It was blown by you

I recently saw this line in a human resources handbook: “A training session on employee harrassment is required to be attended by all staff.” Leaving aside the fact that the company is training its employees to harass each other, this is a nice example of misuse of the passive voice.

As the term suggests, “passive voice” means that something was done to something else. The road was crossed by the chicken. Short people are discriminated against. I am being screwed. Most of us grew to love this construction in high school, when we were too lazy or nervous to commit to precise statements. “It is argued that Mark Twain was the most revolutionary writer of his day” keeps things nice and vague—it’s not even clear if the writer agrees.

Unfortunately, laziness and fear of commitment don’t serve us well in the business world. I can think of only two instances where passive voice is appropriate: to emphasize an object  (The baby was left on the doorstep) or to wiggle out of taking the blame (Errors were numerous in the last newsletter).

Don’t pet my peeve

I googled “pet peeves” and got 1.2 million results. That’s a lot of peeves. Merriam-Webster traces the term back to “pevish” (Middle English, spiteful; first use circa 1530), while the Oxford English Dictionary links it to “perverse.” Either way, I think we can agree that it’s overused.

Other candidates for retirement:

  • At the end of the day
  • Change agent
  • Leading (or, God forbid, bleeding) edge
  • No-brainer
  • Open the kimono
  • Paradigm shift
  • Proven track record
  • Push the envelope
  • Ramp up
  • Results-oriented
  • Win-win

Which terms set your teeth on edge?

Words to avoid

Desk side. Also deskside, desk-side. If you want to come to my office, just say so.
Impact. Overused in general, unacceptable when “verbed.”
Irregardless. Non-word combination of “irrespective” and “regardless.”
Literally, in the non-literal sense. “She literally exploded with excitement.”
Optics, unless you are an opthamologist.
X and myself, e.g. “My colleague and myself are delighted to be here.” “I” or “me” is nearly always correct instead.

Which words would you like to banish from business writing?

Bad email etiquette

These aren’t necessarily errors, but they’re bound to annoy recipients just the same.

  1. Misuse of subject line. Don’t leave this blank, and don’t waste it on vague descriptors like “Marketing team update.” Instead, include compelling details in the subject heading. “Three volunteers needed for tomorrow’s CNN interview,” not “We’re  going to be on CNN!”
  2. Slow lead-ins. These vary from the personal (“Hope the holidays are treating you well”) to the overly detailed (“Rachel and I were talking on the plane yesterday, and we realized that…”). Business emails should start with a clear statement of purpose.
  3. Missing pieces. Attach your attachments, and don’t forget to include email and telephone contact information.
  4. Unnecessary responses. Do you really need a whole new email to say “you’re welcome?” As for emoticons—just no.

One-minute book review: Made to Stick

There are a lot of great books on business writing. In case you’re too busy making a living to read them all, I will occasionally offer one-minute summaries of work by well-known authors.

Today, Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  Expanding on Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, the authors offer six concepts that will raise your communications above the pack: 1. State it simply. 2. Use concrete examples. 3. Establish yourself as a trustworthy source. 4. Appeal to your audience’s needs. 5. Destroy  preconceived notions.  6. Tell a story.

I’d encourage you to stick with the first four in everyday communications—you can splash out with the last two when you pitch something. If you have time for the book, it’s an entertaining read.

A second set of eyes

Ask someone to review your work before you send. This rule applies to every document–from a two-sentence email to a book-length manuscript–that will be seen by someone you hope to impress.

I was once asked to provide a caption for a photograph of a Parisian river scene. Unfortunately, I made a tiny error; a single letter was incorrect. The caption read: “After a busy day of sightseeing, there’s nothing more relaxing than a quiet wank by the Seine.”

It would have taken five seconds to have someone review that little gem. Instead, I got three years of ridicule.

No flowers, please

This blog will help you create clear, concise, professional communications. Whether you are writing a new business pitch, an important email or a memo to your department, our tips  can make it better.

Here’s tip No. 1: Avoid flowery prose.  In the world of business communication, less is more. Just as you wouldn’t dot your i’s with little hearts or sign your name in rainbow colors, stay away from flourishes that “personalize” your language.

Before sending a document, read it through one last time and delete your favorite sentences–the ones that drip with creativity. Unless you are planning to date them, your readers don’t need to know what makes you special.