communication, and yes, you’ll use full sentences instead of the fragments we often speak in.  But most of us don’t use $10 words when we talk to our colleagues over the phone, yet we tend to want to use them when we’re writing.  Use the right word, but don’t give in to the urge to impress by using every big word you know.   Have fun and play – they are only words and they can be rearranged endlessly, all until you press “send.”

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Tools

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking/talking about what social media can and can’t do for an organization.  The challenge isn’t so much in the technology – Twitter isn’t exactly a difficult medium to interact with.  The challenge is in letting the tool transform how you approach business.  In construction, the automatic nail gun isn’t used the same way as an old-fashioned hammer.  The new tool brings with it a new way of working.  Similarly, using Twitter as an extension of your Marketing 1.0 strategy isn’t going to give you Marketing 2.0 results and frankly, using Twitter (or any other social networking platform) as an extension of your brochure is just silly.

The Web 2.0 tools and environment has radically altered people’s expectations about how they are going to interact with the companies that want their money.  The customer/audience expects a conversation, one in which what they’ve got to say is at least as important to the company as what the company has to say, if not more so.  And if your company won’t listen and respond, your customers will find someone who does.  This is a wonderful revolution for the consumer and a terrifying one for companies that grew up with a feeling of having some control over the market.  The implications of this transformation are everywhere and spill out further than the scope of my personal obsessions.  Anyway, this line of thought isn’t my invention.  Read anything by Hugh McLeod or Seth Godin if you want to go to the source for how the market has changed.

My interest is in the interaction between the tool and the company.   Since all the cool kids are twittering now, many in Senior Leadership think that they need to get on the bandwagon, but they want to do it as a way to extend the brochure.  The terrifying reality is that, for the most part, people don’t care about your highly edited brochure.  They want to know what you think, and they want to talk back to you and have you respond.  They want to know that you’re human, and approachable, and passionate.  They want your company to be touchable and they want to be touched.  The audience wants your vulnerability, your openness, and your authenticity.  How many leaders do you know that are comfortable being seen as vulnerable and transparent?

No wonder social media is so terrifying to leaders the world around.  But unless you (as a company, as a leader) are brave enough to embrace the power that comes from the unvarnished truth and the ability to make decisions based on reality, not just what your underlings think they can get away with telling you without getting fired for for being the bearer of uncomfortable news…  Well, it’s better to be thought a dinosaur than to venture onto Twitter and erase all doubt.