Words Matter

Advice on Communicating (Learned the Hard Way)

When You Aren’t Sure Whether or Not to Ask the Question… Ask the Question — 09/29/2016

When You Aren’t Sure Whether or Not to Ask the Question… Ask the Question

Funny story. After my mom received her doctorate in psychology, she took one of those all-day prep sessions to study for the board examination.

Soon after class began, the student sitting next to my mom began looking very confused and anxious. The man became increasingly fidgety over the next two hours. Then, finally, he whispered to my mom, “What does any of this have to do with selling real estate?”

Speak up and ask the question

There’s a valuable lesson here, one that we’ve all heard before but that is worth reminding ourselves of every so often. If you have a question in a public forum, don’t be shy. Don’t worry about being laughed at. Don’t worry about what other people will think. Speak up.

This man lost a good part of a day simply because he was uncomfortable asking a legitimate and important question as soon as he sensed something was off about his “real estate” prep session — which he clearly did within the first minutes.

Had he raised his hand as soon as the instructor first mentioned clinical diagnoses, or patients, or therapy, or whatever the first clue was, the man could have saved himself that whole day.

He also would have been only a few minutes late to his own prep class, the one he paid for, as opposed to being several hours late or maybe even missing it entirely.

And finally, he would have spared himself what must have been an agonizing internal dialogue as he sat in my mom’s class, arguing with himself over whether or not to raise his hand and ask if he was in the right room.

An overlooked consequence of not speaking up

I think this third lesson, the psychological one, is as important as the others, even though it gets much less attention. Most of us are taught in school that if you have a question, you should ask it — and as encouragement our teachers often tell us that several others probably have the same question.

That argument points to our insecurity, our fear of being embarrassed for publicly asking a dumb question or making an irrelevant remark. But isn’t the flip side also important? What about the psychological toll it takes on you not to raise your hand, when part of you is screaming to speak up?

Yes, sometimes you’ll ask a question — “Hey, is this the room for the Overeaters Anonymous meeting?” — and someone will chuckle at you. But even if you’re embarrassed, that awkwardness will be over in an instant.

But when you don’t ask the question because you’re afraid, you’ll probably suffer a maddening internal dialogue — where you berate yourself over and over for not having the nerve to speak up. And that pain will cut a lot deeper and last a lot longer than if you’d just raised your hand.

Keep unnecessary phrases like these out of your writing — 12/21/2015

Keep unnecessary phrases like these out of your writing

I live in the city of Phoenix, in the state of Arizona. I do my best work between the hours of 2pm and 4pm in the afternoon, for the simple reason that those are the hours I feel clearest and most awake. So I try to ignore interruptions during that period of time, in order to focus on work.

Notice anything awful about that first paragraph? (And not that I have a boring life. That’s true but not the point here.)

How many useless phrases did you catch in those first three sentences? Take another look, and ask yourself if the paragraph would be any less clear without:

  • the city of
  • the state of
  • the hours of
  • in the afternoon
  • for the simple reason that
  • period of time
  • in order to

Want to write a terrible document? Stuff it with official-sounding but unnecessary phrases like these.

Now, there are times when some of these phrases are useful. “He works for the City of New Orleans” might be a perfectly legitimate statement, to indicate a person works for the city’s government. But how about, “I live in the city of New Orleans?” If you removed “the city of” and just wrote, “I live in New Orleans,” would your reader think New Orleans is the name of your house?

You’ve probably seen wasted phrases like these many times in the documents you read at work. Here are a few more of my favorites:

In the month of
(Hmm. I’ll bet $10 that the next word here is going be one of the months.)

Due to the fact that
(I’ll trade you for a “because” — and you can keep the change.)

By virtue of
(Hey, I’ve got another “because” handy.)

Conduct a review
(Do yourself a favor and just “review” — you’ll be done sooner.)

A difficult dilemma
(As opposed to…)

Part of the reason so many professionals write in this bloated style is that they think their writing comes across more seriously this way. “Between the hours of 2pm and 4pm in the afternoon.” Ooh, so formal. Impressive, right?

No. What comes across is that the writer doesn’t trust the reader to understand that the period between “2pm and 4pm” is measured in hours… and not, say, inches or pesos. It also suggests the reader might be too stupid to catch the writer’s clever code “pm” and needs to be told that those times are “in the afternoon.”

One more theory: We write with extra words like this because of our schooling. Page length and word count mattered when we were youngsters. In fact, our teachers often rewarded us for the physical heft of our documents.

Did you ever finish writing a paper for school and, if it didn’t hit the minimum page length, try to fatten it up by stuffing an extra “that” everywhere you could? (Or did I just make a really embarrassing confession?)

Unless your supervisor actually asks you to hit a minimum word count in your work-related documents, cut ruthlessly when you edit.

Relevant confession: In my first draft of that sentence above, I wrote, “… cut ruthlessly during the editing process.” Is “editing process” clearer than “edit?”

Related relevant confession: Earlier in this article, where I wrote “documents,” in my first draft I actually wrote “written documents.” As opposed to what, Robbie? “Finger-painted documents?” Cut. Be ruthless.

I leave you with these words of advice. Nothing shows the seriousness and professionalism of your documents more powerfully than when you write them clearly, to the point, and without one unnecessary phrase.

Put more succinctly: Don’t waste words.

So, Is Multitasking Good Or Bad For You? — 12/13/2015

So, Is Multitasking Good Or Bad For You?

While writing an article on productivity recently for a corporate client, I came across some research pointing to the dangers of multitasking. The findings confirmed what many of us have always believed: Multitasking is worse than unhelpful in terms of productivity. It actually makes everything we do take longer, and it lowers the quality of our work.

But is that the whole story? Maybe not.

First, the bad news for multitasking. In a Psychology Today article, “The True Cost of Multi-Tasking,” behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk, PhD, argues that the concept of mutlitasking itself is a myth, because we can’t actually perform more than one high-order cognitive task at a time. (At least not without making a lot of stupid mistakes.)

Dr. Weinschenk claims what we describe as multitasking is more like “task-switching,” where we move constantly from one open task to another, and back, and back again. She then argues that jumping around like this results in more errors than if we simply worked on a single task, without interruption, to completion. She also claims that the act of constantly switching back and forth can sap 40% of our overall productivity. In other words, when we multitask we’re not faster — we’re slower! (And stupider.)

This makes intuitive sense. If you’ve ever tried to review a document while you’re on a conference call, you know how difficult it is to handle either task well. And you’ve probably had the experience of having to go back through the document again, after the call, because you didn’t fully grasp what you were reading the first time. How much could you have comprehended, after all? You were also half-listening to a phone conversation.

So much for multitasking, right?

In fact, that was going to be the basis for this article. I had hoped to share with you what I learned about the dangers of multitasking. My original title for this piece was going to be, “If you knew this, you’d stop multitasking right away.”

But at the same time I was working on the productivity article for my client, I was also reading the book The Age of the Infovore, by economist Tyler Cowen. (Side note: When I say “at the same time” here, I don’t mean I was literally working on an article and simultaneously reading a book. That would be multitasking, and apparently impossible. I mean during the same several-day timeframe.)

Cowen’s argument is that with information, communications and entertainment now coming at us constantly, multitasking is a way for us to keep some form of control over the inputs — essentially to build a personal productivity play list that is unique to ourselves. As Cowen puts it:

“The emotional power of our personal blends is potent, and they make work, and learning, a lot more fun. Multitasking is, in part, a strategy to keep ourselves interested.”

In other words, for Cowen, the key distinction is control. If you’re constantly being pulled in several directions at once, forced to simultaneously tackle several intellectually demanding projects that someone else (like your boss) dictates for you, you’re unlikely to succeed at any of them. That’s the sort of multitasking that no one can handle well.

But if you’re choosing which three or five projects to move among simultaneously, Cowen argues, that’s the sort of multitasking that can make you more productive. At any given moment, you’re focusing (if indeed focusing is the right word, in the midst of a multitasking frenzy) on the task that seems most important, urgent or interesting to you.

Cowen then makes an interesting point: If these claims were accurate, that multitasking lowers our ability to successfully complete our work, then “multitasking would disappear pretty rapidly as a way of getting things done.”

So, who’s right?

I still lean toward Dr. Weinschenk’s view — multitasking causes more harm — for a few reasons:

1)   In a discussion about effects on cognition and mental ability, you’ve got to defer to the psychologist over the economist, right?

But that’s not entirely satisfying. Cowen could be right. Perhaps in the age of Google and the Internet-connected smartphone, we are all getting better at processing multiple streams of information simultaneously, because we have to. And if that’s true, then maybe we can multitask higher-order mental tasks more successfully than we could have 20 years ago. Still, though…

2)   The Psychology Today view on multitasking as counterproductive makes a lot more intuitive sense. It also tracks with experience, at least with mine. I know I’m much more error-prone when I’m trying to do three things at once. Aren’t you?

3)   I’ve also found that our best insights, best ideas and best work generally kick in only after a prolonged period of uninterrupted time spent on a given project. And you rarely get to that point if you’re constantly switching to another task. In other words, even if we can “finish” our jobs while task-switching, our work will probably be more superficial.

But Cowen’s view is much more optimistic, and maybe that’s why I find it appealing. Wouldn’t it be great to know that one positive side effect of our increasingly complex and fast-paced work in the digital age is that it’s actually making us better at getting a lot of things done at once?

I wish that were true. But I’m not sure. And I’ve given, oh, at least 75 percent of my attention to this topic.

What do you think? Is multitasking as bad as I tend to think it is, something to be avoided in favor of what I call “single-tasking?” Or are we getting better, to the point where we can actually conquer multiple higher-order tasks at the same time?

Please share your thoughts. (Just not while you’re on a conference call.)


Why writing is like solving a puzzle – and why that’s good news for you — 08/19/2015

Why writing is like solving a puzzle – and why that’s good news for you


There’s a very logical reason so many people are terrified of writing. Fortunately, they’re wrong to hold this fear. I’ll explain it this way.

The only profession I’ve ever held other than writing was as a real estate appraiser. Actually it was more of a paid hobby than a profession. But I loved it. Here’s why.

Appraising is like solving a puzzle. You pull together all sorts of details about the property you’re valuing, as well as details on similar properties in the area, to arrive at a data-supported estimate of your subject property’s value.

You subtract a few thousand dollars from your subject because a nearby home has a pool, and your subject doesn’t. You add a few thousand because your subject has an extra bathroom or hardwood floors, and the other properties don’t. Slowly, a picture emerges of what the property is worth, and why. It really feels like solving a puzzle.

Not so with writing. Writing feels so… linear.

It’s our training. In school, our stories had to have a beginning, middle and end. Our reports and essays required an introduction, followed by a body, and finally a summary and conclusion.

And if you’ve ever taken courses or read books on business writing, you’ve probably learned the key is to take your reader smoothly from one thought or idea to the next, in a clear and logical order.

Yes, the output of writing is linear.

And I think that’s why it scares people, why so many of us freeze when we’re faced with a blank page. If I don’t have my very first thought for this report, we reason, how can I write the second thought? Or the eighth? Or the 37th or the 100th?

But that’s wrong. Writing is solving a puzzle. If you can think of it that way, it’s a whole lot easier to get started — and you might actually find the process fun.

How? Start with your 18th idea.

If you have an idea about a list of items that should go somewhere in your presentation, start writing them.

If you have an important insight or argument you know belongs somewhere in your report, just write it out. You can move things, add, delete and embellish later. For now, just start placing your puzzle pieces on the board.

Yes, if you really needed to have your first thought composed flawlessly before you could to move to your second, writing would be horrific. You’d feel paralyzed after completing every sentence.

But you don’t have that problem. Writing does not need to be a linear process. You’re solving a puzzle. Start with piece 18.

A Simple Way to Deal With Stage Fright (That You’ve Never Heard Before) — 01/28/2015

A Simple Way to Deal With Stage Fright (That You’ve Never Heard Before)


I’ll say something stupid. I won’t be able to speak. They’re going to hate me. I’m about to make a fool of myself. Having to speak in public, especially in front of our colleagues at work, can cause many of us crippling stress and terror.

And sometimes that terror is so debilitating that it wrecks our performance. “Good Matthew, everyone. My name is afternoon.”

But no one – not even the most terrified of public speaking – should have to suffer from stage fright. The most effective cure I’ve found might also be the simplest: a positive and relaxed conversation just prior to the public talk.

According to a well-known principle in sales, the best time to make a sales call is right after you’ve made a sale. Why? Confidence.

A salesman will be at his sharpest and most articulate when he’s fresh off of a successful sale – because then he can relax and just have a positive conversation with his prospect, without giving off any indication that he’s desperate or unsure of himself. That confidence comes across, and it will put his prospect at ease as well – which in turn will make the salesman even more comfortable during the sales call.

And that leads to a principle similar to the sales strategy: the best time to give a public talk is right after you’ve had a great private talk.

Imagine the scenario. You’re about to give a presentation to your agency’s senior management. You stand just outside the door to the conference room, waiting, while a colleague introduces you to the attendees. You stand there, alone, silent, listening to your introduction, maybe pacing a little, just waiting to walk into the room.

Even if you’re outgoing and generally comfortable speaking in public, that doesn’t sound like a fun moment, does it? And how relaxed will you feel – and look – walking in?

Now imagine you’re about to give the same talk, but this time you’re in the hallway with a close friend, chatting. You make a joke; she laughs. She says something witty; you laugh. Then as you hear your cue and head in, she wishes you good luck. You walk into the room smiling – a genuine smile rather than one you’d otherwise have to force. You feel good about that conversation, and you’re probably more relaxed because of it.

Of course, you can’t always bring a friend or colleague to chat backstage with you or wait with you in the hallway before you give a speech. That’s okay. If you know you’ll have to speak in a meeting later in the afternoon, maybe you can arrange to have lunch with a good friend. The key is simply to have a positive, uplifting conversation as close as possible in time before your public talk.

Even if you’re not afraid of standing in front of a group and giving a talk, this strategy can still help you improve your public speaking. When you’re relaxed, you’re more likely to be fluid and articulate in your speech, more dynamic and engaging in your presentation, and more able to think fast on your feet and respond to unexpected moments.

In the broad way I’m defining the concept, all of us have to do some “public speaking” in our careers. We have to give an update in a department meeting. We have to introduce ourselves to our new team after a transfer. We have to give a training session to new staff members. When you’re called on to do these sorts of talks in front of people, it’s a great idea to grab a close colleague or friend just before the spotlight is turned on you – and enjoy a relaxed, upbeat and confidence-inspiring chat.

“Thank for your time you. Nightgood.”

The Ugly Side Effect of Tracking Your Accomplishments — 01/21/2015

The Ugly Side Effect of Tracking Your Accomplishments

Now that we’ve officially reached late January, I’m rushing to come up with a new set of New Year’s Resolutions. It’s my annual second chance after breaking every resolution in my first set, which I did this year by January 8.

(Note to self: Top 2016 resolution should be not to smoke all year. Because I’m not a smoker, this should be an easy win.)

So here’s one resolution I’m going to try, and which you might want to consider as well: Stop tracking your accomplishments.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to step back every so often, take stock of the things you’ve accomplished, and enjoy that moment. Go ahead and recap the successes you’ve had at work, creative projects you’ve tackled, things you’ve gotten done around the house, time you’ve spent with the kids — that sort of thing. My wife and I have an informal “year-end recap” ritual like this every December. It’s fun.

But I’m talking about something different: Tracking your accomplishments as you go, making scorekeeping a part of the process. This could be a bad idea. Here’s why.

A few years ago, I read what sounded like a brilliant suggestion in a book I still recommend, called The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life. The author, Steven Leveen, is the guy who founded Levenger, which sells high-end work accessories like leather journals and fancy pens.

Leveen argues in the book that one way to push yourself to read more is to keep track of every book you read — to keep a journal (hmm, maybe one you could buy at Levenger) where you write down each book after you’ve finished reading it.

I took Leveen’s advice starting about 10 years ago, and sure enough, for the next few years I found myself reading a lot more books. I’d count up my books-read total at the end of the year, and the number — sometimes 30 books, sometimes 75 — was a big source of pride for me.

I even got a little adrenaline rush every time I finished a book, because I could head over to my journal and write it down — to add it to my “score.”

But then I noticed a few things about the process that troubled me:

  • I was reading articles less often. After all, they didn’t count in my book tally, and they were taking away from my book-reading time, which would hurt my score.
  • I wouldn’t start a book I wasn’t sure I would finish.
  • I actually looked for shorter books. Not books I’d enjoy or that could teach me new things. Just books with fewer pages or a lower word-count.
  • And I wouldn’t re-read books, even the ones that I really enjoyed or found interesting the first time. Those wouldn’t count toward my score, either.

In other words, my scorekeeping was actually undermining the very reasons I wanted to read in the first place: to learn new things, to get exposed to different ideas, to go back and enjoy my favorite books.

So this year, I’m going to scrap the scorekeeping altogether. I’ll read when I can, when I find a book that moves me (no matter its length), and if I feel like re-reading it I’ll do that too, without the guilt that it won’t “count” the second time.

Taking note of your accomplishments is a great practice. But I’m not sure identifying yourself with your accomplishments, and the constant pressure that comes with it, is as healthy.

Astronomical Irony — 11/27/2014

Astronomical Irony

Unbelievable story intro from C-SPAN:

President Obama spoke at the Copernicus Community Center in Chicago, Illinois about his executive action on immigration.

Incredible. So a place called the Copernicus Community Center invited a speaker who thinks he’s the center of the solar system?

How to Write Better Emails — 10/19/2014

How to Write Better Emails

A few years ago the publication FedSmith.com ran a piece I wrote offering suggestions for writing more effective emails. And a few days ago someone who had apparently only recently found and read that article emailed me to say thank you for the advice. The Internet is amazing.

I re-read that article, and all of my email tips still hold today. So, assuming you didn’t see that FedSmith.com piece, I’ve included the email tips here for you. I hope you find them helpful.

To your writing!






Why Do Our Politicians Misuse Words? — 08/27/2014

Why Do Our Politicians Misuse Words?



I can’t take it anymore.

For months now, our political representatives and major media outlets have been going on an on about something called “income inequality.” It’s terrible, they tell us, and responsible for much of what’s wrong in Western society today. So we’d better do something to end it, soon.

Now, unless I’m misreading the phrase, income inequality means simply that people have different incomes. Um… duh.

But President Obama tells us income inequality is the defining challenge of our time. Former labor secretary Robert Reich (an economist who should know better) argues income inequality is the real reason for our terrible economy.

And in the most despicable of these public statements, Hillary Clinton actually calls it a cancer.

I beg your pardon, Madam Secretary? Cancer?

What does any right-thinking person want to do with cancer? Adjust it? Weaken it a bit? No. They want to destroy it, annihilate it, kill every last diseased cell.

Okay, and how exactly would we destroy, annihilate and kill the income-inequality cancer? By replacing it with income equality? As the kids would say: WTF?

Let’s think about this.

As radio host Dennis Prager points out, there are indeed places around the world where incomes are more or less equal among the populace. So we can actually view how income equality plays out in a real society. Know where those places are? North Korea. Cuba. Or any of the wonderfully prosperous Communist paradises throughout history where a good percentage of the citizenry has lived pretty close to starvation.

But back to income inequality.

Let’s say you make $80,000 a year and your boss makes $160,000 and your organization’s chief executive makes $1,000,000 a year. That’s a pretty big set of inequalities. But does the fact that your boss earns twice your salary harm you? Does your CEO’s $1,000,000 harm your boss, or you?

Put another way: Let’s say you had two choices. Increase your own pay by $25,000 a year or reduce your boss’s salary by $80,000. Reducing your boss’s pay would decrease the “income inequality” cancer a lot more than raising your own salary. But would you really choose that option? Would any of these loudmouths screaming about income inequality want their own incomes to go down, to help close the income gap?

Or put still another way: Imagine your income goes up. Yay! But your CEO’s goes up too — and a lot more. That actually increases the total income inequality at your organization. But does it hurt you? Or are both you and your CEO better off?

What I’m saying is that from whichever angle you examine the phrase income inequality, the arguments against it fall apart instantly. Worse, the “cures” for it are horrific.

Let’s say Hillary Clinton, President Obama, Robert Reich, The New York Times and all of the other influential progressives get their way, and we’re able to fix income inequality. What would that mean? That an entrepreneur about to max out his credit cards to develop an important new product will be limited by federal law to a new mandated annual income? That the surgeon who someday will save your life on the operating table won’t be allowed to earn more than 10% above the nation’s median salary? Would you bet your life that this surgeon will stick around under those circumstances? Actually, you are betting your life.

Do you think that by enforcing “income equality”— as our politicians are telling us in no uncertain terms they wish they could do — we’ll have as many entrepreneurs, innovations, new products, doctors? Or will we have a lot less?

And do you want to live in a society like that? Or do you want the risk-takers who bring us new products and services rewarded for their innovations? Won’t that encourage more people to innovate — and improve the quality of our lives?

Can you explain to us, Madam Secretary, exactly what your cure would be for this particular cancer? The cancer that I prefer to call “economic freedom?”

Hillary Clinton is a lot things that I am not fond of. But stupid isn’t one of them. She’s methodical and calculating in her public comments. She chooses her words carefully.

So why choose cancer to describe the simple economic reality that a surgeon earns more than the person who delivers packages to the surgeon’s hospital?

There’s only one reason: It’s a cynical attempt to turn you against me, your supervisor against his supervisor, entire organizations against their senior executives, and everybody against “the rich.”

When stripped of all political implication, the phrase income inequality means nothing more than the obvious fact that in a free-market economy people earn different amounts of money based on how much value society places on their skills, expertise and labor.

But people like Hillary Clinton don’t want such words stripped of their political implications. They want such words loaded with political implications, especially if those implications can create confusion, then resentments and ultimately politically exploitable divisions.

Words matter. Shame on all of you public figures who intentionally misuse them for your own agendas.

My article on Lifehack — 08/02/2014

My article on Lifehack

The kind folks at lifehack.org were gracious enough to publish another of my articles — this time about how to secure talent for your business venture, even on a tiny budget.

You can find it here. I hope you enjoy it.