Tell it to someone who cares

In the past 24 hours, I’ve received press releases announcing a book about preschools, a new product for geocachers, and an invitation to interview “the only expert who knows the true cause of the financial crisis.” The most amazing part is that someone is being paid to send this “news” directly to my junk file.

I know it’s difficult to keep press lists up to date. And it’s true that I used to be a journalist. But my last significant job in that area ended ten years ago, well before my current email address even existed.

So authors, experts, and communications professionals of all stripes: Before you buy a mailing list or hire someone to distribute your exciting news, ask yourself who really cares. Then do the research to find members of the National Geocaching Association or people who write about families. Even if you reach 20 people instead of 2,000, your success rate will skyrocket.

Corporate definitions, part 1

I’ve started collecting these. Would love to hear yours.

  1. Expert. Someone from out of town.
  2. Guru (also rockstar, ninja, wizard). Advisor with no real credentials.
  3. Convergence. We posted the article on Facebook and linked the Facebook page to Twitter.
  4. Crowdsourced. Vetted by our friends, and maybe the people we ride the train with.
  5. Human business. Two-year-olds do this on the potty.

Quote me on this

Direct quotes can create an instant, personal connection between your company and its target audience. But a corporate-speak sound bite will have the opposite effect. Compare the following quotes, both on the subject of pro bono:

“It gives me pleasure to report that 85 percent of the firm’s attorneys engage in work on a pro bono basis, primarily with  distressed populations in the metropolitan area.”

“I’m proud to say that nearly all our lawyers volunteer in the community.”

Which makes you feel more positive about the firm? How can you reduce the jargon in your company’s direct quotes?

I must dash

I admit it—I use too many em dashes. I just—I don’t know—all right, I love them. It’s as if—in some indefinable way—they express the ebb and flow of my thoughts. Which—for some reason—I need to share with you.

Should I curb my enthusiasm for the em dash? Sometimes I’m just being lazy; where colons, semicolons or commas are appropriate, they should be used instead. When I’m blithering (as above) or repeating myself, they should be slashed without mercy.

But occasionally—where emphasis is needed—I think they have a place in business writing. Do you?

Too much of a good thing

Once sprinkled sparingly, like saffron, on the risotto of business language, hyphens are now thrown around like handfuls of coarse salt. The major style guides agree that they should link  two or more words that serve as adjectives modifying the same noun—but only if the context is unclear. Yet we continue to hyphenate “real-estate agent,” “foreign-exchange rate” and $14-billion-dollar sale” against all logic and reason.

It’s time to stop the madness. Here’s where I think hyphen use is appropriate:

  • To avoid double letters: semi-interested, pre-existing
  • At the end of a word to avoid repetition: “First- and second- place trophies were awarded at rinkside.”
  • To break words at the end of a line
  • In cases where they are (really) essential for clarity: “The line re-formed across the street.”

Can we delete them otherwise? What do you think?

A four-word social media policy

Every organization now has a social media policy, and most of them boil down to the same thing: Don’t be an idiot. For some reason, companies feel compelled to spell out every form that idiocy might take. IBM’s guidelines include items like “don’t pick fights” and “don’t pretend to be someone else;” Kodak suggests you “know what you are talking about.” Coca Cola goes even further, specifying that “it’s not okay to violate other people’s rights.”

It’s as if, instead of saying the dress code is business casual, companies are telling their employees to wear pants. Does the nature of social media somehow lead to corporate overthinking?

And so he was hanged—or was it hung?

Here’s an elegant distinction: The word “hanged” refers specifically to a form of execution, while “hung” is used for any object suspended from above. The guilty man is hanged; the curtains are hung.

Other  frequently confused terms include connote (imply) and denote (refer to something specifically); inflammable and flammable (both meaning easy to set on fire) and their opposite, nonflammable; founder (fail utterly, as in a sinking ship) and flounder (blunder); and historic (important in history) and historical (anything from the past).  Can you think of others?

Strike down the music

Lily Tomlin once said, “I worry that the person who thought up Muzak may be thinking up something else.” I’m willing to bet they’re the force behind the following “innovations” on business websites:

  1. Auto-start music or video. Nothing makes me hit the back key quicker than  a video starting up—sound and all—as soon as I land on a page. The same goes for soundtracks.
  2. Splash intro pages.  Other than giving the designer a place to get his ya-yas out, what purpose do these serve?
  3. Links that lead to .pdf files. Even if I cared about your annual report, my netbook would take ten minutes to load it.
  4. Under construction pages. Either hide the page or finish constructing it. If you don’t have time to write it yourself, call me (973.444.4202).
  5. Forms that re-set. Don’t make me start over because I’ve left something out, or I will seek out your competition just to annoy you.
  6. Crappy “About Us” descriptions. This section is the Web equivalent of speed dating—you have 15 seconds to make me love you.  If you can’t say something interesting, don’t bother.

Number theories

There’s no single, correct way to show numbers in business writing. The only “rule” is to be consistent: $1 million, $1,000,000 and a million dollars should never appear in the same document.

That said, most writers rely on a combination of the AP Stylebook (or The Economist Style Guide if you write for international audiences) and common sense. Here are guidelines:

  1. Spell out numbers under 11, centuries (e.g. the nineteenth) and decades (the Eighties).
  2. Don’t start a sentence with a numeral. “Eleven geese fell from the sky,” not “11 geese.” Try not to begin with a number at all: “Jane saw 11 geese falling from the sky.”
  3. For numbers over 1 million, use a numeral plus a word. “More than 830 million people speak Mandarin.”
  4. Write out the word “percent” in formal business documents and on the web. Avoid symbols in general: No. 1 is better than #1.
  5. Proper names should be consistent with the entity’s preferred usage: 3M, Big Ten, 50 Cent.

When verbs attack

Sometimes it seems like verbs are taking over the world—or at least, overunning the noun category. I’m creating a list of nouns that have been verbed, for better or worse. What are your favorites (and least favorites)?

The Good: Bookended, headquartered, googled, waffled, texted

The Bad: Incentivized, guested, friended, gifted, conferenced, dialogued, leveraged, tasked

The Ugly: Incested, usagized, sunsetted, podiumed, actioned, impacted, boilerplated