Words Matter

Advice on Communicating (Learned the Hard Way)

Do your words reveal… or conceal? — 06/05/2013

Do your words reveal… or conceal?

Words can conceal the truth:

In an effort to add liquidity to the economy, we engaged in an aggressive monetary policy, launching an asset purchase plan to acquire Treasury securities on the open market. We had intended for this quantitative easing, which created a monetary injection into the economy, to have a simulative effect on macroeconomic activity while controlling inflationary pressures. It appears, however, that these liquidity operations might have had the unintended effect of placing downward pressure on the value of the currency.

Or reveal the truth:

We have printed too much money. Doing so has driven prices up and eroded your wealth. We made a mistake.

How to Jumpstart Your Creativity Muse — 04/26/2013

How to Jumpstart Your Creativity Muse

Your supervisor stops by and asks you to prepare something — a PowerPoint presentation, status update, project plan, whatever — by the end of the day. And today, you’re just not up to it.
Maybe your mind is busy processing another complex task for work. Or maybe (this is just between you and me) you were hoping to laze around today, chat with coworkers, read personal emails, run out the clock. (No judgment. Happens to everyone.) Well, so much for that plan.

You’re going to have to find a way to get creative and productive. Time to call on your muse — the inner genius that surfaces now and then, supplies you with great ideas and puts you in the zone to get stuff done, then disappears. Here are a few of the fastest ways I know to summon your muse and get it to start working for you. Don’t worry — you can still take all the credit.

1) Start a conversation with a colleague about the project.

You wanted to chat with coworkers today anyway, right? Well, the muse is the jealous type, and it’s also competitive. If you start talking with someone else about the project you’re working on, your muse won’t be able to resist showing up and showing off, giving you all sorts of brilliant ideas and insights.

You’ll know the muse has arrived when — probably only a few minutes into your chat, because muses are impatient — ideas start coming to you out of nowhere, great ideas, ideas you can’t believe you’re coming up with. Grab paper or your computer. Privately thank your muse — they love acknowledgment — and start capturing.


2) Jot down notes about the project — preferably simple ones.

Remember, your muse is a jealous and competitive showoff. If it sees you starting without it by writing down your own thoughts about the project, you can be sure it will surface and try to one-up you by feeding you great ideas and lots of productive energy.

The smartest way to handle this moment is to pretend you’re embarrassed by the silly notes you were coming up with yourself and blown away by your muse’s unbelievable intelligence. I’d suggest you say something to yourself like, “Where are these brilliant thoughts coming from?” Muses love that stuff, and it’s the best way to ensure they keep the insights flowing.


3) Go for a walk. Leave your office. Change the scenery.

Muses are practical jokers and have a bit of a mean-streak. So they will often drop a great idea on you when they know you have no place to write it down. This is why you come up with your best insights in the shower. Your muse loves to watch you freak out knowing you just had a brainstorm but don’t have a way to hang on to it. And if you happen to slip and fall in the bathroom trying to run for a pad and pen, well, they love that too. Can’t really blame them — muses don’t have TV.

So here’s how to outsmart your muse. Step away from your office — to “get some coffee” or “just to stretch your legs.” Let your muse think you’re going someplace where you can’t capture a great idea. But first drop a small notepad and pen into your pocket, or even your smart phone if it has a dictation feature. Note: It’s very important to make sure your idea-capturing tool is concealed from your muse. The best way to do that is to wrap it in something the muse generally ignores completely, like a piece of paper with “DEADLINE” written on it.

Five minutes into your “coffee” run, lightning will strike. And just as your muse is about to enjoy a good chuckle at the brilliant insight it just sprang on you, you’ll pull out your idea-capturing tool… and have the last laugh.

How to Run Meetings They Won’t Run From — 04/19/2013

How to Run Meetings They Won’t Run From

Most staff meetings are largely a waste of time. The rest are a complete waste of time.

Not exactly an original thought, I know. I myself have publicly ranted about the energy-draining pointlessness of meetings here, here and here.

So rather than another post begging managers to call fewer meetings (although I stand by that advice), let me instead offer some ideas to help you make the meetings you do call (if you must) more effective.

Here’s a very brief presentation — How to Run Meetings They Won’t Run From — to help you build a more productive meeting culture. I hope you enjoy it.

Words and phrases you can do without — 09/24/2012

Words and phrases you can do without

In order (as in, “In order to…”)
What’s the difference between “in order to” and “to?”

Well (as in, “Well, that’s a good point…”)
Any difference between “Well, that’s a good point” and “That’s a good point?”

I believe (as in, “I believe we should…”)
Does “I believe we should” lose any meaning when you shorten it to “We should?”

As to (as in, “I’m not sure as to whether…”)
“I’m not sure whether” should do the trick.

Is using any of these extra words or phrases a big deal? Not really. But put enough of them in your writing, and your readers will feel the bloat of your words – and notice that you’re wasting their time.


From the Completely Unhelpful Brigade — 09/01/2012

From the Completely Unhelpful Brigade

An article today in my Phoenix-area newspaper lists the results of a recent survey of local restaurants by health inspectors.

In the area I’ve circled, you’ll see that they “explain” what the grades mean. I’d argue that A and B, for example, are self-explanatory, but I suppose they are just being thorough. Fair enough. But look at how they explain the only grade here that is not at all self-explanatory, “NP.”

Oh, now I understand: NP stands for NP. Thanks, editorial team, for cutting through the haze.

A smart meeting agenda — 08/12/2012
New article on FedSmith.com — 07/20/2012
A tip for your next meeting: demand precise language — 06/16/2012
How not to write an email — 06/02/2012

How not to write an email

Want to ruin your email reputation? Here are a few shortcuts.

Above is a screenshot of a sales email I received recently.


The sender packs quite a few violations of logic, fact and etiquette into just three sentences.

Let’s start with the subject line: “Robbie, Response Requested.”

Huh? I don’t know this person, didn’t ask for this email and have no idea what’s in it. But the sender has used her subject line to call me out by name and obligate me to complete a task for her.

Already I’m annoyed. But I’m also curious. I certainly don’t want to ignore a legitimate request. So I open it. In other words, the sender has exploited the goodwill of her recipient to get her email read.

First line: “Good day! With the new year underway…”


The new year? Check the date on the message. Sent May 31st.

That’s a pretty loose definition of “new year.” I tend to define the period as lasting until I’ve broken my final New Year’s Resolution – usually January 2.

But even if we were still in the “new year,” why would that logically compel me to try this service?

The sender doesn’t even bother trying to make the case that connects the new year to what she’s selling. She simply uses it as filler to leap illogically to a request she hasn’t earned: getting her recipient to try her service.

And let’s not forget: it’s actually May 31st!

Also, she’s trying to sell me something without devoting one word to explaining what value it will have for me. If she’s going to ask me to try her service, shouldn’t she give me at least one reason I would want to?

Next comes this: “Please reply YES or NO to this email if you are still interested…”


Now she’s telling me what to do. Please make my job easier by telling me if you’re not interested.

Yes, I could give a few more seconds and a little more energy to this email and make this sender go away. But should I have to?

If she wanted to show respect for her recipient’s time (a key element in any good email), the sender could have written something like: “If you’d like to evaluate [my service], please let me know. If not, thank you for your time and best wishes.”

She’s already used up her (unearned) favor by getting me to read her request. That completes my responsibility to this email. Asking for more is just selfish.

Okay, rant complete. Now for the lessons:

1) Make your subject line about your readers, not about you.
Your subject line is your first and most important opportunity to tell your readers why your message will matter to them. Don’t squander this opportunity – or worse, annoy your readers – by focusing on what you want or what they can do for you.

2) Show respect for your readers’ intelligence.
Don’t try to confuse your readers or manipulate them. We’ve all read zillions of email messages and can spot those attempts right away. Aside from being unethical, it simply doesn’t work.

3) Show respect for your readers’ time.
When they open and read your email, your recipients are doing you a favor – giving you some of their time, attention and energy (which they can’t get back). So do everything you can to minimize the effort on their part. They’ll recognize it and appreciate you for it.

4) May 31st is in the Spring.

A disgruntled meeting attendee breaks his silence — 05/08/2012

A disgruntled meeting attendee breaks his silence

Fine. I’ll be the one to say it.

Please stop calling so many (censored for publication) meetings.

We all have plenty of work to do, and that work isn’t getting itself done while we’re all crammed in a conference room arguing over whether “Technical Support” or “Technical Care” presents a better image to the public. (They don’t care.)

Besides, don’t we communicate with each other enough throughout the day? We’ve got email, landline phones, cell phones, text messaging, instant messaging, an employee wiki, a department blog. The other day I found myself sitting in the bathroom text messaging a coworker — clearly another victory for “creating boundaries.” Bottom line: If I need to talk with Jake in HR, I think I can find a way to reach Jake in HR.

Hey, I’m all for team bonding. And I realize that a lot of knowledge transfer and creativity happens when employees get together in person to discuss important issues. (I’m sure, for example, that the “Technical Care” brainstorm could never have happened at someone’s desk.)

But can’t we find a better way? Can’t we find a way to work together as a team without having to waste long hours at pastry-laden gatherings in the conference room? Short of that, can’t we at least find a way to make our meetings run more smoothly?

Maybe we can. I’ve written a few suggestions below for more productive meetings. I also hope these tips will keep our meetings shorter — so I can get back to my desk and deal with the 25 new emails, 4 text messages, 2 voicemails and 6 instant messages I’ve received since the meeting started.

My ideas for better meetings:

  • If you’re planning to speak up, and you’re going to start with, “This might be a stupid idea, but…” maybe it’s worth a second thought. It sounds harsh, I know, but sometimes that thing that sounds ridiculous in your head… will also sound ridiculous out loud.
  • Stop bringing doughnuts. We’re already fat, thanks. Besides, feeding everyone removes the one piece of leverage we have against the runaway meeting — hunger.
  • No chairs. Now that I think of it, there’s another way to keep our meetings short and to the point. Who’s going to monologue for a half-hour if they have to stand the whole time? Brilliant, right?
  • Please stop using PowerPoint. Look, if your slide has a bullet that reads, “Q1 objective: improve customer service,” then chances are you’re just going to stand next to it and say, “So, our Q1 objective is to improve customer service.” How many ways do you think we need to receive that information?
  • Don’t list anyone on your meeting-invitee list as “Optional.” Either they belong there or they don’t. In fact, if you’re organizing the meeting you should have to include a one-sentence statement explaining why each invitee is actually “Required” to attend. And if you can’t, you shouldn’t be able to invite them.

If you’d like to discuss this matter or have additional ideas of how we can improve our meetings, please shoot me an email, or send me a text, or instant message me, or leave me a voicemail, or post a message for me on the department intranet. I probably won’t be able to respond for a few hours, though. You know how it is — back-to-back meetings.