The first annual Squirmy awards

Everyone’s seen them: sentences, phrases or whole publications so awful they literally made you squirm. In honor of appalling writing–and the people who make it happen–I’ve created this sure-to-be-coveted annual trophy. Early submissions include:

“Out to the yard, where fantasy awaits.” (Residential real estate listing, presumably for a brothel)

“Our work will give you a piece of mind.” (Masonry company brochure)

Bring on the nominations!

In praise of humane writing

Reader and Renaissance man Bob Parker brought my attention to Alfred Kahn, economist and former head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, who was perhaps best known for a memo he circulated in 1977 containing guidelines for the avoidance of “gobbledygook” in corporate speech. The whole thing is a gem, well worth the five minutes it will take you to read it. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

“If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong.”

“Try reading some of the language you use aloud, and ask yourself how your friends would be likely to react.”

On the passive voice: “Typically, its purpose is to conceal information: one is less likely to be jailed if one says ‘he was hit by a stone’ than ‘I hit him with a stone.'”

“I have heard it said that style is not substance, but without style what is substance?”

What indeed. The memo garnered Kahn a marriage proposal (he was already married) and newspaper editorials suggesting he be elected president and/or get the Nobel Prize. He died late last year, so perhaps it’s time to nominate him for sainthood.

When in doubt, leave it out

I’ve been reading about cover letter and resume snafus–some of them real doozies. One woman gave the owner of an escort service as a reference. A programmer’s cover letter ended with the line, “I look forward to negotiating my salary, as I feel confident that I am worth more than the $65,000 you are offering.”

By far the most common error is including extraneous information–especially if it makes you look bad. Examples: “I type 14 words per minute.” (The HR person groaned, “We didn’t even ask for typing speed!”) “My social skills have improved since I started taking Paxil.” “Please text me, as I don’t check my email or answer the phone.”

Before sending out a resume or cover letter, give it quick once-over to eliminate TMI. Then ask a friend to do the same.

Circle the wagons and bark like a dog

It’s been an amazing week for office-speak. Between the hallway, the elevator, the conference room and the copy center, I heard the following:

“I’m in concert with the sales team.”
“Let’s cascade this memo.”
“It pleasures me to inform you….”
“Please govern yourself accordingly.”
“I need to give you a dump.”

And my favorite:
“Ping Doris and make sure it’s on her radar.”

In case your ears aren’t bleeding yet, here are a few more: action items, metrics, laser focus, tickler list, in the weeds. Aren’t you glad it’s Friday?

Unreasonable requests: how do you push back?

Some jobs or projects have clearly defined boundaries. But many of us end up taking on  responsibilities that aren’t listed in the job description.

This works out fine as long as the redefined job is properly resourced, properly valued, and has a reasonable–okay, feasible–set of deliverables. Otherwise it’s a train wreck.

How do you handle this situation? What language do you use to a) notify your manager that you believe the job parameters have changed, b) set the scene for renegotiation, and c) get yourself a better deal?