Sunday, December 20, 2009

An apple a day keeps the delivery guy in business

As an independent writer and consultant, I thanked a small handful of my best clients and colleagues by sending treats from Harry & David again this year. Most received small packages of delicious treats, including the deliciously addictive Moose Mix popcorn. One received what may have been the world’s most expensive apples.

She’s a cherished friend and colleague with offices in two locations, one in Phoenix and one on the East Coast. Through a clever ruse (I asked), I learned that she’d be in New Jersey last week and paid Harry or David (whichever handles shipping) a little extra to make sure that a box of their best Honeycrisp apples would arrive by Wednesday.

Harry (or David) lived up to his promise and the apples arrived around noon on the specified date. But what Harry, David and I did not know was that my colleague spent most of that day at an offsite meeting, went directly to her hotel afterward and flew back to Phoenix Thursday morning.

I talked to her later that day and was able to discretely ascertain that she had not received the fruit (I asked). We laughed about the mix-up and I quizzed her about her schedule, intending to place another order on Friday.

But before I reached that line on my to-do list, she called and asked me to guess what she was eating. Her New Jersey colleagues sent had the package to her Phoenix office … via a FedEx. She started to say the apples were delicious, but corrected herself to note that they were actually Honeycrisp (rim shot). True. But they also saw more of the country than Johnny Appleseed.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

That's just our style ...

Even though I don’t consider myself an editorial stickler in the classic sense, writing my last post reminded me of something that happened long, long ago and in a company that has vanished in a haze of memories and mergers.

I was managing internal communications and editing the monthly newsletter. I was doing much of the writing myself, but received occasional contributions from marketing communications people working in the business units. These contributions often were delivered reluctantly and following my wheedling, cajoling and sobbing (but that’s another story).

Anyway, I recall editing one contribution to comply with the publication’s style. Being a marketing guy and more than a little arrogant (is that redundant?) the contributor chuckled dismissively at my minor changes and assured me that “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

I immediately beat him about the head and shoulders with my AP Stylebook – the old school edition with the wire binding. He survived. But it was even harder to get him to contribute to the publication after that.

I probably should have just pointed out Mr. Emerson was writing about a “foolish consistency” rather than one with logic and purpose. I’m sure that Ralph didn’t mean to provide air cover for writers who don’t care that words, punctuation and capitalization are used consistently in a publication … or even within a single article.

You can’t expect a writer that careless and lazy to care whether titles are capitalized, how commas are used in series, or whether my home state should be abbreviated “AZ” or “Ariz.”

Still, was it necessary to hit him with the style guide? Yes, because there was not a big enough stick handy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I am not the grammarian about whom your parents warned you

In fact, I probably couldn’t diagram a sentence if all the nuns at Holy Rosary simultaneously threatened my knuckles with wooden rulers … again.

I’ve been an editor many times and I have a collection of old business cards and job descriptions to prove it. I’m a good proofreader and above average speller (this would definitely surprise the good sisters) and often edit or rewrite drafts provided by clients and other writers.

As a writer myself, I try hard to improve others’ writing without imposing my own style and preferences. Not always easy. My own teachable moment occurred a decade or so ago when, in frustration, a good writer on my staff asked, “Is the goal of this publication to have everything read like Bill Hiniker wrote it?”

It wasn’t. As an experienced ghostwriter and speechwriter, I pride myself on being able to write in my clients’ voices. Publications – like choirs – have more texture when they employ different kinds of voices. Kumbaya. Amen.

I only recently learned the difference between “preposition” and “proposition” … the hard way. But I know good grammar, punctuation and usage when I see it.

I was raised on the AP Style Guide and William Strunk. I cherish my well-worn copy of “The Careful Writer,” given to me by a boss and mentor on my last day as an Air Force journalist. I actually read “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” for fun. I miss Bill Safire.

In many ways I am unapologetically old school. I try to correctly spell words. I think a preposition is still not a great thing to end a sentence with. I check the meanings of words with which I’m not completely familiar. I like it when subjects and verbs are of like mind. Stuff like that.

But early in my journalism training an instructor passed out an article from, of all places, the “Reader’s Digest,” which advocated that people should “write the way they speak,” rather than in the more formal style favored by English teachers of the time (including those dear, and now departed, sisters).

Said another way, it’s better to express than to impress. This is especially true in the social media era, when every word is at a premium.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Still chasing paper, after all these years

A former colleague recently asked me to recommend her for entry into a master’s degree program, which I was happy to do. I asked her to remind me of the exact dates we’d worked together. She provided them, along with a letter of recommendation I’d written for her more than 15 years ago.

I was impressed. She had quickly located a single sheet of paper that was more than 15 years old. I can seldom find my backside with both hands and a GPS. Ask for a document more than a couple of hours old and I’ll begin by searching the files between “slim chance” and “none.”

The experience took me back to a day back in the early 1980s when I was working in employee communications at Sperry Flight Systems. At a company productivity conference I was covering, a marketing guy from Sperry Univac showed off our company’s first entry in the brand new personal computing market, the SperryLink.

The SperryLink wasn’t a personal computer. It was a remote terminal, which hooked into a mainframe, combined with a word processor that was positively primitive. Lacking internal storage capacity, it stored documents on huge 8x8-inch disks that were actually floppy and had to be stored in their own little filing cabinets. Each held about the same number of documents as a manila folder, as I recall.

Still, the SperryLink was a huge leap forward from the Correcting Selectric typewriter I was pounding at the time and I soon became the first non-secretary in the division to have one on my desk. One of the few times in life I was an early technology adopter.

At the presentation, the very enthusiastic marketing guy (is there another kind?) said, with dramatic certainty, that paper’s days were numbered. Thanks to personal computing, he predicted, we would see the paperless office within five years, 10 tops.

In the third decade after the birth of personal computer, there are still a few sheets of paper around my office. More than a few, actually. How about yours?

So I wonder when I hear predictions that other paper things – newspapers, magazines and books, for instance – will follow the pterodactyl off the scene in the foreseeable future.

If those predictions prove as accurate as the Univac guy’s, maybe we all should pick up a few shares of Dunder Mifflin at a bargain price.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Speechwriting won't kill you

They say most people are less afraid of dying than speaking in public. That caused Jerry Seinfeld to observe that the person delivering the eulogy may be the only one at a funeral who envies the corpse.

For many communicators, that sense of dread extends to speechwriting assignments. But don’t panic.

Whether you’re putting together a few comments for yourself or writing a keynote for the CEO, use these rules to write better speeches and make ghostwriting less scary.

Always …
remember that speeches are about ideas, not just words. Know what you’re trying to communicate before you write. Focus on 1-3 messages. That’s all the audience will remember anyway.

forget the audience. Understand their interests, needs and expectations. Cast messages from the perspective of the receiver, not the sender. Why should the listener care about what you have to say?

Always …
make it personal. They won’t care until they know you do. Tell stories. Use examples from your life. Share experiences. Use humor when it makes sense; laughter creates a powerful bond.

Never …
talk too long. Have a strong beginning and a strong ending, and keep them close together. No one says, “I wish she had spoken longer.” Shoot for 15-20 minutes – tops. The Gettysburg Address was three minutes long.

Always …
think like a lawyer. State your proposition and make your case. Use facts and examples to prove your point.

Never …
let your visuals overshadow you. If you must use slides, keep them simple. Don’t let slides be a crutch and never read from them.

Always …
use statistics sparingly. Numbers are powerful, but too many can numb your audience. Choose just a few that will be memorable or surprising. Use comparisons to help your audience relate. “That’s deeper than the Grand Canyon.”

… overuse quotes. A few are OK, as long as they’re relevant. As Emerson said, “I hate quotations … tell me what you think.”

... write out loud. Writing for the ear is different than writing for the eye. Keep things simple. Avoid long, complex sentences. Read your worlds aloud - even if it annoys your cube mate.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Help for the exec who can't say 'No'

I once worked with a Fortune 100 CEO I affectionately called "The CEO who couldn't say no."

He answered to a demanding board. His company had operations, customers and employees in almost every country. He was a smart guy and a dynamic leader. He was a skilled communicator, who truly believed that communicating was a critical part of his job and a means to accomplishing everything in his all-encompassing job description. Great, right?

So here's the downside: He said yes to just about every speaking opportunity his secretary could crowbar into his schedule. Employee meeting in Florida? Yes. Ribbon cutting in India? Sure. A few words at Joe's retirement party? Absolutely! Sales conference, press event, trade show? Yes, yes and yes. Service club meeting in a town in which his company no significant presence? What the heck.

Word spread quickly that he was a willing and capable speaker, so the number of invitations multiplied. With the support of his VP of Communications, I developed a simple Speech Opportunity Evaluation Tool to help separate the wheat from the chaff ... or in this case the important stakeholders from the Rotarians.

The tool helps speakers, communications advisers and speechwriters evaluate speaking opportunities along five dimensions:

1. Audience. Is the audience made up of influential people important to the organization’s success? Is the audience size appropriate (i.e., are we reaching enough people to make it worth the executive’s time?)?

2. Venue. Is this a premium venue (e.g., top conference, forum, university, etc.)? Who else is on the program? Who else has spoken at this forum in the past?

3. Relevant message. Do we have something important and relevant to say on the topic being covered or to the audience assembled? Is the topic important to us? Is the executive an authority on the topic?

4. Ancillary opportunities. Can this speech be merchandised through reprints, publications, web postings, etc., or can valuable publicity be gained through the executive’s participation? Are there other things that the executive can accomplish in the same geographic area as the speaking opportunity (e.g., customer meetings, editorial board meetings, media interviews, employee location visits, etc.)?

5. Availability. Is the executive’s schedule open? If not, how does the importance of this opportunity stack up against other scheduled events? If not, should we consider offering a substitute?

The tool helped us inject a little discipline in the CEO's decision-making process. Sometimes it worked; sometimes he thanked us for our input as he headed out for the Optimist Club luncheon.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Last year I had trouble typing “social media.”

It kept coming out “SoCal Media,” which was not intended as an editorial comment on the trendiness of these new communications tools. Now I’m blogging.

Today I’m getting ready to attend my fourth major communications conference of 2009. I don’t need to compare the conference programs side-by-side to state with total confidence that social media has been the most popular kid at each of these parties.

No wonder. This new kid is attractive, interesting and a great dancer. But you can’t dance every dance with the same partner, no matter how attractive. Sometimes Justin or Beyonce have the right moves, but sometimes Travolta, Fred or Ginger are better partners.

Some of today’s social media tools are cool. Some are silly. Some are passing fancies and some will become important tools of our trade, as relevant and useful as websites, e-mails, face-to-face and the printed page.

Social media isn’t a silver bullet. It’s not a panacea or a solution to every problem. Just because we can use social media applications doesn’t mean we always should. Social media isn’t the answer. But it can – and should – be evaluated and applied as part of an integrated, multichannel communications strategy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Between conferences...

I'm back from the IABC Southern Region Conference in Houston where I spoke in the coveted Saturday morning slot, last session of the conference, right before the brewery tour. Be jealous, ya'll. (Not a bad Texas accent for a kid from Minn-ah-soh-dah).

So it was gratifying that ~20 people turned out to hear my thoughts on how the fundamentals still apply, as time goes by, in the age of social media. Download my whitepaper "Praise the Panacea and Pass the Silver Bullets," if you're so inclined.

I'm looking forward to my first PRSA International Conference in San Diego next week