I shot an elephant in my pajamas

Few grammatical errors cause more unintended hilarity than misplaced modifiers. A few examples:

The speaker recalled his revelation in the elevator.

We saw several iguanas at the conference in San Juan.

The CEO offered him a job at the strip club.

Used correctly, modifiers add detail and color to your writing. Just don’t spread them around—keep them close to the thing they are modifying.

How are your rewrite skills?

I recently stumbled across the following paragraph (edited to protect the guilty) on a corporate website. It’s 40 words; can you rewrite it to 20 or less?

“We firmly believe that transparency and ongoing partnerships are key drivers toward finding long-term, sustainable solutions to global challenges. To this end, we maintain relationships with key  stakeholders including government officials, politicians, regulatory authorities, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations.”

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?

Mission statement fail

I’ve written my share of mission statements. I’ve lauded the “commitment to diversity” at companies where less than ten percent of the managers were diverse (one had a gay, Puerto Rican, female director and counted her three times), and talked up “ongoing initiatives” with no budget, staffing or deliverables. With this in mind, here are my nominees for the emptiest, most irritating phrases in current use.

  1. Creating an environment of…. Visions of terraria and zoo enclosures come to mind.
  2. Corporate values/goals. These terms are interchangeable and cancel each other out. For instance, “Our corporate values of inclusion and mutual respect will achieve our corporate goal of $50 million in profits this year—or you’re all fired.”
  3. The next level. We are afraid to put a number on this because we think it’s going to fail.
  4. Leverage our strengths. What’s wrong with, “Do more with what we’ve got?”
  5. Bring it back full circle. Start over without admitting we screwed up.

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?

Saying it with a bang

My thoughts on hyphens prompted an outpouring of reader complaints about another ubiquitous punctuation mark: the exclamation point.

Back in my advertising days, I had a creative director who used to say (with a fruity, self-satisfied chuckle), “Using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” Like much of his work, this statement was unoriginal; numerous sources attribute it to F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it’s true that there’s something self-serving about the bang character. Derived from the Latin (“note of admiration”), it was originally used to express joy or wonderment. From here it was a quick leap to astonishment in the negative sense— “That’s the biggest carbuncle I’ve ever seen!”—sarcasm, and warning.

The current trend toward overusage might have started with Tom Wolfe, who (if Trivial Pursuit is to be believed) employed 2,343 of them in his blockbuster Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s gotten a huge boost from email and text messaging, where multiple bangs are routinely used to turn up the volume. What do you think—it it too much? How can we stem the tide?

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?