What does a high school student need to survive and thrive in today's world? A snappy-looking three-ring binder and color-coordinated folders can only take you so far in life. So, welcome to my first “Small Ways” post in a while.Read More
I’m obsessed with helping people. I’m not a doctor, therapist, convenience store clerk, park ranger, or general contractor, however – so I can’t help you with your foot fungus, daddy issues, lotto habit, insatiable botanical curiosity, or basement renovation. What I am is a writer, editor, and natural-born teacher with a tremendous work ethic and an innate desire to help the world be as lovely and humane a place as possible. So my blog is focused on sharing small lessons I’ve learned: small ways to be a better writer, a better worker, and a better human.
Writers always want to know how other writers write: what their routines are, what recommendations they have, how they come up with their ideas, and what tips they've picked up over the years.Read More
Listen to other people. Don't just act like you're listening. Really listen — to the advice they give, the ideas they have, and the things they feel it's important to tell you.
My life is a better place because I finally figured out that I myself don't always have all the right answers about it. For example, just over a year ago, my amazing and wonderful fiancé, John, told me something important and I listened. He helped me see a truth about myself and my life that I wouldn't have seen otherwise. Listening to what he had to say helped me change my life, start a new business, and set myself on a path to living a life I'm vastly better-suited to living.
This advice applies no matter who you are and what you're doing. It applies whether you're successful or struggling, whether you think you've got your shit together or you absolutely know you don't.
One of my clients is a successful entrepreneur. He readily admits that one of the primary reasons for his success is that, at some point, he learned to listen to other people. He now makes it his business to ask for help and advice from all the smartest people he can find. Listening to sound counsel is exactly what helps him thrive.
Listening is also incredibly important as we navigate this eternally insane political climate. We're never going to get anywhere if we don't listen to one another, and really try to understand what those who hold opposing views are saying. It's hard to do sometimes. I readily admit that. But we should all keep trying.
So, next time you want to interrupt someone or tune them out, try listening instead. It's not that much to ask. I can't promise it will always yield something of life-changing or success-generating value. But I can say that, if you genuinely listen, it sometimes just might.
Most adults rarely make time for play. Improv comedians and childcare professionals aside, most of us don't let ourselves indulge. In addition, we're so freaked out by the day-to-day realities of our world that we rarely let our children out of our sight. We're losing the ability to play, and, in many cases, preventing our kids from learning to do it properly in the first place.
We should all be playing more. Playing can be how we learn — how we help our brains grow.
Several years ago, I saw author Michael Chabon speak on the topic of "play" — as in, making room for play in our lives and our children's lives so that our imaginations learn to play. (To be clear, I'm paraphrasing something I heard nearly a decade ago, but I think this was the gist of it.) He talked about his own childhood: Of his gold-toned memories of taking off on his bike for hours at a time, inhabiting worlds of his own creation and becoming the hero or conqueror of each. Of the amazing freedom he — and his imagination — came to know and love as a result. As an adult, Chabon could write amazing, fantastical books because, as a child, his imagination had learned to play.
Chabon transposed these memories with the modern-day reality of his own young daughter at the same age. He and his wife were loath to let her ride her bike anywhere alone. Even permitting her to ride solo to the convenience store just around the corner was enough to give them heart palpitations: TOO MANY THINGS could happen. So where would her self-created worlds be built? Only created under parental or adult supervision? Would she be hero or conqueror of anything beyond the confines of the interior of their San Francisco home? It wasn't the same as what he'd been allowed. It wasn't fair.
Chabon posed a very real conundrum: in an unsafe, stress-laden world filled with dangers seen and unseen, how can we retain the ability to play freely... so that our imaginations, too, have room to roam?
Again, the fact is, we rarely do. Most of the time, our lives lack imagination or play. Day to day, our self-created worlds are largely lined with taupe office cubicles, cleaning supplies for body and home, chores and work to be done, routines to be gotten through, and maybe, if we're lucky, some Netflix or a meal out on the town. We're missing out on a ton of good ideas that our brains aren't given the freedom to have.
I'm not here to prescribe a play regimen for you. That's the exact opposite of the goal of getting YOUR imagination to do some work. I'm just here to say: encourage yourself to break out of your routine from time to time. Make yourself leave the house without a plan, and *come up with one*. And if you've got kids, try to find safe avenues to give their imaginations more room to play. But for goodness sake, try to think beyond Minecraft, Candy Crush, or anything you play on a gaming system. I'm not saying that's not valid play; just that you should challenge yourself and your kids to get outside and inhabit worlds of your own creation.
To get you started, you might think of some of the ways you used to love to play when you were a kid, and start there. Whatever you do, if you feel a little ridiculous as you're doing it, you're probably on the right track.
To succeed in business relationships, “do unto others as you would have done unto you” needs to become “do unto others… as others would have done unto them.” I've started to think of this practice as “The Rule of You.”Read More
If you end your presentation with Q&A, you're choosing to give up a very important thing: control. You're giving up the right to decide what the audience's final impression of you will be — what they'll feel, and what they'll remember.Read More
Nobody likes having their time wasted. And when you're paying someone for their time, you would hope that they're not wasting any of THEIR time — because if they are, you're paying for it, both literally and figuratively.
As a freelancer who generally charges clients hourly for the time I spend working on their projects, I have to be careful about how much time I spend composing email communications to those clients. After all, my clients are paying for that time, too. In addition, I have to consider the time it takes for them to read my emails. So I owe it to them to strike the right balance of being brief yet thorough, businesslike yet friendly, and clear yet not overly detailed.
Lawyers and other legal professionals have to remain consistently mindful of this as well — not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because their hourly rates are sometimes challenging for the average pocketbook. A client of mine, John O'Grady — an impossibly lovely and always conscientious estate and trust lawyer based in San Francisco (let me know if you want a referral!) — has a true passion for making sure his own emails to clients, as well as those written by his legal staff, adhere to principles designed to waste *no one's* time. (In fact, he seems to have decided to hire me as an editor based on an early blog post I wrote dedicated to writing more effective emails that don't waste anyone's time. Never let it be said that expressing excellent intentions gets you nowhere.)
At any rate, my client has a fantastic set of email guidelines that he gives to his own team, and he has been gracious enough to allow me to share them with y'all. The guidelines are designed to help make sure his team's communications are focused on providing value to the firm's clients while not wasting their time, money, or focus. You'd be supremely well-served to make them your own guidelines, too. And if you're saying, "I don't have clients, so this doesn't apply to me," hush. Because you do have clients: your clients are your colleagues and other stakeholders.
Without further ado, guidance on how to send emails that provide significantly more value in exchange for everyone's time (for your reference, the bold marks his guidance; the explanations are mine):
- One email per topic per client. If your email is too wide-ranging, you risk diluting or losing your client's focus. It's a courtesy to keep each missive focused on one matter only; that way, the client can easily digest it, attend to it, and file it where it belongs.
- If you have three questions, send three emails, so that you get three answers. Again, don't risk diluting or losing their focus. Furthermore, you are much more likely to get one answer quickly than you are three, because different questions require different answers — answers that may differ greatly in nature and complexity. Easy, short answers can be provided promptly, while answers requiring careful decision making or extended contemplation can be processed in their own due time.
- Make it 25 words or less whenever possible! This is an excellent goal sure to be cherished by any busy human in any walk of life. Nobody has time for your extended treatises. That being said, if length is required for clarity or the client really will benefit from having the information centrally united, adhering to the 25-words-or-fewer rule may not be possible, and that's okay. The idea is simply to be conscious about your choices, and to make sure you have bulletproof reasoning for any wordy, lengthy emails.
- “The 'e' in emails stand for evidence.” –Willie Brown In sensitive situations, it's important to be careful about what you put in writing. If a dispute were to arise, your emails could be used as evidence against you. (Let's take a moment to raise a glass to Donny Jr., who — in dashing off a quick response relating his excitement regarding potentially incriminating information about a political opponent — gave us a compelling example of email "evidence" that none of us will soon forget.)
- When clients send a question by email, it is rarely the best question. Schedule a telephone appointment. Conversation is a lot more interesting on the telephone, where anything can happen. Having one question turn into a string of 14 back-and-forth explanatory emails isn't the goal. The goal is to understand the question and provide a timely response. In many situations, it's going to be more efficient and effective to simply pick up the phone and thereby avoid constructing a long and potentially confusing email chain.
- As a disembodied form of communication, email is great for transmitting data. It sucks for nuanced technical discussions. Do not use for interpersonal conflict if you value the relationship. If you're dealing with a complex matter, it's often best to pick up the phone. Nothing expedites a solution more than real-time, two-way communication. Anyway, even the best writers struggle to make their tone and message crystal-clear on the page.
- One email per client. We have a duty of confidentiality regarding even the names of our clients. Do not mention the name of one client in another client’s file. Don't be lazy and wanton in sharing your clients' information. Consider your responsibility to each of your clients in every communication you make to any client or colleague, because your clients' files should only include information pertinent to them.
- Be gracious: say “thank you.” Every communication benefits from a "thank you." After all, they're giving you their time in reviewing what you have to say. "Thank you" belongs somewhere in absolutely every email you write.
Taking the minor bit of time required to review your emails with these guidelines in mind can make a massive impact on the value of your communications to your clients and colleagues. It's an investment you can make in your relationships. And it's an investment you can make in no longer wasting your own time composing yet another over-long, lazily worded email.
Imagine, for a moment, that English is not your native tongue. Now imagine that a colleague sends you a work email with the following message about a project you'd just completed, and that — not being a native English speaker — you must take their message entirely literally: "Hey, I hate to say it, but you really dropped the ball on this project. You've cut too many corners. Did you bite off more than you could chew? To make a long story short, while I'd personally love to cut you some slack, I can't let you off the hook here. I'll do my best to keep the big boss lady at bay, but I need you to go the extra mile and go back to the drawing board. The ball is in your court now. I hope you can get your head around it this time and pull a rabbit out of the hat."
If you took all this literally, you'd likely worry that your colleague had lost his marbles — er, lost his mind — entirely. Why on earth is he talking about balls, papercrafts, eating food in an ill-judged manner, truncating stories, cutting you, embedding hooks in your skin, your boss lady adrift in a bay, race mileage, something called a "drawing board" (is that another craft?), more balls, some sort of brain-wrapping activity, and magic tricks?
Idioms — phrases that have come to have certain meanings that can't be deduced from the individual words used — are something we ALL learn over time. My native-English-speaker fiancé, who isn't exactly the sporting type, has often amused me with tales of the sports metaphors he willfully misunderstood and misstated throughout his childhood: "batting 100," "going the full 10 miles," etc. But it's doubly hard for non-native English speakers trying to navigate our idiom-laden world.
One of my current clients is a company largely comprised of non-native English speakers. Their native tongues include Russian, Portuguese, and other languages. While I try to limit idiom usage in my communications with them, the fact that I have a hard time with it tells me how incredibly common idioms are in the phrasings I use and the world at large. So in honor of my wonderful colleagues at Distillery (hi everybody!) and a lovely German friend named Marc, this blog focuses on decoding some of the idioms that they've found most useful or confusing over the years. Beyond that, I want to do my part in raising awareness about being more careful with idiom usage in communications with non-native English speakers. So before we jump in, I plead with you: please don't make it harder on our non-native English-speaking friends by overusing idioms. After all, they already went to the trouble of learning our language, which is more than most of us can say. :)
Without further ado...
- "A pot calling the kettle black." Meaning: This is when someone criticizes someone else for a fault they also have. You're pointing out the hypocrisy of the person's statement. Ridiculousness: Apparently, historically speaking, everyone's kettles and pots were black? My own kettle is a pleasing green.
- "Bring it on!" Meaning: This is an informal way to express one's confidence in being able to tackle a challenge that's at hand. Ridiculousness: Bring WHAT WHERE?
- "By the skin of my teeth." Meaning: This is used to refer to a situation in which you managed to accomplish something, but only just barely, narrowly escaping defeat. Ridiculousness: Supremely well-stated by one of my colleagues: "Well, it hurts me to imagine that my teeth have skin on them."
- "Hit the books." Meaning: This simply refers to studying something very intensely. People may also use it to express that they feel they don't yet know enough about something: "I'd better hit the books." Ridiculousness: Go ahead and HIT those books. HIT THEM! They won't hit back.
- "Don't have a cow." Meaning: This expression is used to tell someone to calm down about something. While it was made exceedingly famous by our yellow friend Bart Simpson, people have apparently been saying it as far back as the '50s. Ridiculousness: If you use this in the presence of non-native English speakers, you deserve the blank, confused looks you're going to get, because your literal meaning is as follows: "I can clearly see that you don't have a cow in your possession, but I really must implore you not to give birth to one."
- "Eat your own dog food." Meaning: The concept here is that if you are responsible for a service or a product, you should be willing to use/eat/drink that product before subjecting others to it. (Just imagine if politicians had to treat lawmaking this way. What wondrous fun.) Ridiculousness: I shudder to imagine the makers of Alpo having to start staff meetings by digging into that horrific dog food.
- "Face the music." Meaning: This means you need to face the negative consequences of whatever you did. Ridiculousness: Why does "music" stand in for "negative consequences" when the majority of us LIKE music?
- "Hit the nail on the head." Meaning: This means to get something exactly right. It can also be shortened to the pleasing "You really nailed it!" Comparative Lack of Ridiculousness: If you think about it, this one actually makes sense. The metaphorical image is of a hammer and a nail. You're trying to pound the nail as effectively and accurately as possible, so you want to hit the nail straight... on its head. You don't want to mess around and miss the nail, or nail it in at an odd angle, do you?
- "Kill two birds with one stone." Meaning: This simply means to do two things at once. Maybe you need to take out the garbage, so you figure you may as well grab that screwdriver from the garage on your way back in. Ridiculousness: Please draw me a diagram showing me how you are going to kill both of those flight-capable birds with a single throwing object.
- "Knock your socks off." Meaning: This expression describes something that's really impressive or amazing. You could also express your own amazement by saying that something "really knocked my socks off." Ridiculousness: Did we at least begin by knocking off the shoes? Or do the socks somehow escape the shoes while the shoes remain miraculously on the feet?
- "Let's call it a day." Meaning: We're ceasing activity for now, and we're more than likely happy about doing so. We Americans LOVE "calling it a day" after we feel we've worked sufficiently hard to feel self-satisfied. Ridiculousness: Calling non-day things "days" is just so... satisfying?
- "Now you're talking." Meaning: People say this to express enthusiastic agreement with something you've just said. Ridiculousness: "Yes, I do happen to be talking right now; what of it?"
- "On cloud nine." Meaning: If someone says they're on cloud nine, it means they're blissfully happy about something. I googled this one out of consummate curiosity, and apparently, a 1950s US Weather Bureau classification defined "Cloud 9"-type clouds as those perfectly fluffy cumulonimbus clouds that all children draw with crayons by age six. Ridiculousness: "No, not the eighth cloud. Or the seventh heaven. Keep going... yep, there it is, cloud nine!"
- "Pitch in." Meaning: If you "pitch in," you join a collaborative effort with enthusiasm and vigor. You help out. You do your part as a member of a team. Ridiculousness: Our modern references for the word "pitch" typically have to do with baseball. In the context of baseball, "pitching in" makes no sense.
- "Take it with a grain of salt." Meaning: If someone says this to you, they're telling you that while whatever's being said is only partly worth believing, and it'd be smart to stay a little skeptical about it. For example, one might say, "Promises made by politicians during elections are best taken with a grain of salt." This one is apparently quite historic: it seems that Pliny the Elder, way back in 77 A.D., said something to the extent that salt makes everything a little easier to swallow. Ridiculousness: So you're saying that just ONE minuscule grain of salt will do the trick in all situations?
- "The best thing since sliced bread." Meaning: This is an expression used to emphasize how enthusiastic someone is about something. For example, if a fancy new VR headset comes on the market, you might say, "WOW! This is the best thing since sliced bread." Ridiculousness: Actually, no, you wouldn't say that at all, because in the modern age we're no longer super-impressed by pre-sliced bread.
- "Way to go!" Meaning: You did good. If someone says this to you, they're expressing their approval or excitement about whatever you just did. Ridiculousness: The innate silliness of this one is best typified by another non-native English-speaking colleague's comment: "It sounds like it's not to cheer someone up, but rather tell him there is plenty room for improvement." As in, "Dude, you've still got a long way to go on that."
- "What's his/her face." Meaning: People say this when they're referring to someone they know whose name they cannot remember, and whose name they're too lazy to try to remember. Ridiculousness: This one makes very little sense, as you do not actually want whomever you're asking to describe the person's face. Please don't inflict this on anyone.
If you still haven't had enough idiom fun, check out this idiom-learning app, which uses highly amusing illustrations to highlight and teach our ridiculous American idioms. And remember: have mercy on our non-native-English-speaking friends and colleagues. Because sometimes, we native English speakers do use idioms to the point of idiocy, and the habit doesn't do them — or us — any favors.
The internet is my tremendously reliable personal assistant. No matter my question or confusion, the internet — let's call her Rita, for no reason at all — is always willing to lend a hand. Rita is an endlessly good sport, tireless in bringing up the same oft-used resources over and over, or in finding me new resources when I have needs I haven't come across before. Daily, Rita makes my work, and my life, easier.
Over time, Rita has shown me a handful of websites that I use on a fairly regular basis for writing or work. And in the event you haven't experienced the particular joys of some of these, I thought I'd share them with you today.
- TitleCase: Ever Get Confused about Which Words Need to Be Capitalized in a Heading or Sub-heading? Yep, Me Too. Sometimes I'm Writing a Headline and I Think to Myself, What about That Word? It's so Tiny. Does It Really Need a Capital Letter? It May. It All Depends on the Rules of Title Case, Which Are Easy to Mix Up. So to Avoid Looking like a Dolt, I Use TitleCase to Check Myself Every Damn Time. (P.S. Thank you to TitleCase for ensuring proper title-case capitalization for this entry. It's got a copy function that makes life so easy.)
- Thesaurus.com: Can't think of another way to say "provide" when you have to use some form of that word's meaning four times in the space of two sentences? Thesaurus.com is like my work best friend. Thesaurus.com, Rita, and I hang out all the freaking time. We have inside jokes and afternoon dance parties, and we make fun of each other constantly but in a nice, well-intentioned way. Thesaurus.com helps me remember to vary the words I use, avoid jargon, and get slightly more creative with my descriptions. She also keeps me in check, using clever color coding to separate the better options from the so-so options. She's also got antonyms (opposites) at the ready, should I be feeling suddenly contrary.
- Chicago Manual of Style Q&A: Have a grammar, punctuation, or usage question? It's a fairly good bet someone else has had the same question already and posted it on the Chicago Manual of Style's Q&A page. Their browsable Q&A page is a great place to start if you want to be assured of an accurate answer to your question. (I mean, can you really trust all those self-righteous bloggers out there? ;) ) For those non-word-nerds out there, the venerable Chicago Manual of Style is a widely respected authority on all such questions. There's also The Associated Press Stylebook, of course, but I'm afraid the AP's insistence on dropping Oxford commas has always irked me. So for me, Chicago it is.
- Reverse Dictionary: Are you trying to think of a specific word that describes a certain concept, but it's stuck slightly beyond the tip of your tongue? Instead of interrupting your co-worker's chain of thought, asking your blithely uninterested wife, or stopping your very confused postman to ask his opinion, try the Reverse Dictionary. You can type in whatever words are already in your head — you know, the ones you'd say when you were asking someone else, "Hey what's the word that means when you ____________?" — and the Reverse Dictionary will try to help you figure out what that dang word is.
- Acronyms and Abbrevations: The Free Dictionary maintains a fairly exhaustive list of the world's acronyms (e.g., DKNY, FDIC, S&M, EBIDTA, HBO). If someone is speaking to you in confusing acronyms, here's a life preserver. At minimum, it can give you some good fodder for further research.
- Brians' Common Errors: Having a moment of confusion about some aspect of English usage? While I've never met Professor Paul Brians of Washington State University, I have a feeling we'd get along, because Professor Brians has dedicated a sizable portion of his time to cataloguing and remedying some of the most common errors in the English language. His list is truly impressive in its length and breadth. Also, his explanations tend to be MUCH shorter than mine.
- www.timeanddate.com: Planning a call or a meeting across time zones? Timeanddate.com's Meeting Planner tool is an absolute gem. Give them your locations and they spit out a color-coded grid neatly displaying your options. Green means it's in business hours for all locations, yellow means it's on the edge of business hours for one or more locations, and red means you should try to be a reasonable human and leave them alone at that time. The website can also tell you what time it is anywhere in the world, of course.
- Country Calling Codes: Calling a foreign country? Along with its adorably antiquated web design, the Country Calling Codes site has the best, clearest, easiest-to-use interface I've seen for helping you understand what to expect and which numbers you'll need to dial. Avoid being late for that important call and plan ahead.
- bitly: Need to send out a link but it's too damn long for public viewing? Use bitly, the clever little link shortener. While most people under the age of 40 already know bitly, there's a portion of my blog's audience (hi guys!) that may not. So for those folks: Check it out. It even saves all the links you create over time.
Got a favorite website tool that you'd like to share? Please feel welcome to do so in a comment.