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Tip #11–Use plain language when conveying technical information

Posted on August 17, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development, Technical writing |

Gobbledygook, jargon, geek-speak. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not language the everyday reader understands. Maybe the author’s intent is to try to impress the reader; perhaps the technical language is deemed necessary to convey the message; or maybe the writer just doesn’t understand that not everyone of us reads and speaks the same language. Whatever the reason, the point is this: language must be plain and unambiguous if it is to be understood by the common reader.

Tip #11 states:

Consider using stories or analogies to convey difficult technical information. This helps the receiver of the message maintain a sense of confidence and understanding, whereas that same person may feel insecure or defensive when hearing unfamiliar technical language.

What is the purpose of putting something in writing anyway?

For most authors–whether you are the author of a technical document, a set of instructions, or a simple business letter–the reason for writing is to convey some information to the reader so the reader can take the appropriate action. The problem we encounter when writing in technical language is that our readers often don’t have the same level of expertise that we do; so when they read our document, they are left with uncertainty about what we want them to do and how we want them to do it. We’re much better off writing at the simplest level possible to ensure the greatest possibility of understanding.

Wait a minute! Isn’t that insulting to our readers? In a word: No. Rather than be insulted by documents that are easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to act upon, our readers are going to send up silent praises! They are going to see the stark contrast between the usual convoluted messages they get and our clear, concise messages. They are going to begin looking forward to hearing from us while dreading the prose of others. And when it comes down to who gets the response quicker: that will be us!

What about stories and analogies–do they really have a place in technical writing?

Yes. When readers are faced with unfamiliar information and concepts, they benefit from having them associated with something they easily understand. The more clearly you can connect technical concepts to everyday experiences, the more easily your non-technical reader (or at least the reader who isn’t an expert in your subject) will grasp your message.

When trying to find everyday experiences to explain your topic, think of what we do each day. For example:

  • brush our teeth
  • drive our cars
  • shop for groceries
  • work with our children
  • exercise
  • learn from and teach our pets

I often tell my management clients that working with staff is somewhat like raising children and pets. Children–and pets–respond to praise. So does staff. Children and pets benefit from clear guidelines about behavior and having those guidelines consistently enforced; so does staff. While these are not heavily technical concepts, the message comes through more clearly and easily when it’s associated with a common experience.

When writing, consider your readers’ level of experience with your topic. The more simply you can express your message, the more analogies you can draw, and the more stories you can tell to demonstrate your point, the more easily your readers will grasp your message.

Want some help making sure your messages come through loud and clear? Check out my Document Review Services brochure

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Tip #10–Tell people what you like about them

Posted on August 15, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development, Staff selection |

People appreciate hearing what they do well and what we like about them. Building relationship with coworkers, subordinates, and supervisors is easy when we tell those individuals what we specifically appreciate about them. Giving honest, appropriate compliments to the people around us can help them feel noticed and appreciated. It can also help us begin to change our thoughts about those individuals into more positive ones.

My motivation for writing this tip in 2003 was hearing far too many people complain that all they ever heard from their boss was what they did wrong. When I asked what sort of affect this had on their willingness to work for those bosses, their responses were classic:

  • When the boss approaches me, I prepare for another jab at my abilities
  • I don’t have much motivation to improve because I never know what I’m doing right
  • I’m so used to the criticism now that it doesn’t mean anything anymore

These very typical responses are indicative of a perception among staff that the only time the boss talks to them is when they’ve done something wrong. When staff has that perception, it squelches initiative and stops creativity.

Why are initiative and creativity important?

Without initiative, staff simply carry out instructions. When they have reached the end of their set of instructions for an assigned task, they lack motivation to move to another task until assigned to it. In other words, there’s no ownership of the mission or goals of the company. Without that ownership, staff is typically unwilling to solve problems, brainstorm ways to increase effectiveness, or remain with the company for very long.

Creativity–an offshoot of initiative–is the characteristic in staff that results in new methods to streamline processes; it’s the characteristic that fuels excitement and generates ideas; it’s the characteristic that–when it is rewarded–keeps exceptional talent in a job even when they know there’s more green (money) at another company.

Give praise where it’s due

You can cultivate initiative and creativity in your staff by acknowledging their unique contributions and strengths as they relate to the success of the company. Start looking for ways your staff supports the mission of your company. Consciously seek out those efforts that help achieve the company’s goals. Once you begin to recognize those actions, tell the employee you noticed and that you appreciate them!

What will be the outcome?

If your staff isn’t accustomed to hearing from you except when they’ve messed up, they’ll be extremely skeptical of any praise you hand out. Why? Because they aren’t used to it. They’ll be watching to see whether this “new” you will vanish as quickly as you showed up.

Over time and with consistency on your part, they’ll question whether they can count on the new you to stick around. They may even test you to see whether this new behavior on your part is reliable.

As you continue to commit to giving praise where it’s due, they will become accustomed to this new you and begin to respond to it–with greater initiative and more creativity. The process isn’t easy but it is worth the effort.

Does this mean I can never point out problems again?

Absolutely not. Your job as supervisor is to ensure adherence to the quality of your product and the successful completion of your staff’s projects. It’s your job to correct inappropriate behavior and to point out when projects are not done to the level of excellence you expect.

However, your job also involves ensuring you have a team committed to the success of your department. That’s where praising and acknowledging accomplishments comes in. You will do more for creating a team atmosphere by incorporating praise into how you communicate with your staff … and encouraging your staff to acknowledge others’ contributions as well.

Putting praise to work

Over the course of the next several days, pay attention to the individual efforts and behaviors of your staff. Watch specifically for efforts and behaviors that support your mission and help achieve your goals. Then, point out those efforts to the individuals exhibiting them. Say something like, “Dan, I noticed yesterday in our meeting that you were prepared with an answer to the client’s question regarding delivery dates. Good work. That shows you anticipated their questions.”

As simple as that. What’s not so simple is remembering to look for those efforts. After all, it’s much easier to point out the problems than it is to recognize individuals’ successes and efforts. But the longterm rewards are in recognizing the efforts.

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Tip #9–Give respect … always!

Posted on June 4, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development |

No matter what we may think of the other person, it’s always the right thing to show respect. We show respect by our tone of voice, the words we choose, and the body language we use. Keep you voice neutral, choose you words carefully, and watch those eyeballs! No rolling the eyes in response to someone’s comments–regardless of what we really think of them.

Gosh, I sound like my mother! How many times did she get after me for giving her attitude? Too many to count. And as a kid, I was baffled by how she knew what I was thinking! Later on, as an adult in the workforce, I figured it out: it was the eye rolls, the heavy sighs, the inflection in my voice. If I heard “It’s not what you said; it’s how you said it that got you in trouble” once, I heard it a thousand times. Darn, why couldn’t I get a grip so I could stop getting in trouble?

It’s no different in the workplace today. People we work with aren’t very good at disguising their feelings toward others at work. The sighs, rolling eyes, word choice, and fidgety behavior all send a message to others we’re communicating with. Unfortunately, that message may be one that later causes us problems.

No matter what we think of others personally or professionally, they still deserve to be treated with respect. Heck, not everyone likes us, right? But we expect to be treated with respect when we voice our ideas and contribute to the conversation at work. And if we expect to be treated with respect, it’s safe to assume that others do, too.

We can do much for improving the overall climate of a work atmosphere by committing to giving respect to others always. We become the models for professionalism and set the standard of expectation when we do so.

So keep the eye rolls and sighs to yourself, and compose your outward behaviors to those you’d like to receive yourself. Yes, I know–easier said than done. But still worth the effort!

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Tip #8–Avoid Gossip

Posted on May 30, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development |

Gossip is a credibility robber every singe time we participate. Even if the gossip is particularly tantalizing, making a personal commitment to avoid gossip will enhance our professional reputations. And eventually people will stop bringing us all those juicy items, thereby releasing us from even having to be involved.

I’m asked repeatedly whether gossip can ever work to our advantage. In a nutshell, no. When you hear the word “gossip,” do you think positive, uplifting, good news is about to come your way? Or do you think you are about to hear something negative and tantalizing about someone? Yup, it’s the negative stuff that gets gossiped about.

People rarely if ever spread positive gossip (that’s what one interviewer called it during our phone conversation for a magazine article). Usually it’s the negative stuff that gets spread like wild fire. And the usual experience when gossip is being spread is this: when the topic of that gossip enters the room, the conversation stops. Why? Because we don’t want the topic of the gossip to catch us talking about him (or her).

Gossip usually takes place in hushed voices or in private locales–precisely because we do not want it to be overheard. And yet … gossip is passed from one person to another evolving and changing the story as it travels.

If you’ve been the topic of gossip (and who hasn’t at one point or another?), you know what it feels like to find out that your personal life and experience has been passed around without your permission. Shame on the person who started the process. But shame on us, too, for trusting people we shouldn’t have with the details of our lives.

For your part–and your career, make a pact with yourself to avoid participating in gossip like it was the plague. When the Office Gossip (yes, this person is well known in our offices) starts to tell you a juicy story about someone else, ask that person where they got their information and whether this is something they should be telling you. Since the Office Gossip has a reputation for spreading gossip, you run the risk of having your reputation tainted by associating with them.

Protect yourself and your career by steering clear of office gossip. Your credibility depends on it!

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Tip #7–Breathe!

Posted on May 1, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development |

Seems simple enough. But if that’s the case, why do we so often forget to breathe … between sentences, between topics, before we speak. Check out Tip #7 for the consequences of not breathing and the benefits of taking time to take a breath:

Knee-jerk responses get us in trouble every time. To avoid giving those gut-reaction responses, we can learn to breathe before we respond–a big, deep breath taken in through the nose and let out through the mouth. Getting in the habit of taking that big, deep breath before responding gives us time to choose our responses more carefully so we can give those credibility-enhancing responses every time!

What causes us to forget to breathe? Getting caught up in the moment, whether of excitement or emotionalism, is a big reason why we forget to take a deep breath. The fight-or-flight syndrome also causes us to forget. When we are feeling self-protective, we slip into self-defense mode and when that happens we often forget to breathe.

If we take a moment to take a breath, we buy ourselves time to think through the situation. And if we think the situation through, a couple of things happen:

  • we realize that there may truly be no need for the level of defense we were about to bring forward
  • we choose better responses

When these things occur, we have an opportunity to present ourselves calmly and with respect for the other person. The result of that: we take the high road in communicating; one which always shows us in a better light.

Practice right now: take a big, deep breath–in through the nose, out through the mouth. Don’t you feel better already?

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Tip #6–Speak in first person when telling stories about ourselves

Posted on April 17, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development |

Often people will slip into a type of conversation called “second person” when they are really talking about themselves. Unfortunately, using second person language (you, your) shifts the story from being about us to being about the person listening. Then we run the risk of them losing interest in the story–because they feel spoken at rather than spoken to.

As communicators–people who want others to not only hear but also listen to what we say, being conscious of how we deliver our messages is critical to the success of our communication. Start listening to the conversation of others to hear the shift in their language. Ask someone a direct question about their response to a situation and, 9 times out of 10, you’ll hear them shift from using “I” language to “you” language in their response.

What’s the danger of the shift?

Quite simply, the shift demonstrates a lack of willingness to accept their own responses to situations. Basically, it’s sloppy usage of the language and inadvertently shifts the burden of the conversation from themselves to you. Let me give you an example:

Tony: “Dave, how are you coming along on your chapter of the proposal? Our deadline is Wednesday at 3 p.m.”

Dave: “I’m doing fine. But you know how it is, you have to practically pull teeth to get anything from the engineering department.”

Tony: “What do you mean?”

Dave: “Well, you tell them what you need and you tell them why and when you need it. But they just don’t seem to understand.”

Do you see what Dave did? When Tony asked him a direct question about how he–Dave–is doing on his project, he shifted the conversation from “I” (I’m doing fine) to “you” (you have to practically pull teeth). Dave is shifting the burden to Tony rather than keeping the language and responsibility where it belonged.

What’s the potential result of shifting to “you” language?

The potential result is that your listener stops listening. Defensiveness rears its ugly head, and then communication bogs down or stops all together. While this shift in language may not seem like a big deal, becoming a skilled communicator is. Our responsibility as communicators is to remove the barriers that may inhibit our listeners’ ability to hear our message. Our listeners may not know the difference between “I” and “you” language, but they do know that something about what we said hit them wrong. And when it does, we don’t get the response we want or need.

The burden of good communication is on the person delivering the message. That means to get your job done efficiently and effectively, you (yes, I really do mean YOU this time) must be aware of the potential barriers in communicating and actively remove those barriers. The results will rock your world!

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Delivery Windows–I’ll be there when I get there

Posted on April 16, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development |

Who came up with the idea of delivery windows–those 3- or 4-hour blocks of time that service companies schedule? For example, I bought a new bed frame. The company just called and wants to schedule a time to deliver it. My options: 8 a.m. to noon, or 1 to 5 p.m. That’s it. So, I say, you expect me to leave my job and sit at my house so you can arrive any time you feel like in that window? How service-oriented is that?

If we told those very same service companies that we’d be home somewhere between 1 and 5 p.m. to let them in the house, do you think they’d wait for us? Absolutely not. Why? Because time is money, and if they wait for us they are losing money. Exactly my point! When I’m sitting at my house waiting for them to arrive–so I can pay them for their service, I might add–they are wasting my money.

There has to be a better way. When I pressed the company about that ridiculous window, I was able to get a more specific time frame for delivery. But I’m frustrated by the assumption that their time is more valuable than mine. The service companies that get my vote–and my repeat business–are the ones who respect my time and recognize it for what it’s worth.

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Tip #5–Speak in “I” rather than “You”

Posted on April 16, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development |

When we want to let someone know that a behavior or attitude of theirs is causing problems for us, using “I” language can help us make our statements without provoking the other person’s defensiveness. Instead of saying “You make me mad,” say “I get mad when …” Instead of saying “You frustrate me when you …,” say, “I become frustrated when you …” Using “I” language helps us take responsibility for our own feelings and responses rather than blaming someone else.


Have you had the experience of feeling attacked verbally by someone “expressing” themselves? Who hasn’t! Criticism of others often takes the form of an attack when the language used in that criticism is “you” focused rather than “I” focused. Consider the examples given in the quote above.


When we make statements like “You make me mad,” we in essence are saying that the person we are angry at has power to control our emotions. Yikes! In reality, no one has power over our emotions but ourselves. When we get mad, we (gulp) are choosing to get mad. We are responding to a situation or set of circumstances in a way that works for us at the time. Using the language that accurately reflects the situation, we should change our response to “I get mad when you do x, y, or z.”


In addition to avoiding language that shifts the power over our emotions to others, we need to consider another effect of using that language: defensiveness. Our typical response to language we hear as an attack is to respond self-defensively because our natural human response is one of either fight or flight. Our goal is to protect ourselves when we are attacked. The problem with this type of response is that communication becomes a battle rather than an exchange of information from which we have the potential to learn.


T o reduce the potential for defensiveness in others, our responsibility as good communicators is to ensure that we are not provoking a defensive response when attempting to convey our message. If someone in my office is doing something that is inhibiting my ability to do my job, my gut reaction may be to attack them to get them to stop. Instead, a better method of communicating to them is to tell them the problem I am having with their behavior or action … and to request a change on their part. Here’s an example:


Valerie, my coworker, takes client files to her desk to work on them. After finishing her work, she keeps the files on her desk rather than returning them to the main storage area. That means when I need a client file and I can’t find it in the main storage area, I then have to hunt for it. This wastes my time and frustrates me–especially since this seems to be a habit of Valerie’s.


Yesterday, I was looking for the Marquad file. I went to the main storage area but couldn’t find it. I hunted around to see if it had been misfiled. Then I started asking questions of my coworkers (there are three of us in the office). After several minutes of all three of us looking for the file, Valerie found it on her desk. This is the third time this week that missing files have been located on Valerie’s desk.


My gut wants to say to Valerie: “Why can’t you put the files back when you’re through with them? You are wasting all of our time by not putting these back.”


If I say this Valerie’s response, most likely, will be one of defensiveness and possibly anger. We work in a small office and need to get along to get our work done. If I attack Valerie the way my gut wants to, I’m going to do some damage to our relationship.


So here’s what I’m going to say instead: “Three times this week, I have gone to the main storage area to get files I need only to find that the files aren’t there. Each time, I’ve then had to interrupt your work and to find the files. When I have to do that, I’m not only wasting my time but your time as well. I get really frustrated when the files I need are not in the main storage area where they should be. I’d appreciate it if–to save all of our time–you’d put the files back when you are done with them.”


Is there a potential that Valerie will still get defensive? Yes, but this time it won’t be because I’ve attacked her. She may get defensive out of a sense of guilt, but she’ll have no cause to be angry at me for how I requested a change in her behavior. The method I used took responsibility for my own responses and communicated to her the negative affect of her behavior on all of us. By doing so, I’ve removed the language that would justify a defensive response on her part.


We can’t guarantee that changing the way we speak will eliminate defensive responses in others, but we can reduce the potential by taking responsibility for how we deliver our messages. And when we do that, the common outcome is a change in the responses we receive.



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Has the use of email made your job harder?

Posted on April 13, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development |

Yesterday I asked you what makes email so great. Today, I want to go the opposite way: what do you hate about email and its use at work? Has using email at work made your job harder? Ponder these questions and send me your thoughts:

  • How has using email ruined your ability to get your job done?
  • When does your coworkers’ use of email really bug you?
  • What do you think of the Reply All function and how it’s used at work?
  • Does using email cause more problems than it solves? How?

These are just a few questions to get you started. I’m looking forward to your responses!

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What makes email so great?

Posted on April 12, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development |

The use of email seems to cause so many problems at work–misunderstandings, cryptic messages, Reply Alls zipping around the office. Considering all of the problems email causes, what makes it such a great tool for business? Really, I want to know–what to you makes email so great?

Think of the various reasons why you use email at work, then tell me why you use email rather than some other tool for communicating. I’m looking for your best reasons for using email, but you’re going to have to convince me!

Send me your comments today!

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