Let’s talk about “checking-the-box”

Most of us have a handful of tasks we don’t see much value in, but we “have” to do them. We often go-through-the-motions on these tasks, “pencil whipping” the paperwork, without much thought or effort.

This may be inevitable, but if we do it too often – or if too many people adopt this mindset – our organization’s culture will suffer.

Here are twelve questions to get people talking (and thinking) about how we can overcome this “check-the-box” mentality.

Regarding tasks, paperwork and forms

  • What are some things we do around here where we “go through the motions”? Maybe it’s a form we have to fill out or a task we do, but our heart isn’t into it.
  • Why is this activity such a hassle? What gets in the way of us taking it more seriously or putting more effort into it?
  • What’s the downside of doing tasks this way… what’s the risk we face if we do this too often?
  • Why was this task started in the first place? What was the intention behind it? Was there a problem someone was trying to solve? What’s your best guess as to why we started doing this?
  • If you were in charge around here, how would you solve that problem? How would you make sure folks did the right thing regarding this problem?
  • This task isn’t going away – how can we do it better? How can we make it less of a hassle, but still do it well?

Regarding meetings, trainings or reviews

  • What’s your understanding of the intention of this meeting? Why do we get together like this?
  • Generally speaking: what happens at this meeting? What do we talk about most often? Who does the most / least talking? Are there questions and conversation or is it mostly presentation?
  • How could we get more interaction and conversation during this meeting? How can we get more people more involved?
  • What happens as a result of this meeting? What do people do (or not do) because we met? If we stopped meeting, what would (or wouldn’t) happen?
  • Do we have to have this meeting? If we cancelled it, how would we accomplish the intention?
  • What’s something we could do to make this meeting more effective – to make it serve its intention better? 

Interested in learning more? Make routine activities matter? We’re ready to help. 

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com

Tell me again: why are we doing this?

It’s a distressingly familiar sensation. We find ourselves sitting in a meeting, filling out a form, or prepping for a presentation and we ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this? What’s the value here? Who thought this was a good use of my time? There has to be a better way.”

The irony is that most of these situations started with a good idea: a new meeting to ensure coordination, a new process to improve communication, new software to capture and record vital information, a new training program to establish shared understanding. New requirements start out strong: people understand the intention of the new paperwork, team review or orientation session so they’re willing to put up with the extra work.

But inevitably, new processes lose momentum: the reason behind the extra work is forgotten and complaints arise. Do we really need to do this? Isn’t there a better way? 

The organization usually responds in one of three ways:

  • Compliance. Folks at the “top” see value in the process, so in order to ensure it is followed, they measure compliance. The focus shifts away from the intention of the process and towards demonstrating that the process has been followed. Take this path often enough and team-members get the message: what matters here is the paperwork; check all the boxes and the bosses will be happy.
  • Optionality. Folks at the “top” are sympathetic to the complaints, so they stop forcing the issue. They look the other way or duck tough conversations about rules and processes. Do this too often and word spreads: some things matter here, and others don’t – it all depends on what your boss wants.
  • Flavor-of-the-month. Folks at the “top” are committed to improving, so they convene a group of smart people to come up with a new good idea to address the complaints. And the cycle begins anew: a new meeting is scheduled, a process is revised, software is purchased and a training program is launched. Do this often enough and people begin to get it: what matters here are initiatives and programs and whatever ideas the bosses come up with each month.

This may be a cynical take on management and bureaucracy, but think about your own organization: think about the “rituals” your people follow each day, week, month and quarter. How often are folks going through the motions, pencil-whipping forms, deciding which rules to follow and chasing a silver-bullet system improvement?

The answer involves two vital, yet subtle forms of leadership:

  • Clarity of intention. It’s not enough for management to focus on desired results and necessary actions – leadership must also ensure team-members understand why these results and actions matter. Most companies have a mission or vision statement – the same clarity of intention is needed throughout the organization. The most effective leaders don’t talk about what to do and how to do it… they talk about why! They clarify and communicate the intention of meetings, processes, systems and programs.
  • Engagement of People. It’s tempting to view organizations like machines – collections of processes we can adjust and redesign. But work occurs through people not processes. Improvement begins with engaging people – asking them for their needs, for their ideas and their support.

The next time you find yourself asking, “Why are we doing this?” or the next time someone on your team says, “Isn’t there a better way?” pause for a moment and consider intention. What was the good idea that led to this requirement; what was the problem this was intended to solve? And then think about engagement. What conversation can we have to help people understand why this matters and is worth doing well?

People, more than processes, hold the solutions to our most perplexing organizational issues. Before we chase a new idea, lets engage our people in a conversation about why.

Interested in learning more? Ready to overcome compliance, optionality and flavor-of-the-month in your organization? We’re ready to help. 

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com

Stop checking-the-box! Making routine tasks matter

If you work for an organization of any size, chances are you do tasks that are “mandatory” but not especially useful or valuable; most people have recurring responsibilities they resent, so they do the bare minimum.

  • A form or checklist that must be filled out each day even though none of the information has changed since yesterday.
  • A meeting you must attend each week despite the fact that you have nothing to add to the conversation.
  • A training all employees are required to attend even though the subject has nothing to do with you or your work.

These “check-the-box”, “go-through-the-motions”, “pencil-whipping” exercises are toxic. They send a message to employees: “this company doesn’t really care about you, your time or the quality of work we do… what matters is completing the paper-work, signing the roster, proving that you were present.”

So I say, STOP IT! QUIT DOING THOSE THINGS! TELL YOUR BOSS WHERE THEY CAN FILE THAT FORM! BOYCOTT THE MEETING! PICKET THE TRAINING! STAND UP FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR TEAM! UP WITH PEOPLE! STICK IT TO THE MAN!

Yeah. Ok. Sure. Not going to happen, right? If you’ve worked for an organization of any size you know the Golden Rule: the folks who pass out the gold get to make the rules. 

Here’s the thing: there are ways to make these tasks less toxic. We can meet these requirements without undermining our organization’s culture. As a leader, it’s up to you to put an end to “checking-the-box” and counter the destructive message these tasks send. Here’s how:

Find the Intention: 

Every form, meeting and training began as a good idea. Somewhere, maybe a long time ago, someone faced a problem and the solution was the requirement you now resent:

  • “We need folks to think through their task before going to work… let’s give them a form they can follow to make sure they consider every aspect of the task.”
  • “It’d go better if folks got together regularly to share information and ideas… let’s schedule a meeting and make sure each department is included.”
  • “This information is so important… let’s invest whatever time it takes to ensure every employee is exposed to this information and understands what to do.” 

If you’ve got a “check the box” task, ask yourself, “What was the intention here? Why did someone think this was a good idea?”

Commit to the Intention: 

Commit to doing the task in a way that achieves that intention.  

People ahead of Paperwork: 

Fulfilling the intention for these tasks usually involves people thinking, talking and listening to each other… so make that the focus. 

If your team is required to fill in a form each day, ask them about the content of the form, before asking if the form is complete. If you attend a mandatory meeting, speak up and ask questions… don’t sit in the back with your arms crossed. And if you’re scheduled for mandatory training, give it a sincere shot – challenge yourself to, you know, learnsomething rather than looking to sign the roster and leave early.

What about “CYA” processes? 

If you’ve worked for an organization of any size, chances are you have to do some tasks where the intention includes managing liability – documenting activity to protect the company in case of an inspection, audit or lawsuit. 

Here’s a pro-tip for those soul-crushing tasks: suck it up. Quit complaining and get behind it. 

Ask someone who’s been deposed by lawyers or called to testify in a trial whether they wished they had more or less documentation with them; ask them how they feel about the time spent filling in permits, datasheets and rosters, having spent time in a courthouse. They’ll tell you the paperwork that once seemed like a hassle was worth its weight in gold once the lawyers got involved.

Conclusion

Regardless of our job title, we have an affect how our teammates think, feel, talk and behave. If we want work to be fulfilling and engaging, it’s up to each of us to choose our attitude. “Checking-the-box” is a toxic mentality; it undermines commitment to people and quality. Don’t complain about the hassle or moan about the extra work. Choose to find the value in these tasks; commit to fulfilling the intention; and most importantly, put people ahead of the paperwork.

Interested in learning more? Ready to put an end to pencil-whipping where you work? We’re ready to help. This article first appeared on www.humanus-solutions.com

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com

www.humanus-solutions.com

The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy

by Chris Bailey

Excerpts:

Efficiency is no longer enough. When you have more to do than ever before, less time to do it, and unparalleled freedom and flexibility with how you get it done, productivity is no longer about how efficiently you work. Productivity is about how much you accomplish. That requires you to work smarter instead and manage your time, attention, and energy better than ever before.

Part One LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

WHERE TO START
Everyone likes the idea of becoming more productive and making positive changes to his or her life. But in practice, both are tough, and having a deep, meaningful reason for becoming more productive will help you sustain your motivation in the long run.

NOT ALL TASKS ARE CREATED EQUAL
Not all tasks are created equal; there are certain tasks in your work that, for every minute you spend on them, let you accomplish more than your other tasks. Taking a step back from your work to identify your highest-impact tasks will let you invest your time, attention, and energy in the right things.

THREE DAILY TASKS
The absolute best technique I’ve found to work deliberately and with intention every day is the Rule of 3. The rule is simple: at the beginning of each day, before you start working, decide what three things you want to accomplish by the end of the day. Do the same at the start of every week.

READY FOR PRIME TIME
When you take the time to observe how your energy fluctuates over the course of the day, you can work on your highest-impact tasks during your Biological Prime Time—when you are able to bring the most energy and focus to them. In a similar way, tracking how you spend your time over a week will let you see how intelligently you use your time, and how well you focus throughout the day.

Part Two WASTING TIME

COZYING UP TO UGLY TASKS
Procrastination is human. The biggest reason your highest-impact tasks are so valuable is that they are often more intimidating; they almost always require more time, attention, and energy than your lower-impact tasks. They’re typically also more boring, frustrating, difficult, unstructured, and lacking in intrinsic rewards—which all act as triggers for procrastination.

MEET YOURSELF…FROM THE FUTURE
The more you see your “future self” (you, only in the future) as a stranger, the more likely you are to give your future self the same workload that you would give a stranger, and put things off to tomorrow. It’s important to get in touch with your future self, by doing things like sending a letter to future you, creating a “ future memory,” or even downloading an app that will show you what you look like in the future.

WHY THE INTERNET IS KILLING YOUR PRODUCTIVITY
The internet can destroy your productivity if you’re not careful. The best way I have found to prevent the internet from wasting my time has been to simply disconnect from it when working on a high-impact or ugly task, and to disconnect as much as possible throughout the day. After getting over the initial withdrawal, the calm and productivity you’ll experience will be unlike anything else.

Part Three THE END OF TIME MANAGEMENT

THE TIME ECONOMY
When time was “created” by the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, the universe had a past, present, and future for the first time. Measuring time first became important during the industrial revolution, when factory owners needed their workers to arrive on time. Today, in the knowledge economy, if you want to become more productive, managing your time should take a backseat to how you manage your energy and attention.

WORKING LESS
When you work consistently long hours, or spend too much time on tasks, that’s usually not a sign that you have too much to do—it’s a sign that you’re not spending your energy and attention wisely. As one example, during my experiment to work ninety-hour workweeks, I found I accomplished only a bit more than when I worked twenty-hour workweeks.

ENERGY ENLIGHTENMENT
Some time management is inevitable, but you’ll accomplish a lot more when you work on your most important and meaningful tasks when you have the most energy—not when you have the most time. Figure out when your prime time is; it’s sacred, and it’s worth spending wisely.

CLEANING HOUSE
Gathering your maintenance tasks together and tackling them all at once is the perfect antidote to being a perfectionist about the wrong things. Nonetheless, maintenance tasks, or Maintenance Days, are essential if you want to have a life that’s healthy and productive.  I simply collect all of my low-return maintenance tasks on a list an do them all at once.

  • Grocery shopping
  • Review my Accomplishments List
  • Review my hot spots
  • Clear out all my inboxes
  • Define three outcomes for the week ahead ( this page )
  • Review my “Waiting For” list
  • Review my projects, and define next steps ( this page )
  • Read articles I’ve saved up throughout the week
  • Water plants
  • Prepare lunches in Tupperware containers for the week
  • Do laundry
  • Trim beard and shave
  • Create a meal and workout plan
  • Clean house and office

Part Four THE ZEN OF PRODUCTIVITY

Support tasks like checking email are likely a necessary evil for your workday, but shrinking how much time, attention, and energy you spend on them is one key to increasing your productivity. By creating more time and space around your highest-return activities, you become more creative, focused, and productive.

SHRINKING THE UNIMPORTANT
Every single support task in your work can be either shrunk, delegated, or even, in a few rare cases, eliminated entirely. After you have a better grip on how much time and attention you spend on your problem tasks, the maintenance tasks in your work are a lot easier to deal with.

REMOVING THE UNIMPORTANT
The word no is a powerful tool in your productivity tool kit. While time is no longer money in the knowledge economy, money can buy you time when you spend it intelligently. For every low-impact task, project, and commitment you say no to, you say yes to working on your most valuable tasks.

Part Five QUIET YOUR MIND

EMPTYING YOUR BRAIN
Externalizing your tasks and writing them down is a powerful way to free up mental space and get organized. Performing a “brain dump” not only reduces stress and helps you focus, it also motivates you to action.

RISING UP
Doing a weekly review of your tasks and accomplishments not only gives you a better perspective on your wins and the areas you need to improve, it also gives you more control over your life. Adding in “hot spots” is a powerful addition to this technique that will keep you on the right path.  We have seven areas in which we invest our time (and attention and energy) every day:

  • Mind
  • Fun
  • Relationships
  • Finances
  • Career
  • Emotions
  • Body

A simple list of your seven hot spots, of course, isn’t all that powerful. But when you expand the areas—to list all the commitments you have in each part of your life—the list springs to life.

The basic idea behind the technique is that once a week you review your list of hot spots, to think about how much time you spent in each one during the previous week, and to think about what to focus on and think about in the week ahead.

Every Maintenance Day, I look through the expanded areas of my life and ask myself a few questions:

  • What do I need to spend more time on next week?
    • What did I spend too much time on last week?
    • What do I need to schedule or do next week?
    • What do I have to be mindful of next week?
    • What are some unresolved issues I’m having in each area?
    • What opportunities do I have in each of my hot spots next week?
    • What obstacles will get in the way of my goals next week?
    • Am I going in the right direction with all my commitments?
    • Are there any commitments I need to add or remove? Expand or shrink?
    • What did I knock out of the park last week?

MAKING ROOM
Letting your mind wander without distraction, such as when you’re in the shower, is beneficial for brainstorming, problem solving, and becoming more creative.

Part Six THE ATTENTION MUSCLE

BECOMING MORE DELIBERATE
Research shows we only focus on what’s in front of us 53 percent of the time. Developing a strong “attention muscle” is what makes it possible to focus more on the task at hand, which lets us spend our time and attention more efficiently in the moment.

ATTENTION HIJACKERS
Dealing with distractions before they happen, like by shutting off alerts on your phone for new messages, helps you avoid attention-hijacking interruptions. It can take as many as twenty-five minutes to refocus on the task at hand after being interrupted.

THE ART OF DOING ONE THING
Single tasking is one of the best ways to tame a wandering mind, because it helps you build up your “attention muscle” and carve out more attentional space around the task you are tackling in the moment. It is also a powerful tool for improving your memory. Just as working out in the gym builds the muscles in your body, continually drawing your attention back to your chosen task has been shown to build your attention muscle.

THE MEDITATION CHAPTER
Practicing mind-fulness and meditation makes you more productive because it makes your mind calmer, happier, and more focused. Meditation is also far less intimidating than you imagine.

Part Seven TAKING PRODUCTIVITY TO THE NEXT LEVEL

The power of incremental improvements lies in the fact that although they’re not significant by themselves, week after week, month after month, they add up to produce results in the long term that will blow you away. Small changes lead to big results, especially when food is involved.

DRINKING FOR ENERGY
Luckily, what is good for your brain is good for your body. To drink for energy, drink fewer alcoholic and sugary drinks, drink more water (which is incredible for your brain health), and learn to drink caffeine strategically, when you’ll actually benefit from the energy boost—not habitually.

THE EXERCISE PILL
The amount of energy and focus that exercise provides you with in return for your time is incredible, and easily worth the challenge of integrating an exercise routine into your life. After you feel how much of an impact exercise has on your brain, I think you’ll want to continue with a routine, if only to make the feeling last.

SLEEPING YOUR WAY TO PRODUCTIVITY
Although cutting back on sleep saves you time, any amount of sleep you lose below the amount your body requires is not worth the productivity cost. For every hour of sleep you miss out on, you lose at least two hours of productivity—the costs associated with not getting enough sleep are that great.

Part Eight THE FINAL STEP

Over the course of my project, I discovered a number of fun ways to take it easy on myself as I invested in my productivity, often after unnecessarily beating myself up for not accomplishing the goals I set. Oddly enough, you may feel less productive—or if you’re like me, even guilty—as you become kinder to yourself. But doing so will allow you to accomplish more at the end of the day because you’ll continue to stay motivated.

  1. Disconnect from productivity more often
  2. Recall three things you’re grateful for
  3. Journal about a positive experience you had
  4. Break tasks down
  5. Ask yourself for advice
  6. Reward yourself
  7. Know You Can Grow
  8. Create an Accomplishments List
  9. Look at pictures of cute baby animals

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

by James Clear

Excerpts:

It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success.  You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.  

Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life is to set specific, actionable goals.  Results have very little to do with the goals we set and nearly everything to do with the systems we follow.   If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is yoursystem

Changing our habits is challenging for two reasons: (1) we try to change the wrong thing and (2) we try to change our habits in the wrong way.

There are three layers of behavior change: a change in your outcomes, a change in your processes, or a change in your identity.

Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.

Behind every system of actions is a system of beliefs.  Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last.  The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wantsthis. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who isthis.

Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins.  Identity change is the North Star of habit change. The true question is: “Are you becoming the type of person you want to become?” The first step is not what or how, but who.

The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.  The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It is a bit of information that predicts a reward.  Without some level of motivation or desire—without craving a change—we have no reason to act.  The response is the actual habit you perform, which can take the form of a thought or an action. Whether a response occurs depends on how motivated you are and how much friction is associated with the behavior.  Rewards are the end goal of every habit. The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. 

How to Create a Good Habit 

  • The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious. 
  • The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive. 
  • The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy. 
  • The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.

The cues that can trigger a habit come in a wide range of forms but the two most common cues are timeand location.  Broadly speaking, the format for creating an implementation intention is: “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”

People who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow through.  Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. It is not always obvious when and where to take action.  When the moment of action occurs, there is no need to make a decision. Simply follow your predetermined plan.

When it comes to building new habits, you can use the connectedness of behavior to your advantage. One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top.This is called habit stacking.

The habit stacking formula is: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”

Habit stacking works best when the cue is highly specific and immediately actionable.

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. You don’t have to be the victim of your environment. You can also be the architect of it.  Unfortunately, the environments where we live and work often make it easy not to do certain actions because there is no obvious cue to trigger the behavior.  Habits can be easier to change in a new environment. A stable environment where everything has a place and a purpose is an environment where habits can easily form.

You can break a habit, but you’re unlikely to forget it. Simply resisting temptation is an ineffective strategy. The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least.It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. A more reliable approach is to cut bad habits off at the source. One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it.

The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.

If you want to increase the odds that a behavior will occur, then you need to make it attractive.

Dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it.  We need to make our habits attractive because it is the expectation of a rewarding experience that motivates us to act in the first place.

The habit stacking + temptation bundling formula is: After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

There is nothing magical about time passing with regard to habit formation.It doesn’t matter if it’s been twenty-one days or thirty days or three hundred days. What matters is the rate at which you perform the behavior.

You’ll find that nearly any habit can be scaled down into a two-minute version:  Make it easy to start and the rest will follow.  Start by mastering the first two minutes of the smallest version of the behavior. Then, advance to an intermediate step and repeat the process—focusing on just the first two minutes and mastering that stage before moving on to the next level. 

A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. It is a way to lock in future behavior, bind you to good habits, and restrict you from bad ones.

When working in your favor, automation can make your good habits inevitable and your bad habits impossible. It is the ultimate way to lock in future behavior rather than relying on willpower in the moment. By utilizing commitment devices, strategic onetime decisions, and technology, you can create an environment of inevitability—a space where good habits are not just an outcome you hope for but an outcome that is virtually guaranteed.

The first three laws of behavior change—make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it easy—increase the odds that a behavior will be performed this time. The fourth law of behavior change—make it satisfying—increases the odds that a behavior will be repeated next time. It completes the habit loop.

Making progress is satisfying, and visual measures—like moving paper clips or hairpins or marbles—provide clear evidence of your progress. As a result, they reinforce your behavior and add a little bit of immediate satisfaction to any activity. Visual measurement comes in many forms: food journals, workout logs, loyalty punch cards, the progress bar on a software download, even the page numbers in a book. But perhaps the best way to measure your progress is with a habit tracker.

There is a version of every habit that can bring you joy and satisfaction. Find it. Habits need to be enjoyable if they are going to stick. 

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

by Carol Dweck

Excerpts

Before we get started:

Read each statement and decide whether you mostly agree or disagree.

  1. Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.  
  2. You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.  
  3. No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.  
  4. You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.

The main idea

A simple belief about yourself guides a large part of your life.  In fact, it permeate severy part of your life. Much of what you think of as your personality actually grows out of your mindset

The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.  It can determine whether you become the person you want to be accomplish the things you value.

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixedmindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.  If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.  It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics. Every situation calls for a confirmation of intelligence, personality, or character.  Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail?  Will I look smart or dumb?  Will I be accepted or rejected?  Will I feel like a winner or a loser?

The growthmindset is based on the belief that basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others.  Although people may differ in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.  The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.  This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

Which mindset do you have?  

Go back to the four statements: which did you mostly agree with? Statements 1 and 2 indicate a fixedmindset.  Statements 3 and 4 reflect a growthmindset.

It’s not only your abilities or intelligence; it’s your personal qualities too.  Look at these statements about personality and character and decide whether you mostly agree or mostly disagree with each one.  

  1. You are a certain kind of person, and there is not much that can be done to really change that.  
  2. No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially.  
  3. You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t really be changed.  
  4. You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.  

Here, statements 1 and 3 are the fixed mindset and 2 and 4 reflect the growth mindset.

Some key points

Mindsets are an important part of your personality, but you can change them.  Just by knowing about the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in new ways.

All of us have elements of both — we’re all a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets.

The way we praise people – the feedback we give them, affects their mindset and their performance.  In the fixedmindset, both positive and negative labels can mess with your mind. When you’re given a positive label, you’re afraid of losing it, and when you’re hit with a negative label, you’re afraid of deserving it.  When people are in a growthmindset, the stereotype doesn’t disrupt their performance. They don’t believe in permanent inferiority.  If they are behind — well, then they’ll work harder, seek help, and try to catch up.

The best way to develop a growthmindset set in others is to praise effortrather than ability; evaluate people based on their ability to learnrather than traits like intelligence;  reward perseverance and overcoming challenges rather than outstanding results. 

Companies have mindsets

Which of these statements best describes your company? 

  1. When it comes to being successful, this company seems to believe that people have a certain amount of talent, and they can’t really do much to change it.
  2. This company values natural intelligence and business talent more than any other characteristics. 
  3. This company genuinely values the personal development and growth of its employees. 

Statements 1 and 2 indicate a fixedmindset; 3 indicates a growthmindset

People who work in growthmindset organizations have far more trust in their company and a much greater sense of empowerment, ownership, and commitment; they feel that their organization supports risk-taking, innovation, and creativity; and they have more positive views of the company.

Supervisors in growthmindset companies have significantly more positive views of their employees; they see their team members as having far greater management potential than did supervisors infixedmindset companies.

Changing your mindset

Just learning about the growth mindset can cause a big shift in the way people think about themselves and their lives.

Begin by accepting your fixed mindset. We’re all a mixture of growth and fixed mindsets and we need to acknowledge that.

The second step is to learn what triggers your fixed mindset. It could be… 

  • when you’re thinking about taking on a big, new challenge.
  • when you’re struggling with something and you keep hitting dead ends.
  • when you feel like you’ve failed decisively.
  • when you encounter someone who’s better than you in an area you pride yourself on.
  • when you encounter certain people and judge or label them.

Now give your fixed mindset a name – pick any name you like – but name it.  This makes it easier to manage and change your mindset. 

Now, educate that mindset. 

When you hit a setback, don’t suppress your fixed mindset.  Let it do its thing, and when it settles down a bit, talk to it about how you plan to learn from the setback and go forward : “Yes, yes, it’s possible that I’m not so good at this (yet), but I think I have an idea of what to do next.  Let’s just try it.”

Remember that your fixed mindset was born to protect you and keep you safe.  But it has developed some very limiting ways of doing that.  So educate it in the new growth mindset ways that it can support you: in taking on challenges and sticking to them, bouncing back from failure, and helping and supporting others to grow.  Understand the persona’s point of view, but slowly teach it a different way of thinking, and take it with you on your journey to a growth mindset.

Discussion questions:

  • When we praise people here, whatdo we praise?  Are we promoting a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?
  • How did you answer the questions about this company’s mindset?  Do we have a fixed or growth mindset here?  Why do you say that?
  • What about yourself?  We all have some amount of fixed and growthmindset.  Which one do you use most often here at work?
  • What are some areas where you’ve got a fixed mindset?  It might be about yourself (“well, I am what I am and this is the best I can do”) or about others (“that’s just who they are – and they’re not going to change”)?
  • Think about the best boss you’ve ever had… what type of mindset did they have?  How did they show it?
  • Think about the best team you’ve ever been on… what was the mindset there?  How was that mindset established?
  • What would it take for us to establish a growth mindset within this team?  What would we have to do?  How can we support each other?

Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content

By Ann Handley

Excerpts…

Introduction

In our world, many hold a notion that the ability to write, or write well, is a gift bestowed on a chosen few.  The truth is this: writing well is part habit, part knowledge of some fundamental rules, and part giving a damn.  We are all capable of producing good writing.  Or, at least, better writing. 

But I’m Not a Writer

If you have a website, you are a publisher. If you are on social media, you are in marketing.  And that means we are all writers.  Our writing can make us look smart or it can make us look stupid.  It can make us seem fun, or warm, or competent, or trustworthy. But it can also make us seem humdrum or discombobulated or flat-out boring.

And so being able to communicate well in writing isn’t just nice; it’s a necessity.  And it’s also the oft-overlooked cornerstone of nearly all content marketing.

What Is Content?

Content is essentially everything your customer or prospect touches or interacts with — including your own online properties and Web pages and the experiences they offer, but also everything on any social channel (like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and so on).

Good writing is …  

  • that gets noticed, no matter what form that content ultimately takes.
  • that’s an antidote to the complexity that can sometimes characterize our business world.
  •  “Good writing … is a matter of developing the skills of intuitive psychology that are so important in every other aspect of social life: getting inside the heads of other people so that you can respect their needs and their wants,” writes psychologist Steven Pinker.

Quality content means content that is packed with clear utilityand is brimming with inspiration, and it has relentless empathyfor the audience: 

Utility × Inspiration × Empathy = Quality Content

Writing Rules: How to Write Better (and How to Hate Writing Less )

Everybody Writes

The key to taking your writing muscles from puny to brawny is to write every day.  You probably already do write every day.  You write emails; you post to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram; you comment on blogs.  Recognize all that posting for what it is: writing. And reframe it as a legit aspect of your daily workout — in the same way always taking the stairs becomes, over time, part of a fitness regimen.

I am a writer.  You are a writer.  Everybody writes.

Writing Is a Habit, Not an Art

The key to being a better writer is, essentially, to be a more productive one.  Or more simply, the key to being a better writer is to write.  Set aside time each day when you’re freshest.  I’m freshest first thing in the morning, before distractions hijack my day.  For you it might be different.

Don’t write a lot.  Just write often.

Shed High School Rules

Many of us learned in high school to write what is commonly known as the five-paragraph essay. This might be a perfectly fine structure to help guide a classroom of young writers in middle school.  The problem with its use beyond that, though, is that it’s so structured and formulaic that it’s boring to write and boring to read.

There is no one way to write — just as there is no one way to parent a child or roast a turkey.

Regard Publishing as a Privilege

Every bit of content you create should be to please the customer or prospect — not your boss or client.  So the challenge for companies is to respect their audiences and deliver what the audience needs in a way that’s useful, enjoyable, and inspired.  The challenge is to also keep it tight.  That means claritybrevity, and utility.

Brevitydoesn’t mean bare bones or stripped down.  Take as long as you need to tell the story.  (The length of content is dictated by the kind of content you’re creating.) The notion of brevity has more to do with cutting fat, bloat, and things that indulge the writer and don’t respect the reader’s time.  Keep it tight.

Make it clear.  Don’t make the reader work hard to understand you.  Develop pathological empathy for the reader.  And finally, make it useful.  Readers will read what you write only if something is in it for them.

Place the Most Important Words (and Ideas) at the Beginning of Each Sentence

We tend to junk up the beginning of our sentences with modifiers and qualifiers, making the reader work harder to discern what, exactly, we are saying.  The first words of every sentence should make a friendly first impression to encourage the reader to keep going. The primary idea — the important words — should be placed at the beginning.

Here are some phrases to avoid at the start of a sentence:  

  • According to…  
  • There is a…  
  • It is [important, critical, advised, suggested, and so on]…
  • In my opinion…
  • The purpose of this [email, post, article] is…
  • In 2014 [or any year]… 
  • I think [believe] that… 

You can tack them onto the end, or insert them somewhere in the middle — if you must use them at all.

Follow a Writing GPS

At times, writing can feel like birthing a Volkswagen.  What helps with the uncertainty and enormity of the task is to start with some kind of process to guide the way.

What follows is the 12-step process for any new, longer text you might produce — blog posts, e-books, white papers, site content, and the like.

  1. What’s your business goal?  What are you trying to achieve?  Anything you write should always be aligned with a larger (business or marketing) goal — even an individual blog post.
  2. Reframe the idea to relate it to your readers.  Why does it matter to them?  What’s in it for them?  Why should they care?  What’s the clear lesson or message you want them to take away?  What value do you offer them?  What questions might they have?  What advice or help can you provide?  
    To get to the heart of this reframing, I ask: so what?  And then answer, because.  Repeat the so what / because query and response string as many times as necessary, until you’ve exhausted any ability to come up with an answer.
    Express your reframed idea as a clear message. Then put that at the top of the page,like a bonfire on the beachhead, to remind you where you’re headed.
  3. What credible source supports your main idea?  Are there examples, data, real-world stories, relevant anecdotes, timely developments, or new stories you can cite?
  4. What structure helps communicate your point?  Some options are a list, a how-to guide, and a client narrative.  Organize the outline or general architecture that suits that type of story best.
  5. Imagine the one person you’re helping with this piece of writing.  And then write directly to that person (using you, as opposed to using people or they).
  6. Producing The Ugly First Draft (TUFD) is basically where you show up and throw up.  Write badly.  Write as if no one will ever read it. Don’t worry about grammar, complete sentences, or readability.  Don’t fret about spelling or usage.  You’ll tackle all that later.  For now, just get that TUFD down.
  7. You don’t need to actually go for a walk, of course.  Just put some distance between your first draft and the second.
  8. Shape that mess into something that a reader wants to read.  In your head, swap places with your reader as you do so.
  9. Ideally, the person who edits your piece will have a tight grip on grammar, usage, style, and punctuation.  Like a bona fide editor.
  10. Does your piece look inviting, alluring, and easy to scan?  With short paragraphs and bold subheads?  Are your lists numbered or bulleted?  For the most part, chunky chunks of text feel impenetrable and don’t convey energy and movement.
  11. Don’t leave your readers just standing awkwardly in the middle of the dance floor after the music stops.  What do you want them to do next?  Check out other resources?  Sign up to hear more?  Register for an event or a free trial?  Buy something?

The More the Think, the Easier the Ink

Before you begin the writing, be sure you know the purpose or mission or objective of every piece of content that you write.  What are you trying to achieve?  What information, exactly, are you trying to communicate?  And why should your audience care?

Think before ink means finding your key point by asking three questions about every bit of content you’re creating.

  1. am I creating this?  What’s my objective?
  2. What is my key take on the subject or issue?  What’s my point of view?
  3. And, finally, the critical so what? – becauseexercise: why does it matter to the people you are trying to reach?

Organize.  Relax, You’ve Got This

Good writing is like math: it has logic and structure.  It feels solid to the reader: the writer is in control, having taken on the heavy burden of making a piece of writing clear and accessible.

What works for me is a single line at the top of the page that sums up the main point I’m trying to make.  Then I list some key points that relate to or support my bigger idea.  Then I go back and expand on those ideas in another sentence or two, creating paragraphs. Then I move the paragraphs around, adding transitions between them to create a smooth flow.

How can you organize a blog post or article? Whatever its substance, consider what form you want it to take.  Here are 15 approaches to framing your writing,

  1. Quiz. 
  2. Skeptic.
  3. Explainer.
  4. Case study.
  5. Contrarian.
  6. How-to. 6 ½. Quick How-to.
  7. How NOT to.
  8. First person.
  9. Comparison.
  10. Q & A.
  11. Data.
  12. Man on the street.
  13. Outrageous. 13 ½. BuzzFeed-style outrageous (not advised, but good for a laugh!).
  14. Insider secrets.
  15. Literary treatment.

Embrace The Ugly First Draft

Much of writing paralysis is the result of expecting too much of ourselves the first time out.  Sowing letters onto the blank page and expecting something strong and powerful and fully formed to emerge is unrealistic.  Unless you are some kind of deity, that’s not going to happen.

So embrace The Ugly First Draft as necessary. As painful and depressing as it might be to write badly — at least you’re writing, you’re getting the mess out of your head and onto the screen or paper.

Here’s a timeline to keep in mind: 

  1. Jot down your key ideas as they come to you.  Don’t worry about forming full (or even coherent!) sentences.  If you get stuck, think about what’s sticking.  Do you need more research?  More examples?  Another point?  Reread what you’ve written only to remind yourself of what else you wanted to say, or to add some flesh to the bones of your terrible writing.  Ban self-slandering remarks.  Don’t beat yourself up by saying things like I’m a crappy writeror this is awful.
  2. You’ll feel some relief at getting the first draft out — but you might also feel frustrated by your TUFD.
  3. When you do get back to it, you might be horrified.  Take the best parts of your draft and use them in your final product.

Swap Places with Your Reader

Good writing serves the reader, not the writer. It isn’t self-indulgent.  Good writing anticipates the questions that readers might have as they’re reading a piece, and it answers them.  Relentlessly, unremittingly, obstinately think of things from your readers ‘ point of view, with empathy for the experience you are giving them.

George Orwell wrote: “ A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say?  What words will express it?  What image or idiom will make it clearer?  Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”  And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly?  Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Relentlessly, unremittingly, obstinately focus on the reader. So write your first draft as you usually would — then go back and rework it, swapping places with your readers to consider things from their point of view, with honest empathy for the experience you are giving them.  Ask yourself: what experience is this creating for the reader?  What questions might they have?  Am I making them work too hard to figure out what I am trying to say?

Develop Pathological Empathy

Empathy for the customer experience should be at the root of all of your content, because having a sense of the people you are writing for and a deep understanding of their problems is key to honing your skill. That means you have to meet people where they are, with an attitude of benevolence and largesse, to help them find answers to the problems they have.

Empathy — like writing — isn’t a gift.  It’s a discipline.  It takes some intentional effort and diligence to develop enormous empathy so that you can apply it to your writing.  

  1. Spend time with your customers or prospects.
  2. Understand their habitat.
  3. Be a natural skeptic.
  4. Ask why they do it.
  5. Share story, not just stats.
  6. Use a customer-centric POV.  Replace I or we with you to shift the focus to the customer’s point of view.  Then write (or rewrite) accordingly.

Company-centric: We offer accelerated application development.  
Customer-centric: Deploy an app to the cloud at lunch hour.  And still have time to eat.  

Company-centric: We are the leading global B2B research and advisory firm.  We deliver actionable intelligence, strategic and operational frameworks and personal guidance from experienced practitioners.
Customer-centric: Make better business decisions based on actionable insight and years of experience placed at your disposal.

Company-centric: A Better Way to Learn How to Cook. 
Customer-centric: Become a Cook in 30 Days.

‘Cross Out the Wrong Words ’

You’ve already done the hard part of setting down the words.  Now comes the easier (and, for some, less anxiety-inducing) part of distilling it to its essence — or, crossing out the wrong words and the unnecessary words, and sometimes finding better ones to use.  There are two approaches to self-editing: Developmental editing, which I call editing by chainsaw.  Here’s where you look at the big picture.  Line editing, which I call editing by surgical tools.  Here’s where you look at paragraph and sentence flow, word choice, usage, and so on.

Editing by chainsaw. First, ignore the grammar and specific words you’ve used, and focus on the bigger stuff.

  • State your key idea as clearly as you can near the start.
  • Slash anything that feels extraneous — if it doesn’t support your main point or further your argument, or if it distracts from the key point.  (Even if it’s a good story or anecdote.)  Make every paragraph earn its keep.
  • Make every sentence earn its keep.
  • Move things around.
  • Think of the sentences in a paragraph as a conversation between an elderly, companionable couple.  They don’t talk over each other; they expand or elucidate what the other before them said

Editing with surgical tools. Next, turn off the chainsaw and turn back to the words.

  • Trim the bloat and fat.
  •  Shed the obvious.
  •  Lose Frankenwords, word additives, clichés, and words pretending to be something they’re not.
  •  Trim word bloat.
  •  Ditch adverbs unless they are necessary to adjust the meaning.
  •  Ditch weakling verbs in favor of stronger, ripped ones.
  •  Create transitions between paragraphs.
  •  Draw natural connections between paragraphs.

Start with Dear Mom

The fear of the blank page is the number one cliché in writing.  More often than not, writer’s block — or the reluctance to begin — is rooted in fear and anxiety about knowing where, exactly, to start.  I get that, because I procrastinate, too.  I might not believe in writer’s block, but I do believe in writer’s evasion.

John McPhee suggests the trick of typing Dear Mother to neuter the fear of the blank page.  If you’re a marketing or business writer, you can adapt that approach by thinking of your favorite customer.

If You Take a Running Start, Cover Your Tracks

At the beginning of a piece, many of us take too long to delve into the topic.  We offer too much setup and background.  In other words, we take a metaphorical running start on the page — before getting to the real starting point.

One of my professors in college used to routinely lop off the first paragraph or two from our essays.  Usually that barely affected the meaning — but greatly improved that first impression I talk about elsewhere here.

Can you trim the start, or lop it off completely? Does doing that help the reader get into the heart of things more quickly?

‘A Good Lede Invites You to the Party and a Good Kicker Makes You Wish You Could Stay Longer’

Give special love to the first and last sentences of your piece — the opening and closing, or the lede and kicker — in traditional journalism terms.

A good lead, then, sets the tone for your writing and hooks the reader into wanting to know more.  Here are some options:  

  • Put your reader into the story.
  • Describe a problem your reader can relate to.
  • Set a stage.
  • Ask a question.
  • Quote a crazy or controversial bit of data.
  • Tell a story or relay a personal anecdote.
  • Other ideas.  You could do other things, too.  Start with a quote.  Use an analogy.  Make a bold statement.  Whatever you do, do it up — because your lead sentence or sentences are among the most important words you’ll string together.

I’d put closings, or kickers, as a close second in importance to the lead.  Finish strong, with a call to action (if appropriate) and a sense of completion, rather than merely trailing off as if you ran out of steam.

Show, Don’t Tell

Good content — and good writing — doesn’t preach or hard-sell.  Instead, it shows how your product or service lives in the world, explaining in human terms how it adds value to people’s lives, eases troubles, shoulders burdens, and meets needs.  In other words, don’t talk about your features, benefits, and shining moons.  Tell me — better yet, show me — why they matter to me.

Specific details make content vibrant, and they add a necessary human element that makes your content more relatable.

  • Recast the biggest takeaway of the piece.
  • Add an element of tonal surprise.
  • Let others have the last word.

Especially in a business-to-business scenario, specific details can help put flesh and blood on the dry bones of a so-called solution, making it real and palpable to the people you are trying to reach.  It’s particularly effective in giving personality to case studies and customer testimonials.

Approach Writing Like Teaching

Good, pathologically empathic writing strives to explain, to make things a little bit clearer, to make sense of our world — even if it’s just a straightforward product description.

Keep It Simple — but Not Simplistic

Good content deconstructs the complex to make it easily understood: It sheds the corporate Frankenspeak.  It conveys things in concise, human, accessible terms.

Hire a Great Editor

Writers have their name on a work, so they naturally get a lot of credit.  But behind the scenes, a good editor adds a lot to the process.

There are three major types of editors: 

  • Copyeditors / proofreaders, who check facts and wield a push broom to clean up messy style issues, punctuation, typos, misspelling, and so on.  
  • Substantive editors, who give a piece of writing a higher level read and offer suggestions on how parts of it might be improved or which parts need to be expanded or condensed.
  • Line editors, who comb through a piece to correct grammar, word choice, and paragraph and sentence flow — while doing a good deal of rewriting as well, all without overwhelming a writer’s voice.

Be Rabid about Readability

In general, the best Web writing isn’t necessarily short, but it is simple, with …  

  • Shorter paragraphs with no more than three sentences or six lines (and just one is fine).
  • Shorter sentences with no more than 25 words in a sentence. 
  • Straightforward words — in other words, avoid clichés, jargon, and buzzwords (for example, avoid utilize when you can write use, instead).

So …  

  • Use bulleted or numbered lists.   
  • Highlight key points (like this one), either in bold or italic, or as a pull quote.   
  • Use subheadings to break up text.   
  • Add visual elements, such as graphics, photos, slide shows, and so on.   
  • Use lots of white space to give your text room to breathe.
  • (like this one), either in bold or italic, or as a pull quote.   

End on an I-Can’t-Wait-to-Get-Back-to-It Note

I like to end a writing session when things are going well and not when I’m sucking wind, so that the next time I pick up that writing again (to rewrite, edit, or whatever) I have some momentum carrying me into it.

Set a Goal Based on Word Count (Not Time )

Make sure you measure your writing in output (words) rather than in effort expended (time ).

Deadlines Are the WD-40 of Writing

However many words you write per day, at some point you’ve got to be done.  So give yourself a hard deadline.  And then strictly adhere to it.  Be stern with yourself: don’t allow yourself to float it further out, or treat it as a mere suggestion, or disregard it entirely. Do the best work you can by the deadline you’ve set, and then consider your writing project finished.

Writing Rules: Grammar and Usage

Use Real Words

Why do we use buzzwords and jargon?  Those words are the chemical additives of business writing online: You can use them, and maybe one or two used sparingly don’t much matter.  But use too many of them and they become toxic.

Know the Difference between Active and Passive Voice

Verbs in a sentence are either active or passive. Passive means that something is being done to something, instead of that something doing the action on its own.

Using the passive voice is not incorrect, but you’ll vastly improve your writing just by making your sentences active.  Active sounds zippier and more alive.  Passive tends to sound a little stilted and awkward, as if you’re just learning a new language.

Ditch Weakling Verbs

Use expressive verbs when you can — when you are describing actions people take or events that occur — because they paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind.  With strong verbs your sentences come alive; they throb with a pulse.

Ditch Adverbs, Except When They Adjust the Meaning

Most writers use adverbs gratuitously, tossing them into text when they really aren’t necessary.  They add bloat to the field (or your sentence) and pretty soon they get cut from the roster. Often you can ditch an adverb if you also ditch a weakling verb in favor of livelier one.  That makes your sentence briefer and punchier, and it paints a more vibrant picture.  You should also try cutting an adverb to see whether you absolutely need it to intensify an action or description.  Does dropping the adverb alter the meaning ?

Use Clichés Only Once in a Blue Moon

Lazy writers use clichés as business platitudes and seem to insert them almost reflexively, without much forethought or intention.

Avoid These Mistakes Marketers Make

A while ago, I started keeping a list of the more common transgressions.  Here are the top 17 followed by their anti-wordiness, anti-fuzzy thinking, pro-brevity, pro-clarity equivalents:

  1. Ways by which = Ways 
  2. Continues to be = Remains 
  3. In order to = To (especially at the beginning of a sentence) 
  4. There (are) will be times when = Sometimes, At times 
  5. Despite the fact that = Although, Though 
  6. At which time = When 
  7. In spite of = Despite 
  8. When it comes to = In, When 
  9. The majority of = Most 
  10. A number of = Some, Few, Several, Various (or eliminate entirely) 
  11. When asked = Asked 
  12. Leverage (as verb) = Use (or Put to Use ), Harness, Apply, 
  13. The same level of = As much 
  14. While (if not being used to mean during or at the same time as) = Although or Though, Whereas 
  15. Moving forward = Later, In the future, From now on, Hereafter 
  16. Centered around = Centered on 
  17. Try and [verb] = Try to [verb] 

Other common errors:  

  • Use should have, not should of.   
  • Keep your verb tense consistent throughout; don’t switch around between present, future, past tenses.   
  • I versus me.  If you eliminate the other person’s name, does the sentence still make sense?  Not cool: Colin went for a walk with Corey and I.  Cool: Colin went for a walk with Corey and me.  
  • However and independent clauses.  If you use however to join two independent clauses (think sentences) you’ll need to use a semicolon — not a comma — before however.
    For example: I like eating ice cream; however, it doesn’t sit well with me. Better yet, don’t try to sound so fancy—use but instead: I like eating ice cream, but it doesn’t sit well with me. 
  • Not only [x] … but also [y].  Not only – but alsoare correlative conjunctions (conjunctions that are used in pairs).  If the sentence construction isn’t parallel when you use these conjunctions — that is, if x and y are not the same kind of thing (verb, noun, prepositional phrase, etc. ) — the reader will be confused for a split second.
  • [Company, product, other entity] saw a 10 percent improvement in market share, revenue growth of 10 percent, and so on.  Can a product or company really see anything?  Does it have eyes?  No.
  • In terms of.  If you find yourself using in terms of, chances are you’re not thinking clearly.
  • This / that and these / those.  Unless the antecedent is absolutely clear to the reader, don’t use this, that, these, or those — especially at the beginning of a sentence.
  •  Hyphens after adverbs ending in ly.  If your adverb ends in ly and you’re building a compound modifier, don’t use a hyphen after the adverb.

Break Some Grammar Rules (At Least These Five )

  1. Never start a sentence with and, but, or because.
  2. Avoid sentence fragments.
  3. Never split infinitives.
  4. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
  5. Never write a paragraph that’s a mere one sentence long.

Limit Moralizing 

Avoid beginning sentences with words that you’d hear from a pulpit, your parent, or a professor.  Specifically, watch the use of … Don’t forget … Never … Avoid … Don’t … Remember to … And one so awful I can barely type it: Always remember to …

Things Marketers Write

This section represents the block and tackle of marketing: if you get these right, you’re winning.

The Ideal Length for Blog Posts, Podcast, Facebook Posts, Tweets, and Other Marketing Content

  • Blog post.  The ideal length for a search-optimized blog post is 1,500 words.
  • Email subject lines.  The ideal email subject line has 50 or fewer characters.
  • Website text line.  The ideal length for a line of text on a website is 12 words.
  • Paragraph.  The ideal length for a paragraph is between 3 and 4 lines, maximum.
  • YouTube video.  The ideal length for a YouTube video is between 3 and 3 ½ minutes.  I’d actually argue for shorter.
  • Podcast.  The ideal length for a podcast is 22 minutes, because that’s the length of the average listener attention span.
  • Title tag.  The ideal length for a title tag is 55 characters.
  • Meta description.  The ideal length for a meta description is 155 characters.
  • Facebook post.  The ideal length for a Facebook post is between 100 and 140 characters — or about the same length as a tweet.
  • Tweet.  The ideal length for a tweet is between 120 and 130 characters.
  • Domain name.  The ideal length for a domain name is 8 characters, mostly because short is easy to remember.

Writing for LinkedIn… Always Be Helping

Everyone on LinkedIn should have …

  • An optimized profile.  Keyword-rich descriptions, standout headline, link-backs to blogs, Twitter handle, and (most importantly), a profile that is actively sharing relevant content on a consistent basis.
  • A robust company page.  First and foremost make sure your company page is accurate and has a complete description.  Next add a compelling banner and be sure to be actively sharing relevant content.
  • A habit to curate useful news or insights via company pages.  There are several ways to effectively curate useful content for a Company page.  From following influencers to diving into Pulse each morning to following relevant companies and other thought leaders, it’s easy to find, curate, and share relevant content.

Writing Your LinkedIn Profile…  ‘Responsible’ Is Overrated

Differentiate yourself by uniquely describing what you have accomplished … and back it up with concrete examples of your work by adding photos, videos, and presentations to your LinkedIn Profile that demonstrate your best work.  Providing concrete examples to illustrate how you are responsible or strategic is always better than just simply using the words.

Other tips: Claim your LinkedIn vanity URL, which makes your profile look more memorable and professional, and makes it easier to share.   Consider the key words you want to be known for, and optimize your profile by including those words in your headline and summary.   Customize your profile rather than using the LinkedIn defaults. 

Writing for Email… What Would You Open

People on your email list have asked to receive your emails.   That’s an advantage: you have the privilege of interacting with a person by invitation, in the relatively intimate setting of the recipient’s own in-box.

Many still treat email as a broadcast tactic — using a word like blast to describe an email campaign, or not segmenting a list to make messages relevant to the people who care the most, or not testing various approaches to see what works with their audience.

In other words: this is a good time to rethink your email content, to reconsider what you’re sending, and why, and how you’re communicating.  Earlier we talked about swapping places with your reader.  Here, I’m suggesting you swap places with your recipient and write an email you would open.  Much of the typical advice around email marketing writing is straightforward:  

  • Use short subject lines.  Emails with subject lines of 6 – 10 words have the highest open rates, yet most emails sent by marketers have subject lines of 11 – 15 words.
  • Let your free flag fly.  Marketers used to be cautioned to avoid using words in the subject line that would trigger a spam filter, like free or lifetime
  • Use the recipient’s first name.  Emails with the recipient’s first name in the subject line had a higher open rate (18.3 percent compared with 15.7 percent) than those without the name ,
  • Keep email copy short.  As with any content, brevity usually rules.  In most cases you should get to the point right away, because most of your readers are probably viewing their email on a mobile device with a limited screen view.
  • Be a real person.  Write with a point of view — from an actual person to an actual person.  I don’t necessarily mean this literally.  The from line might still be the company’s brand name, but the content should feel as if it comes from an actual person, speaking to me in the first person (using I or we and you ), with natural-sounding language.

Writing Headlines… Learn How to Effortlessly Write an Intoxicatingly Irresistible Headline — and You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

The key is this: spend as much time on the headline as you do on the writing itself.  Respect the headline.  The headline is not the metaphorical cherry on top, the dot over the i, the cross on the t, the icing on the cake, or the finishing flourish.

Keep in mind the following prescriptions when writing your headlines:

  • Create a curiosity gap, but with moderation.
  • Promise what you’re going to deliver.
  • Place your reader directly into the headline.
  • Be economical, and test.
  • Ideally, your headline should have fewer than 70 characters, as the chart in Rule 60 suggests.
  • Use numbers.  Numbers set expectations for readers.  I like oddball numbers (like 3 ½, or 19, or 37).  But see what works for you.
  • Use lively words.

Writing a Home Page… We Get You

There are many variables — related to the nature of your business and its goals — that determine what will make a successful home page for your business.  So keep in mind that I’m advocating a general approach and not delivering a prescription.  

  • ·       Speak to your audience.  Who is your audience?  Whom do you want to attract?  And — just as important — whom do you not want to attract?  All good content is rooted in a clear understanding of your audience.
  • They like me! They really like me! Part of understanding your customers is truly knowing what motivates them.  When you know what that is, you’re able to communicate how you can help them.  You want your home page to say, “We get you. And, what’s more, you belong here. We understand your challenges, your fears, your pain, your hopes, your needs.  We shoulder your burdens.  We’ve got your back.  We’ll give you a leg up.”
  • Keep it stupid-simple.  Don’t be tempted to fill space with lots of copy and graphics, especially above the fold — the part of a Web page that first appears in Web browsers when it’s opened.
  • Use words your audience uses.  You don’t need to embellish what you do.  Use words that are familiar to your potential customer.
  • Use you promiscuously.  On your home page, use you more than you use us or we.
  • Convey trust.  Your home page should include elements that suggest others trust you.

Writing the About Us Page… When It’s Not Really About You

The key to a successful About Us page sounds paradoxical: the best About Us pages aren’t really about the company; instead, they focus on relaying who they are in relation to the visitor.

All good content puts the reader first, and that’s no different on your About Us page.  In other words, About Us gives you a chance to talk about yourself, but always in the context of what you do for your customers.  What burdens you help them shoulder, what problems you solve for them.

Here are some other rules to follow when creating your About Us page: Show a human, accessible side.

  • Show your people as real people.
  • Include an Easter Egg.  Surprise visitors to your About Us page with something unexpected.
  • Bring your customers into your story.

Writing Better Blog Posts

The best advice I can offer about writing better blog posts, then, is to simply follow the prescription for better writing in the previous sections of this book.  (What will your audience thank you for?) There’s nothing more magical I can offer than that.  But here are some tactical suggestions that have more to do with structuring a post than with the writing itself:  

  • Keep headlines tight.
  • Add blog bling.  Every post should have a large graphic or embedded video.
  • Time it well.  Usually the best time for publication is between 8 and 10 a.m.  weekdays, in the time zone where your readers live, Guy says.
  • Use bullets and numbered lists.  “ Bullets and numbers indicate an organized mind and empathy for the time constraints of readers, ” Guy said.  I couldn’t agree more.  Also, they tend to create white space.
  • Provide sharing and subscriber options.  Don’t leave your visitors hanging! Give them a path to conversion — however you are defining the conversion action (download, sale, signup, etc.).
  • Keep them short.  Ish.  Posts should have fewer than 1,500 words.
  • Use an interesting approach.  Remember the mandate in Rule 8: good writing has logic and structure.  But the structure itself can help to draw your readers in; revisit Rule 8 for some ideas about approaches and organizing.
  • Show up.  Half of blogging is consistency, or just showing up on a regular basis.
  • Build scale.  To establish yourself, write for your audience’s audience.  A great way to build scale for your blog is to ensure that your writing appeals to industry influencers ,
  • Experiment.

Epilogue

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die 
without putting a word on paper. – E. B. White 

Done is better than perfect. 

The Once-a-Year Bookshelf

This morning my friend Justin Foster mentioned Victor Frankel’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. We agreed it’s one of the all time greats – worth reading again and again. That got us talking: of all the books we read, which ones do we come back to repeatedly?

We set ourselves a task: pick five books to re-read each year; five books that are so useful, insightful, and interesting, they warrant a spot on our once-a-year bookshelf:

Here are mine:

  • The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. This is a book about the creative process and effort required to overcome ‘resistance’ – temptations, distractions, fears and weaknesses that prevent us from doing what we set out to do. It is a deep and soulful kick in the ass – a reminder that life is short, so let’s get shit done. Quit talking and thinking and planning and get busy doing.
  • Illusions by Richard Bach. This book reminds me that each of us has the potential to change the world – or better, serve the people around us with love and compassion. It reminds me of all the ways in which I let my desires for safety and approval lead me to a small and fearful life. It reminds me that love – for life, for others, for myself – offers release from the frustration, grief and pain of existence.
  • Sum by David Eagleman. This book is an elegant and cosmic kaleidoscope, offering forty delightful and startling ways of imagining the afterlife – and by extension transformational ways of experiencing this life.
  • Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein. This little book is a huge reminder of how much time and effort I spend covering up for how little I know; it reminds me of the power of asking others for help; it pierces my ego and self-regard and reminds me that humility and inquiry are far more powerful leadership skills than vision and expertise.
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. I make my living through words – writing, speaking, listening, reading. This book has been a constant companion reminding me that the way we assemble words into sentences and paragraphs matters as much as the words themselves. It reminds me how much I can express by saying less. It reminds me to have style – in my writing, and my life.

What’s on your once-a-year book shelf? Which books do you find so useful and inspiring that they’re worth coming back to again and again?

Twenty-one questions to get people talking… and connecting

Relationships are the key to success of any venture – especially in a team setting. Developing the trust, respect and confidence necessary for effective relationships takes time – but we can accelerate the process through conversation. Conversation is the medium through which relationships start and grow.  

Here are twenty-one conversation-worthy questions arranged from “easy” to “edgy”.

The “root question” – start here every time:

  • Tell me about yourself.

Talk about life away from work – interests and family:

  • Who are the folks who are most important to you?
  • What’s your favorite way to spend a day off?
  • What’s your favorite book (movie, tv show, etc.) of all time? What’s the last book (movie, tv show, etc.) you’ve read?

Talk about career – its safe and easy:

  • What were you doing before your came to work here?  How is this place different from that place?
  • What was the best job you’ve ever had?  What did you enjoy about it?
  • Who was the best boss you ever had?  What made them so good?

Talk about work – but without complaining:

  • What’s going well lately?  What’s something you’re feeling proud or happy about?
  • What’s the best part of your job?  What makes the hassles worth it?
  • What’s something people need to know about what it’s like to do your job?

Talk about goals and improvement:

  • What’s a goal you’re working towards – something you’re getting better at?
  • What’s an accomplishment you’re proud of?  (Most people will talk about ‘family’ – that’s great… but encourage them to share something about themselves.)
  • Who are your role models?  Who do you admire?  What do you admire about them?

Interesting questions – after folks are warmed up a bit:

  • What’s your ‘superpower’ – the thing you do best? What’s your kryptonite – the thing that makes you crazy or ineffective?
  • Who is your oldest friend?  If I asked them what they admire or appreciate about you, what would they say?
  • If you could change or improve one thing about yourself, what would it be?  Why?
  • What’s been your biggest failure?  How has it affected you?

Off-the-wall questions – when you want people to open up:

  • Tell me a story about a time you “got away with something”.
  • Tell me about your first kiss (your first crush, your first girl- or boy-friend).
  • If I gave you a million dollars to spend a) on yourself, b) by the end of the day what will you do?

The “destination question” – finish here every time.

  • What’s something I can do to help / support you?

Interested in learning more?  Ready to start conversations and build relationship?  We’re ready to help.  

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com

Break the ice: get people talking to each other

Would your team or organization be more effective if everyone knew everyone else?  Of course it would.  When co-workers know even a little about one another, they are more likely to speak up, ask questions and share ideas.  Don’t wait for your next “team-building event” to build relationships within your organization – use the first ten or fifteen minutes of your next meeting to break the ice and get people talking to each other. Here’s how:

Before-hand:

  • Set aside time.  This doesn’t need to take long, but it can’t be rushed.  Ten minutes is enough; fifteen is perfect.
  • Get clear about why you’re doing this.  The goal is connection more than content.  So long as people have a conversation, the exercise will be a success. 
  • Pick a few conversation-worthy questions:  What will you ask people to discuss?  I like to pose three questions: an introduction question, a question relevant to the meeting, and a question that helps people get to know each other.  See this list for some ideas.
  • Whom should people talk to?  My favorite approach is to say, “Stand up and find someone you know ‘less-well’…”  If time is short, it works to say, “Turn to someone sitting next to you…”  If folks are sitting at tables you can say, “Have a conversation at your table…”, but this takes longer!  
  • What will you ask them to do when they’re done?  People will want to know if they should take notes, or if there’s going to be a quiz.  Ease their fears by saying, “When you’re done, take a seat – and I’ll ask you a few questions about what you discussed.”

At the start of the meeting:

  • Give simple instructions:  the first time you do this, it’s going to catch folks off guard, so be sure to make the instructions clear.  Say, “Folks, I’d like us to do something different.  In a moment, when I say ‘go’, I’d like you to stand up, push in your chair and go find someone you know ‘less well’.  Start by introducing yourself, and then discus these two questions…  This is going to take about five minutes. When you’re done, have a seat and I’ll ask a few of you to share what you talked about.”
  • Repeat the instructions: you’ll be amazed at how often people fail to comprehend what you’re asking them to do! Say it again: “Is that clear?  Stand up, find someone you don’t know well, introduce yourself and talk about… Ok?  Alright: go!”
  • Move around the room and play matchmaker.  Show people you’re serious about this – if someone is wandering around, help them find a partner.  Make sure folks participate!
  • Listen in on conversations:  Don’t be shy about eavesdropping.  Listen for people laughing having an especially energetic conversation – call on them when you debrief the exercise.  Also, gauge when people are ready to wrap up and move on.
  • Ask folks to take a seat:  I try to end the conversation a bit early, rather than waiting too long and letting energy run down.  When you see folks begin to finish up say, “Ok!  Thirty-second warning!  Please finish up and have a seat!”

After people are seated:

  • Do a quick de-brief:  Call on three or four people by name and ask them,  “How did that go?  What did you talk about?”  Listen to what they say, thank them, and call on someone else. Consider asking, “Why is it useful to do something like this?  How can conversations like this help us?”   Doing this sort of public re-cap is important – it makes the exercise seem more meaningful and intentional. Don’t skip this step!
  • Thank people for participating!

It’s been said that “relationships are the foundation of accomplishment” but we often neglect relationship building. Whatever you and your team are up to (or up against), things will go better if everyone feels connection to everyone else.  Make communication, collaboration and conversation easier by breaking the ice at your next team meeting.

Interested in learning more?  Ready to get your people talking to each other?  We’re ready to help.  

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com