Communication Made Easy — Speaking, Editing, Writing, Marketing, Networking Answers

A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but words themselves are at the basis of all communication. Whether we are communicating for business or personal reasons, our spoken and written words matter. These posts will address issues and answer questions related primarily to business communications, as they affect writing, credibility, marketing, and networking.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Bad Spelling: Not Always a Laughing Matter

­WARNING: The following post is not PC. If black humor offends you, stop reading now and click over to Reader’s Digest or Garrison Keillor.

To appreciate this story, you really have to know Todd. He is a Certified Financial Planner™, but he’s unlike any financial advisor you’ve ever met. He is, of course, smart, charming, and well-versed in financial matters, but his approach is holistic, educational . . . spiritual, even. And what’s more, he’s funny.

He jokes that in the year since we met, my sense of humor has increased noticeably and measurably, just due to his humorous influence and subsequent, if unintended, tutelage in the art of funniness.

Being an unconventional planner, we figured Todd's company, Azmyth Financial, should keep unconventional hours: 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., 6 days a week, sounded pretty good. Don’t try to schedule an early a.m. session, though – that is the time he specifically reserves for rest, rejuvenation, and the challenging dreamwork and visioning that enables him to serve his clients with a more intuitive, spiritual, nonjudgmental, holistic approach than any other financial planning service in the galaxy. Lately, though, he’s been choosing to close up shop by midnight – a tad on the early side.

“But if a client needed you – you know, in a financial emergency – you’d stay open, right?” I asked the other night.

“Oh, sure,” he said agreeably.

“You’d be there to talk them down if they were ready to jump off a bridge at 2 a.m.?” I asked further, for clarification.

“Don’t joke about that. That’s serious. It’s really happened,” came his quick response.
“To you? You’ve actually had to talk someone off a ledge?” I asked, incredulous. He’d never mentioned such an act of bravery and heroism.

“Well, no, not to me personally. But it has happened,” he explained. “And it’s much more likely to happen in my industry than in yours,” he quipped. “I can just see it now:

‘It's obvious. I’ve always been a rotten speller, and I'm always going to be a rotten speller. I can’t go on. I must end it now.’

‘No, no - you’re a good speller, really – and a great writer. Please come down
from that ledge.”

‘I can’t. I never know whether it’s a comma, colon, semicolon, or a dash. And the its . . . forget the its. Is it it’s or its? Who knows? How can I ever hope to keep it all straight? It’s no use . . . I’m jumping.’

‘No please. Don't jump . . . we can work this out. It’s not so bad. We can fix it. There are tutors. Editors. SpellCheck!!’"
OK – so it turns out Todd’s right – again. I’m much less likely to find myself facing such a dramatic, life-or-death scenario...although I did have a client once who called me at 11:30 p.m. to ask if a particular comma on page 83 of the 27th draft of her book was really necessary.

Now, I realize that jumping to one’s death – whether over their, they’re, and there, or a pending lawsuit and potential financial ruin – is really never funny. I get that. But Todd truly is a gifted planner who can help virtually anyone in any financial circumstance, whether it’s getting out from under a mountain of debt or handling assets in excess of several million dollars. And if you called him with a 2 a.m. emergency, I have not doubt that he really would help you.
In the meantime, you can call me 24/7 if you ever need help figuring out whether it’s affect or effect.
On balance, I’d say it’s a tossup as to whose work is more valuable in a civilized society such as our own: a sound recommendation for appropriate asset allocation or help spelling recommendation. You decide. And let me know. There's a Starbucks latte riding on the outcome of your decision.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Communicating Compassion

Have you ever been so fed up with the poor customer service at an establishment that you left, even if it meant inconveniencing yourself by having to drive an extra mile or two to visit another location of the same company, or one of their competitors? I have, many times in the past, in fact. I am getting better about it lately, however – mostly, I believe, because I am attracting fewer unruly or unsatisfactory experiences, overall.

I had one occur yesterday, though – the first in quite some time. This was interesting, too, because although I did leave the store without making a purchase, it was not because the proprietor was rude to me. Rather, it had to do with the way he behaved toward other customers.

I won’t pretend this is an easy situation. In fact, having just posted a blog about judgment at Dangerous Tea Party, I am trying to figure out how to utilize this episode as a learning experience without sliding down that slippery slope into judgment.

The Details

As I walked into the FoodMart at a Chevron gas station, the proprietor was shouting angrily at a woman that she needed to “get off his property!” He yelled that he’d already told her to leave once, and she hadn’t left – now he needed her to leave IMMEDIATELY. In my effort to understand, I assessed the woman. She didn’t appear drunk. She had no shopping cart or even a bag with her. She wasn’t dirty or unkempt. Do I have any idea what preceded his angry outburst? No – because I wasn't there to see the precipitating incidient. Perhaps she had tried to steal something from the store. Maybe she’d had an altercation with someone in the shop. Fact is, this angry man might have had a very good reason for his obviously outraged reaction to this woman.

Until he resumed his position behind the counter, that is, to continue collecting payment from the line that had grown while he was outside throwing the woman off his property. He challenged a man in the line, “And you know I don’t want her here, but you bring her here anyway.”

The guy replied, “Hey, I’m just trying to pay for my drink.”

But Mr. Angry Chevron Proprietor was not done. He continued loudly, “No. I said, ‘Don’t bring her here,’ but you did. You brought her back on my property. You know – I want you out, too.” And he started screaming again. “You get out of here – get off my property, NOW!”

My Response

At which point I decided I didn’t need to buy gas or anything else at this particular gas station, so I took my money and went out those front doors, thinking to myself, “I will never do business here again.” But I’m not sure that’s the proper answer either. I find myself struggling with this idea of judging the proprietor – and that certainly is what I am doing, by deciding his behavior was so over-the-top, in my estimation, that I will never shop there again, particularly as I still don’t know what exactly led up to his banning the woman from his property.

I am not a shop owner, so I can only imagine what it must be like to deal with drunks, homeless, addicts, and panhandlers, particularly as they so often meander outside convenience stores and gas stations, accosting patrons and making people generally uncomfortable. These unsightly, unseemly people no doubt have a financial impact on business establishments, as well as influencing the caliber of clientele, and the shop-owners are fully within their right to protect their businesses and their customers.

Poor decision-making never robs
an individual of his or her humanity.

I suppose what I’m hoping for, though, is a little bit of compassion. Having seen many a belligerent shop owner's response to a vagrant, my heart instinctively empathizes with the transient. Now, I am not denying that their choices led these individuals to the place where they are in their lives. They have volition, and responsibility for their decisions. But poor decision-making never robs an individual of his or her humanity. These shop owners have reached such a level of frustration, though, that they no longer can view the drunk, homeless, panhandling addict as a person; they see them only as a problem that needs correcting. And the obvious solution is to hurl them off the property as quickly as possible. I can’t help but think that for some, if erecting a moat or a wall with a sentry on duty wouldn’t adversely affect sales, they would jump right on it.

As I said before, there’s no easy answer here. I must keep in mind the Chevron guy’s desire to preserve a business he likely worked hard to build. But what I also wish is that he could keep in mind the effect his shouting has on both the individual he is confronting, and all the rest of us who must witness the confrontation.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Writing as Catharsis

I was reading the AP newswire again today, about Lauren Terrazzano, a reporter for the Long Island newspaper, Newsday, who writes a column called "Life, With Cancer." She was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago at the age of 36, and began her column in October 2006. Terrazzano recently was informed that she has perhaps 2 or 3 months to live.

With her writing, she is accomplishing two things ... well, many more than two things, surely, but two significant things. She is giving outlet to all the myriad emotions surrounding what I can only imagine is a most intense experience - but she also is giving a voice to all the others who share that experience but do not have the venue, perceived talent, or ability to hang their cancer stories out for the world to see.

Terrazzano comments on every facet of the disease. She discusses Elizabeth Edwards' most public battle, sharing her first wedding anniversary with her husband, the insensitive comments people make everyday to those living so gracefully with this insidious disease. I cringed to realize that I, too, had at one time made such a comment. It's just so easy to be flip - or insensitive - when you're not in someone else's position.

Writing is, for Terrazzano, no doubt therapeutic. As it is for many who write.

My dear friend, Rebecca Joy, shared with me a blog in January by Christine Kloser, about her miscarriage experience. In it, she talks about the excitement of expecting her second baby ... and the utter devastation that accompanied losing that child. In a marketing column, no less!

And I have personally seen writing work to help people heal. For the last two years, I have hosted an event called "The Birthmother You Know." It is a spoken word event during which birthmothers, women who have placed their children for adoption, come together to share their stories. Some have written poems, short stories, essays, stage plays ... letters they never sent. We will reprise the event again this year - but are still working out the details. Last year, though, we had a gal who shared her story publicly for the first time since giving up her son more than five years ago. She talked, rather than read, and as she talked, she cried. And the entire audience cried with her ... because even though our stories were all so enormously different, she captured in her raw honesty the element of adoption that rings true for every birthmom I have ever met ... the agony of saying goodbye, even if it is the "right" thing to do.

Interestingly, all of these examples involve women.

Certainly, men also use writing as a healing tool. Lynn Nelson, an Arizona State professor of English, in a talk about the pen truly being mightier than the sword, reads and speaks of his own personal childhood traumas and violence. Soldiers returning from battle often use writing to try to release, categorize, and understand their wartime experiences. Convicted criminals often write for a similar release, whether it's owning up to what they've done, or dealing with the ever-present violence they experience within so many prison walls. People who have survived every kind of trauma use - or could use - writing as a means to reconnect with their souls.

There's a fallacy that's been circulating for a long time, now - that in order to be creative, one must have experienced drama, tragedy, poverty, mental illness, or some other equally epic societal ill. This certainly is not the case. Happy people can be just as creative as those who live in a chronically depressed state. Writing, however - and all forms of art, for that matter - can have a dramatic and healing influence.
Whether we write to share, or squirrel our scribblings away in journals never to be seen by any other than our own eyes, the process of getting the words out of our heads and onto paper helps us dissociate from them. It makes the words, memories, images slightly less powerful, because they now live on paper, so they need not live so vividly in our minds. It's as though once we take the action of putting the thoughts, feelings, memories into actual words - whether in a journal book, a blog, an online journal, articles, a novel, or any written form - we give ourselves permission to release those words from our memory banks. We free ourselves to feel, see, do, and experience new things.

Writing can help us heal, if we let it. All we need to do is pick up the pen or sit at the keyboard during an unencumbered time, and allow the words to flow through us.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Imus, Hip-Hop, and Our Right to Speak Freely

According to an AP newswire story released yesterday, a team of high-powered music industry executives met privately to discuss sexist and misogynistic rap lyrics” in the wake of the Don Imus firing for his recent incendiary racist comments. Now, I in no way want to be perceived as endorsing Imus’ comments. The fact is that anyone with a large public platform is responsible for remaining within the bounds of decency, whether that is a talk radio host, an actor, a sports figure, a supermodel, or a politician.

As James Poniewozik writes in "The Imus Fallout: Who Can Say What?" for the April 12 issue of Time:

A reasonable person could ask, What was the big deal? And I don't mean the lots-of-black-rappers-say-"hos" argument, though we'll get to that. Rather, I mean, what celebrity isn't slurring some group nowadays?

I exaggerate slightly. But our culture has experienced an almost psychotic outburst of -isms in the past year. Michael Richards and "nigger." Isaiah Washington and "faggot." Senator George Allen and "macaca." Mel Gibson and "fucking Jews."

The problem, for me, arises when we begin splitting hairs about what is decent and right and proper and what has “crossed the line.” One thing I’d love to understand is why this comment that Imus made “crossed the line” and none of the other bile he’s spewed during his nearly 30 years on the air was considered quite so offensive. Here’s the thing: like beauty, offense is in the eye of the beholder.

So why this time? Why this incident? What makes this particular inappropriate phrase so much more inappropriate than all the other garbage that has ever issued forth from this man’s mouth – or any other person of similar stature? When you look at the list of groups he’s insulted, he really appears to be an equal-opportunity jackass – and the fact is, he has a following. There would have been absolutely no way for him to have stayed on the air for as long as he did if people weren’t tuning in to listen. Isn’t it possible it was all for show?

So now, record execs are getting together to discuss the violence and misogynistic lyrics that have filled rap music for lo these last . . . 30 years. Say what? Now, because it’s a hot-button issue, we want to talk about it? Where were we, in terms of this conversation when the gangsta rappers were killing each other in the late 90s? Where have we been as “ho” entered the lexicon as an acceptable moniker for women of every race?

Oh, right, people are watching us now. So it must be the proper time to call a meeting to investigate whether or not we need to think about changes in our unbelievably lucrative industry. According to the AP story, “After the meeting ended, it was unclear whether there would be another one. [Hip-hop mogul Russell] Simmons' publicist released a short statement that described the topic [of the meeting] as a ‘complex issue that involves gender, race, culture and artistic expression. Everyone assembled today takes this issue very seriously.’”

You bet it’s complex. And we are now headed down a very slippery slope.

To reiterate an earlier point, anyone with a large public platform is responsible for remaining within the bounds of decency, whether that is a talk radio host, an actor, a sports figure, a supermodel, or a politician. If we’re going to live on this planet together in a civilized society, we all need to take ownership for how we treat each other. And something many people seem utterly aware of is that words ARE things. Words can incent violence or rally the masses for peace and goodwill. Words can cut to the quick or words can lift our spirits and touch our souls. Twenty-six little characters . . . more than 500,000 words (according to Wikipedia about the number of headwords in the Oxford English Dictionary). It is up to each individual what we do with the words we have. How well we own them. How many we use. What we choose to do with the ones we do own and use.

Legislating appropriate behavior is a tough sell, for me. I know that all laws essentially are designed to “protect” the greater good. But when it comes to free speech, one of the single most important principles upon which our nation was founded, this desire for control, the urge to legislate what people can say and where and when they can say it is distasteful at best, and dangerous at the worst.

Frankly, I would rather let guys like Imus, Tom Leykis, and Howard Stern spew out loud and in public – and for a very simple reason. At least then I know where they stand. And being that we do live in a free country, I have the ability, everyday and all day long, to change the channel if I don’t like what I am hearing. Given our freedom to write uncensored letters, I can write or e-mail anyone my opinion of their on-air musings. I can write letters to the editor or contribute an Op-Ed piece that calls attention to and/or dissects the scurrilous comments. I can blog my agreement or dissent. As long as we retain our freedom of expression, I have the equal opportunity to make my thoughts and opinions heard.

However, the minute we start exploring ways to limit what people can say on air or write in their song lyrics, we begin to limit our own freedom to dissent, comment, argue, and grow as a result of the ensuing conversation.

Color me liberal – or libertarian – but I don’t ever want to see that freedom impinged upon. The American principle of free speech promotes dialogue on public issues, but is most significantly relevant to words that are unpopular at the time the speaker utters them. Speak up now, or forever hold your piece.

Freedom of speech which is limited to freedom to say whatever a majority of the Pennsylvania legislature agrees with is not real freedom of speech.
– Pennsylvania state legislator, Rep. Mark B. Cohen

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Even the Bigshots Get Spanked When It Comes to Stealing Material

An April 11, 2007 AP news report out of New York details the firing of a CBS News producer for plagiarizing a story from The Wall Street Journal. It was for a Katie Couric piece about libraries. I don’t know about you, but my first inclination is to quote Homer Simpson: “D’oh!”

One might be tempted to ask “Why?” but the sad part is that it happens all the time. People get busy. They feel pressured. It’s more or less for the same reason students cheat. And, boy, do our students cheat.

According to information on the Caveon Test Security Web site, a recent survey of more than 36,000 students by the Josephson Institute illustrates the problem of cheating among students in that the majority (60%) cheated on a test during the past year, and one in three (33%) said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment.

Don Sorenson, Caveon’s Vice President of Marketing, writes:
According to Michael Josephson, president and founder of Josephson Institute, "The good news is that things aren’t getting any worse — the 2006 results are almost identical to those reported in 2004. The bad news is that unacceptably high rates of dishonesty have become the norm. It doesn’t bode well for the future that so many kids are entering the workforce to become the next generation of corporate executives and cops, politicians and parents, journalists, teachers, and coaches with the dispositions and skills of liars, cheaters and thieves."
See the correlation here . . . journalists are mentioned by name!
So in spite of our inclination to ask “Why?” the more important and interesting question is, “How do they expect to get away with it?!?”
Cheating takes many forms. Managers who steal ideas from their staff and take credit for them. Students who pay for others to write their papers and then pass them off as their own. People from every industry who liberally utilize the vast information available on the Web in their promo materials, articles, books, and white papers and fail to credit the sources. Authors and reporters who create fictitious stories and pass them off as “memoirs” or “news.”
People who feign injury and disability and then file pricey insurance claims – and the doctors who sign off for them.

The most obvious, though, and seemingly easy to spot, are those who plagiarize – because (a) the plagiarizers, seeming not to be the sharpest knives in the drawer, somehow tend to forget that people who watch TV also read. Or people who read one book are quite likely to read another; and (b) with easy access to the Internet, it’s only a matter of typing a few keys and tapping a few buttons before you can find out if the material has been borrowed, stolen, or pilfered.

There are those in the info products industry who feel that it’s completely kosher to pay for “public domain” articles and repackage them into your own reports, eBooks, home study courses. This is not exactly the same as plagiarizing – as public domain means no one owns the rights to the materials.
However, I always suggest to my clients that they go for original. Honestly, there are no new ideas. I’ve said this before. Unless you’re performing cutting-edge scientific or medical research or are hot on the trail of the biography of the most up-to-the-minute celeb-to-be, there will be other material out there on your subject. And depending on the subject, possibly a LOT more material. But that doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t write your own stuff, and it definitely does not mean you should take someone else's ideas and call them your own. You were blessed with a brilliant brain. You’ve got insights and instincts and a perspective that are all your own.

Does the mere fact that a search on for “marketing” yields 224,868 titles mean you should not write a book about marketing? Not at all. But it does up the ante somewhat, in terms of the necessity for you to make your book stand out from the rest. New characters. A new strategy or concept. A new spin on an old strategy or concept. A very specialized and underserved niche. A creative teaching concept.
The most important thing is that you make it yours! That’s what the CBS producer forgot to do. He/she thought the borrowed story was a good idea . . . but forgot to find a new angle or a different perspective about the piece. Hell, he/she could even have taken the OPPOSITE perspective of The Wall Street Journal and created some controversy . . . good controversy . . . about libraries, no less.

Remember: it’s OK to borrow liberally if you ask permission (where necessary) and always credit your sources. Otherwise, simply look to others' concepts for inspiration, ulitmately making the final product your own. And if you have others doing research for you, be sure to double-check their matter how much you trust them. Regardless of how CBS decides to handle this situation, if YOUR name goes on a piece – whether it's writing, music, video, or visual art – if you're honest, you will admit that you've got some liability in the process that creates it.

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