Monday, August 25, 2014

How to be persuasive in meetings

Your ability to persuade others is regularly tested in meetings. I always found them puzzling, perhaps because they aren't rational -- and aren't supposed to be.

You would think that simply presenting an interesting idea, and some rationale for it, would be enough. Nope. That's not even the point.

Meetings are social events. They are about power and hierarchy, and sometimes just fooling around. Many meetings are called just to show the people summoned to them that the person calling them has the power to do so. Many meetings are held, because, you know, "we always meeting Monday." I'm sure that behind many meetings is the stifling boredom pervading most offices and cubicles.

More important than any of the PowerPoints tossed around the room is the body language of the tossers and tossees. If you don't know how to spot the alpha, you won't get groomed.

Watch some videos of gorillas or other primates hanging around and interacting. You can learn a lot about human meetings this way.

With all that cynicism as a backdrop, let me share some thoughts from Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn, and Mary Davis Holt, partners at a consulting firm focused on women’s leadership development. Their article in Harvard Business Review addresses women in meetings, but their understanding of these occasions is what I'm interested in here.

For example:
The premeeting. Our research shows that female executives come to meetings on time. They leave as soon as the last agenda item has been completed, rushing off to the next meeting or heading back to their offices to put out fires. We’ve found that men are more likely to spend time connecting with one another to test their ideas and garner support. They arrive at meetings early in order to get a good seat and chat with colleagues, and they stay afterward to close off the discussion and talk about other issues on their minds.
It's a social event. There's more:
Meetings before the meeting. Women need to get in on what several men described as the “meetings before the meetings,” where much of the real work happens. Participating in these informal advance conversations can help clarify the true purpose of a meeting, making it much easier to take an active part in the conversation. Will the group be asked to make a decision? Confirm a consensus? Establish power? It’s often not apparent in the official agenda.
There's more in the article.  Or you can just watch these executives conduct a meeting here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Don't use these words on your LinkedIn profile

Or on your resume, or in the john, or in the backyard talking to your chickens.

You already know this because you've read all those profiles using them and you just want to gag yourself with a spoon, right?

Do this little test: read five LinkedIn profiles at random and see if you have really learned something about the person. If you haven't, it may be due to their use of bad words.

That's right, these words are just bad, bad, bad. Don't even think about going near them.

Another test: see how many of these words appear in a person's summary. Pass me that spoon, please.

Aaron Taube at Business Insider has collected these.

1. I — Who else's profile would it be?
2. Me — See above.
3. My — See above.
4. She — Only narcissists speak in the third person.
5. He — See above.
6. Salary — Never list it unless an employer asks.
7. Go getter — Jargon.
8. Synergy — Jargon.
9. People pleaser — Jargon.
10. Self starter — Jargon.
11. Strategic — Overused.
12. Creative — Overused.
13. Effective — Overused.
14. Expert — Only if you really are.
15. Driven — Overused.
16. Innovative — Overused.
17. Analytical — Overused.
18. References — If they want them, they'll ask. Otherwise you're just wasting space.
19. w/ — Spell it out to look professional.
20. Extensive — Overused and unnatural.
21. Ninja — Annoying/meaningless.
22. Diva — Annoying/meaningless.
23. Dedicated — Boring.
24. Detail oriented — Who isn't?
25. Passionate — If you are, it will come through without your explicitly saying so.
26. Entrepreneurial — Overused.
27. Skill set — Overused.
28. Dynamic — What does this even mean?
29. Intense — Can make you sound unpleasant to work with.
30. People person — They'll know when you come in for an interview.
31. Problem solver — Avoid unless you have clear-cut examples.
32. Team player — Overused.
33. Track record — Your track record should be apparent in your profile.

Sign into LinkedIn and see what you can do. This stuff isn't easy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A writer's life

"A couple of years ago, while trying to make a name for myself as a writer, I ghost-wrote a number of true crime autobiographies."

~ Nick Chester,, Aug. 8

Let's go on a noun hunt

You can shoot as many as you want.

A sentence needs one noun and one verb. That's it. Next time you write a sentence count the nouns in it.

For some reason we like to turn verbs and adjectives into nouns. This is called nominalization. Maybe we think it sounds more important.

It doesn't; it just confuses. Compare these two passages from George Orwell's Politics and the English Language:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Academics fall prey to nominalization. So do business writers. Perhaps it's because business writing is often about abstract concepts.
An accreditation analysis was conducted of the performance level of the administration of the senior executive compensation disbursement mechanism.
This would be much clearer by inserting some prepositions and verbs:
the mechanism for disbursing compensation to senior executives
You can make your writing a lot stronger by counting the nouns in a sentence and getting rid of as many as possible. Here's an example from Helen Sword, who teaches at the University of Aukland:
The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.

The sentence above contains no fewer than seven nominalizations, each formed from a verb or an adjective. Yet it fails to tell us who is doing what. When we eliminate or reanimate most of the zombie nouns (tendency becomes tend, abstraction becomes abstract) and add a human subject and some active verbs, the sentence springs back to life:

Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.
Don't be pompous and abstract.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Tell a story with your sentences

A story in six words.
In my last post, I explored the use of conflict to put energy into business writing.

I've just come across a fascinating idea: that individual sentences can introduce tension and tell little stories.

This comes from Constance Hale, an accomplished writer who wrote a series of instructional pieces for the New York Times on sentences. In the first piece, she writes:
For a sentence to be a sentence we need a What (the subject) and a So What (the predicate). The subject is the person, place, thing or idea we want to express something about; the predicate expresses the action, condition or effect of that subject. Think of the predicate as a predicament — the situation the subject is in. 
I like to think of the whole sentence as a mini-narrative. It features a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of drama (the predicate):The searchlight sweeps. Harvey keeps on keeping on. The drama makes us pay attention.
She draws from novels to illustrate her point:
  • “They shoot the white girl first.” — Toni Morrison, Paradise
  • “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” — Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
  • “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” — Ha Jin, Waiting
Let's look for examples in the business world:
  • Foreign intelligence services from China, Russia, and other nations are exploiting cyber vulnerabilities to steal technology, money, and trade secrets from US corporations, threatening their reputations and undermining their competitive advantage. ~ Booz Allen Hamilton
  • Does mobile commerce spell the end of traditional stores? ~ McKinsey
  • As Europe continues to grapple with sovereign debt problems, austerity measures, and recession, the Eurozone is changing and will likely emerge from the ongoing crisis looking quite different from the one we know today. ~ Price Waterhouse Coopers
These are wordy, of course, but they suggest how individual sentences can introduce drama into otherwise staid writing.