Book Review: Writing from the Heart

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Writing is easy, but getting started can be a challenge. Many writers use any number of excuses to avoid getting started: no time, the kids, no privacy, no inspiration, no place to write, too busy.

You get the idea.

Perhaps the most pressing reason that many people can’t get started writing is because they are emotionally stuck. The stories and words will not flow because it’s been shut off by fear, guilt, disappointment, pain — you name it. To get those stories flowing, you need to release those emotions. Yet, ironically, writing is one way to release them.

In her book Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice, author Nancy Slonin Aronie addresses many of the issues that stop us from hearing our internal voice. (Some of you may know Aronie from National Public Radio’s All Things Considered  program.)

Though this book was published more than 20 years ago, Aronie’s writing advice holds true today as much as it did then. Below are several of my favorite suggestions from her book. You might find them helpful too.

1. Look at everything as if it is new to you. You might see a place, a thing, a person every day and you can become so accustomed to seeing it that you don’t every really see it. You might notice the tree in your front yard, but do you really see it? Do you notice the change in leave colors, the change in the bark, the thickness of the branches, the way the leaves sway in the breeze, the ants that crawl up the bark? Do you notice it throughout the seasons or at different times of day? Look at that tree as if you are seeing it for the first time. What do you see? Do the same for any person or thing in your life. You may never look at any one thing the same way ever again.

2. Feel your feelings, deal with them and heal yourself. Before you can open yourself up to the writing process, Aronie advises writers to allow themselves time to feel the hurts and disappointments of the past. By staying with those feelings, you learn to face them with courage and dignity. The hurts of the past may never dissolve completely, but they are there to remind you of what you have experienced. And you can always draw into that life experience to write your stories. It is through writing about them that you can heal.

3. Focus on the process of writing, not the end product. Writing should give you joy on the inside. It’s an internal process. But when you focus only on the end product, you lose that enjoyment because you are looking for external gratification. If you want to write with greater joy, focus on the process, the way the story develops. With each step forward in the writing process, new scenes and characters will reveal themselves to you, bringing with them a sense of mystery and wonder. It’s these unexpected developments that what make writing fun.

4. Write for yourself, not for someone else. To make writing work for you, write for yourself, and only for yourself. Write for your own enjoyment. Write for your personal growth and professional development. Write to challenge yourself. Write to express your creativity. Write to heal your hurts and share your joys. Write because you want to, not because you have to. When you write for someone else, you are listening to their feedback in your head before you’ve even written a word. When you write for someone else, it is their words you hear in your head, not your own. When you write, you need to write your own words, not someone else’s.

5. Define what creativity means to you. Some people avoid writing because they think they are not creative enough. Most people have the idea that being creative means having some artistic talent, like being a musician, a dancer or photographer. But being creative means more than that. Being creative means finding creative solutions to problems, looking at the world in a different way, or writing a story with a unique point of view. Writing is just one outlet for creativity. There are many more. Once you define creativity on your terms, writing becomes much easier.

6. Look at the world from a different perspective. To shake up your creative juices, look at the world through a different pair of eyes. You might remember the day you graduated from high school, but ask your friends, your teachers or your parents to share their memory of that day. How did they experience that day? What did they notice that you might have missed? Look at the same event through their eyes and perhaps you will begin to see the same event in a different way.

Writing from the heart is an emotional process, rather than a technical one. Once you release old wounds and trust your inner voice, the heart opens to new possibilities, paving the way to writing stories that reflect who you are.

How to Be Productive During Downtime at the Office

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

As summer crawls to an end, you may find yourself in the middle of some serious downtime at work. Every business has its busy seasons and not-so-busy times. For some businesses, the months of July and August are the slowest, while for others, the slow time may fall in January and February.

No matter where your slow season falls, don’t hang your head. Those slow times happen for a reason. Think of them as breathing room, a chance to catch your breath, recharge your batteries and prepare for the busier season that lies ahead.

Instead of feeling bored or hanging out on Facebook trying to look busy when you’re not, here are a few ways to be more productive during those inevitable downtime periods.

1. Follow up with your clients. If your company relies on regular or frequent client interaction to be successful, downtime might be an opportune moment to check in on them. What’s happening with their business? How are they using your products or services? With a more relaxed pace at work, you can take your time with your client and enjoy an easy conversation with them. No pressure. Not only are you helping to maintain your business relationships, you might unearth a need that your business might be able to solve for them.

2. Do some housekeeping/clean out old files. Got any old files still lying around the office taking up valuable space? Downtime is a good opportunity to roll up the sleeves and dig through them. Depending on how old the files are, you can either put them in storage or if they are really, really outdated, say more than seven years old, bring them to a recycling center. Just be sure to clear things with the bosses before you destroy any important documents. If in doubt, ask.

3. Catch up on billing and record keeping. During busy times, it can be easy to let receipts and bills stack up. Downtime is the perfect time to sit down and go through all your receipts, process paper work to your accountant and just get organized. Imagine how good you will feel when you are all caught up.

4. Catch up on reading and studying industry news. Like most professionals, you probably have a stack of magazines or clipped articles from your favorite business websites that you never had the chance to read. Now is the time to do that. You might pick up a tip or two that you can implement right away.

5. Brainstorm and innovate. Throughout the year, you’ve probably had a few insights about how your business operates. Perhaps you realized that there might be a better way to get customer feedback or an easier way to update your database. Jot them down. Grab a note pad and brainstorm all the different ways you can improve your business. Better yet, keep a small notebook with you throughout the year and jot down ideas as you think of them. Then during these downtimes, review these collected ideas to see if there are any worth implementing.

6. Attend a conference or workshop. Perhaps you’ve read a few magazine articles that have whetted your appetite for more knowledge about a particular topic. Take the next step. Check listings to see if there are any workshops or conferences that would fit your interests. If you can’t step away from the office, consider one of the free online courses that you can do at your desk, such as Udemy.

7. Review your business and marketing plan. Plan for the year ahead by reviewing your business and marketing plan. Are you on track with meeting your goals? Is there something you can do differently now to meet those goals by the end of the year? Downtime is ideal for reviewing your business goals, revising them if you need to, and figure out way to market your business so you achieve them. Don’t have a business and marketing plan? Downtime is ideal for getting started on one.

Don’t let downtime go to waste. Downtime is a gift to catch your breath after a long hectic stretch of meetings, sales calls and presentations. Downtime is the best time to review the past and prepare for the future.

Four Things to Know Before Hiring a Copywriter

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There will come a time in your business when you need to outsource certain professional services, such as bookkeeping or copy writing. I can’t speak about hiring bookkeepers, but as a writer, I do know a thing or two about hiring copywriters because I’ve been hired as one.

Not all writers are alike. Some have different areas of expertise, such as legal writing or advertising. Some have years of experience while others are new to the industry and are looking to gain experience. Finding someone to write your marketing copy is not for the faint of heart. How do you know that the person you hire has the skills and experience to get the job done? More important, how do you know that they are trustworthy?

A discussion among several writers on Facebook revealed their advice to businesses before hiring a professional copywriter. Here are a few of their suggestions.

1. Beware of cheap copy. If you think you can get good writing for a cheap price, guess again. The old adage, “You get what you pay for” is true here. Good copy writing is not cheap. Don’t expect to plunk down $10 for a 500-word blog post and expect a well-researched, well-written piece. Don’t be surprised if what you get is copy with poor grammar, misspelled words and other problems that will need to be fixed. Be prepared to pay a little more for better quality. Check sources like The Balance Small Business or the Editorial Freelancers Association to get an idea about pricing.

2. Ask for samples of the writer’s work. Their samples will demonstrate their ability to do research, their knowledge of the subject and the presentation. If they don’t have samples to show you, give them a writing test. Ask them to write about a topic of your choice covering specific points. Their final product will help you see their process. It will also show you if they are able to follow instructions.

3. Look for someone with whom you can work. What kind of personality do they have, and is that personality compatible with yours? Obviously, similar personalities can lead to a mutually productive and beneficial relationship.

4. Outline your expectations for the project and put it in writing. It will help the hired copywriter to see the details of the project up front. The more detail you can provide and the more clearly you present what you envision for the outcome, the more likely you will receive a fair and accurate quote. It’s important to be clear about what you want the writer to achieve. It can be frustrating to be sought out for a writing job only to learn that the person hiring you is unclear about what they want or they want too many things. Putting your expectations in writing can avoid any potential confusion.

These tips may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many businesses overlook these steps. Instead some business owners may rush into hiring a friend’s college kid out of loyalty.

If you want good, quality copy writing for your business, be willing to do a little leg work up front and pay a little more for their services. Professional writers might cost more, but they will produce better results and they’ll likely do it in less time. And that’s money in the bank.

Four Fun Activities to Break the Ice at Networking Events

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Image courtesy of Hub Spot

Networking events can be tedious to attend, especially if you’re uncomfortable meeting new people. But they can be difficult to plan as well, particularly if the point of the event is to introduce participants to one another. It can be a challenge to come up with fun and innovative ways for participants to get acquainted.

In all the meetings and events I’ve attended over the years, a few have stood out for their sense of fun and creativity. That’s because the planners started off with an innovative ice breaker that set the tone for the evening.

Below are a few of those ice breakers. The next time you are faced with planning a networking event, experiment with one of these ideas. You can find other ideas by following the links at the bottom of this article.

1. The M&M Game 
As participants enter the room, invite them to grab a handful of M&Ms from a bowl. Once they are seated, have them set aside three individual candies of different colors, which will be used as part of their introduction. Before they introduce themselves, the leader will reveal a set of questions they must answer based on their three candy colors they chose. The questions can be personal or business-related. For example, a red M&M might mean: What do you hope to learn from this session? A green one might mean: What business are you in? You get the idea. This exercise puts a twist on the traditional introduction at the start of the session. Plus you get to eat the candies afterward.

2. Fill-in-the-Blank Index Card
Each participant is handed an index card with twelve boxes, each containing a clue. Using the clues as a guide, the participant’s task is to match a person with the clue. For example, the clue might be “has green eyes.” The task is to find someone else attending the event who has green eyes. That person will put their signatures on that square. Each participant must move around the room, getting signatures from other attendees that match the description on the card. For larger crowds, it might be helpful to have three or four different versions of the card. Other suggested clues: shoe color, hair color, traveled to Europe (or Asia or South America), has a dog, has a bird, plays tennis, reads comic books, practices yoga, has three or more kids, lives in a high-rise building, lives in the suburbs, drives a SUV, etc. Mix it up. The goal is to have the card completely signed by twelve different individuals. This exercise assures that everyone meets at least twelve people during the event. It’s a great way to build a network in a safe, fun environment. For more fun, offer a prize for the first person to complete their card before the program begins.

3. The “Who Am I?” Guessing Game
Especially fun for a more relaxed environment, such as a part or a picnic. As people arrive, put a piece of paper on their backs with the name of a celebrity or other famous personality. Since they won’t know who they are, their task is to figure it out by asking questions about their famous personality. But there are three rules: They can ask no more than twenty questions; the questions must be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’; the questions must be asked of twenty different people. For example, “Am I a female?”, and “Am I singer?” They keep asking questions until the answers add up to a complete picture of their character. Ideally, they will have met at least twenty individuals along the way. For more fun, you might consider offering a prize to the person who guesses who they are with the fewest clues.

4. Speed Networking
 Speed networking is just like speed dating, except you’re not looking for someone to date, but someone to do business with, offer your services to or hire for a position at your company. Mind you, I have never heard of or participated in a speed networking event, but hey, if it works for dating, why not for business networking?

Speed networking would work like this. When people arrive, they are divided into group A and group B, regardless of gender. Just like with speed dating, group A people will remain seated at each of the tables while group B switch seats as they move from one table to the next for each round of conversation. Allow a set period of time for conversation, say five minutes, before the bell sounds and the line moves on. Participants can always continue their conversations after the speed networking event. After two hours, imagine how many people you could add to your business network. Many of them may not fit your needs at that time, but keep their business cards. You never know when you might need to talk with them later. (Editor’s note: I’ve never participated in a speed networking event, though I’m sure there are events similar in nature.)

Networking doesn’t have to be all work and no play. With some ingenuity, you can help participants break the ice with each other and get your meetings off to a rollicking, productive start.

Related Articles:
20 Icebreakers to Make Your Next Meeting Fun
6 Icebreaker Games For Work That Your Team Will Love
The 10 Best Icebreaker Activities for Any Work Event

Decoding Nonverbal Cues in Interviews and Presentations

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Have you ever watched a comedian’s performance on stage when the jokes are making his audience laugh? Conversely, have you ever witnessed a comedian falter badly, knowing the jokes have fallen flat? The comedian knows, just by reading the audience’s reaction during the performance, whether his jokes are hitting the mark or not.

The ability to read an audience while performing is a useful skill in business too. Every time you interview for a job or make a presentation to a potential client, you have the chance to read the audience the way the comedian assesses theirs. But in the midst of performing, we can often forget to check in with the audience to notice how they are reacting to our message because we are more focused on our own behavioral responses.

How do you know if you have impressed your audience with your knowledge and credentials? How can you determine if the client is buying into your proposal? How can you determine if your responses are hitting the mark or if they are falling flat? There are numerous articles about how nonverbal communication can support our language during an interview or presentation. (You can find links to a few of them at the end of this article.) But few suggest how to “read” your audience’s nonverbal cues.

Usually business owners and employers are fairly practiced in maintaining a calm, non-committed demeanor. But if you pay close attention, they may send a few nonverbal signals showing the level of interest in you or your services. At the end of a meeting, the client or employer usually gives only a vague response, such as “We’ll get back to you next week.” Yeah, right, you think.

Any job seeker can tell you that the most frustrating aspect of interviewing is waiting for the call back. It’s difficult knowing what your fate is when it lies in someone else’s hands. By reading and understanding the employer’s or client’s nonverbal cues during the presentation, you can gain control of the process and keep the ball in your court.

It’s a delicate balance, staying aware of your own nonverbal communication while recognizing your audience’s. That can be difficult to achieve when you’re in the “heat of battle.” When you are focused more on your own nonverbal communications – remembering to smile, extending a firm handshake, making eye contact with each person in the room — it’s easy to miss the nonverbal cues your audience is sending you.

Generally speaking, nonverbal communication can reveal more about their intentions than anything they might say. Further what they say may not reflect what they’re really thinking. It’s up to you to cut through the clutter to read the message they’re really sending.

Here are four things to look at during your “performance”:

* Look at their body posture. Are they slouched or sitting up straight? If they lean forward, they’re paying close attention to what you’re saying. If they’re leaning back, they are cautious. If they’re leaning back in their chair with their arms folded in front of them, they’re not buying what you’re selling.

* Look at their head. Similar to their body posture, if their head leans in, they are paying close attention to you. If their head is tilted back, they may be more thoughtful and cautious. Watch their facial expressions too. If their eyebrows shoot up, they may be surprised. If their eyebrows are furrowed, they may be confused. Ask if they need you to clarify a point.

* Look at their eyes. It is often said that the eyes are the window to the soul. With that in mind, notice what kind of eye contact the client or employer is giving you. Are they looking at you or at other things, like their mobile phone, the note pad they’re writing on, or something else? The eyes can show pleasure or pain too. Do they look bored, like they can’t wait for the meeting to be over with, or are they enjoying something you said. Their eyes may be smiling even though their lips may not be.

* Look at their hands. What are their hands doing? Are they sitting calmly in their lap? Are they twisting a pen or playing with their wedding ring, which might be a sign they are nervous and eager to do something else. If they are taking notes, do they continue to scribble as you speak, or do they suddenly stop writing when you say something that gets their attention?  That might be a sign that you said something that did not sit right with them.

By staying aware of your surroundings and noticing the subtle signals from the people you are meeting with, you maintain control of the meeting process and you can leave with a clear idea where you stand with the client. You won’t have to wait for them to tell you “we’ll let you know next week,” because you’ll already have their answer.

Related Reading:

10 Nonverbal Cues That Convey Confidence at Work
How to Interpret Nonverbal Communications in the Office
Using Effective Nonverbal Communications in Job Interviews

Tips for Self-Editing Interpersonal Communications

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Our personal communications is as vital to our success as our marketing and sales strategies, maybe even more so. The way we present ourselves to the outside world says more about who we are personally and professionally than any strategic plan. More often than not, what we do and say can either help our business or hurt it. For evidence of that, you only have to look at public figures like Roseanne Barr to see how swiftly things can change with one poorly thought out comment.

That’s why it’s important to learn self-editing techniques. Self-editing is the process of reviewing, revising and correcting your own communications. It is similar to the self-editing process for a manuscript, except it is geared toward social media, emails and correspondence, such as cover letters.

A poorly worded email can make you look ignorant, while a well-crafted letter written in an angry tone can make you look unprofessional. Neither one will help you achieve your business goals.

What you say – and how you say it – gives the recipient a clear idea of who you are. Further, what you say or write may not always be exactly what you mean. Ever write something that sounded fine in your head but when you or someone else read it back to you, it didn’t have the same meaning? Somehow the meaning got lost in the transition from your head to the paper or computer.

More important, what you write or say can have lingering and sometimes devastating impact. One poorly thought out tweet posted in a knee-jerk reaction can cost you clients and customers. In conversations, what you blurt out cannot be taken back. Ditto with social media and emails. Once it’s out there, you can’t get it back, and the damage to your business and reputation is already done.

We are all guilty of these communication miscues, but there are ways to refine our skills to prevent this from happening too often. I’m just as guilty as the next person, so I’ve learned from my experience to self-edit my interpersonal communications with the same attention to detail as any writer would a manuscript for publication.

Before writing that cover letter or email to an upset customer or responding to someone’s Facebook post, take a few minutes to follow these tips to self-edit your communications.

Step 1. Using a note pad or blank sheet of paper, write everything down that you’d like to say. Spill your guts. By putting it all down on paper, you won’t be in a position to hit Send or Post right away. If you’re angry, or upset or excited about a situation, writing your ideas down on paper first will help dispel some of that emotion.

Keep in mind that you will not use everything you write down in your final correspondence. But just like writing a novel, it will help you get all your ideas down first. Then you can edit it later.

Step 2. Set the letter aside for a few hours. Let it simmer on the backburner. Go and do something else for a while – head to the beach, play basketball, take a nap, watch a movie, anything to get your mind off the letter. Your emotions will simmer down by then too so you will be able to think more clearly.

Step 3. Come back to your letter after sufficient time has passed. I recommend at least a day if you are truly upset about something. Otherwise, a few hours will be sufficient. Review what you have written. Underline or highlight the important points you want to make that still ring true. Keep it to only two or three points however, so your final letter won’t be overly long.

Step 4. With a red pen, cross out the sentences and sentiments that do not belong, things you wrote in anger or excitement, or extraneous content that does not add value to your letter. Whatever is left can be reviewed and edited for appropriateness or to help you support your key points.

Step 5. Rewrite your letter, email or social media post with the highlighted information left over from your draft. Chances are it will be more concise and less emotional than before. That’s a good starting point.

Step 6. Review again for spelling, grammar and punctuation. Misspelled words shows carelessness and lack of attention to detail. It also shows you didn’t take the time or didn’t care to proof your work.

Step 7. Pay attention to the tone of your letter or email. You want to come across as professional, clear-thinking. Although if you are writing a letter to support a cause or persuade someone to take action, a little emotion may be necessary. But don’t overdo it.

Step 8. Avoid personal attacks. Focus on the issues you are writing about. There are ways to express dissenting opinions rationally and intelligently without resorting to personal insults, which only makes you look bad.

If in doubt about your ability to self-edit your personal communications, have someone you know and trust proof it for you.

This same process holds true for social media posts. Write down what you want to say on paper first, set it aside for a few hours, then come back to it. You may decide to tone it down, revise your comment or not post it at all. There is no reason to respond to someone’s comment on social media right away. Buy yourself some time and put thought into your response. What you say and write reflects on you, for good, bad or worse.

Self-editing is an important part of the personal communications process. By following these simple steps, you can communicate with colleagues and customers with greater confidence and integrity, and they will see you as someone with whom they want to do business.

Nine Ways to Survive Without Communications Technology

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There are times when you need to take a technology break; other times you’re forced to take a break due to circumstances beyond your control.

That was my predicament last week when I lost my cable Internet and TV service. In the meantime, the battery on my mobile phone went on life support and I had to order a new battery. While I waited for the new battery to arrive, I had to keep the phone plugged in at all times.

There’s nothing like losing your cable TV, Internet and mobile phone service all at one time to make me appreciate communications technology.  One wonders what any of us did with our time when we weren’t tethered to our mobile phones, cable TV or Internet service.

Modern technology is wonderful – when it works. But what do you do when it doesn’t? What are our options? How can we communicate with one another when there’s no phone or Internet? Messenger service? Smoke signals? It made me feel that the Universe was forcing me to tap into my own personal reservoir of resources by cutting out the extraneous noise that could interfere with my creative genius.

It was a tough few days, to say the least. After losing technology, I felt I had lost touch with the rest of the world. Rather than wallow in self-pity, I looked around at things I could be doing instead. I found I had more time to do other ore meaningful things, such as volunteer work, communing with nature,  catching up on reading and writing, catching up on sleep, to name a few.

Without technology hogging my time and attention, I was able to get more stuff done in less time. It forced me to slow down my work day, to pay more attention to tasks in front of me. I didn’t feel the added “busyness” of life that I usual did. The experience taught me the value of a “noiseless” environment to help me accomplish my daily writing goals.

If you ever find yourself in a similar predicament, without technology, without access to the world at large, don’t fight it. Use the time and space to complete unfinished projects or work on tasks that you’ve been meaning to do. Think about other things you can be doing instead, such as:

1. Volunteer. Get out in the community and do something constructive to help others, whether it’s caring for someone’s pet, helping at a local shelter or food bank, or teaching someone to read. Whatever you do will be good for your soul.

2. Enjoy live music. It’s summertime and that means outdoor concerts and festivals. Tune out the phone and tune into the music.

3. Catch up on reading. Without cable TV and Internet service, you have plenty of time to indulge your reading passion.

4. Catch up on sleep. Oddly enough, without TV and Internet to overload my senses, I fell asleep more easily at night and slept longer than usual. I guess it is true that our technological devices can interfere with our sleep habits. If you need to sleep, turn off your tech tools a few hours before bedtime. Your body will thank you for it.

5. Catch up on housework and home repairs. Without tech distractions, you can tackle those home repair jobs you’ve been meaning to get to. Paint the living room a new, fresh color, fix the leaky kitchen sink, or clean out the closet.

6. Get cooking. Without tech interference, you have more time to explore new recipes or put a spin on an old one. As I like to say, when the going gets tough, the tough get cooking.

7. Catch up on your writing. Got a novel you’ve been hankering to work on for months? Now is the time to work on your manuscript. No technology is needed either – just good ole’ pen and paper and your imagination.

8. Start a conversation. Sometimes we can become so immersed in our phones and laptops that we forget what it’s like to have a real, down-to-earth conversation with a real live person. Head to a nearby coffee shop and leave the phone at home. Instead, look around you and strike up a conversation. Isn’t that what coffee shops are for?

9. Take a hike. You don’t need a mobile device to commune with the great outdoors. All you need is a good sturdy pair of shoes and some sunscreen. Then sit by a pond, or walk in silence through the woods. When you don’t have access to cable TV or Internet, when your phone is running low on battery, it’s time to soak up the sun, the clouds, the moon and stars. How else will you be able to hear yourself think? Sometimes you have to shut out the distractions of your life to hear the messages Mother Nature is sending you.

It’s never fun to lose technology tools. You might find yourself feeling upset and anxious at first, knowing you have to live without these modern conveniences, but after a few days, you may find yourself chilling out more, not feeling rushed and perhaps even feeling a little more clear-headed.

So while you may lose your connection to the outside world, you may find a better connection with yourself instead.

Three Reasons Twitter Helps Your Business – And Three Reasons It Doesn’t

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In recent months, we’ve witnessed countless ways that Twitter has either helped or hurt a person’s business or reputation. It doesn’t take much for a person’s comments on Twitter to stir up an avalanche of responses, for good, bad and indifferent.

Twitter is a platform for sharing news, data, comments, stories, images, videos, observations, and a whole lot more. Marketers love the medium for its ability to help their businesses create brand awareness and connect with new and existing customers. But as we have seen too many times before, it can also hurt your business in terms of lost opportunities, lost customers and damaged reputation.

(Editor’s note: I am currently not on Twitter though I do see benefits of it for customer engagement. On a personal level, I don’t feel a need to use it to gain followers because I value my privacy far too much. Facebook takes up too much of my time as it is.)

According to a Pew Internet survey as of February 2018, 24 percent of Americans use Twitter on a regular basis, or about 67 million people in the U.S. That’s a huge increase from 2012 when only 13 percent of Americans used Twitter. Still, in recent months, the platform has fallen behind Instagram, which boasts 27 percent of American users.

Demographics tell a larger story. Four out of 10 Twitter users fall in the 18 to 29 age group while 27 percent are between the ages of 30 and 49. If your business targets these age groups, Twitter is the ideal platform to market to them.

There are a few downsides to consider when using this platform. Below are three reasons Twitter can help your business and three reasons to use it with caution.

Three sound reasons for using Twitter:

1. Brand awareness. If you are just launching your business and you are looking to build your customer base, Twitter can help create awareness for your brand. The key is to interact regularly with followers. Don’t push your product or service too much or too often, which will only turn people off. Being overly promotional is a common mistake with new business owners.

Instead, share your insights about the latest news, your knowledge and your commitment to the industry, related to your brand. Keep it professional, which increases your credibility with customers. Make sure people understand who you are and what you do.

2. Customer engagement. Once you’ve built your following, you have to keep them following you. Keep them engaged by sharing tips and tricks related to your business. If you run a tax business, for example, you might share an idea for saving money or a new update from the IRS that could impact their next tax return.

Many businesses also turn to Twitter for faster customer service. The key is to respond to customer complaints or feedback fairly quickly. That’s important because many customers have short attention spans these days. A recent survey by Sprout Social finds that 89 percent of social media messages to brands are ignored. The average time that a brand responds to a complaint is 10 hours while the average user is willing to wait only four hours. That’s a huge gap of time. The sooner your business responds to customer complaints, the better you look in the eyes of your customer base, and the more likely they will stick with your company.

3. Reputation management. By providing valuable information to your followers, you are seen as an expert in your field, which only boosts your reputation. For example, a physician specializing in women’s health might post links to reports about the latest breast cancer research and follow up with additional posts to comment on it. Each time you post a comment, an idea, an observation or link to a new study or an article of interest to your customers, you are seen as the go-to expert in that field, and your customers and clients will continue to seek out your professional opinions. In fact, they will continue to expect the same level of knowledge and expertise each time.

Three ways Twitter can hurt your business:

1. Gaining followers is more important than gaining customers. Twitter is a communications platform designed to help you develop meaningful connections with people. When you focus exclusively on its ability to tell you how popular you are, however, then those connections have no meaning for your business. At the first sign of trouble, those followers will have no reason to stay and will likely abandon you. Focus on the quality of relationships rather than quantity.

2. There’s no guarantee that your followers will translate to actual customers. Followers are just that – followers. But are they the right followers for your business? Are you reaching the right audience in terms of demographics? If you serve high-end customers but your followers aren’t in the same income bracket, you might have to rethink your marketing approach.

3. It’s too easy to abuse and misuse. As we’ve seen too many times before, comments can spread like wildfire in the Twitter-verse (see Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin). Faster than you can say “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to write that,” the damage is done. As your own brand, it’s imperative to mind your manners when you are on social media. Avoid getting too personal on the medium; keep it professional if you use it for professional purposes. Twitter and Facebook are great for connecting with people but it is also easy to post something without thinking about the consequences. That said, it is possible to express a dissenting opinion without resorting to personal attacks or bullying tactics.

Twitter is a valuable platform for marketing purposes, but it’s not for everyone. Not everyone in your targeted demographic will be on Twitter either. As long as you play it smart and avoid the minefield of trolls and critics hiding in the Twitter-verse, Twitter can be an asset for your business.

Related reading:
Why Do Normal People Struggle with Twitter?
10 Reasons You Should Stop Using Twitter Now
Don’t Write Off Twitter

 

Why Vacations Matter for Your Professional Life

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Yes, Virginia, you are allowed to take a summer vacation.

The long Memorial Day weekend marks the start of the summer, and the start of summer vacation season. But many American workers are likely to forego any summer plans. For some it is because it costs too much to pack up the kids and the dog and head to far-off destinations. For others, work calls for them to stay close to home and to their jobs. If you’re one of these workers skipping your summer vacation because you are tethered to your job, you are not alone.

According to a 2017 survey by employment website Glassdoor, 66 percent of American workers report working when they take a vacation, up from 61 percent in 2014. Fewer employees are able to completely “check out” while on vacation (54 percent in 2017 versus 63 percent in 2014).

Even when they were able to take time off, 27 percent of workers said they were expected to stay aware of work issues and get involved if a problem arose, and 12 percent were expected to be reachable by phone or email, deliver work projects and participate in conference calls while on vacation.

Much of this has to do with technology, which has enabled people to work anywhere and at any time. But it also makes it difficult to shut down and unplug ourselves, to truly unwind and relax. Most employers give their workers earned time off for a reason – to regroup mentally, emotionally and physically so they can return to work refreshed and avoid burnout.

But not everyone takes advantage of this employee benefit. We should though. Science says so. A 2016 study by the University of California-San Francisco and Harvard University finds that taking a vacation for one full week brings about genetic changes in our body that reduces stress and boosts the immune system, and the mood-enhancing benefits can last up to 30 days.

To get that mood-enhancing benefit, you have to take the time out for yourself. You need to give yourself permission to take a vacation. No one is going to force you to take it. It’s all about setting boundaries to your work life.

The key, say scientists, is to do it right. Yes, apparently, there is a right way and wrong way to take a summer vacation. According to small business expert Barry Moltz, here are a few suggestions for getting the most out of your summer vacation.

1. Make a plan. Put it on your calendar. Browse destination websites and brochures and learn about places you plan to visit. Just by researching and looking at travel images can boost your mood – before you have even begun your vacation.

2. Keep it simple. Don’t try to cram every activity into every day. Keep your schedule loose, and allow time to just “veg out.” There’s nothing wrong with doing nothing. That’s what vacations are for.

3. Break free of patterns. Try something different that can get you out of your comfort zone. For example, try disconnecting from electronic devices and talk to people you are traveling with, or sleep in until 8 a.m. if you are used to waking up at 5 a.m. When you change up your routine on vacation, see what creative ideas come up.

4. Seek out blue spaces, like bodies of water. Blue is associated with calmness and leads to lower levels of stress, according to researchers. I would also seek out green areas too, which is grounding and calming. Think public parks and golf courses.

5. End your vacation on a positive note. Enjoy a romantic dinner for two or plan a fun adventure, like sky diving or zip lining. People tend to remember their vacations more favorably if it ends on a high note.

With these suggestions, there’s no reason to skip a summer vacation. When you do it right, you’ll come back to the office more refreshed and energized. Your bosses will thank you, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

Have a safe and relaxing holiday weekend!

Closing the Career Skills Gap

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This is a strange time for the job market. On the one hand, there appears to be a lot of jobs available, judging by the number of job posting sites I subscribe to. On the other hand, there still seems to be many qualified individuals who are underemployed or not working at all. The problem seems to be a gap in the skills required by employers. What job seekers have is not what employers need.  Employers are specific about what they want and are willing to wait for the right candidate to come along, even if it takes up to a year.

This is not an aberration. The skills gap is a very real thing, according to a new survey by staffing agency Adecco. In its 2018 Workforce Report, 56 percent of business leaders believe the skills gap is real, even though 96 percent of workers felt qualified or overqualified for the last job they applied for. What is more interesting is that business leaders said many candidates were lacking soft skills – communication, creativity, collaboration, ability to learn, and critical thinking, among others. These soft skills are just as important, if not more so, than hard skills, like writing and technology. Hard skills can be taught, while soft skills usually cannot. It might be beneficial to emphasize these softer skills on your resumes and cover letters. (Adecco recommends that hiring managers recruit for the soft skills and train for the hard skills.)

Add to this the fact that job titles and job requirements have changed significantly over the past few years. When I left the corporate world five years ago, communications manager meant one thing. Now the job description is more expanded with more and different responsibilities than before. It’s no wonder returning workers like myself feel cut off from the workplace. Employers expect a lot from their workers and job requirements reflect that.

So that leaves a lot of otherwise qualified individuals out in the cold. How does the person on the outside close the skills gap? Where can they go to get skills training that can open up doors for them in the job market? Here are a few sources to kick start your own skills upgrade program.

* Online courses. A quick Google search reveals a whole host of online course sites, such as Udemy, Lynda.com and Coursera, to name a few. Those in the public relations and communications fields might also check out Mediabistro, which offers more specialized courses for their industry. These courses are taught by industry experts who have real-world experience in their particular field. That said, the quality of information and teaching may not be up to par with what you need, but online courses are a great way to get up to speed on industry practices and terminology. Also, costs may vary, so check these sites often for special offers and discounts.

* Community colleges. For those on a budget or are looking for a quick, down and dirty training program, check out your local community college. Many of them offer certification programs from culinary skills to paralegal or medical assistant. This might be especially helpful if you are looking to change careers but don’t have a budget or time for a full four-year program.

* Business networks. Check out local associations for your industry which may offer workshops or one-day conferences about the latest practices. For example, here in Chicago, the Independent Writers of Chicago held an evening workshop about breaking into freelancing. Check out organizations in your own locations to find workshops in your area.

* Staffing agencies. Many of these agencies offer online resources, workshops and open houses covering topics such as resume writing, interviewing and writing cover letters. The job market is constantly changing so it’s helpful to learn the latest trends in resume writing so you can present yourself in the best possible light.

* Internships. Another option to explore, especially for those new to the workforce, is internships. Some are paid; others are not. Some are advertised on job sites; others you may have to dig deep. In any case, for a short period of time, perhaps as much as one year, you can gain valuable work experience and update your skills through an internship that you might not get anywhere else.

* Volunteer work. If you know you are lacking certain skills, such as sales or proposal writer, look around your community for organizations that might need someone to help with writing proposals or selling tickets for upcoming events. You’ll be acquiring new skills and helping your community at the same time.

These are just a few starting points for skills development, and there’s no guarantee that it will open the doors you hope will open for you. If anything, it will keep your brain and job skills fresh and ready to go when the right job does come along.