Ooh la la

By the time you read this, I should be whiling away the hours in France. Although I will technically be vacationing, rest assured that I expect to gather loads of fodder for this blog. Opportunities for communications faux pas always abound when languages collide, but I’m looking for successes and expecting to learn a lot about non-verbal cues, too.

In any case, although I hope to wedge in a few posts between the rich wine and stinky cheese moments, expect to see some of my early favorites reposted. If you’ve read them before, maybe you’ll see something new that strikes a chord. If this is your first time, I hope you find them worthwhile.

Enjoy, and au revoir!

P.S. And YES, someone is watching my house.

A very good year

I can hardly believe that a year ago today, I launched this blog. In the real world, a year really isn’t a long time, but in this fast-paced virtual society, that’s practically an eternity. Most bloggers abandon their efforts after a few months or weeks, so permit me a tiny kinda-proud-of-myself moment.

Actually, I’m not so much proud for keeping up the effort as for learning some lessons along the way. On my blog’s half birthday, I reflected on this same topic. I won’t bore you with more of the same, but if you want a refresher, you can review that post here.

But here’s something new. This blog has given me the confidence that comes with practice. By writing (almost) every weekday, I continually sharpen my skills. I can try new techniques and contemplate tricky topics. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fall flat, but this blog that is mine-all-mine functions as a sandbox in which I can play and feel safe. And you know, I always learn more from the failures than from the successes.

This confidence building exercise has allowed me to step out into the “real” writing world–the world in which I get paid for it. Since Wordsmatter’s half birthday, I’ve acquired a freelance gig that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. I still can’t believe someone is paying me to do what I love. Without Wordsmatter, I never would have had the courage to pursue it.

Although I would write anyway, I offer you my heartfelt thanks for reading. I appreciate your comments more than you know; they keep me motivated and they give me a barometer to measure how I’m doing.

It has been a very good year.

You’re welcome

You’re welcome. We don’t think about what those words really mean when we casually drop them following an expression of gratitude. In fact, in many cases we don’t even say them at all. We’ve replaced them with phrases like no problem, sure, and even yep. While I certainly appreciate the acknowledgement, I wonder if we’re selling short some of the sentiment behind the words.

You’re welcome. A polite response to a preceding thank you, it means you are welcome to my time, my hospitality, my effort, my service, my thoughtfulness, or whatever action prompted the words in the first place. When I think about it, you’re welcome really carries a lot of weight. Or it should, anyway.

As an alternative, my pleasure appeals to my sensitive side, too. That phrase is even more straightforward. It means whatever I just did to earn your thanks, I was glad to do it for you. What a nice thought.

I use no problem and sure just as much as anyone. There are many times when the thank-you-you’re-welcome exchange is purely ritualistic and even a well-intended grunt would suffice. No one would notice.

For the times when it does matter, though–and those times occur more often than you think–make those words mean something. If you’ve handed me my food through the drive-thru window or completed a transaction at the teller window, for example, don’t say no problem. Of course it’s no problem! You’re getting paid to do it. Make me feel appreciated instead. Tell me I’m welcome to the service you just provided or that it was your pleasure to do it for me. If you really mean it, I’ll be a lot more likely to come back.

Thank you for reading this post. (And now you say…)

War of the wor(l)ds

Whoa, Nellie. This morning I received the following text message from a local news outlet:

97.3 WMEE: BREAKING NEWS: All Southwest Allen County Schools are on lock down due to shooting in the area. Stay tuned 4 more details on this story as they break.

As a parent with kids in two different SACS buildings, my mind started racing immediately. My first thought was that the odds of my kids being specifically involved were fairly slim, but mom hormones took over as my brain churned through possible scenarios. It took about 36 seconds for me to go into oh-no-what-happened-I-need-more-information-are-my-kids-safe mode.

Unfortunately, other than that singular, sensational text message, I heard nothing further. No follow-up text, no further details as promised. Nothing to quell my fear nor push me into rescue action. Nada.

Fortunately, I was able to learn a few details from a trusted acquaintance on–of all places–Facebook. It turns out that the seeming crisis occurred some distance away from the locations of my kids, near one of the other schools in the district. And actually, the crisis had nothing to do with the school itself; it just happened to have occurred in the adjacent neighborhood. The lockdown was purely precautionary until the police pronounced the situation all clear. *breathe easier*

Still, I never would have known that from the news outlet. Although it promised details to follow, the only subsequent text message I received was this:

97.3 WMEE: The lock down for Southwest Allen County Schools has been lifted. Suspect still at large. Stay tuned to WMEE for more details as this story unfolds.

Well, that didn’t tell me anything. If I hadn’t investigated on my own, I would still be wondering what happened and whether my kids were affected. I would almost prefer NOT to have received the original message given the lack of context or explanation. Without providing more information, the original text message was actually too much information.

This situation offers a fantastic illustration of the far-reaching power of words. They can incite, calm, inform, soothe, panic, entertain, comfort, anger, tease, bore, or mock. Whether a sentence is well- or poorly-constructed can change its very meaning. What words someone chooses to share or withhold can change behavior. Even delivery matters. If you don’t believe me, think about the panic and outrage incited by Orson Welles’s radio delivery of

Words have power. Choose them wisely and make them count.

P.S. My kids are fine, as are the kids at all the schools.

Fanning the flame

When I wrote Beyond your ZIP code a week or so ago, I thought my passion for international youth exchange had been rekindled. Boy, was I wrong.

Last Saturday I took part in the International Youth Exchange Expo that started this discussion. I represented one of four local companies in an effort to show kids and their parents the connection between exchange and career paths. I was supposed to tell people about all the international opportunities a company like mine has to offer, right here in this sleepy little community.

Well, once I started talking, I couldn’t stop. But instead of covering the employment community’s need for people with international experience, I talked about how exchange changes a person’s worldview in general. It makes people better problem solvers, because they have tackled something that once seemed impossible, in a language that wasn’t their own. It makes people better listeners and more respectful of others’ opinions, because they’ve had to look at the simplest of issues from a different cultural perspective. They’ve had to make sense out of what doesn’t seem to make sense. They’ve had to see things through different eyes. They’ve learned to appreciate the differences and learn from them, even adopting some for themselves.

I went on and on and on.

I saw lots of smiles and nods as I spoke, but I think the parents appreciated what I had to say more than the kids did. That’s okay, because if it helps convince them to send their babies off into the wild, wild world to see what it’s like, then I did a good thing.

No, my passion for youth exchange wasn’t rekindled when I wrote the ZIP code post. That was just the spark that got me going again. After Saturday, NOW the flame is really raging.

Let me know if you want to talk about it. I’ve got a lot to say.

Read it and weep

Sometimes I wonder about people. How can someone who is smart, good at his job, and generally articulate fail dismally when it comes to written communication? I’ve seen emails, white papers, formal correspondence, you name it that leave me scratching my head. I just can’t figure out what the writer is trying to say. What gives?

I think there are a few different forces at work here. First, I think the fluidity of expressing oneself via computer keyboard lends itself to error. That is, we can make corrections much more easily on screen than on a typewriter or in handwriting, so we write and rewrite. In that process, we often overlook adjectives and articles that applied to a former expression which ultimately didn’t make the cut. We change the money words, but forget to clean up the pocket change.

Second, people often overthink when they put something in writing. Instead of employing simple, straightforward expressions–being clear and direct–they over-describe. This often results in the misuse of vocabulary or convoluted phraseology. All the twists and turns lay the path to misunderstanding.

On the flip side, sometimes people don’t think enough. They write in a stream-of-consciousness pattern that can work in speech but falls far short in the written word. People can’t follow, and there’s no one around to interpret for them.

Fortunately, there is one simple trick that address all of these issues: read your stuff. Before you hit send or print or publish, take a few extra minutes to read through what you’ve just written, preferably out loud. I can’t count the number of times this has saved me from screwing up. I also can’t count the number of times when I didn’t do this and I did screw up. What I’ve learned is that if I stumble when reading my own material (even a simple email), my reader is likely to do an all-out face plant.

I understand that not everyone is a writer. People have gifts in different areas. But regardless of how someone is gifted, everyone wants to be understood. So when you write something, read it and weep. And then fix it.

That’s not for you

My son has a saying that alternately amuses and annoys me. He hurls, “That’s not for you, Mom” at me whenever I pick up and try to run with the local teenage vernacular.

Awesomesauce. (That’s not for you, Mom.)

Though occasionally I step gracefully away from the offending phrase, more often I bristle with indignation. After all, doesn’t that fly in the face of one of my most beloved topics: speaking in the local accent?

Leave it to a cheesy 80s movie to show me the light. It all became clear to me last weekend when I had the privilege of introducing said son to Better Off Dead. Early in the flick, David Odgen Stiers, who plays the father character, tries to have a serious talk with his son. He really wants to connect, so he uses a how-to-talk-to-your-teenager book as reference during the conversation. Unfortunately, he screws up every phrase he tries to adopt. Bring me down becomes bring me over. Right on becomes right off. He never gets it right, and the whole conversation sounds contrived. (Of course, it is contrived. It’s an 80s movie, after all.)

DOS doesn’t pull it off because he has no credibility. He’s not using the words in normal conversation, handling them comfortably. He struggles along, bearing them like unwieldy burdens. If this were a real life situation, people will look at him and giggle at best. At worst, they would sneer and walk away, hurling a jibe over the shoulder as they leave.

When you put on the accent, you have to be sincere. You have to be credible. You can’t sound contrived or mocking or even clueless. Otherwise, it’s not for you.

Shut up and listen

I pride myself on catching on quickly. I like to think I get it without a lot of explanatory narrative. Maybe there is some amount of natural intuition involved, but mostly it takes active listening and making mental connections. So, by some mathematical property that should certainly apply broadly to touchy-feely analogies like these,I think that must make me a good listener.

Well, pride goeth before a fall.

Sometimes I get so caught up in making those mental connections and proving my comprehension that I slide right through the listening part. Luckily, there are often verbal cues to set me straight, to remind me to shut up and listen.

I was given one of those cues the other day. While I was rambling on about the point I thought my boss had made, he sat quietly, waiting for me to finish. I didn’t notice that his eyes had glazed over, nor did it occur to me that he wasn’t speaking or nodding. When I finally stopped to take a breath, I heard the cue resonate loud and clear–though my boss said it quietly.

Where I was going with this is…

Oops. Those words embarrassed me more than I can say. I had clearly missed the point. I should have kept listening instead of jumping in to show that I understood. Thankfully his reminder was gracious, and we moved forward without further attention to it. It made me stop and reflect, though. Regardless of what I think I know or how good I think I am at interpreting, it never, ever, ever hurts to shut up and listen. Even communications people need to be reminded every now and then.

Window shopping

I’ve spent much of my morning researching online publications and media kits. I’m working on a couple of projects that let me explore some untapped outlets, and really I do enjoy seeing what’s out there and available in areas I haven’t explored before now. The hard part is making sure I choose the right ones, and that ultimately involves a significant amount of good judgment. That means I have to get my hands around all the information I can, information that makes sense.

Believe it or not, it’s not that easy.

You’d think that an online publisher would want to demonstrate his commitment to online accessibility by providing necessary information online. Apparently, not everyone feels the same way. When I can find media kits, they don’t include rate cards. When I find rate cards, they aren’t linked to circulation demographics or spec requirements. When I find spec info, there’s no contact.

I understand wanting to have a live conversation to try to close the deal, but withholding critical information actually makes me less inclined to want to talk to someone. It seems like a sneaky way to get a foot in the door to deliver a fast-talking sales pitch. I think it would be better for everyone if all the pertinent information were available, so that live contact is based on inquiries that are already self-vetted. Kind of like window shopping before walking into a store. The store gets reasonably serious customers, and the customer knows there’s probably something inside that will interest him.

Here’s the thing. If you want to capture people’s attention–not just anyone’s attention, mind you, but the attention of your desired audience–you have to give them what they need. If you’re an online publisher, for example, show me your media kit, rate card, and how to get in touch with an advertising rep. (Not having contact info on a website is inexcusable in any scenario.) Don’t give me pieces and parts; give me everything relevant.

And oh, by the way, when you DO give me contact information, don’t simply give me a list of people who share the same title. How do I know which one to pick? Give me a clue–list territory, area of specialty, something that points me in the right direction.

Sometimes I think certain companies don’t actually want customers. These are such simple things; why are they so hard to find? All it takes is thinking like a customer.

Out of the blue

Oh boy, oh boy. I’m in the middle of a tough situation that I don’t know how to handle. That’s my problem, not yours, but it does give rise to an issue I find intriguing.

The issue is this. Sometimes life can be humming along–going well, badly, or somewhere in between, but at least moving in a predictable rhythm–and out of the blue, someone will ask a question that changes everything. Yes, the question itself changes things, the answer notwithstanding.

Simply by posing the question, I am thrust into a situation where I am expected to respond. Sometimes I’m even obligated, even if it is merely the result of social convention. Most of the time, even no answer is an answer itself; it says something about me.

So now I’m in a spot were someone has asked me a difficult question. I have to decide whether and how to answer, but no matter how I handle it, my behavior will send a signal all its own. I can ignore the request, decline to provide an answer, or tackle it head on. My actions matter just as much as my words.

I still don’t know how to handle my difficult situation, but I do know that I can’t take it lightly. I’m also reminded that when I am on the asking side, I need to be extremely judicious about the questions I pose. The receiving side of questions like these feels pretty uncomfortable, so if I’m doing the asking, I’d better have a darned good reason.

I know the person who asked me did.