Words Matter

Advice on Communicating (Learned the Hard Way)

The Non-Apology Apology — 12/26/2016

The Non-Apology Apology

I’m sorry.

That wasn’t so hard to write. But you wouldn’t know it from our culture today.

It’s true in politics, at work, and even in our personal lives. We’ve become so bad at stating a genuine apology that you’d think the words “I’m sorry” were harder to say than “She sells seashells by the seashore.”

Apologizing can be very unpleasant – humbling, embarrassing, and sometimes even scary because you don’t know if the other person will accept.

But a genuine apology is also a vital form of communication, necessary to maintain openness and trust. People owed an apology know they’re owed an apology – and they expect one. If you skip it, your colleague or friend will have a hard time getting beyond it, and you’ll have trouble communicating anything else from that point forward.

The opposite is true as well. When you own up to a mistake or lapse in judgment by offering a sincere and direct apology, you can actually build trust and openness.

The best approach is simply to say you’re sorry – and mean it.

So isn’t it surprising to watch the pretzels people twist themselves into just to avoid actually apologizing? How many times have you heard statements like these?

“If my comments offended some, I feel bad about that.”
Translation: You’re all too sensitive.

“I regret that there are those who misunderstood the intent of my words.”
Translation: I blame you.

“I’ve done some things I’m not proud of.”
Translation: I’ve let myself down. So I really should be apologizing to me.

These aren’t apologies. To qualify as a true apology, a statement must contain – in sequence – “I” and “apologize,” or “I” and “am” and “sorry.” Just as important: the statement must not contain words like “misunderstood” or “if.”

Maybe today’s legal-minded culture has taught us to fear apologizing. If you hit another car – even a parked car – you’ve probably learned not to say “I’m sorry.” An apology could be used in court as an admission of responsibility.

Instead, you’re supposed to get out of your car, approach the parked car’s owner, and say something like… “Ouch! My neck hurts!”

When people utter strained non-apology apologies to avoid offering the real thing, they’re wasting their energy and making a major communication mistake.

Offering a direct, sincere “I’m sorry” is the right thing to do. And until you get it out there, you won’t be able to communicate all the other things you want to say. Plus, when you get comfortable apologizing, you’ll find it’s not as difficult as you think.

I hate to brag, but I’ve gotten very good at apologizing – so good, actually, that now it comes naturally to me.

My wife: Robbie?
Me: I’m very sorry.
My wife: Huh? I was just going to ask if you got the mail yet.
Me: I apologize.
My wife: Did you hit your head or something?

See how easy it is?

By the way, if any portion of this article has offended anyone, I regret that you’ve completely missed the point.

One Big Advantage Your Parents Had When Learning (and How to Use it Yourself) — 12/14/2016

One Big Advantage Your Parents Had When Learning (and How to Use it Yourself)

Back when I was in college, the typical laptop weighed about 9,000 pounds. So most students actually took a notebook and pen to class.

(Millennials: By “notebook,” I mean a binder of actual paper, made from trees. By “pen,” I mean a handheld device that looks like a stylus but actually records information by transferring ink to paper.)

What an advantage that gave us.

At least, that’s one takeaway from an important new book called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, whose coauthor professor Henry Roediger I recently heard interviewed on a radio show. His findings give us more good reasons — as if we needed them — to singletask our learning and to use more focus, less tech.

As Roediger explains, the typical university student today takes notes in class using a laptop — furiously typing as much as she can of what the professor says (in between posting Facebook updates like, “Soooo borrrrred. lol.”).

Here’s the counterintuitive finding from Roediger and his coauthors: When we take notes on a computer, we learn and retain far less than when we hand-write our notes.

That’s because we can type far faster than we can write by hand, so note-taking on a laptop is essentially dictation. We don’t have to stop to process what the lecturer is saying, because we can type almost every word of it.

When we write by hand, though, we can write only so much. That forces us to listen more intently and process what the professor is saying, so we can jot only the essential words and still keep up.

A second and more intuitive reason it’s difficult to learn by laptop in the classroom is that the laptop also offers a zillion ways to distract the student — email, Twitter, eBay, CNN.

I often listen to mp3s of college lectures on iTunes U. (I know: Nerd alert!) I remember listening to a course on public relations taught by a professor named Sam Dyer. What struck me was that professor Dyer actually made a point of telling his class to keep at least one browser window open during class, so they could easily navigate to whatever site he wanted them to view as he lectured.

What Dyer was acknowledging, of course, was that he knew his students were at best splitting their attention between his class and whatever other personal business they had going on their computers. He was teaching the best he could to a room of tech-savvy multitaskers.

Dyer’s courses on media relations and business writing are terrific. But I wonder how much his students actually get from them, and how much they’re missing because they don’t have the advantage of attending his lectures in the pre-internet-everywhere era.

Now, am I suggesting that all of the previous generation’s students learned more in class and got better educations than those in school today? Of course not. We often let ourselves be undermined by the technology available to us, too — the tape recorder, for example.

In fact, one hilarious story that made the rounds at UCLA, where I went to school, illustrates the ridiculous lengths students and teachers would go to avoid attending class altogether. According to legend, a professor at our school recorded all of his lectures on audiotape. For each class session, he’d walk in, say hello to the students, press play on his tape player, set it down on the front table and leave. After a while, of course, the students got wise. They would wait for a minute after the professor left the room, pull out their own recording devices, set them on the front table and leave too.

So if you happened by this class and peeked in the window, you’d see a completely empty room with 100 tape recorders on the front table — 1 on play, and 99 on record.

The More Focus, Less Tech Approach Applies to Lifelong Learning

Students in my day had little choice in class but to listen to the professor (or cover our ears). We had far fewer distractions than students do today. So we had a natural advantage.

Today, anyone attending a class has to make a conscious decision not to be undermined by all of the electronic distractions easily available on the very devices that students are expected to use in class.

But you can do it. Close everything not essential to your learning. No text, no Safari, no Twitter. Just whatever site your professor wants you viewing and your note-taking app — preferably Microsoft Word, or something equally boring.

This advice also applies to us in our professional lives or in any learning environment. If you’re attending a meeting or conference or industry panel, stay on task. If you’re using your laptop, close all apps you won’t need for that event. Better still — leave the laptop in your bag and take out your notebook (the paper kind) and pen (the non-stylus kind).

Learning in any setting requires us to be rested, alert and fully attentive to the material. Those of us who attended school in the High Middle Ages had the advantage of learning in a pre-internet environment.

For learners today, getting the most from class or any learning setting is going to take some effort and self-control. But as professor Roediger and his Make It Stick coauthors discovered, the benefits of old-school, no-laptop learning are significant — including far greater understanding and retention of the material. Yes, it’ll be be difficult not to check email for an entire meeting/class/conference/whatever.

Difficult, but worth it.

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!