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Jul
28
2008
Writing Better Will Help You Keep Your Job Maranda Gibson

It's really true. Your ability to communicate shows up in more ways than just getting what you ordered at a restaurant the first time. It could save your career. I now sound like Penelope Trunk and a post from her blog about how to write to improve your job performance.

Trunk states that "Almost one-third of workers do not meet the writing requirements of their positions, according to a survey by the College Board's National Commission on Writing."

Trunk's post is from 2004 (yeah, I know, a golden oldie) but I think it fits the point. Do you really know how to write and could you do it if your career (not just your job) depended on it?

Some of Trunk's pointers (I'm including the every item on her list, because they are just so good):

1. Write lists.
People love reading lists. . . . If you can't list your ideas then you aren't organized enough to send them to someone else.

2. Think on your own time.
Most of us think while we write. . . . Find your main point in each paragraph and delete everything else.

3. Keep paragraphs short.
Your idea gets lost in a paragraph that's more than four or five lines. Two lines is the best length if you really need your reader to digest each word.

4. Write like you talk.
Each of us has the gift of rhythm when it comes to sentences, which includes a natural economy of language. But you must practice writing in order to transfer your verbal gifts to the page. . . .

5. Delete.
When you're finished, you're not finished: cut 10% of the words. . . . Luckily, you don't have to write for publication, so you can celebrate if you cut more than 10%. . . .

6. Avoid adjectives and adverbs.
The fastest way to a point is to let the facts speak for themselves. Adjectives and adverbs are your interpretation of the facts. If you present the right facts, you won't need to throw in your interpretation. . . .

I don't have anything to add to this list, which is not surprising. It's a good list! One way to learn to write like you talk is to get a tape recorder (I've done this recently). Yes, your coworkers will think you've lost it, but it works! Talk away into the mic, and let it all out, jumbled and raw and just how you thought it originally. You can then upload the audio to your computer and transcribe into a Word document. I wouldn't recommend this for every single email to your boss, but for a large report when you just need to get something on the page, why not? It beats the blank page blues and as usual, I realize I have a lot more to say than I can ever use in my written report.

 

Jul
25
2008
Yapping Again About Productivity Maranda Gibson

I'm talking productivity yet again. It might be because I tested out as Generation Y (in reality, I'm Generation X) a couple of months ago, but I'm fascinated with productivity information and various ways that companies are trying to improve workflow and process and profit. How do they do it? Measuring productivity, of course!

In the town of Redding, Connecticut, city workers moved to a four-day workweek, working Monday through Thursday, and not working on Friday. The Acorn-Online.com reports on the early results.

"It has been only a little over a week since the town went to a four-day workweek, closing offices on Fridays, but an increase in productivity is already being noticed.
"'I've received positive feedback from employees,' said First Selectman Natalie Ketcham. 'Most of us field telephone calls from residents. With the longer workday, we are able to finish other work that may have been put aside when responding to those calls.'"

Smartbrief.com has a nice round-up of stories related to productivity, but the main point is that there are many options out there and it can't hurt to try a few and see how your employees do.

"If you want employees to work nights and weekends to complete a project, you've got to give something in return. Some companies find that something can be flexibility in employees' schedules, which not only allows workers to pursue outside interests, but also benefits the company.

"Flexible schedules can be completely open-ended -- as long as the work gets done -- or can be scheduled around a graduate student's school schedule, pro bono work or even a second job.

"Companies find that flex time helps their employees become more productive and helps create a 'good workplace environment that begets good work.'"

Business24-7.com, based in the United Arab Emirates, talks about ergonomic issues as a factor in productivity.

"Two out of three employees suffer from work-related repetitive strain injury (RSI) and this costs companies a fortune in lost working hours, says a new report from the UK.

"RSI - widely linked to the use of computer keyboards - costs employers in Britain £300 million (Dh2.2 billion) annually in lost productivity and sick pay, according to a study by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. The condition accounted for an estimated 3.5m lost working days in 2006-07.

"The problem is also acute in the Middle East with the hot summer preventing staff from taking breaks from their desks. And the region is not as advanced as Europe at preventing the disabling condition."

So what ideas have you put into place to improve productivity? Post a comment and let me know!

Jul
22
2008
A More Straightforward Approach to Productivity Maranda Gibson

I figured it was time to make the case for productivity in other types of business environments that do not have the tendency or desire to grant Facebook time, goof-off time, or even nap time. Many of these companies do business in a very competitive market and it's a daily race to get ahead and stay ahead.

For instance, Tom Siebel, CEO of Siebel Systems, doesn't play by society's rules nor does he think much about making work comfortable for his employees.

In a 2000 article for Fortune magazine, Siebel says, "'Running a business is a fundamentally rational process,' Siebel says squarely. 'We unemotionally put things on the table, look each other straight in the eye, and state the facts.' The article also reports that "[I]f employees are offended by this perfunctory management style, then they're probably not right for Siebel Systems. Employees who perform are rewarded; those who don't are disposed of. Nearly everyone at Siebel is given a rank within each department, and every six months Tom Siebel lops off the bottom 5%. Siebel is intense, competitive, and driven[.]"

Think it a little extreme? If so, you're probably better off working in an adaptive management culture, one that encourages performance, but doesn't demand it. Remember, there is no right or wrong here. The adaptive culture may allow more free time, self-management, and self-expression, but Siebel's achievement culture (a phrase used in business management textbooks) may be a good fit for a high achievers who seek to make a lot of progress in a short amount of time. And it seems to work for Siebel and his company.

Fortune reports that "Siebel Systems is the only U.S. enterprise-software company to accelerate past $1 billion in revenues without running off the rails. Oracle, Informix, PeopleSoft, Sybase, and Baan have all had to clean up wreckage at some point. Oracle had an accounting scandal in 1993, which resulted in a $100,000 fine by the Securities and Exchange Commission and shareholder suits that cost Oracle $24 million to settle. Informix, too, was reprimanded for accounting shenanigans. PeopleSoft management fell into disarray. Siebel, meanwhile, is growing by leaps and bounds--analysts expect the company to do $1.6 billion in sales this year [in 2000] and plans to double its work force within the next 12 months."

In 2008, Oracle (who serendipitously bought Siebel Systems in 2006) has gone the way of most IT companies--"four consecutive quarters where its revenue and profit figures are sharply down on the same period a year before" and this reflects not on a certain management style, but on the state of IT as an industry.

Many called Siebel a control freak and many more chose not to take a job at Siebel Systems back in the years 2000 through 2006 just because of this achievement culture, but the lesson here is that there is no "one" way to approach business culture. And it is only up to you to choose which way you go, especially if your business struggles with productivity. Just don't fret if early efforts have not paid off. The market is tough on everyone these days, even those folks who still aren't on Facebook and never get naps at work.

Jul
17
2008
Xobni improves your Outlook Inbox Productivity Maranda Gibson

xobni

In an increasingly data-oriented world, sifting through mounds and mounds of information quickly becomes more and more important.  Look at tools like Google Desktop and the Microsoft Search built into Windows Vista.  They are all about finding information quickly and efficiently.

It is with this goal in mind that Xobni developed their software.  Being able to click on an e-mail and see everything about that contact is an extremely valuable tool.  Automatically, Xobni has extracted the phone number from my contact’s signature, listed everyone else in my network that this contact has communicated with, as well as putting the files and conversations with this contact at my fingertips.  But Xobni goes further than that by actually quantizing the data and informing me just how important this contact is to me (in a strictly e-mail sense of the word – my wife won’t be happy to find out that she’s #5).  Having this data handy helps to better prioritize and respond to "critical" items in your inbox more efficiently.  My day is freed up from reading UPS shipping notices and standard report reminders and I can focus on doing my work, with the knowledge that Xobni is watching my inbox for one of my top e-mailers for me.  If one of my contacts has multiple e-mail addresses, Xobni automatically groups them together and shows me all communications with this person, not just from the e-mail address they sent me e-mail from.

It is an Outlook search engine on steroids, allowing a much quicker path to recent e-mail to and from each contact.  I would highly recommend it to people like me that have 8 GB mailboxes and desperately need to bring some order to their lives.

Jul
15
2008
Can You Understand What I’m Saying? Maranda Gibson

Clear Communications

In the same vein as our previous post on business communications, "Can You Hear What I'm Saying?," a business communication problem may crop up if clients can't understand what you're trying to say. All the personal and two-way conversations in the world won't help if you are not making yourself clear. A few business-friendly tips to keeping it clear.

1. Define terms. If your clients won't know the acronyms in your business, don't keep throwing them around without explanation. If you're a stock broker, and your new wealthy investor does not know what an ETF is--exchange-traded fund--how will you convince her to let you put her money into them? Your marketing communications and/or documents given to clients need to have the definitions spelled out as if no one has a clue. Yes, even easy ones, like the CDC or FDA. When in doubt, spell it out.

2. Don't recite a list of features. If you're company that has been in business for 5 years, and can provide 20 different services, listing all that as the main reason to choose your business may cause your customer's eyelids to glaze over. How about explaining how your services will ensure that they never have to worry about their heating and air conditioning service again? How about promising that the years of experience guarantees that the service personnel will "arrive on time or the service call is free"? (Yes, I'm dreaming. But wouldn't that be nice!) Make sure your best attributes are there, not for you to look and feel good, but so that your client looks and feels good. See the difference?

3. The shorter, the better. Some of the best marketing I've seen is short and sweet. A quick tag line summing up just what the client is looking for. A handyman service promises that your leaking gutter can be fixed in an hour while you're at work. A tanning salon wants to help us all relax. Find out what your client wants and then keep it short.

Business communications can be daunting to business owners. Calm down, it's not rocket science. You can outsource it to freelance marketing writers/copywriters/corporate writers, depending on what they call themselves. Which one to choose? It's up to you and your needs. If you have marketing collateral to rework or a web site to enlarge, any of the above freelance service providers will work. They will generally have an established web site showcasing their brilliant writing skills and will have impressive references. You'll want to ask for samples and make sure you get some rewrites included in the hefty fee. Shop around and don't settle. Make sure you find the best fit for you.

Or you can do it yourself. If that seems especially scary, remember the more you communicate and the more you try to do it clearly, the better you'll be.

Jul
08
2008
Can You Hear What I’m Saying? Maranda Gibson

One of the biggest issues facing businesses today and in the next few years is communicating effectively. The ability to communicate effectively is still the same: know your audience, speak in their language, and hear their questions.

But how do businesses do it?

The Business Ledger for Suburban Chicago discusses keeping current clients as the best way to navigate through the current economic conditions, and cites warmer, more personalized communications tactics as the best way to go.

"A continuing dependence on technology is also a barrier for attorneys to overcome when trying to develop more personal relationships with clients. With the emergence of e-mail as the primary communication tool in business, attorneys now must make a conscious effort to stay in close contact with their clients through phone conversations and face-to-face communication.

'I try to continue to have face-to-face contact with clients,' said Kenneth Clingen, a partner in Clingen Callow & McLean. 'Some younger lawyers are a little reticent to pick up the phone and call clients. They're more comfortable communicating by e-mail.

'It's an advantage to those lawyers who will continue to try to have face-to-face contact with their clients. If you don't have that, it may affect your ability to strengthen the relationship.'"

A surprising truth to most business leaders or managers seeking better ways to improve their leadership skills is learning to communicate.

Furnitureworld.com cites the importance of looking at communication as a two-way street and provides a helpful (and doable) list.

"First, you must realize and accept that clear communication is always a two-way process. It's not enough to speak clearly; you have to make sure you're being heard and understood. To facilitate this, use the following two-way communication primer:

1. Prepare how you'll communicate

  • Clarify the goal of the communication
  • Plan carefully before sending it or meeting in person
  • Anticipate the receiver's viewpoint and feelings

2. Deliver the message

  • Express your meaning with conviction
  • Relate the message to your larger goals
  • Identify the action to be taken
  • Confirm the other person understands

3. Receive the message

  • Keep an open mind
  • Identify key points in the message
  • Value constructive feedback and use it to grow
  • Confirm your understanding

4. Evaluate the effectiveness of the communication afterwards

5. Take corrective action as necessary"

In short, if you're talking in a vacuum, who is listening? You need to make business communications personal and relevant to clients, and above all, think of it as a conversation, not a lecture. Sometimes the most important things you'll ever learn about your business are things you'll "hear" from your own clients.

Jul
07
2008
Another Multifaceted Approach to Team-Building Maranda Gibson

Channel 8 News in Austin recently reported on a story that highlighted the philanthropic aspect of team-building.

"It was a double surprise when dozens of Frito Lay employees thought they were assembling bikes Wednesday as part of a team building exercise.

Later in the day, rather unexpectedly, 44 kids turned a corporate exercise into a much more meaningful event.

With numbers in hand, the children walked into a conference room to discover the bikes were for them.

One Frito Lay employee said it was the most worthwhile team building exercise they've done so far."

The London Free Press reports on a team-building exercise that has seen marvelous results from participants.

"Viewers of the Amazing Race know that participants rarely emerge from the contest unchanged.

Sometimes the twosome is drawn closer together, their friendship strengthened by the intensity of the experience. The more entertaining couples go the other way, bickering their way around the world, straining whatever relationship they began with.

The creative minds behind Conundrum Adventures Inc. hope their clients fall into the former category, working together to solve puzzles that lead them through downtown London.
‘It started with the idea of corporate team building, but we've also had a large family reunion do a Conundrum,’ says Teresa Boere, a recent addition to the company. She runs the London arm of the business, which is based in Toronto."

And to dig a little deeper into this subject, Ephraim Schwartz of InfoWorld.com talks about the essentials of global team-building, which focuses less on activities done together to build a team, but highlights essential education and knowledge required when going into a truly global team space.

"Just as a company puts a localization strategy in place when opening a new plant or launching a new product overseas, company leaders must learn about communication styles, attitudes toward meetings and deadlines, even the very notion of what makes a good leader in a given culture before entering into business negotiations with an organization overseas.

In the United States, a direct approach -- even when critiquing a team member -- is admired, but in most of Asia, directness is not regarded as highly. A leader who practices that approach humiliates the person she is criticizing; moreover, in the eyes of the other team members, she humiliates herself."

As business deals spread across the globe, taking care that your communication and assumptions are correct and appropriate goes a long way toward a strong team effort, probably more so than just solving a puzzle or building bikes for children. The essence of team-building is more complicated than a simple exercise, and we’ll be discussing this much more in the near future.

Jun
30
2008
Business Bending Toward Gen Y; Frustrating Other Generations Maranda Gibson

Generation Y vs Generation X

In the United States, learning to communicate between different age groups is the new challenge of business communications. Why? Generation X and Y groups speak differently than the Boomer generation.

- Diane Stafford, writing for the Kansas City Star, reports, "The entry of the techno-savvy Gen Ys is getting far more notice than the smaller, quieter absorption of Gen X, the demographic group sandwiched between the boomers and Gen Y.

Whereas Gen X pretty much got with the boomer program, Gen Y has a style of its own. That's created a cottage industry of commentary and consulting about the communication difficulties among the four generations at work."

In the 2008 World of Work survey recently completed by Harris Interactive Inc., workers were given "31 traits to choose from to identify co-workers in their same generation. The top five choices in the four generational groups showed just how differently the groups see themselves.

Gen Y most often described their own workplace personas with: Makes personal friends at the workplace; sociable; thinks out of the box; open to new ideas; and friendly.

Gen X's most frequent self descriptions were: Confident; competent; willing to take responsibility; willing to put in the extra time to get the job done; and ethical.

Boomers most often selected: Strong work ethic; competent; ethical; ability to handle a crisis; willing to take on responsibility; and good communication skills.

And the mature group self-identified with: Strong work ethic; ethical; committed to the company; competent; and confident."

The generations at the most odds, Gen Y, Boomers, and the mature group, have the hardest time communicating. Yet, "Gen Y was just about as hard on itself in evaluating its own work ethic and other 'serious' business traits as the older generations were in downgrading the Gen Y work ethic.

Gen Y is changing the face of global business, possibly the most dramatic upheaval in business culture since women entered the workplace during World War II. 'The significant factor is not how today's business views the newest members of the workforce … it's how Gen Y views business.'

'Gen X challenged the status quo. Gen Y chooses to press for more from their work life. They don't accept all the tried and true principles and practices. The old rules of thumb do not apply. Neither do many of the management techniques employers have used with previous generations.'"

Thus, the challenge in the next few years is for Gen Y to learn to understand how other generations view business and for other generations to allow Gen Y to redefine business in their terms.

Jun
17
2008
IM Etiquette Maranda Gibson

Instant Messenger

So, last week, PC World reported a study from Ohio State and University of California, Irvine (joint study, I presume) that instant messaging actually improved people's productivity during the day.

The reasoning is that instant messaging (IM) is less obtrusive than a phone call or even “a knock on the side of your cubicle” because like email you can choose when to respond. I wasn't sure about that claim, because I have had multiple experiences in the past week that were exactly the opposite.

A coworker who wanted to know if I could talk on the phone right then. A vendor needed me to provide him with a proof of purchase so he could make sure I actually purchased software from him. A friend sent a YouTube link and then asked how I liked it.

But IM can improve productivity if used correctly.

Here's a few survival tips:

  1. Only turn on IM when you're actually available or willing to talk. See those nifty little away messages? Use them. Especially if you're busy. That way, people will wait until you're available, or if they send you a message anyway, won't expect an immediate answer.
  2. Be careful who you let on your friends list. This is key. If you're college buddies only want to send YouTube videos all day, and want to chat about your friend who made a fool of himself while he was intoxicated at Saturday night's party and you have work to do, perhaps they should be removed from your work IM and added to your personal IM.
  3. Don't bug your friends or your coworkers. Are you the one sending out YouTube links all day? I would guarantee your productivity has slowed as a result. And the one rule of IM is simple: treat others as you'd like to be treated.
  4. IM on a work computer is not private. Those all-knowing guys down in IT know what you're doing, so watch out. The same goes for how long you sit on YouTube.com. You might, however, be allowed to take breaks and surf the Internet, thus see How To Keep Up . . . And Get Ahead for help convincing the powers that be to allow breaks to surf Facebook.
  5. Impress your boss and use IM to actually save time and be more productive. Ask a quick question, send info to someone, invite a friend to lunch, and you'll improve your ability to multitask and accomplish more than you thought you could today.

Jun
16
2008
How To Use Word More Effectively Maranda Gibson

Most people groan and complain about Word and how buggy it is and how it never does exactly what we want, when we want, and how we want.

C'mon people. Word is a powerful tool for business owners and once that power is harnessed to make your life easier, you'll be singing a different tune.

  1. Word has a spreadsheet feature built in. No need to run back out to your desktop to open a spreadsheet when with one click you can build a table right into the screen you're working on. Don't know how? Look on the menu for Table > Insert. Then choose Formula from that same menu. Voila. It's that easy.
  2. Track Changes isn't that scary. It's helpful, especially when multiple people are making changes on an important document. Just choose Tools in menu at the top of your Word screen and toggle it on. Now play with it on an old document. Delete a few words. Want to view the original text? There's a toolbar you can view (go to View > Toolbars > Reviewing) that has a dropdown menu. First choice is Final Showing Markup. But you can also view Final (which removes all the Track Changes marks), Original Showing Markup, and Original (with no Track Changes). To turn off Track Changes, toggle again in the Tools menu. Or to accept changes, make sure your Reviewing toolbar is still available and check out the buttons. Just press one! Again, play with it. You might be surprised how easy it really is.
  3. Add a custom dictionary. The Word spellchecker is worthless sometimes. It really only spellchecks certain words and for industry-specific terms, it misses them altogether (especially legal, medical/pharma, and science/tech). You can buy add-on spellchecking programs that will turn Word into a powerful editing machine. For medical, Stedman's sells a nice add on. For legal, check out Bouvier's Law Dictionary and Legal Speller, and for science/tech, try Spellex.
  4. Learn to master Word styles. It's easier than you think. For most of us users, Word applies its own formatting without being asked, which makes our blood boil. There is a way to conquer the automatic stylist in Word and to make it do what you want. For an overview (better than I could explain it), check Help > Styles and Reusing Formatting. (Also, if you go to Help > Microsoft Word Help and type in styles, you'll get more information than you need.) Once you learn a few things about styles, it's fun, very satisfying, and you'll wow clients and employers/employees.
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