Another Myth

A while ago I wrote about one of the myths of communication–the myth that we can control what comes out of our mouths. At the time, I mentioned that there are others. Today I want to share another with you.

I’m sure you’ve heard of active listening. You may have even attended a course where you

learnt active listening skills. The myth is that all you need to be a good listener is to be able to use the active listening skills well.

The thing is, whilst the active listening skills are very important, they are not the only skills that make a good listener.

According to hostage negotiator Richard Mullender, active listening skills ‘are just not what they “say on the box”. In fact, Active Listening Skills teach you to keep the other person talking. This is exceptionally important if you want to understand the other person and where they’re coming from. When you get them talking, and keep them talking, their subconscious takes control and they are no longer thinking consciously about what they are saying. They tell you more than they mean to.

It’s simple. To find out what someone is really thinking, all you have to do is be quiet, keep them talking and listen carefully to what they are actually telling you. If only it were that easy. To be fair, it is that easy to listen. It’s just that most of us aren’t very good at being quiet and, even worse, we don’t know what to listen for.’

Richard continues, ‘As a hostage negotiator and trainer I have found the one constant is that rarely do people really listen. And on those occasions when they are listening, they don’t know what to listen for and, therefore, miss a lot of what is truly being said.’

For more information on how to listen and what to listen for, I suggest you get hold of Richard’s ebook Communication Secrets of a Hostage NegotiatorIt’s available through Amazon as a Kindle ebook. It’s definitely worth a read.

Business Writing Tip #33—Linking Your Thoughts

Mark Tredinnick wrote, ‘Link everything to everything else…Every sentence and every paragraph should link to the one before it and point to the one that comes next. Your reader must know, as they read each clause and sentence and paragraph, why they are reading it and why they are reading it here and why they are reading it now; and they must hear in it  your main point reprised, advanced and clarified.’ (The Little Red Writing Book, p.222) 

Whether you’re writing a short email or business letter, drafting a longer report or preparing a presentation, it’s important to provide structure and flow. Here are some words and phrases that you might find useful.

Introducing a Topic

  • To begin with …
  • To start with …
  • As an introduction …
  • First and foremost …

When you want to add information

  • Besides
  • Moreover
  • Furthermore
  • What is more
  •  … too.
  • In addition to
  • Not to mention
  • Not only … but also …

When you provide contrasting information

  • But
  • Yet
  • Though
  • Still
  • Nevertheless
  • Nonetheless
  • Actually
  • Conversely
  • Although
  • Though
  • Whereas
  • Unlike …
  • Instead of …
  • Despite …
  • In spite of …
  • For all …
  • On the contrary
  • On the other hand
  • By contrast
  • In fact
  • The fact is (that) …

Organizing a series of elements (ideas, arguments, activities, actions, etc.)

  • First(ly), Second(ly), Third(ly)

(Note: I personally prefer first, second, third—but you will often see the …ly variant.)

  • The writer starts with
  • Then goes on to say
  • To end with
  • At the beginning
  • Then
  • At the end

Expressing activities or actions that are happening at the same time as something else

  • Meanwhile
  • In the meantime
  • While
  • During
  • Simultaneously

And at the end, when you are drawing conclusions and finishing up

  • In conclusion
  • Finally
  • To finish
  • To sum up
  • As a conclusion
  • By way of conclusion
  • To conclude
  • To sum up
  • To finish
  • At last
  • Last but not least
  • In short
  • In the end
  • To put it in a nutshell
  • In a word

Business Writing Tip #32 – Useful Phrases for Reporting on a Meeting

Often we have to write a report of a meeting. I’m not talking about the minutes here; just an informal record of the meeting for someone who couldn’t attend. It might be that our boss asks us to attend a meeting in her place, or that a colleague can’t get to a meeting and needs you to let them know what happened. Or it might be that you attended a meeting that you think your boss should know about…

I know I’ve mentioned how templates can help you save time. Well, here’s a template and some useful phrases to include if you’re writing an email about a meeting. Remember, this template is not for formal minutes of a meeting.

When you’re busy, the following outline (structure) and phrase/sentence suggestions can streamline your writing, and can also help jog your memory to make sure that you included everything you needed to include.

Greeting

I always suggest that you at least put a ‘good morning’, ‘hello’ or other suitable short greeting at the beginning of emails. You wouldn’t normally start a conversation without greeting someone, would you?

Opening

  • I’ve jotted down a few notes from the meeting you asked me to attend on…
  • Here’s a report of the meeting you asked me to go to.
  • I met with…yesterday, and I just thought I’d keep you up-to-date with our discussions.
  • I had an unexpected meeting with…yesterday, and felt I should let you know what we discussed.

Second Line

  • I’ve copied…on this email so they’re in the loop as well.
  • I’ll send you a copy of the minutes as soon as I get them.

Body of Email

First paragraph or line

  • The main thing we talked about was…
  • We agreed that…
  • You’ll be pleased to know that the meeting decided…

Second paragraph or line

  • We also talked about…
  • The next thing on the agenda was…

Major section of body of email

Useful verbs (I’ve put them in the past tense which is what you will use when you’re reporting something) to use in this section include:

Discussed Talked about Agreed on
Decided Negotiated Argued about
Signed Drafted Drew up
Requested Recommended Proposed
Brought up Mentioned Reported
Showed Predicted Disagreed
Agreed with Refused Rejected
Stressed Emphasised Explained
Complained Guaranteed Promised
Asked for Admitted Confirmed
Denied Introduced Insisted on
Threatened Offered Pointed out
Acknowledged Outlined Summarised
Raised Informed Reassured
Reminded Encouraged Advised
Warned Invited us to Filled me in on
Updated us on

 

Ending the main body of the email

  • I didn’t get a chance to ask them about…
  • We decided to leave the discussion about…until the next meeting.
  • We arranged another meeting for…
  • They will send the documents by…
  • We didn’t have time to reach a conclusion so…

Second last line of email

  • I’m sure you will agree that this is a worrying development.
  • I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a great outcome for us.
  • If you could give your approval on what we discussed, I can get them to sign by…

Last line

  • Please let me know if you want more detail of the meeting.
  • I’ll be meeting them again on…, so let me know if you have any questions you want me to ask.
  • I’ll copy you on any future email communication I have with them.
  • I’ll send you the contract as soon as it arrives.

Final greeting

  • Kind regards
  • Warm regards

Do you believe everything you’re told about communication?

A few years ago I met Richard Mullender, a hostage negotiator. Richard is one of the most effective communicators I know.

When Richard trains people, he talks about the Myths of Communication. These are things that we believe are true, but when we look more closely at them we discover that they are only partially true, or not really true at all.

There are five myths. Today I will just share one of them.

We can control what comes out of our mouths.

It’s clear, isn’t it? If I am saying something, I am in control of what I’m saying. Well, actually, no.

The thing is sometimes we very carefully control what we say—but we actually do this quite rarely. Most of the time our subconscious mind controls what we say.

Think about it. Have you ever listened to someone speaking who is thinking about their every word? How do they sound? It’s not natural, is it?

At the beginning of an important presentation you might have your first two or three sentences worked out, but after that, your mouth switches into automatic and just talks.

I can hear you wondering why this is important.

The thing is that when we speak, whenever we speak and our subconscious mind is in control, which is most of the time, we give away information. Sometimes we give away information without realising it. This is not usually a problem but sometimes we let something slip that we didn’t mean to say.

This means that if we can keep someone talking, get them relaxed and not thinking about their words, and if we listen carefully, we can learn a lot about them. We can learn about their values and beliefs. We can learn about their motivations. We can learn to ‘hear’ the things that they didn’t know they were telling us.

We can then use this information, ethically of course, in negotiations or persuasion.

Richard Mullender regards listening as the most important communication skill. In his book Dispelling the Myths and Rediscovering the Lost Art of Listening (available as a Kindle Ebook from Amazon) Richard explains how we can learn to listen more effectively. And by doing so, we can learn to persuade and influence more effectively.

Attending Richard’s courses opened my eyes, and my ears, to a whole different level of thinking. The book I mentioned in the previous paragraph is the first in a series. There will be more coming out over the next few months.

If you’re interested in doing one of Richard’s courses, please send me an email.

 

Business Writing Tip #31 – The Apostrophe

The apostrophe is a much-abused piece of punctuation. It’s only small, but it somehow manages to stir up emotional outbursts from people who appreciate it when it is misused.

It’s all quite simple really. In the previous paragraph, and the previous sentence, I used it to show a contraction. In both cases the apostrophe replaced an “i”. If I had written it out in full I would have written “It is”.

Now I’m going to give you some rules. But please don’t panic. Once you know how to use it, it’s easy. And the reward for using it correctly is that people won’t judge you badly (not over your punctuation use, anyway).

Possession

One of the main uses of the apostrophes is to show possession. That is, ownership.

With a singular noun it is placed before the “s”:

  • Sammy’s bike

Same place for indefinite pronouns:

  • That’s someone else’s book on the table.

In hyphenated nouns the apostrophe still goes before the “s”:

  • We’re having Christmas dinner at my mother-in-law’s place.

Things get a little trick when there are two or more nouns.

  • We’re going to Joan and David’s place for dinner. (Joan and David both live there.)
  • To save them time, we went and paid John’s and Samir’s electricity bills. (In this case we are paying two bills—John’s bill and Samir’s bill.)

With plural nouns the apostrophe comes before the “s”:

  • No matter how often I ask them to put them away, every time I walk into the children’s room I find their toys all over the floor.

But when the possessor is a regular plural, it follows the “s”:

  • The boys’ coats were hanging on the wall. (There was more than one boy.)

With those wonderful parts of speech known as possessive pronouns (mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs) we don’t ever use an apostrophe.

The meaning of the word “It’s” is always “it is”.

Missing Letters

We also use apostrophes when we miss out a letter in a word (this is usually in poetry or song):

  •  Lest ye be judg’d
  • O’er the mountains
  • Where e’er you be, let the wind go free

Miscellaneous Other Uses

There are a few other uses for this delightful little squiggle.

We use it in expressions of time and quantity:

  • She has five years’ experience in the role.
  • I had to give four weeks’ notice to terminate the lease on my apartment.

We use it in dates when we leave part of the number out.

  • She graduated in ’09.

Apostrophes also hang around in some Irish names:

  • O’Neill
  • O’Connor

And we can use it to indicate the plural of words.

  • The do’s and don’t’s of using the apostrophe
  • Why do people start sentences with and’s and but’s?

It’s not so difficult but, as I mentioned, people do get rather passionate about it. Especially when they see greengrocers selling potatoe’s. Get it right and people are unlikely to comment, but beware if you get it wrong…someone is sure to notice.

Business Writing Tip #30 – Choose Your Words Carefully

In previous tips we have looked at words. We’ve considered using short words instead of long words, single words instead of many, concrete and specific words instead of generalities, and the need to watch out for words that are easily confused.

In this tip we’ll look at one major consideration when it comes to word choice in business writing. This one isn’t about readability.

Discrimination

Discrimination is a major issue in the business world. We need to avoid words that discriminate against sex, race, nationality, disability, sexual orientation and age. The challenge is that many of the words we use are so ingrained in our culture that we don’t think twice about using them. And when we do, we don’t mean any harm. But it is important to think about this issue and choose our words carefully.

  • Use gender-neutral words. Instead of chairman, use chair or chairperson. Instead of policeman write police officer. Instead of air hostess, try cabin crew. Bar staff instead of barman…
  • Watch out for your use of pronouns. Avoid the use of masculine pronouns to refer to both sexes. Use plural pronouns instead (purists may say that this is a little clumsy, but I consider discrimination is a bigger issue than slightly clumsy grammar). Or you can use he/she, she or he, he or she, s/he. You’ll find plenty of debate of the singular use of they and very little agreement. That said, it is widely accepted in business writing
  • Some professional roles have been traditionally filled by men (e.g. engineers, doctors, barristers). Take extra care with your pronouns when you are referring to these and avoid the automatic use of he or him
  • There are words in English which suggest male dominance. Think about man-made, or the use of the generic term man to refer to the human race. Try manufactured or humanity
  • When it comes to disabilities, many words that were previously accepted are now regarded as inappropriate. Words that spring to mind include handicapped and retarded
  • The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation has published an excellent paper, ‘Guidelines for Discussing People with Disabilities in Quality of Life Grant Applications’. In this paper the foundation suggest putting the person first, not their disability. For example, the child with a physical disability rather than the physically disabled child

It’s quite simple really. In business writing avoid using words that imply a judgement or bias, and that are insensitive to the gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation or disability.

For a fuller discussion of the issues and excellent guidance see The University of Melbourne’s publication Watch Your Language.

Business Writing Tip #29 – Some more pointers about layout

In the previous post I talked about using lists as a way to make your text easier for your reader to read. But there are times when we can’t use lists. So what can we do then?

Write short paragraphs

When it comes to reading a novel by Charles Dickens you might be happy to work your way through long paragraphs, but when it comes to business writing, short is definitely sweeter. Short sentences. Short paragraphs.

You want to make it easy for readers to skim read what you have written.

You want to avoid people struggling for hours to work out just where your sentence or paragraph is heading.

So keep it short.

Use white space

Think about it. It may seem as though it’s wasted space, but when there’s white space on the page, between the paragraphs and between the sections, it’s easier for your eye to run through it quickly and find the relevant information.

Which document would you prefer to read?

Use space when you lay out business letters. Put space between the heading, the greeting, each paragraph, your closing, and your signature block.

Font

Keep your font simple. I suggest a serif font like Times New Roman or Cambria for printed documents, and a sans serif font like Arial for things people will read on their screens. If you use colour, use it to highlight items that you really need to emphasise, and use it sparingly. A document with too many fonts and too many colours looks messy.

Headings

Use headings to guide your reader through your document. Not everyone needs to read everything. If you make it clear that certain information is contained in certain sections, people can read what they need to.

Graphics and Images

Use appropriate graphics and images to illustrate your points. If you want to show a price trend, or company growth, a clear graph will make your point more quickly than a narrative. These also help to break up large chunks of text and make the overall document more accessible to your readers.