Here’s a story about one of the funniest corporate moments I’ve ever witnessed.
The CEO of a small technology company I worked for often held all-day meetings with his vice presidents. And he always invited lucky me, the copywriter, to capture any great line uttered in the meeting so we could use it in our marketing materials.
One day, hours into a marathon meeting, one of the VPs, who had passed on all of the unhealthy snacks on the table and hadn’t left the room all day, stood up and headed for the door.
CEO: Where are you going?
VP: I’m starving. I’m going to grab a snack and bring it back.
CEO: How can you be hungry? I just ate.
“How can you be hungry? I just ate.” That was by far the greatest line I ever heard in any of these meetings. Unfortunately it wouldn’t have made much sense in our marketing materials.
So, what’s the point of this story? Not many of us are as self-centered as that CEO. But in our writing and speaking, we are often too “me-focused.”
But your listeners and readers think about things from their own points of view. In other words, they’re “me-focused” too. So if you’re trying to make yourself heard, a more effective method than trying to refocus your listeners on you is to join their internal dialogue about themselves.
Great communication skills come from the ability to connect with people, and that connection is based largely on the use of a single word: You.
Me focus: I’ve posted the updated version of the document to the intranet. I think it has all the relevant information, but if necessary I can add anything I missed.
You focus: You can find my updated version of the document on the intranet. If you find any details are missing or inaccurate, you can let me know and I will make the changes you request.
Seems like a small change, doesn’t it? Maybe not even worth mentioning. But if you apply this subtle change to your writing—from a focus on yourself to a focus on your reader—you’ll find that your audience understands and responds to your words much more positively.
This isn’t new advice. People have probably suggested you-focused communication since the days of the cave man, to avoid conversations like this:
Cave Man 1: So there I was, running for my life from this woolly mammoth—
Cave Man 2: Hey, I just drew a woolly mammoth on our cave wall last night.
Cave Man 1: Please don’t interrupt me.
But most people communicate with a me-focused approach, and they often fail to get their message across to their listeners and readers. This creates an opportunity for you to shine. Be you-focused in your speaking and writing. People will notice, they’ll appreciate it, and they’ll see you as a great communicator.
Remember, to a self-focused reader or listener—which includes most of us—“you,” “your” and “you’ll” are the most enjoyable words in the English language aside from our own names.
This is me, I, Robbie Hyman, signing off.
At the end of the dot-com boom, I worked as a writer for a California startup that was slowly going under.
When things got really bad, the company laid off a large percentage of the staff. How did they tell those employees the bad news? With an email.
And not just an email—a horrible email.
I wasn’t let go, so I didn’t see the infamous layoff message until later. But I remember my cubicle neighbor’s reaction when she received it. She stared at her computer for a few seconds, then looked at me with confusion showing on her face. Then she looked back at her screen.
Finally she stood up, walked into to the HR manager’s office (right next to our cubicles) and asked, “So, does this email mean we’re getting let go or not?”
When I read the email later, I understood why its readers were confused. The message was a jumbled mess of hedging and corporate double-talk. If I received that email, I wouldn’t know whether or not I had a job anymore either.
Because my company’s senior management was so inept, not only were they unable to deliver this news face-to-face (which they should have), but they weren’t even able to fully deliver it in their email. So, ironically, the email drove many of the laid-off staffers right into management’s offices with questions—where managers had to have the conversations they were clearly trying to avoid.
Have to deliver bad news? Deliver it. Fully. Candidly. Honestly. Immediately. Putting it off or trying to hide it only makes things worse later—for everyone.
Stephen J. Cannell is one of the most successful producers in television history. He’s created dozens of hit shows (The Rockford Files, Wiseguy, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street) and has written hundreds of TV scripts and more than a dozen novels. The secret to his success will suprise you.
Cannell is dyslexic. He can barely read. But as an up-and-coming writer, he saw this as an advantage.
For most of us, writer’s block comes from a fear of putting anything on paper because we’re afraid it won’t be good enough. But Cannell’s learning disability meant he knew that whatever he wrote wouldn’t be good enough—at least not without serious editing. So he never worried. He just wrote.
Accept that your first draft won’t be perfect. Once you know that, you can just start writing—and then start editing it into a second draft, which will be better.
I argued in a previous post that you should always try to be precise in your writing. That means not using “loads of work,” “tons of support,” or similar phrases that don’t make literal sense.
The other day I heard a hilarious example of this. A radio talk-show host said that “there’s a huge bucket of scientists who don’t agree with the global warming hysteria.”
How could anyone have conducted that survey? If some pollster really stopped by the bucket to ask scientists what they thought of global warming, my guess is they would all scream, “Get me out of here!”