Tag Archives: Language

The Fog Of Language

“Simply stated, it is sagacious to eschew obfuscation.”

Norman Ralph Augustine

When it comes to written and verbal language, I’m a big devotee of precision. Nary a day passes without encountering people using words that are close but incorrect. For example:

  • “That doesn’t jive with the facts.” (jibe)
  • “We have to staunch the bleeding.” (stanch)
  • “I could care less about your problems.” (couldn’t)
  • “I feel nauseous.” (nauseated, unless you meant you feel like causing nausea)

A subset of this is made-up words, such as “flustrated”, “supposably”, and “sherbert”.

Laziness? Ignorance? An indictment of our public schools? I don’t know.

I’m also an enthusiast of precision’s offspring: clarity. Say what you will about politicians, their messages are generally clear. Misguided, bombastic, outrageous, disingenuous, sure. But rarely unclear.

Business is a different kettle of fish altogether. The language of business often seems designed specifically to disguise, confuse, obscure, and otherwise bamboozle. Meaningless clichés, tired idioms, and word-out bromides flow forth from businesses like bodily functions.

Often, strings of gibberish appear (“press releases” or “statements”) that reach levels of inanity as to beggar belief, as well as eliciting grudging admiration. After all, it takes real talent to create a combination of words that sound impressive yet are devoid of any real meaning. Sometimes the goal appears to be impressive without specifics; other times to simply hide something.

The careful reader can spot the nonsense. Consider these examples, taken from articles that appeared recently in the business section of my local paper.

Example 1: In a statement announcing that restructuring would cause 220 people to lose their jobs, the CEO stated the following (buzzwords noted in red):

Over the past five years, we have transformed our market focus, innovation portfolio and manufacturing capabilities to deliver value for customers, shareholders and employees. As we continue to shift our product portfolio to a richer mix of higher growth, higher profitability adhesive market segments, we need to ensure our resources align with our vision. The proactive changes we are announcing will allow us to invest in the highest opportunity areas within our portfolio and become more agile as we support our customers’ success and deliver our 2020 plan.

Did you break the code? They want to make more money by dumping some products and people. Interestingly, a company spokesperson noted that over the past four years the company had added 200 jobs. So perhaps in the next cycle they’ll add some more people, presumably to enhance their innovation portfolio.

Example 2: In announcing a global restructuring, the company’s CEO stated:

We continue to prioritize both growth and returns. The structural changes announced [Monday] will help us unlock global growth opportunities and go after them by efficiently restructuring our teams and processes.

Let’s parse this a bit, shall we?

  • We continue to prioritize both growth and returns. Maybe a nit, but can you prioritize more than one thing?
  • …unlock global growth opportunities and go after them… What’s the difference between “unlock” and “go after”? Isn’t it assumed that after you go to the presumed trouble of unlocking, you would then go after them?
  • …by efficiently restructuring… That means they’re going to restructure in an efficient manner, not restructure in order to become more efficient.

Example 3: Announcing the demise of the print edition of one of their magazines, the publisher’s chief business officer and president of revenue (now that’s a title!) stated:

By re-imagining how [the magazine] creates content and how we distribute it, we are uniquely positioned to give consumers more of what they love while creating innovative and engaging opportunities for our advertising partners

Just a guess, but “innovation” seems to be the buzzword du jour.

Credit where credit is due: business people know how to turn a phrase, even if the result is something described by old Bill Shakespeare in King Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

So we are left with a choice: ridiculousness from politicos, or nothingness from titans of industry.

Choose wisely…


Today’s Fact Cetera

China has more English speakers than the United States.


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Better Emails Can Be Yours!

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” Benjamin Franklin

Writing is a muscle: the more your exercise it, the stronger it will be. But you have to use the correct technique when exercising your writing muscle. You write several emails every day, so consider each one an opportunity to polish your writing skills.

It takes time to craft a powerful email…but not as much as you might think. And once you find that your emails are getting better responses, you’ll have a template for success that you can adapt and use with all of your clients, prospects and colleagues.

Here are some simple steps you can take to avoid the common email mistakes:

1.  Treat Each Email As Important.

Make sure it accurately reflects you and your offering, and know your Purpose for every email: what do you want the recipient to understand, do and believe from your message.

2.  Organize Your Message.

State your Purpose, provide Information, describe Action Steps, then make a Specific Request.

3.  Start & End With Strength.

Have a compelling Subject Line, then get right to the point by stating the most important thing first. And end your email with a specific Request or Call to Action; what you want to happen next.

4.  Write To Be Clearly Understood.

Be Concise by avoiding unnecessary words and phrases. Be Precise by carefully choosing your words. And Be Strong by using words that convey confidence instead of doubt.

5.  And Before You Hit “Send”…

Save your email as “Draft”, wait 5-10 minutes. then revisit to proofread for typos and to add clarity, confidence and strength. Caution: don’t relay on Spell-Check alone; words that are incorrect but spelled correctly won’t get caught (e.g., “there”, “their” and “they’re”.

You’d never consider showing up for a client meeting looking like an unmade bed; your emails shouldn’t look that way, either. Keep in mind the simple steps I have outlined, and you’ll make sure that your emails show up the way you want to: polished, professional and positive.

Happy Writing! And if you have examples of bad emails you have received, send them along.


Today’s Fact Cetera

The average open rate of emails in the U.S. is 19.9%.

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Common Email Mistake #4: Not Taking Out The Garbage

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Hans Hofman

A significant number of emails are riddled with garbage: meaningless words and cliché statements that do not provide clarity or a compelling reason to read on.

Here are some examples, real emails that have been received and forwarded to me by clients, colleagues and all those who share my dislike for – yet fascination with – terribly written emails.

Garbage 2

As mentioned in previous posts, when you use “just” you may as well write “This isn’t that important…no reason for you to respond.” And recipients don’t care what you “wanted” to do, only what you want. For that matter, they don’t care what you’re “wondering” about, either.

Garbage 3

“Quickly” is meaningless in an email. Obviously, it was written quickly, but if the intention was to indicate that reading it wouldn’t take very long…well, too late.

Garbage 4

This is an example of visual garbage; a vain attempt to add significance to jargon through the overuse of highlighting. Secondly, unless it’s a specific request, asking questions in an email is a fool’s game. Recipients won’t answer them.  And as to the salutation, how does the sender know when the email will be read?

Garbage 6

Partner? Oh, never mind, because that’s the least of the problems with this one. First of all, there’s that pesky “just”. And then there’s the worn-out “touching base”. Don’t touch my base, don’t reach out to me, and for heaven’s sake, don’t threaten to give me a buzz. And why end the first sentence with a question mark? That ain’t no question, pal. And finally, if you must use an exclamation point, one will do just fine, thank you.

Here’s an assignment for you: review the emails in your “Sent” file, and see if you find any of these types of phrases:

Garbage 1

If you did, here’s your chance to turn over a new leaf. Make a vow to eliminate weak or unnecessary words and meaningless phrases.

Your email messages should be clear, crisp and on purpose. Anything that doesn’t serve the Purpose should go into the trash.

Next Time: Ending with Strength


Today’s Fact Cetera

On average, Americans now spend 92 minutes a day with their email.


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Common Email Mistake #3: Burying The Lead

“The first rule of writing is to have one’s words read successfully.” Robert Brault

To “bury the lead” in journalism refers to beginning with details of secondary importance to the reader, forcing him or her to read more deeply into an article than they should have to in order to discover the essential point.

Chances are you have received more than one email that requires you to read several sentences before getting to the purpose of the message. And if it’s a first contact, you probably don’t bother to read on. Especially if you are reading it on your phone; if it takes multiple swipes to discover the purpose, most recipients will bail out.

If you spend too much time getting to the point of the message, you risk losing the attention of your recipient and any chance of a successful outcome.

Emails that start with phrases like “How are you?” or “I hope this finds you well” may sound polite, but they quickly become an annoyance…especially if the recipient doesn’t know you.

Here are some real examples that have been forwarded to me by my clients. See how quickly (if at all) you can answer these two critical questions:

  1. What’s this about?
  2. Why should I keep reading? In other words, what’s in it for me?

Ready? Here we go….

Lead 1

The “What” is clear from the Subject Line, but not the “Why”. And the reference to previous emails indicates that nothing about them answered those questions either. And apparently the sender wasn’t too keen on sending the email, but his or her director told her to. Compelling? I think not.

Okay, here’s number two:

Lead 2

Hmmm…the “What” is a request for NetMeeting, but why would I want to be introduced to this company? And while we’re at it, why no periods at the end of the first two sentences? If the attention to detail in this email is any indication, you are right to question the so-called solution.

Let’s try another:

Lead 3

That’s quite a Subject Line. But what is “this”? And that first sentence! Sounds like a pitch for a questionable pharmaceutical, or perhaps a request for money from a Nigerian prince.

And now for the finale:

Lead 5

Oh my, what a wonderful story. But what’s the point? Although the rest of the email (which I have spared you from reading…you’re welcome) went on to discuss the power of conversations, I doubt anyone would read much past the beginning…especially on a cell phone.

Here’s how to avoid burying the lead:

  • Keep the Purpose of your email the Purpose of your email.
  • Have a clear and compelling Subject Line.
  • Start strong: get right to the point and state the most important thing in your Opening Sentence.

Remember, you want to explain what the email is about and why the recipient should keep reading…or even care about your message, and do it as quickly as possible.

Unless you do that, you’re wasting their time…and your own.

Next Time: Garbage Removal


Today’s Fact Cetera

33% of emails are opened because of the Subject Line.

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Common Email Mistake #1: Premature Sending

“There are two kinds of writer: those that make you think, and those that make you wonder.” Brian Aldiss

It is astonishing how many emails ask the recipient to consider a product or idea, yet are riddled with errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling and sentence structure.

Sending a sloppy email communicates to the recipient that you are not professional. Your message is undermined, and you’ve lost before you’ve barely begun. The recipient makes the logical assumption that if you can’t (or won’t) take care with your written communication, it’s unlikely you will take care in other areas of your work.

Even basic things are often missed. Nothing says “I don’t care about you or your business” more than misspellings; especially the name of the recipient or their organization. Yet it happens…and it happens with appalling frequency.

Here’s a real-life example, sent to me by a business colleague:

Email 1

This email is an excellent example of what happens when you hit “Send” before you have proofread your email. I count 5 glaring mistakes…can you spot them? (Answers at the end of this post…no peeking!)

This was the first contact between the sender and recipient. All the recipient had to judge the value of this offering was the writing. Do you suppose this was the first impression the sender was hoping for?

If you don’t care how you are perceived by the recipient, or really don’t want the recipient to take action, then by all means hit “Send” before you have reviewed your email. Or better yet, don’t even bother sending it at all. At least you won’t be making things worse.

On the other hand, there are some simple steps you can take to ensure you are putting your best foot forward:

  • Treat every email as important. Make sure it accurately reflects you and what you are communicating.
  • Know your Purpose for every email. What do you want the recipient to understand, do, and believe from your message?
  • Organize your Message.
    1. State your Purpose.
    2. Provide Information.
    3. Describe Action Steps.
    4. Make a specific Request.

Here are the five problems I found in the above example:

Email 1A

  1.  “Sales Leads” is inconsistently capitalized.
  2. The space between “email” and “snail” should be after the comma.
  3. “Just” implies that this isn’t important.
  4. The use of “guys” is informal, especially given the recipient is a woman.
  5. The last phrase should be a new sentence.

Next Time: The Myth of Efficiency


Today’s Fact Cetera

In Dutch, the @ sign is called “apestaart”; that’s “monkey’s tail” in English.

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Common Email Mistake #2: False Efficiency

“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” Wyatt Earp

One of the supposed benefits of email is its efficiency. In business, this can be beguiling: an excellent opportunity to show your customer service chops, to show how responsive you can be, to quickly take care of a number of issues by firing off emails.

But beware! A poorly written email can end up costing you time, energy and credibility.

I have seen emails that were sent quickly, and ended up requiring several additional messages going back and forth to clarify the meaning of the original email.

To wit:

False Efficiency

And on and on and on…and on. All that extra time and effort—not to mention, damage to credibility and professional image—could have been avoided by taking a few moments to ensure that the first email accurately conveys what it was meant to.

Oh, and ensuring the correct spelling of the recipient’s name is always a fine idea.

When you sacrifice precision for speed, you get False Efficiency. Responsiveness is good, but unless you’re careful, you risk undermining that good with a confusing, inaccurate message.

Speed without care is reckless—and a recipe for failure. What is required is Velocity: the combination of speed and purposeful direction.

So, before you hit “Send”:

  • Save as “Draft”.
  • Wait 5-10 minutes, then revisit to ensure it is on Purpose, to proofread for typos, to add clarity, and to run spellcheck.
  • Magnify your email to 150% to more easily catch typos and punctuation errors.
  • Read your email out loud to check smoothness and flow.
    • Important Safety Tip: If you have to take breath in the middle of a sentence, it’s probably too long. Consider deleting unnecessary words or making two sentences.
  • Have someone else read your email. Fresh eyes will catch things you missed. And if your Purpose isn’t clear or being fulfilled, they’ll spot that, too.

The extra time you spend on careful writing will be paid back in full as you avoid misunderstanding, damaged credibility and endless clarification emails.

Next Time: Get to the Point!


Today’s Fact Cetera

In the time it takes you to read this, over 100 million emails will be sent.

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Emoji Whiz

I’ll be the first (well, one of the first) to admit that I am not the hippest cat on the planet. Note to self: find out if the kids are still using the phrase “hip cat”.  I tend to be rather late to the party in regard to new fads and trends. For example, when I read People magazine at the doctor’s office, I am chagrined to realize that I don’t know most of the “celebrities” that grace the pages.

So I’m certain that emojis had been around for quite a while before they entered my consciousness. But now these little cartoons are everywhere. Proof of their ubiquity is that people like me (not me, mind you, but other old guys) are including them in texts and emails.

Before I come across as the old grouch who yells at kids when the ball comes in his yard, let me state for the record that I am not against adding a bit of whimsy…on occasion. But only on occasion. I’m not sure every written communication requires a Drooling Face or Call Me Hand. And I am more than sure that multiple doodads are never necessary. But in general, I view these little thingamabobs as inconsequential at best, mild irritants at worst.

However, as a sworn enemy of uninformed opinions, I felt that more research was needed before I dismissed these pesky little buggers out of hand. I went in with two assumptions: 1) Emojis are the product of artists who create and somehow distribute them at will, with no more than a good graphics package and Internet access. 2) Emojis are another sign of the erosion of writing skills (and perhaps the End Times.) Why carefully craft a sentence that clearly demonstrates both your message and emotion when you can throw in a Smiley Face?

Spoiler alert: Assumption #1 was shattered; Assumption #2 lives on.

My research began with a BBC World Service radio program, in which Jennifer 8 Lee (yup, that’s her name…I looked it up), a journalist and author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” discussed her campaign for a Dumpling emoji. “We think the Dumpling emoji is a serious omission.” Lee opined. After all, she argued, there are emojis for pizza, hamburgers and tacos, so why not dumplings? Hey, that IS a serious omission.

As it happens, emojis have to be approved by the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit corporation that ensures the standardization of software internationalization standards and data. Their cornerstone is the Unicode Standard, which specifies the representation of text in all modern software products and standards. This venerable group has 11 full voting members, each of which pays $18,000 per year for membership: 8 US multinational tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google, as well as Germany’s SAP and China’s Huawei. The 11th member (as I’m sure you’ve guessed) is  the government of Oman. Wait…what?

Anyway, the Consortium has a Technical Committee which is responsible for the creation, maintenance, and quality if the Unicode Standard. Since its inception, this has been a rather sleepy, engineering dominated body. Emojis are part of their remit; specifically, the purview of the Emoji Subcommittee.

Still with me? Good.

Now for an emoji to be approved, a written proposal must be submitted that explains the reason for a new emoji, the persistence of it (that it’s not a fad), and that other people are asking for it. In weekly meetings of the Emoji Subcommittee and quarterly meetings of the Technical Committee proposals are no doubt examined with immense gravitas and precision. Apparently, controversy is not unknown. Take milk for example. A glass of white liquid? Too vague. A carton? Too American. A glass bottle? Too antiquated. One can envision a debate akin to the Scopes Monkey Trial.

And how contentious must the discussion have been regarding the Pile of Poo?

The long, formal process of approving emojis can take two or more years. So, if you’re eagerly awaiting the opportunity to add a Dumpling to your writing, sorry Hemingway…it’s going to be 2017 at the earliest. In the meantime, I’ll be periodically checking in on the Dumpling’s progress to glory. And wondering in what context a message would require such an emoji.

As a result of my exhaustive (and exhausting) research, my view of these silly little pictures has evolved. Currently, there are 1624 emojis in the Unicode Standard, all of which had to pass through this rigorous approval process. Why, there is even a World Emoji Day (July 17th…mark your calendar!) I now realize that emojis are quite the deal.

But I’m still left with the sense that—with a little bit of effort—we could all write in ways that reduce the need for emojis. If you can’t imagine sending a message without a Pirate or an Eight Ball—especially in a business context—well friend, you have bigger problems. (If you must, imagine a Winking Face here.)


Today’s Fact Cetera

The first 76 emojis entered the Unicode Standard in 1995. The most emojis (973) were added in 2010.

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