6 professional ways to say “This sucks”

How do you tell your colleagues or subordinates their work isn’t up to par? I just sat through an incredibly painful review of a branding document that had been 18 months in the making. As the team made its presentation, the faces of the review board went from enthusiastic to concerned to horrified. Here’s what they said:

  1. It looks like management didn’t communicate some important points to your team.
  2. You may be a little too close to the project.
  3. We need an outside perspective.
  4. I was envisioning something more along the lines of competitor x.
  5. I don’t think this will get us the results we’re looking for.
  6. We’re not quite there yet.

What would you say?

Over and above

One error that scalds my eyeballs is the confusion of “above” and “more than.”  Here’s the rule: “Above” implies a relationship between objects, while “more than” refers to numerical comparisons. So “the UFO hovered above the Chrysler Building” but “the event raised more than $50,000.”

And what about “over?” William Safire has argued that it should never be used with numbers, but most major style guides beg to differ. The best advice comes from the Associated Press: “Use whichever term sounds best.”

In praise of recycling

I keep a folder called “Templates” on my desktop. Whenever I write a proposal, create a spreadsheet, or send a query letter that contains language I may want to use again, I save a copy into it.

Some of the pieces are dated. But over the years, this practice has saved me countless hours of writing time.

What are your best time-saving tips?

The Idiom’s Guide

An idiom is a group of words which, taken together, have a figurative meaning. The English language contains thousands of them, and they drive foreign speakers to despair: “How can I watch my back, or pay through the nose?” asks one student plaintively on UsingEnglish.com.

Even native speakers are flummoxed by regional idioms. “Happy as Larry,” “more front than Brighton” and  “man on the Clapham omnibus” are three that have stymied me.

While it’s best to leave idioms out of business writing altogether, you may not even know you’re using them. Here are a few that have made their way into my recent emails:

  • Back burner
  • Bells and whistles
  • Bend over backwards
  • Between a rock and a hard place
  • Get the ball rolling
  • Jump the shark
  • Monday morning quarterback
  • Reinvent the wheel

Which idioms bother you most?

It ain’t necessarily so

Here’s a difficult dichotomy: sometimes grammatical errors make your writing better. And by “better,” I mean “more powerful and compelling.” The following rules are made to be broken:

Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. But why not? And who’s to stop me? For I am inspired by the flow of these sentences. Yet editors continue to challenge them. To which I say, “Phooey.”

Don’t end with a preposition. There are so many exceptions to this rule that I hereby declare it an ex-rule. From “What did you step in?” to “This idea makes me throw up,” prepositions are perfectly appropriate at the end of a sentence. That said, don’t use them if they’re not needed. “Where are you at?” is just wrong, and even “where it’s at” would be perfectly correct as  “where it is.”

Don’t split infinitives. Even before Star Trek urged us “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” Robert Burns “dared to nobly stem tyrannic pride.” John Donne, Benjamin Franklin, George Eliot and William Wordsworth were also fans of this grammatical “error.”

Don’t blow your cover letter

In the age of online job applications, it’s tempting to forgo cover letters and just shoot over your resume. But that’s a bad idea, because these letters are (forgive the cliché) low-hanging fruit. Less than 25 percent of online applicants send them, according to Monster.com, and recruiters notice the ones who do.

Here are the six elements of a kick-ass cover letter:

  1. Customized opening. Address the employer by name if at all possible; otherwise start with a general term such as “Greetings” rather than “Dear Sir or Ms.” The first sentence should refer to the position, e.g. “I was excited to read that you had an opening for a technical manager in the new products group.”
  2. Qualifications that correspond to the job description. If the technical manager description calls for “mastery of MS Project, ability to meet tight deadlines and handle flexible work hours,” those are the (reworded) strengths you should highlight.
  3. Summary of accomplishments. List your most relevant selling points, focusing on positive outcomes. (“Under my direction, xyz.com launched on time and sales increased 29 percent in the first six months.”)
  4. Enthusiasm. The single most powerful statement is “I really want to work for you.”
  5. Confidence. Instead of “I hope to hear from you,” try “I will follow up in a few days to arrange a meeting.”
  6. Proofreading. One error and all your good work goes to waste. You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?

How low can you go?

There’s a fine line between refreshing informality and embarrassing folksiness in business writing. Worse, the location of this line varies from industry to industry.

Read my thoughts on formal vs. informal writing at Ragan.com.

Look who’s talking

The first rule of successful business writing is “Know your audience.” But an important corollary is often overlooked: “Know who’s doing the talking.”

Do your marketing materials have a clear point of view? Here’s a cringeworthy example from a corporate law firm:

“Clients turn to us for help with bet-the-company matters that impact your bottom line.”

This sentence starts in the third person (Clients), but quickly shifts to first (us) and then second (your).  It also boasts three buzz words—bet-the-company, impact and bottom line—that would  never leave the mouth of a corporate lawyer.

So who’s doing the talking here? Clearly someone with no sense of the site’s audience (buyers of $900/hour legal advice) or product ($900/hour legal advice). As pitch materials go, it’s not much of a confidence builder.

Escape goats and other mondegreens

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the term “mondegreen” was coined in 1954 by the writer Sylvia Wright, who offered this example from “The Bonny Earl O’Moray:”

They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

The correct line was “And laid him on the green,” and the resulting sense of confusion is familiar to everyone from church-goers (“Gladly the cross-eyed bear”) to lovers of Jimi Hendrix  (“Excuse me while I kiss this guy”).

Business writing has its share of mondegreens, along with close cousins like the malapropism (misused word). Some are the result of typos—e.g. pubic announcements—but I recently received an email exhorting me to “leave no holes barred”  and saw a tweet chastising “escape goats.” And my eyeballs are still aching from the list of religious holidays at my first job, including notes for “Wide-angled Saxons” and “Off-the-dock Jews.”

Gaffes like these make you look pretty silly, so try to avoid them if you want to get ahead in this doggy-dog world.