Product strategies? Off with their heads!
Craigslist handed me a beautiful gift today—a help-wanted ad that’s sillier than one I could make up. Like most ads written in corporate-speak, it expresses a preference for applicants who “exhibit strong written & verbal communication skills” that are so plainly absent in the ad itself. (Note: Written & verbal “exhibits” redundancy. By verbal, the writer probably means spoken. It’s common to see the phrase “verbal agreement,” as if any agreement expressed in words—written or spoken—were not verbal. But I pick nits, when there’s so much more to bewail in this misguided verbal-communication endeavor.)
Hyphens do matter, as “exhibited” in phrases such as “cross portfolio strategies” and “cross functional stakeholders.” If there’s anything worse than a functional stakeholder, it’s an irritable functional stakeholder, I always say, when I’m talking about stakeholders of any stripe—something I go out of my way to avoid. But maybe that’s because I lack the ability to evolve strategic & tactical elements based on research, data, & industry trends. Perhaps one can learn to evolve such elements only in highly matrixed organizations. Most of my experience has evolved in organizations with lowlier matrixes. I suspect I’ve even executed collateral among stakeholders in matrix-deficient organizations. Let’s have that be our little secret, if you don’t mind. I might need to pull the matrix card in a job interview someday.
Below you’ll find (a) the ad, (b) my email response, and (c) an excerpt from the Harvard Business Review Guide to Better Business Writing, whose author joyously deplores the sort of verbiage you’re about to read… if you have the stomach for it.
A. The ad
Organization seeks Marketing Specialist who supports the execution of product strategies and cross portfolio strategies and works with moderate guidance across businesses to create and execute supporting communications.
- Assists in the design, development, editing & execution of marketing messaging & collateral including advertisements, direct mail & technical information for targeted audiences in conjunction with internal marketing team and external agencies, including LMR processes and requirements.
- Understands the sales budgeting process and participates in the prioritization of tactics.
- Exhibit strong written & verbal communication skills along with excellent interpersonal skills.
- Demonstrated strategic thinking, initiative, and creativity.
- Show agility with a proven ability to evolve strategic & tactical elements based on research, data & industry trends.
- Demonstrated problem solving and analytical skills.
- Demonstrated ability to work with cross functional stakeholders. OR. Demonstrated ability to work in a highly matrixed organization.
- Proven track record of achieving goals. OR. Proven track record of meeting financial and other quantitative goals.
- Demonstrated success working in a team environment.
B. My response
C. HBR excerpt
There are three principles in… being and life: the principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action. The origin of all conflict between me and [all others]… is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber
INTRODUCTION: 3 WRITING ESSENTIALS
From the forthcoming handbook Writing for Humans, by Mary Campbell, Annagrammatica.com
The person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet.
IF YOU WANT TO
- write joyfully and efficiently, and
- create documents that are readable, informative, maybe even fun to read… and that support your organization’s brand
…THERE ARE THREE ESSENTIALS:
- Love of writing
- Respect for the reader
WRITING CREATES HOSTILITY
…when the writers don’t enjoy writing
…when the writing distances readers—through boredom, fear, intimidation, or obfuscation (lack of clarity)
WRITE FOR A BETTER WORLD
Written language has the potential not only to build goodwill, promote understanding, and facilitate communication… but also to heal breaches planetwide and advance the cause of peace and prosperity. As the shadow side of that power, language can also be divisive, distancing, and inflammatory. 
When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees. Hostility in the air has social costs.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet. With more than four billion web pages at our fingertips, language is ubiquitous. “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.
When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light. —Martin Buber
THE HABIT OF HELPING
For writers, the first habit to cultivate might well be curiosity, particularly when the question is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or invigorate a relationship than to hold in thought the question “How can I make your life better?”
Let’s set aside for now the distinctions among types of relationships—personal, social, familial, business, professional, and any others that are based on roles. The Golden Rule doesn’t stipulate status, age, or gender. It doesn’t counsel us to “do unto other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 do unto you.”
And we are, after all, talking about habits, which are so much easier to form if the behavior always applies. I recently overheard a discussion about whether you should use your turn signal if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. I mean, really. It’s not exactly a hardship to press down on that little lever. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might be helpful, based on the lane you’re in or, perhaps, the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk?
Seek to serve. Cultivate the habit of helping all the time. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.
WHY SMART PEOPLE DON’T WRITE WELL
In over forty years as a writer, editor, and instructor, I’ve worked with men and women in the public and private sectors; small, midsize, and large companies; federal agencies and public universities; and a score of industries and professions, from architecture and broadcasting to science and technology. I’m still not sure why many intelligent, articulate people—strong leaders who are brilliant in their fields—communicate so clumsily in writing. I have a few theories, however.
Each industry and profession has its peculiar jargon, some of which is necessary—it’s the language that colleagues and clients understand. But that doesn’t explain why media releases, annual reports, newsletters, and even advertisements are unfriendly and offputting, often in direct contrast to branding efforts meant to portray an organization as warm, caring, and trustworthy.
Smart people sometimes defend their poor writing by saying that they were too busy becoming experts in their particular disciplines to learn the discipline of writing. But if that were really the problem, these smart people would also be mute, rendered unable to speak by the same preoccupation.
Nonwriters naturally make mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation—the mechanics of writing. That’s why God made editors. But when writing fails to communicate, the cause goes deeper. It might signify
- lack of focus; disorganization. When writers aren’t sure what they mean to say, they lose sight of the document’s purpose and message. See Essential Number 2, Clarity.
- lack of concern for the audience—readers or listeners—who, for one reason or another, are being deceived or misled. See Essential Number 3, Respect.
I can’t help the writer who has no message or whose motive in writing is something other than to serve (inform, inspire, comfort, or entertain) readers. Fortunately, about eighty percent of the time, the problem with poor writing is one I can solve:
LACK OF ENJOYMENT—WRITERS WHO DON’T LIKE TO WRITE
Many uninspired writers believe that writing is fundamentally different from speaking. One of the most strikingly intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know—an architect with a warm manner and a ready wit—goes into an altered state when he has to write something. One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re disintermediating, and it’s all downhill from there. Whatever the topic, it inevitably involves harnessing relevant data, addressing critical elements, strategizing broad-based solutions, and optimizing tailored interactions.
I’ve wondered if there’s a virus—maybe originating in Washington, D. C.—carried by a mosquito that flies around offices looking for people who are about to write something. Maybe these people release an enzyme that makes the mosquito think “Dessert!” The virus’s telltale symptom is a writing style that you’d expect from someone who was raised by a pack of patent attorneys. No one, as far as I know, has died from this virus. In any case, I’ve developed a remarkably effective cure, which I’ll administer throughout this handbook. Meanwhile…
If you want to start writing better right now, take these simple steps:
- Decide how you want to serve your audience.
- Decide what you want to say. You can make an outline if you want, although it might actually be a delay tactic that will sabotage your progress.
- Have fun writing your first draft. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases. Do NOT edit as you go. Just write what you want to say.
- Start reading the work of writers you admire. You don’t need to study it; just read a lot of it. Their style will rub off on you with no effort on your part.
Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique…. If there had been someone like her in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born. —Martin Buber as quoted in Narrative Means for Sober Ends, by Jon Diamond, p.78
Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a prominent twentieth-century philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator. Born in Austria, he spent most of his life in Germany and Israel, writing in German and Hebrew. He is best known for his 1923 book, Ich und Du (I and Thou), which distinguishes between Thou and I modes of existence…. Buber characterizes Thou relations as dialogical and I relations as monological. In his 1929 essay “Dialogue,” Buber explains that monologue is not just a turning away from the other but also a turning back on oneself…. To perceive the other as an it is to take them as a classified and hence predictable and manipulable object that exists only as a part of one’s own experiences. In contrast, in an I relation both participants exist as polarities of relation, whose center lies in the between. —Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
 “In an atmosphere of suspicion… we may … become unduly cautious in our communication.” J. William Pfeiffer, Conditions That Hinder Effective Communication, 1998; http://home.snu.edu/~jsmith/library/body/v06.pdf, accessed July 28, 2012
 Studies consistently show that “human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.”
 It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. Whether or not that’s true, stopping to analyze your output interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.
P.S. What’s So Bad About Buzzwords?
Call it jargon, corporate-speak, academese, buzzword blitz—by any name, it’s lazy at the very least… it’s usually discourteous… and, at worst, it’s verbal bullying.
I THINK I’LL WONDERFUL
If you use the free phone service Google Voice and your callers leave voice mail, Google transcribes the messages. Evidently Google believes that the transcripts are less than perfect (see next paragraph), but I wouldn’t change a thing. You’ll agree with me, I’m sure, after you read the three examples below.
Google would like your help in making voicemail transcriptions better. With your permission, our automated systems will remove your account information from your voicemail messages and analyze them to improve our language models.
Have a happy anyway
TRANSCRIPT 1. Hi darling little girl we did. I just noticed, your maths it and Ralph. We need to visit. That’s All I can tell you And now, whenever marry Mike, phone When you are, only death. 4. And sometimes I can’t here 2. What it so Boy. We may have to make an appointment. Just, is that anyway. I’m glad you’re safe. This is and home you redo the worried me, this time anyway. I love you much and You know your always in my prayer file There, anyway Happy weekend and You know, Jeff, try me again And I’ll try you have that. Love you much. Hi Mary.
TRANSCRIPT 2. Issue resolved. Thank you for the birthday wishes. I’ve got to see why this issue. I remember you might work for there you have a yesterday and the potential client of ours so curious to see if you are, but I don’t heard it right. I mean, but I can’t find it. Because of that you if you call me back so So if you have any chance. Later.
TRANSCRIPT 3. Hi Sweetheart, Happy Easter, gosh i get you in passage and you’re supposed to inflate Enya. I left gosh. I’ll get you another book don’t journal. You know we had a separate but. I just or slightly ec all and in in the park. I would anyway. We’re gonna go tonight and you You know, have 5 I think I’ll wonderful. Sermon, and all. All the things that we need to do about the Resurrection, anyway. I don’t know what you’re doing tomorrow. But. I hope. It’s. If you have a happy anyway….
WRONG, WRONGER, WRONGEST
Many of us studied English grammar and usage in the black-and-white school of language-learning favored by the textbooks and teachers of my childhood. To say ain’t, for example, as in “I ain’t got time,” was just plain wrong, only slightly more benign than shoplifting. “He don’t have no lunch” and “me and her already ate” were equally undesirable.
Experience has taught me that a wise and compassionate response to “he don’t have no lunch” might be to give the guy something to eat rather than to correct the speaker’s way of speaking. Assuming that the fellow is indeed lacking a midday meal, “He don’t have no lunch” describes the situation clearly and succinctly.
Further (about which see below), If you set yourself up as an authority on any aspect of the English language, fastidious and vigilant defenders of the opposing point of view will rise up to prove you wrong, throwing nasty clots of evidence like yellow snowballs in your face.
Ford’s “Go Further” slogan irritates purists who insist that further and farther aren’t synonymous. Further, they argue, means “in addition” as an adjective and “advance” as a verb (“He used the stolen money to further his aims”). Farther is defined as “at or to a greater distance.” In any case, that ship has sailed. The horse is out of the barn. Further and farther are in practice interchangeable and likely to stay that way.
The same is true for nauseous as a synonym for nauseated. This, to my way of thinking, is a bit unfortunate, in that nauseous, with the meaning “causing nausea or disgust,” was a yeomanly alternative to nauseating. In that sense, to say “I feel nauseous” would be to declare oneself repulsive. Again… horse, barn.
However nauseous is defined, the preferred pronunciation (according to some authorities) is NAW-see-us rather than NAW-shus. I suspect that this preference is sailing away on the same ship as long-LIVED (rhyming with the second syllable of arrived), now usually heard with a short I, like the I in gift.
Twice in the past year I have heard authors during radio interviews mispronounce enveloped, saying EN-vuh-loped — as in “the travelers were EN-vuh-loped in a dense fog” — rather than en-VEL-upt. In each case, until the solecism occurred, I found the writer interesting and credible. Afterward — post-solecism, if you will — I switched stations. Even the most forgiving commentators on language draw the line somewhere.
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The Risk-Free Trial? Guilty
Last summer I bit on a “risk-free trial” for an açaí-berry formula and a colon-cleanse detox product, both in capsule form. I was aware of the risks of a “risk-free trial.” The strategy is similar to that used by publishers such as Bottom Line Books and Rodale Books, which let you “examine a book free for thirty days,” during which you could doubtless read the book and send it back, keeping the bonus gift, usually a small but useful guide to Growing Healing Herbs in a Sunny Window, or perhaps Homemade Garden-Pest Repellents.
In any event, I was quick to read the fine print on my “risk-free trial” of açaí-berry formula and colon-cleanse detox product. I needed to return the bottles containing the “unused product” to an address in Florida within ten days of my receiving them, which the company estimated at three days after shipping. Otherwise, my credit card would be charged $89.95 per month until cancellation.
Usually, it’s a miracle if my mail gets opened within ten days of receipt, but the phrase risk-free trial sets off warning bells. So… an unprecedented TWO days after receiving the product, I extracted my ten-day supply from each bottle and sent the remainder via USPS Priority Mail to the Florida address. Even so, my credit card was charged $89.95.
Astonishingly, the charge was removed without my having to make so much as a phone call. I’ve heard from other victims, however, that such charges can be very sticky.
You are actually at risk the minute you divulge your credit-card information, which is required for the “minimal shipping charge” of $1.95 or whatever. If you must take the risk-free-trial risk, consider using a temporary (prepaid) credit card and keep the balance very low or cancel it altogether. Or not. Consult your legal professional.
By the way (and DO consult your healthcare professional before trying this regimen), I lost 12 pounds in two months on the colon-cleanse detox capsules.
Next: Truth in Advertising, Your Just Deserts — “Get the Smooth, Flawless, Young-Looking Skin You Deserve”
Below: I thought there was missing text, but it’s just Silly Syntax
From an Arizona Department of Health Services Report…
Neurological Effects [of exposure to hydrogen sulfide in sewer gas]:
Ataxia, choreoathetosis, dystonia, inability to stand in one 20-month-old child
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I read this afternoon — in a novel, by a usually careful or at least painstakingly edited author (Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb) — about how the heroine’s strategy wasn’t succeeding so she decided to try a different tact.
I can’t even imagine what that would look like. Pretending she is British, perhaps? Or emulating Charlie Chan?
On June 10, I wrote in this blog about justifiable uses of the F-word, occasioned by a late-night intrusion of my apartment and a half-hearted attempt to intrude on my personal self. All’s well that ends well (Shakespeare), and I was only superficially scarred physically and not at all damaged emotionally. I’m pretty sure. Although it shook me up a bit when somebody rang my doorbell, repeatedly, at about 5:30 this morning and refused to identify him- or herself.
In any case, police detectives have questioned and requestioned me, and at this moment I am looking at a “Victim Profile Sheet” that I’m supposed to fill out. Whoever put together this “Victim Profile Sheet” has, you might say, precarious command of the English language:
♦ JUST BEFORE THE INCIDENT — What were you doing? ie. walking, running, came home from work, etc.
There are several questions about my residence— “Is residence and entryway visible from the street?” “Is residence on alley?” “Multi-level?”
Here’s the one that has me scratching my head:
♦ Is residence indoors?
Is that a gentle way of asking whether I am homeless? Or do they want to know if I live on the roof?
I’m tempted to editorialize on my “Victim Profile Sheet,” but the likely response would be: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
Warning: This Is Not an Historic Blog Post
If you love words, or if you just like to feel smug and superior because you use them properly, mosey on over to the Lake Superior State University List of Banished Words website.
“The tongue-in-cheek Banishment List began as a publicity ploy for little-known LSSU” in 1976, according to the site’s History of Word Banishment. You can view the list year by year, along with the rationale for banishment, or you can see the entire list, words only. A link next to each word takes you to the relevant annual list.
An advantage of looking at the entire list is that it’s easy to see the repeaters, including viable alternative, very unique, world-class, and proactive. A few words and phrases appeared three times—live audience and ongoing among them.
What’s wrong with robust?
List contributor Rob Robinson “pulled nine references to ‘robust processes,’ ‘robust materials,’ and ‘robust packaging,’ from the first 13 pages of the Ford Automotive Operations MS-9000 requirements.”
Traditionally, robust has referred to physical characteristics: energy, durability, and health. I don’t have a problem with more intangible forms of robustness, used sparingly. I can live with the occasional “robust advertising campaign,” which is what my boss required of me when I was marketing director of a short-lived* dot-com. But the dear man absolutely reveled in robustness. If someone said something moderately intelligent in a staff meeting, he seized upon the statement as a “robust idea.”
Robust quickly gained buzzword status, meaning that verbally challenged business types used it at every opportunity to indicate that they were hip to corporate trends… or something. Revisit suffered the same fate, brought into frequent service as a synonym for “revise.” Passionate probably took the worst beating. Once upon a time we were passionate about our sweethearts; then we became passionate about, say, the arts. Most recently our employers have required us to be passionate about our jobs as file clerks.
Here are a few of my favorite entries from LSSU’s list, along with the submitters’ comments:
Author’s note: The most cogent definition I could find was “pattern or model; a collection of assumptions, concepts, practices, and values that constitutes a way of viewing reality, especially for an intellectual community that shares them; an abstract basic structure, of some tenure, in which knowledge is related within a given realm.”
This has become the educational buzzword of 1993. I would like to see “paradigm lost.” Nancy Dean, Stephenson, Michigan
As in “I want to empower a new paradigm of health care,” [a euphemism for] “I want to shut down the hospital and let the people get their own aspirin.” Bob Cudmore, The Record, Troy, New York
Youse or Yous
Author’s note: Regionalisms don’t trouble me; I treasure them, in fact.
As in, “Would youse like coffee?” …Only in the North American vocabulary. Tori Cook, MCTV News, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
As in “an historic moment.” Commonly used by news people (print and broadcast). It’s wrong! If this abuse is allowed to continue, the next sound you hear from me will be an hiss! Jim Wiljanen, Dewitt, Michigan
To Gift; Gifting
* In short-lived, “lived” rhymes with “hived.”