7 business cliches you should avoid…

business clichesReading time: About 2 minutes

Clichés are overused expressions. And business cliches…well, they’re bad for business…

Are clichés really that bad in business? Yes. And let me tell you why.

Clichés are overused expressions. At one time they might have been original. But now they’re old and stale. They make reading (or listening to a speaker) boring and bland. This is bad news for any business. After all, you don’t excite employees by being boring or bland. Nor do you inspire customers.

Words matter. So don’t serve your readers or listeners tired ones. Instead, create new phrases, new similes and metaphors. Excite your audience. Don’t give them the same old blah-blah-blah. The phrase “like lipstick on a pig” became a cliche as soon as it exited the mouth of Sarah Palin. Come up with something better than that.

Clichés don’t add to your writing — instead, they weaken it.  Because they come to us so easily, we usually write clichés without thought. And that lack of thought is what will tell your audience that you don’t care about them.  No employee or customer wants to feel that sort of neglect.

Furthermore, clichés seldom say exactly what them mean. They’re usually vague and imprecise. You can do better.

Here are seven business cliches you should be able to avoid:

Let’s think outside the box. We may live in houses or apartments (which, in truth, are kind of like boxes) but the image is so old it’s lost its oomph. If a leader said to me, “Let’s think of something radical, something unique,” I’d be far more motivated than if he started talking about (boring old) boxes.

Let’s walk the talk. Yes, let’s do that. But let’s not say that. Rhyme doesn’t help make this thought profound. It’s still perfectly banal and obvious.

Here’s a win-win situation. I don’t like the word “situation” because it fails to give me a visual image. Adding win-win to it doesn’t help. Of course, life is better when both sides win. Did you really have to go to business school to learn that?

We need a paradigm shift here. Who doesn’t? If we can think of new ways to do things, maybe we’ll make some money. And if we can thing of really new ways to do things, perhaps we can make even more money. Another thought that shouldn’t have required business school.

Let’s blue sky this. OK, the word “blue” helps slightly here. At least it gives me a visual image — and, to boot, it’s a cheerful one. But I dislike turning a noun phrase (“blue sky”) into a verb. A sky doesn’t do anything except sit there.

We need to tear down some silos. I have yet to see a silo anywhere except on the prairie. Companies with departments that don’t talk to each other have very little in common with facilities for storing grain. This is not only an old metaphor, it’s a particularly weak one.

This should go viral. This is a more recent cliche — a generation older than “this might go postal.” But, really, the digital world cannot describe every aspect of life. If you want something to be really popular, I suggest you begin by thinking of a more inventive way to describe popularity.

Cliches have no place in writing. Anymore than lipstick has a place on a pig.

No Responses/Posted April 18th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

It is like his own shadow has leaped up to get him

Colum McCannReading time: Just over 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about some figurative language employed by Colum McCann.

I read the Colum McCann novel Let the Great World Spin more than seven months ago. It took me four efforts to get through it (I kept stalling at the end of the first chapter) but I’m so glad I persisted.

It’s a richly written story about 10 different lives that intersect in New York city. And the figurative language? Amazing.

I stumbled across my notes from the book last week. I’d intended to post them months ago but they’d become tucked inside a folder inside a folder on my hard drive.

When I re-examined them, I could see that McCann has a particular eye (or is that ear?) for personification. I’ve listed those five examples first.

Sometimes a bit of plastic caught against a pipe or touched the top of the chain-link fence and backed away gracelessly, like it had been warned. 

They [memories] rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward. 

The dock was old and useless, jutting out into the pond like a taunt. 

The snow re-instructed the light, bent it, colored it, bounced it. 

It is like his own shadow has leaped up to get him. 

 One looks for the chink in the armor, the leg of the piano stool shorter than the other, the sadness that would detach us from her, but the truth is we enjoyed each other, all three of us, and never so evidently as those Sundays when the rain fell gray over Dublin Bay and the squalls blew fresh against the windowpane.

The long-sleeved shirt he wore was tight to his body and the bones of his ribcage were like some odd musical instrument. 

If you’re planning your summer reading, this would be an excellent book to add to your list.

No Responses/Posted April 17th, 2014 in Figurative language

What does petrichor mean?

petrichorReading time: About 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: petrichor.

Today I have a word that I did not discover through my reading, but, instead, learned from my son. The word is petrichor.

Isn’t that mellifluous? This noun refers to the smell of rain after a long dry spell. I didn’t know that such a word existed but it was born in 1964 (exactly 30 years before my children) in an article in the journal Nature, written by Australian researchers I. J. Bear and R. G. Thomas. 

The word comes from the Greek petros, meaning “stone” and ichor, referring to the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. (I especially love that part. So evocative!)

In their Nature article, Bear and Thomas argue that the smell comes from an oil exuded by plants and absorbed by clay, soil and rocks during dry spells. Then, when it rains, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, emitted by wet soil, which is what produces the distinctive scent.

No Responses/Posted April 16th, 2014 in Word of the week

How to complain

how to write a complaintReading time: About 3 minutes

Do you know how to write a complaint letter? The rules are straightforward but surprisingly challenging to apply…

My 20-year-old son, who’s studying to become an opera singer, last week gave me a complaint he’d written about one of his professors. He wanted to know if it was “too harsh.” More importantly, because the complaint was to be anonymous, he wanted reassurance it couldn’t be traced back to him.

It wasn’t surprising my son asked me. My family considers me to be the diva of complaint letters — I’ve had denied health insurance claims turned around, received free services and even landed the occasional free product.

Here’s how you can achieve the same results. Note that I’ve listed these tips in order of importance…

1)   Keep your letter short and to the point. It should never be more than one page long including addresses and letterhead. (This will limit you to roughly 300 words.) If you need to include additional info, make it an appendix or an attachment, rather than part of the main letter. Busy people, like customer service managers or CEOs, don’t have the time to read essays. Being short will also force you to focus on the one or two things that are most crucial to you, which means you’re less likely to sound like a crank.

2)   Don’t try to be clever or smart. Sarcasm and strong language (my son had used the words “snake oil salesman” to describe his prof) may make you feel better but it won’t help your complaint. Instead, use friendly — or, at the very least, studiously neutral — language. If you want to express emotion, try to sound sad and disappointed rather than enraged and angry. And never sound gleeful about the chance to exercise your complaint or show off your superior vocabulary.

3)   Address the letter to a specific person. Establishing a personal connection is one of the keys to successful complaints. Get the name of someone, spell it correctly and get his/her title as well.

4)   Understand that everyone listens to the radio station WII-FM. Also known as “What’s In It For Me,” this network plays the songs that cause all of our toes to tap. Try to figure out how what you have to complain about is also hurting the company/organization you are complaining to. In my son’s case, he feels the professor is using techniques that will damage the voices of young singers. Is he right? Who knows? But I bet it’s a concern that will make the university sit up and pay attention.

5)    Ask for something specific. Don’t just complain. Tell them exactly how you want them to make it up to you. Do you want a fee waived? Do you want a return accepted? Do you want a complete refund? Do you want a professor instructed to teach in a different way? Or do you simply want an apology? Spell it out.

6)   Be persistent. If you can’t get what you want from your initial complaint, be prepared to take it up the chain of command. Last year when I tried to set up a merchant account with a credit card company (and they completely botched the application process, wasting three hours of my time). I asked for them to waive the $200 annual fee. “That’s not possible,” the rep told me. “Then who do I need to ask?” I replied. He told me and I emailed that person, who immediately granted my request. (I was amused, but not surprised, to see how quickly and easily something deemed “impossible” could be achieved.) Show some grit and you’re more likely to succeed.

7)   Take excellent notes. Whenever I make a complaint about a company, I put a note in my iPhone’s contact list, filed by the name of the company. In the “notes” section I add the date, the problem and the name of the person I wrote or spoke with and his/her response. Because I always approach this in exactly the same way, and because it’s linked to my cell phone, that’s always with me, I never lose my notes. (This is invaluable with verbal complaints. Sometimes simply reciting the names of all the customer service reps I’ve spoken with is enough to get the company to pay attention to my complaint.)

Yes, complaining effectively takes effort. But it’s almost always worth it!

If you’ve been thinking about buying my popular book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, this your final warning that the price will rise tonight at midnight and be effective as of Wednesday April 16, 2014.  Note that shipping is currently free anywhere in the world.

What’s your biggest complaint-writing success story? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment here or elsewhere on my blog by April 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the autobiography Open by Andre Agassi. (I’m not even interested in tennis and I loved this book!) If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

19 Responses/Posted April 15th, 2014 in Power Writing

Is reading really dangerous for writers?

Thomas Chatterton WilliamsReading time: About 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article written by Thomas Chatterton Williams…

Is reading really a “dangerous game” for writers? As a writing coach who always encourages people to read, I was intrigued to stumble across an intriguing essay on the topic by novelist Thomas Chatteron Williams (pictured adjacent).

He begins with an Annie Dilliard quote: “[a writer should be] careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write.” Yes, I agree with that. You don’t want to read bad writing before writing yourself because — with those inept or clunky sentences rolling around in your brain — you are more likely to produce similarly bad ones.

But good writing? I’ve never had a problem with that. Neither has Thomas Chatterton Williams, it turns out. He goes on to describe how reading Teju Cole’s novel Open City helped him wean himself off the negative effects of  potboiler writing. (The potboiler in question was Game of Thrones, which I’ve never read or watched on TV, although my kids adore it.) He writes:

15 minutes with Cole was like a palette cleanser on my mind, a spoonful of cool sorbet after a long and heavy meal. 

And I heartily agree with his conclusion:

The solution, I’m convinced nowisn’t to read less (that would be boring) or even, as Dillard suggests, to censor what is taken in. On the contrary, the answer seems to be to take in more.

I’ve been reading a fair bit of mediocre writing lately. My new goal for this week is to pick up a great novel. I could use a spoonful of cool sorbet…

No Responses/Posted April 14th, 2014 in Writing about writing

Walk away from the lecturn…

public speaking techniqueReading time: Just over 1 minute

Here’s a public speaking technique that requires nerves of steel but that will give you a very big pay-off…

Have you ever seen a public speaker who is prepared to abandon the “safety” of his or her lectern? It is riveting!

I’ll never forget the time produced an event for a client of mine. I’d chosen the keynote speaker because I’d heard her interviewed on radio and she was both interesting and articulate. And when she spoke at our event, she exhibited both of these qualities. But she impressed me even more, when she launched her speech by walking directly into the audience.

Why does that work so well? A few reasons, I think…

  • It displays the speaker’s mastery of his/her material. People who walk into the audience doesn’t need to rely on notes — instead, they speak extemporaneously. (In our case this was additionally impressive because the group I work for is academic.)
  • It increases the attention and interest of the audience. It also encourages responses if you’re asking questions. (Furthermore, it prevents you from being labelled “aloof” — which is what can happen if you stay wedded to your lectern.)
  • It makes it easier for the speaker to make eye contact. This is because it brings the speaker closer to the audience (without notes!) From this proximity, what else can you do but look in the eyes of your audience? Eye contact helps you get your message across. It also allows you to sense boredom (in which case you can adjust your speech) or enthusiasm (which will pump you up.)

At the end of this presentation, our speaker earned a standing ovation. I’ve never before seen that occur in an academic setting.

She deserved it.

If you want to earn similar respect, consider walking away from the lectern the next time you’re asked to be a public speaker.

Photo courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4 Responses/Posted April 11th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

A dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job…

Barbara KingsolverReading time: About 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a selection of metaphors and similes from Barbara Kingsolver. 

I became a fan of novelist Barbara Kingsolver when I read her breakout book The Poisonwood Bible. It still holds a place on my (constantly changing) list of lifetime top 10 novels.

Her more recent book, Flight Behavior, didn’t affect me the same way, but I found much to admire in it. I particularly like her way with figurative language, as these four examples demonstrate.

Their little faces turned up to her like the round hearts of two daisies: She loves me, loves me not.

Whoever was in charge of the weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job.

The trees clenched the last of summer’s leaves in their fists.

The fir forest had its own spooky weather, as if these looming conifers held an old grudge, peeved at being passed over.

My favourite? It has to be: Whoever was in charge of the weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job. 

I live in Vancouver, where we suffer through overcast weather (if not drizzle, if not driving rain) most of the time. Comparing it to a bad drywall job seemed perfectly apt to me.

No Responses/Posted April 10th, 2014 in Figurative language

What does snaggletoothed mean?

snaggletoothedReading time: Just over 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: snaggletoothed.

I read the novel A Christmas Hope (in April, no less!) purely because I saw it on the shelf of the library and I had long been curious to read something written by Anne Perry.

Perry, as you may know, was born Juliet Hulme and in 1954 was convicted of having helped kill the mother of a friend. This story was turned into the 1994 movie, Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet as Hulme.

At the time, no one knew that Hulme had grown up to become the famous murder-mystery author, Anne Perry. The truth was discovered some weeks after the movie’s release.

I wish I could report Perry’s writing was excellent, but in truth I found it quite pedestrian. It reads like mediocre genre fiction — in this case, the sort of story that might have been published in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1965.

The book did, however, give me my word of the week: snaggletoothed. Here’s how Perry used it:

His face was cadaverous, snaggletoothed.

Although the word is frequently used to describe youngsters who are missing their “baby” teeth (and eagerly waiting for the grown-up ones to appear), in fact, a snaggletooth is one that is broken or not in alignment with the others, as the disturbing picture above illustrates.

The etymology of the word is unclear. Perhaps it comes from the Old Norse snag-hyrndr, meaning something with sharp points. Alternatively, it may come from American English in which a snag meant “to be caught on an impediment.”

No Responses/Posted April 9th, 2014 in Word of the week

Come to Papa with the Hemingway app

Hemingway AppReading time: Just over 2 minutes

The Hemingway App promises to make your writing bold and clear. How does it do that?

Most writers today strive to avoid the passive voice. Do you know what I mean by passive?

Don’t be too quick to say yes! It may be easy to identify the blatantly obvious cases — “mistakes were made,” a feeling expressed by Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal.  But it’s hard to spot the more subtle variants.

For example, This rug needs washing. Is that a passive sentence? (Indeed, it is.)

And what about the sentence, There was a ceasefire agreement in Southern Afghanistan? (It most certainly is not.)

I tend to side with language maven Geoffrey K. Pullum and his erudite and persuasive paper “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive.”  He argues that many of the constructions we view as passive simply aren’t. But we accuse them of being so as a  kind of all-purpose synonym for bad writing. (Warning: you may need a degree in linguistics to understand the finer points of Pullam’s article.)

I find it particularly telling that both George Orwell and E.B. White (whom I admire deeply) both decried the passive and yet used it frequently. For example, “The passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active,” Orwell wrote, passively. Ironic, no?

That said, I do regret it when many writers lapse into wordy, complex (and sometimes passive) sentences that make it difficult for readers to create visual images. But I’m not going to suggest you go back to school for remedial grammar. I have a much simpler suggestion. Use a free piece of software called the Hemingway App.

Simply click on the “write” button (top right-hand corner) and write or paste your text. Then, when you’ve done that, click on the “edit” button (also top right-hand). The single best thing about this software is that it will highlight all your passive construction in bright green. Easy peasy.

Even better, this multi-purpose software highlights hard-to-read sentences in yellow and very-hard-to-read sentences in red.

I double-checked some of the sentences Pullum had identified as active (ie: not passive) and the software did not misidentify any of them. But it did fail to catch a couple he had ID’d as passive. That said, I could see the Hemingway App had diligently earmarked hard-to-read and very-hard-to-read sentences. What I lost on the swing I could gain on the ‘round-about, I figured.

The brothers who designed the app — Adam Long (a marketing expert) and Ben Long (a copywriter) — did it out of a desire to improve their own writing.  You can read more about it in a delightful story in the New Yorker.

But, mainly, I encourage you to take the app for a test drive. Me? I’m vacillating between my old readability stats and the newer Hemingway App.  For a while, I’m going to use both.

This column earned a grade 8 ranking in Hemingway and had six examples of passive to begin. I edited those down to two (both deliberate.)

In readability stats, it earned a grade 5 to 8 ranking and a Flesch Reading Ease score of 68.88.

On a separate topic, if you’ve been thinking about buying my popular book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, this is an early heads up that the price will rise on April 16.  If you’re interested, be sure to get it before that date. Note that shipping is currently free anywhere in the world.

What do you think of the passive voice? Do you try to avoid it or do you find yourself drowning in it? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by April 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the autobiography Open by Andre Agassi. (I’m not even interested in tennis and I loved this book!) If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

30 Responses/Posted April 8th, 2014 in Power Writing

Do you have Klout? Does it matter?

Rebecca Newberger GoldsteinReading time: Just over 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in the New York Times…

When heard about Klout this week — a social media scoring system — I must confess that I raced to the website and set up a (free) account so I could quickly calculate my score.

I earned 25 (that’s out of 100) but I’m taking comfort that it takes a few days to fully add up the Linked In and Twitter contributions. With luck, maybe I’ll beat 50?

That said, I recognize it’s crazy to fret about this sort of stuff. Writer Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (pictured above) thoughtfully expresses her contrarian views about social media in a New York Times article headlined “What would Plato tweet?”

Arguing that people use social media out of an effort to make themselves “matter” more, she continues:

Our need to feel as if our lives matter is, as always, unabating. But the variations on the theistic approach no longer satisfy on the scale they once did, while cultivating justice and wisdom is as difficult as it has always been.

I particularly appreciated Newberger Goldstein’s almost-concluding thought:

Mattering — none of us more than the other — is our birthright, and we should all be treated accordingly, granted the resources that allow for our flourishing. Appreciating this ethical truth might help calm the frenzy surrounding our own personal mattering, allowing us to direct more energy toward cultivating justice and wisdom.

This article was particularly timely for me. I’ve recently started tweeting again (@pubcoach, if you’re interested) and I begrudge the time it takes in my schedule. It was much easier when I simply let my plug-in auto tweet my blog entries. Should I go back to doing that?

No Responses/Posted April 7th, 2014 in Writing about writing