Words Matter

Advice on Communicating (Learned the Hard Way)

How cliches can fail — 03/24/2012

How cliches can fail

On a conference call the other day a colleague made a reference to the “800-pound gorilla in the room.”

The next day, I was talking with a client about a video script I was writing for their new product, and the client asked me to include a visual reference to the “900-pound gorilla.”

Did they mean the same thing? Not even close. When it came to this metaphorical gorilla, these two people would have disagreed about a lot more than his weight.

So I took an unscientific poll among colleagues and clients, people in various professions. My question: What does “the [really fat] gorilla” mean?

Some responses:

-A large corporation or entity that’s so big everything it does affects everyone around it
-A huge issue that no one wants to acknowledge or address

Now, I’ve also heard “the elephant in the room” and “the 300-pound elephant in the room” used the same way as that last response — a huge issue everyone prefers to ignore.

So… because these concepts can have different meanings, and because smart people seem to have very strong ideas of what they should mean, I’d suggest you avoid using any of the following phrases (unless you’re certain the person you’re speaking with or writing to knows exactly what you mean):

[Really fat] gorilla
[Really fat] gorilla in the room
Elephant in the room
[Really fat] elephant in the room
[Any really fat, large animal in or out of a room]

New Money Savvy Teen article published — 03/17/2012
You should own at least one of these style guides — 03/13/2012

You should own at least one of these style guides

If your job involves using a computer and you have a company email address, you should have a writer’s style guide nearby at all times.

The best are:

AP Stylebook (published by the Associated Press)

MLA Handbook (published by Modern Language Association)

The Gregg Reference Manual

For federal workers, the most appropriate might be the GPO Style Manual (published by the Government Printing Office), which lists style and grammar guidelines approved specifically by the federal government.

New plagiarism article on Fedsmith.com — 03/08/2012
Write around the problem — 03/06/2012

Write around the problem

Writer’s trick: If you get stuck on a grammar or style issue, sometimes the smart thing to do is just find another way to write it.

Example: Say you’re writing about two unhealthy options, and you find yourself stuck when you write “Neither….” Should it be “Neither are healthy?” or “Neither is healthy?”

You can do some research. Google is usually very helpful here — your search phrase could simply be “is it neither is or neither are?”

But sometimes the answer doesn’t jump right out at you. And sometimes you’ll find several seemingly credible sources, each giving conflicting answers.

If you’re not sure, and you don’t want to write it incorrectly, maybe the best thing to do is to write, “Both of these choices are unhealthy.” Problem solved.

(It’s “neither is,” by the way. “Neither” calls for a singular.)

Answers to some common writing questions — 03/05/2012

Answers to some common writing questions

Many readers of my FedSmith article, “Stuck on a Grammatical Question? Try These Tips,” took me up on my offer to contact me with their nagging grammar and style questions. I’ve paraphrased some of the best questions below, along with my answers.

Carolyn asks if she can write dates using a numbers-only format (03/09/2009), or if the only acceptable way is to write out the month (March 9, 2009).

It’s best to write out the month (March 9, 2009), and for good reason. Different regions of the world read dates differently. Europe, for example, uses dd/mm/yy, as opposed to the mm/dd/yy that we use stateside. So “07/03/10″ would mean March 7 in France but July 3 in the US.

Imagine trying to arrange an international conference call this way. Some poor attendee is going to be months late!

Note: You can abbreviate several of the months: Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov. and Dec. Spell out the rest.

Debra wants to know which version is correct: “lets” or “let’s.”

My answer is that both are correct – in different contexts.

If you’re using it in the “let’s go” or “let’s have a party” context, use the apostrophe. That’s because “let’s” is a contraction of “let” and “us.” You’re actually saying let us go or let us have a party. Think of “let’s” as a suggestion or instruction.

You’d use “lets” (without the apostrophe) as a verb – as in, “This printer lets you print two-sided color documents.” Think of “lets” as a substitute for “allows.”

Mary asks a terrific question: Is it acceptable to use “they” as a singular pronoun (“An employee must inform management of a change in their status…”) in work-related documents?

This is a great question – and tough to answer. The topic has been hotly debated for decades among very smart people. And they’re still debating it.

But the bottom line is, yes, using “they” or “them” for a singular pronoun is acceptable, for a couple of reasons.

1) Political correctness today dictates that a writer cannot use “he” and “him” repeatedly to refer to a generic person. But using “she” over and over isn’t much more acceptable. And alternating between the two sexes is just confusing. So an acceptable solution is to use “they” and “them.”

2) There are times when the sex of the generic person you’re writing about is simply not important or relevant. In those cases, using “they” makes perfect sense.

Don’t let your meeting become a “meaningless jargon update” — 03/01/2012
Why meetings fail —

Why meetings fail

Meetings can fail for an infinite number of reasons, but I’d group them into three main categories:

1) They’re “Meaningless Jargon Updates.”

You’ve attended these meetings. You go around the room, and everyone gives an update — using their department’s own jargon. The IT folks talk about new server architecture, and the attendees from Human Resources and Marketing start daydreaming about lunch.

2) They’re aimless.

If no one in the room knows why they’re there, or where the meeting is going or what it’s supposed to accomplish, how do they know if things are on track? How do they know what they should be talking about, or taking away from the discussion? Time to start daydreaming about lunch again.

3) They fail to motivate or inspire.

It usually comes down to this last reason: no one in the room feels inspired. They don’t care. They just want the meeting to end.

The best way to inspire in a meeting (or as a manager or executive generally) is to show your team how what they’re doing connects to the larger picture.

If you call a staff meeting to investigate audio transcription tools, your team will come out of the meeting with tasks.

But if you call a meeting to discuss how you can add a transcript to your company’s videos — so that deaf people can enjoy them too — your team will come out of the meeting with a purpose.

A public-speaking mistake even our president makes — 02/28/2012

A public-speaking mistake even our president makes

President Obama rarely speaks to an audience.

I’m not saying he doesn’t give many speeches. He does. Many, many speeches. Perhaps more than any president in US history. So what do I mean?

Watch him speak. These days (he did this much less while running for president), Obama keeps his gaze up during much of his speeches, as though he were talking to the stars — not to his audience. Sometimes I wonder where those teleprompters are. Built into the ceiling panels? And who’s he supposed to be talking to? The people in the auditorium with him? Astronauts working on the space station?

When you don’t make eye contact with your audience, it’s very hard to connect with them. In fact, you can’t do it.

Of course, Obama is president of the United States. He doesn’t have to care anymore.

But you’re not president. And I’m guessing that any public talk you have to give is more important to you than yet another fundraising speech is to Obama.

It’s a good idea to keep this in mind anytime you have to give a public talk of any kind — even simply standing up to share your department’s update at a staff meeting. Make eye contact. Let your gaze move around the room and spend a few seconds connecting with each person in your audience.

Speaking publicly is scary, no question. Which is why so many of us hide. That’s what we’re doing when we look down at our notes, or at the PowerPoint slide on the screen, or at some spot on the wall above our audience’s heads — anywhere but into the eyes of the people we’re supposed to be talking to.

If you don’t make eye contact with your audience — lots of it — you can’t give a good speech.

Words Matter — 02/25/2012

Words Matter

Donald Trump is still publicly suggesting he might run for president, claiming as one of his key qualifications that he cares about creating jobs. Isn’t this the same guy who tried to trademark the phrase, “You’re Fired!”?