Cool Gift Ideas for Writers and Communications Pros

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Editor’s Note: In the spirit of the holiday season, this post is republished from December 2018. 

Happy holidays, and ‘tis the season for gift giving. I’m taking a break from my usual posts about writing to indulge in a little brainstorming for gifts for the writing and  communications professional in your life. The gift can even be for yourself.

Here are a few ideas to get you started on your gift list. Many of these ideas were inspired in part by the 2018 version of Writer’s Digest holiday gift guide.

1. Books. Naturally, books will fall on any writer’s wish list, especially books about writing, reading or creativity. What writer wouldn’t want to add to their library? There are plenty of books available about becoming a better writer, improving your habits, overcoming writer’s block and more. Check out some of these book suggestions.

2. Writer’s tools of the trade. Every writer needs a dictionary, thesaurus, AP Stylebook and/or University of Chicago Manual of Style to complete their library. Add The Elements of Style and a basic grammar book, and their library is complete. They might have a dictionary, but since they are updated annually, it never hurts to give the writer on your list a more current version.

3. Caffeine containers (also known as coffee mugs). No writer or communicator should be without their supply of caffeine. Check out this collection of humorous coffee mugs from Café Press that are sure to put a smile on your face.

4. A really, really nice pen set. Many writers begin writing their stories longhand, so they need plenty of writing instruments to get the job done. Consider giving them a really nice stylish pen set (within budgetary reasons, of course), or a stock of their favorite pen, if they have one. Working with a stylish pen can put them in a more serious frame of mind when they write. Add a stack of notepads or legal pads, and your writer friend will be well stocked and ready to write before the New Year begins.

5. Professional development. Instead of a physical item, consider the gift of experience or education. Continuous learning is important to most writers and communicators. Writers are constantly searching for ways to improve their own craft and become better writers. Consider a gift of a Writer’s Digest subscription or an online course through Mediabistro.

6. Writing exercises and word puzzles. Brain power and creativity are key for writers. Word puzzles and writing exercises can help boost a writer’s creativity. Try magnetic word games, for example. Each magnet contains a word, and with 100 or so word magnets, you can create numerous combinations of some pretty imaginative poems. Put them on your refrigerator, and let the family create their own mini-short stories as they grab the milk.

Another option is the Writer’s Toolbox, described as “more exercises and games to inspire ‘the write side of the brain.’ Get the family involved with a Once Upon a Time storytelling card game. One person begins as the Storyteller and begins telling a story using the elements described on their cards, guiding the plot toward their Ending Card. But other players can interrupt the Storyteller with their own elements and the right to take over as the new Storyteller. All these options are sure to be fun for you and the whole family.

7. A book of writing prompts. Occasionally writers need help generating story ideas. To get the creative juices flowing, they might appreciate a book of writing prompts. Before you know it, the writer in your life (or even the writer in you) will be off and running on their next story.

8. Do Not Disturb signs. Some years ago, I saw a sign that read “Do Not Disturb. Genius at Work.” I laughed at the time, but I think it succinctly describes the sentiment most writers feel when they are at work. Writers are creative geniuses who need privacy and quiet, uninterrupted time to plot, daydream, and craft their stories. Let people know that once that sign is on the door, it’s time to get down to work.

I hope these ideas give you a head start on your gift shopping for the writers in your life. And don’t be shy about giving a gift to yourself. The more you invest in yourself, the more you improve your writing life.

Happy shopping and happy holidays.

Six Ways to Develop Great Listening Skills

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As communicators, you would think good listening skills come naturally to us, just like breathing or swallowing. But just because we were born with two ears doesn’t mean we listen well to others.

Research shows that people spend 53 percent of their daily communications activities on listening compared to 17 percent for reading, 16 percent for speaking and 14 percent for writing. Yet the average listener retains only half of the information they heard immediately after hearing it, and only one-fourth of the information after 48 hours. We must all learn to listen, not out of a need to memorize, but to comprehend. That takes practice and patience.

Most people assume that good listening involves three things:

* Not talking while the other person is speaking
* Using facial expressions and verbal sounds (Hmmm-hmmm) to let others know you’re listening
* Repeating back what you’ve just heard from the speaker

This three-pronged approach called active listening has been taught for decades. But good listening is more than this, say leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in Harvard Business Review.

We’re not sponges soaking up every concept, Zenger and Folkman say. Rather good listening works like a trampoline where there’s a bounce back effect. Speakers and listeners bounce ideas off one another to amplify, energize and clarify thinking.

Zenger and Folkman say great listeners do the following:

* Ask questions to gain better insight. Sitting in silence with an occasional nod of the head does nothing to confirm to the speaker that you understand what was said. Asking questions signals to the speaker that you desire to learn more.

* Make the speaker feel supported. Great listeners make interactions a positive experience for the other party, which doesn’t happen if a listener is passive, or worse, critical. This supportive environment is characterized by creating a safe environment in which issues and differences of opinion can be discussed openly and freely.

* Create a cooperative environment for conversation. Feedback flows freely in all directions. Neither party gets defensive about comments. By comparison, poor listeners are perceived as competitive; they listen only to identify errors in judgment, reasoning or logic.

* Make suggestions and provide feedback. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but they do so with the intent to help the other party, not hurt them or win an argument.

So how do good communicators develop better listening skills? Here are a few tips from Fast Company.

1. Be present. You can be sitting in the first row staring up at the speaker, but your mind can be a million miles away writing your marketing plan in your head. Though your body is in place, your attention is not. Learn to be present in the moment. Give the speaker your undivided attention, no matter how boring their presentation may be. Avoid distractions – put away the phone, put down your pen, shut off the laptop. If you notice your mind wandering, bring it back to the present.

If that doesn’t work, imagine if the roles were reversed. If you were speaking, wouldn’t you want people to give their undivided attention to you? Of course, you would. With that in mind, be fully present wherever you are.

2. Listen to learn. Be curious. Communicators by nature are curious people, so this should not be an issue. Nevertheless, listen to gain better understanding. Don’t just listen out of politeness or because you’re supposed to. Listening out of politeness doesn’t help you gain a better understanding of the other party’s meaning.

3. Set aside your personal agenda. We each have our reasons for participating in the conversation or want to achieve something from it. Maybe it’s to ask for their help on a project or persuade a different outcome on a decision. Whatever it is, that’s your own personal agenda. “When you think of your own agenda, you shut off the opportunity to truly listen and learn something from the other person,” says Hal Gregerson of MIT Leadership Center, interviewed for the Fast Company story. “It’s important to be open to new information that you’re not looking for but need to hear.”

4. Ask questions. Listening well and asking questions shows a willingness on your part to being proven wrong, whether it’s misinformation or an assumption about something. Asking questions shows your interest in the speaker and what they have to say. It also creates a safe space to have an open discussion. Asking questions helps you learn more from the speaker and shows you are engaged in the conversation.

5. Wait to respond. Like waiting for a stoplight to change from red to green, great listeners need to sense when it’s a good time to respond and when they need to hold their tongue. One of the most difficult aspects of listening effectively is waiting for that natural pause at the end of the sentence where listeners can ask questions or offer a rebuttal. Patience is key, and poor listeners aren’t very patient. When you begin to form a reply before the speaker has finished speaking, you communicate to others that your opinion is more important than theirs. Great listeners suspend their judgment and wait for the right moment to engage in conversation.

6. Repeat back what you heard. Not sure if what you heard was accurate? Need clarification? Repeat the speaker’s words. For example, “Let me get this straight. You believe all education should be free to students? Why?” Repeating back is a technique that’s been around for decades. Management experts says it’s a proven technique that defuses arguments because it slows down the pace of conversation. Repeating back encourages further discussion and gives speakers and listeners a chance to clarify and gain better understanding.

Great listeners are not born. But with proper training, practice and patience, good communicators can become great listeners.

Certain Words and Phrases Can Undermine Your Credibility

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During the month of June, my posts have been focused on interpersonal communications skills. In this post, words and phrases that can undermine your credibility.

In your work, it’s important to be taken seriously and develop a good reputation among peers, bosses and clients. But sometimes, language can undermine your credibility without you even realizing it.

Communications skills are vital in every business setting, but sometimes gets overlooked in the digital workplace. The way we communicate says a lot about our professionalism and credibility. The way we communicate can reveal our level of confidence – or lack thereof. The last thing you want to do is undermine yourself in front of bosses or clients, especially potential clients.

Every time you speak, you may be sabotaging yourself with your language  which can impact your success in business and in your relationships. The most disconcerting thing is that most of the time, you may not be aware of how you’re putting a roadblock in your business success with your words and phrases.

So which words and phrases should we avoid? Career and presentation experts say the following are the biggest culprits.

1) “I’m no expert,” “I may be wrong,” and “This might sound crazy”

Experts say these phrases appear to warn listeners that what you’re about to say is trivial and irrelevant and not to be taken seriously. You come across as insecure in your thoughts. Why would they take your statement seriously if you don’t?

Before: “I may be wrong, but shouldn’t we do a little more market research before launching the new product line?”

Preferred: “Shouldn’t we do a little more market research before launching the new product line?”

2) “Just,” “I just thought,” etc.

Similar to the phrases above, any phrase containing the word “just” expresses uncertainty about your statement. It downplays your message so recipients aren’t likely to take it seriously. When you eliminate the word “just” as well as its companion phrases, you’ll come across more assertive and confident.

Before: “It’s just that it might be better to delay the project until next week.”
Preferred: “It might be better to delay the project until next week.”

3) “Does this make sense?”

When you conclude your presentation or speech with this question, it’s as if you doubt your own words and you’re looking for confirmation from your audience that they understand you. But a much simpler way to accomplish that is to ask, “Do you have any questions?”

4) “I think,” “I believe,” and “I feel”

Experts say these phrases act as a buffer that dilutes your message and shows a lack of assertiveness. You can always replace it with more confidence-building terms such as “I’m confident” or “I’m optimistic.”

That said, I don’t think these phrases should be avoided altogether because they do have a place in our everyday language. Since they’re often used to express opinions, they may be better suited for casual conversations. If you want to make an impression, however, avoid these buffers.

Before: “I think you’ll be impressed with the new production.”
Preferred: “You’ll be impressed with the new production.” Or “I’m confident you’ll be impressed with the new production.”

5. Avoid fillers.

Ever listen to someone’s presentation filled with “um,” “you know,” “kind of,” and other meaningless phrases? Speaking that way lends doubt to the content of the presentation, writes Jerry Weissman, founder of Power Presentations, Ltd. The speaker comes across as ill-prepared and not very knowledgeable. They may know the information inside and out, but their presentation, complete with “ums” and “you knows,” makes you wonder if they really do know what they’re talking about.

According to Weissman, the following fillers should be avoided:

“Sort of”
“Kind of”
“Um”
“Actually”
“Basically”
“Really”
“Anyway”
“Pretty much”

For most people, the hardest part is being aware of their language and how they come across in presentations. Sometimes it’s easier to notice these transgressions when other people speak, but see if you can pay more attention to your own speaking habits. Maybe record yourself when you give a short speech. How many times do you fill your presentation with “ums,” “you knows,” etc.?

Communications are often filled with unnecessary words and phrases that can undermine your credibility in business situations. Be aware of how you speak and self-edit so you make a strong confident impression with everyone you meet.

Just for fun:
Stop Saying Sorry When You Want to Say Thank You — comic

Make a Positive Impression During Phone Meetings

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Chances are you’ve seen this TV commercial for pretzel snacks where a young man working from home is on the phone while his colleagues across town wait in an uncomfortable silence listening to the man’s loud snacking over the intercom. Until one  of the colleagues finally suggests that he should disconnect the line.

I imagine somewhere in the world, someone has made that mistake during a phone meeting. That kind of mistake probably doesn’t go over very well with employers or clients. The young man probably could have spared himself much embarrassment if he used common sense and followed certain meeting prep guidelines.

With more remote workers and better technology, phone meetings are becoming more commonplace. When participating in phone meetings, it can be tempting to do your own thing. No matter where you work – at home, in an office, hotel room or co-working space – it’s important to present a positive image, even when the other meeting participants can’t see you.

Good impressions in telephone meetings are important for several reasons, writes Darlene Price, author of Well Said: Presentations and Conversations That Get Results in a recent Forbes interview. Phone meetings are more common because of newer technologies, so it’s easier, faster and cheaper to get key individuals into a phone meeting at one time.

Second, phone meetings often serve as the initial introduction to a company or potential client. As the old adage goes, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. The first 10-15 seconds of a meeting can make or break your chances for success. So make sure you are ready from the get-go. If you miss the opportunity to make a good impression in the introduction stage, you may not get another chance.

Finally a positive phone presentation can lead to better opportunities and career advancement, says Price.  When you speak confidently, people take notice because you come across as a strong, confident leader. They are more likely to listen to what you have to say. You’re able to persuade others to a call for action, such as support a cause, fund a project, negotiate a pay raise or win a new client.

A professional phone image is more than just your voice. It’s also the way you dress. Business meetings are still business, so dress appropriately as if you were there in person.

Numerous other factors can make or break your meeting. Here’s a quick rundown to help you prepare for your phone meeting to ensure a successful outcome.

1. Do your homework. If this is the first time you are speaking with the other person or with this company, find out more about them ahead of time. Check out the person’s LinkedIn profile and find out what organizations they belong to. Browse their company website to find out its history, mission statement and latest accomplishments. The more you know about who you are dealing with, the more comfortable you will feel during the phone meeting.

2. Be prepared. Compile notes, and keep them nearby so you can refer to them easily. Make a list of questions you want to ask and key points you want to cover. If you plan to use your cell phone and laptop, keep them fully charged and ready to go. Keep a glass of water nearby too in case you get thirsty and sip it quietly between questions. If you have a tendency toward allergies and nasal congestion, it might help to gargle with salt water to clear your throat beforehand.

3. Find a quiet place to converse. A small sitting room, your living room, even a closet will work. I would avoid coffee shops because they can get too busy and noisy, especially if they play music overhead. You want to be able to converse without distractions.

4. Get comfortable. Find a comfortable seat wherever you are. Sit up straight and practice good posture. Don’t slouch. I know I sound like your grade school teacher saying that, but it’s true. When you slouch, you lose energy. When you sit tall and straight, you breathe more easily through the body and you feel more energized.

5. Be on time for your meeting. Don’t linger in the bathroom to practice your speech. Being on time shows you take the meeting seriously and that you are prepared.

6. Be succinct with your answers. When others in the phone meeting ask questions, be brief and to the point. Don’t give long-winded answers or go off topic, which can give the impression that you aren’t prepared

While these are the most important things to consider when planning for your phone meeting, here are a few other things you should NOT do, according to Glassdoor.

1. Don’t talk about your personal life. Unless the client or other party asks about your weekend or ask how you deal with stress, keep your personal life out of the conversation.

2. Resist the urge to multi-task. Don’t try to write a proposal during a phone meeting which can only distract you from the conversation. Give the meeting your full attention and take notes. If your mind is elsewhere, you might miss an important detail.

3. Never talk over the interviewer. Allow the interviewer to finish asking their question before jumping in with your answer. In fact, wait one or two beats before answering. Those few seconds allow you to absorb the meaning of their question and gather your thoughts.

4. Don’t assume your phone reception is good. No matter where you are, even at home, you may get spotty reception or the Internet service goes does. Test the connection beforehand by either calling your cell phone from a landline or asking a friend to call you.

One final thought: Don’t chew gum or eat during the phone meeting. This is a no-brainer. Just because other participants can’t see you doesn’t mean you can start snacking away. Don’t be that guy in the TV commercial. Phone meetings are no time to get complacent.

Forget Jargon and Clichés; Write and Speak in Plain English

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Has this ever happened to you? You are on the phone with a potential client. They ask a few warm-up questions to break the ice and get to know you better. The interview seems to be going well. Or so you think. Until the interviewer – a high-level marketing exec – begins to ask questions filled with marketing buzzwords you are not familiar with.

How would you respond? What would you say?

I was in a similar situation a few months ago. When the marketing exec I spoke with began using marketing jargon, I suddenly felt ill-at-ease. I felt excluded from the conversation. I’m not a marketing person. I’m a writer and editor who happens to occasionally write marketing copy. If someone starts talking about SEO strategy and marketing ROI, my eyes glaze over.

My job as a writer is to communicate as clearly as possible with readers. I can’t get held up by industry jargon and buzzwords that might mean something to the company but does not communicate clearly with their audience. To truly understand what this exec wanted me to write for her organization would have taken far more time and effort to ask loads of questions, and I suspected she did not have the patience to answer them. Naturally, I did not get the assignment with this client.

Browse any corporate report and leadership communications, and you’ll see they are filled with industry jargon and clichés that confuse readers and don’t present the organization in a positive light. Jargon is language specific to a business or industry often consisting of acronyms, abbreviations and specialty vocabulary that’s used as a shortcut to meaning among those who understand it. The other problem in business writing is clichés, those overused phrases that really have no meaning at all, such as “game changer,” “value add,” and “blue-sky thinking.” (For a good list of these clichés, check out this recent Forbes article and this one on PlainLanguage.gov.)

If you want to distinguish yourself and connect better with readers, then you need to speak and write what you mean in plain English. In other words, watch your language.

How can these problems be fixed? Here are a few tips from Business.com to help your business writing become crystal clear without relying on jargon and clichés.

1. Know your audience. What is their demographic? Their education level? Once you identify your audience, speak in their language, not your own. If your audience is a department of IT professionals, of course, your language will consist of IT buzzwords because they are more likely to understand them. But if your audience is made up of customers, you’ll want to speak as plainly as possible.

2. Don’t dress up your message. Naturally, you want to come across as sincere and knowledgeable, but don’t gloss over the message by using longer words and convoluted language. That will only muddy your message and create confusion. You don’t want to make your message sound more impressive than it really is. If you need to communicate to employees that several people were laid off, say: “Because of the company’s poor sales performance the past year, we had to fire several people from our sales and marketing staff.” End of story.

3. Use shorter words and sentences. Studies have shown that shorter speeches and messages are easier to remember over the long term.

4. Avoid using acronyms and abbreviations. According to PlainLanguage.gov, abbreviations are often published in an inconsistent format. For example, IBM vs. I.B.M. Sometimes, abbreviations appear only once in a document so it makes no sense to include them in your communications. The general rule I follow is to spell out the full company name the first time it is mentioned followed by its acronym in parenthesis, then use the abbreviation for all subsequent mentions. For example, I would write the National Association of Realtors (NAR) for the first mention, then NAR for all other subsequent mentions in the same story.

5. Edit your message. Review and rewrite it until it sounds right. You can usually cut the first draft in half. It might be helpful to read it out loud so you can hear how it sounds to your own ears, or read it to one or two other people who can provide feedback.

Your communications don’t have to be complex and confusing. Keep it simple. When you use plain English to write or speak your message, you will not only communicate more clearly and succinctly, you will win the respect of your audience.

Employers Value Good Writing, But Good Writers Are Hard to Find

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

Many years ago when I worked for a property manager, I frequently drafted the manager’s correspondence to customers and residents. One day as she prepared to head out of town for business meetings, I happily volunteered to write a speech and a magazine article that she was obligated to write for a local association she belonged to. When she returned, she had two rough drafts on her desk to review. Needless to say, she was impressed. Not only had I saved her valuable time, but I showed that I brought added value to her management team. In fact, she was so impressed by my writing, she gave me more opportunities for writing beyond drafting her usual correspondence to the residents.

That’s just one example of how valuable writing skills are in the workplace. Even with the added emphasis of visual content, websites, podcasts and social media in today’s business environment, good writing still counts – a lot. If you can come to the table with strong writing and communication skills – skills frequently requested by employers – you can increase your value to bosses exponentially.

Despite the demands for strong writing skills, however, employers reportedly are having a difficult time finding qualified candidates with those skills.

In a recent study by Burning Glass Technologies, which provides job analytics to employers, employers reported have difficulty finding candidates with basic soft skills, such as writing, communications, customer service and organizational skills. According to their 2015 study of employer job postings, one in every three skills requested by employers is a soft skill. Even in highly technical jobs, like engineering and information technology, 25 percent of skills requested in job ads are baseline skills.

In another survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, employers were asked to prioritize the skills they sought most from college graduates. Some 82 percent of employers cited written communication, which ranked third behind speaking skills (85 percent) and teamwork (83 percent). Also high on the list of priorities are critical thinking and analytical reasoning (81 percent) and innovation and creativity (65 percent).

Why is good writing important for business? Writing is the fundamental basis for communicating with employees, customers, vendors, colleagues, and fans of your product. It’s a way of expressing thoughts and transporting messages, writes Jeff Bradford, President and CEO of the Bradford Group in Forbes magazine. “Good writing is good thinking that follows a logical path and is easy for someone to follow. Writing out what you want to communicate forces you to organize your thoughts.”

This is good news for professional writers everywhere. There’s still a place for us in the business environment despite recent technologies and growing emphasis on visual communications that seem to undermine good writing. Before you develop your visual presentation, website or podcast, you need good writing first.

Whether you describe yourself as a good writer or aspire to be one, here’s what good writers bring to the business environment, according to Business World magazine.

1. Good writers can make a positive first impression. When readers receive messages that are well-organized, well-thought out and grammatically correct, they form a positive opinion of the writer, and by extension, the organization the writer represents. In contrast, a message that is poorly written with misspelled words and grammatical errors gives the impression that the writer is disorganized, unintelligent and unprofessional.

2. Good writers demonstrate courtesy. They keep the writer’s information needs in mind as they draft their message. By paying attention to the tone of the message, writers show respect for readers.

3. Good writers have more credibility. Employers and clients view good writers as being more reliable and trustworthy. A well-organized and researched message also shows that the writer is knowledgeable and takes the time to plan their message rather than rushing to send it out to readers.

4. Good writers are more influential. There can be a persuasive quality to their writing. They know how to present messages in a way that influences people to take action, whether it’s to donate to a cause, join a membership organization, elect a political candidate, or purchase a product.

5. Good writers are sought-out for their writing expertise. Once word gets around what a word hound they are, co-workers and colleagues may ask for their assistance in editing their pieces or helping them write it. Good writers can gain more responsibility and recognition for their achievements.

6. Good writers understand that an online presence starts with good writing. With so much information on the Internet, good writing is needed to tell clients and customers about business goals, the company’s brand and products. Presentation matters, and it begins with good writing.

7. Good writers make good team players. People with strong writing skills are able to share ideas, give clearer explanations, and coordinate projects easily. Work partners value the clarity of their ideas and explanations. It makes working with them more enjoyable.

8. Good writers gain professional confidence. With each successful writing project, whether it is the launch of a website or a business proposal that wins a new client, good writers gain confidence in their abilities and are inspired to pursue new writing opportunities.

Not every employee has good writing skills. That’s why they are so highly valued in the workplace. If your writing skills are lacking, there are several things you can do to improve them. Take a few classes at a community college or grab a book and read about writing techniques. Most important, practice, practice, practice.

If you are a business owner or manager who doesn’t have good writing skills and doesn’t have time to do some self-study, look for someone who can help you. Hire a freelance writer, an administrative assistant, or editor who can help you formulate your messages and make you look your best in writing.

No matter what field you work in, the ability to write simply, clearly and concisely will help you become a valued member of the team.

For Some Writers, The Pen IS Mightier Than the Keyboard


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Why Longhand Writing May Be Beneficial for Your Writing

Stephen King does it. So does Kristen Hannah. So do Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, Joshua Ferris and Andre Dubus III.

They are all writers who write their first drafts in longhand with pen and paper.

Whether you are writing a novel, short story, essay or even a business writing project, like a report or white paper, it may seem counterintuitive to write the first draft longhand rather than use a computer. Writing longhand is too time consuming, you might say. Who has the patience for that?

Lots of writers have weighed in on this topic. You can find links to some of their opinions at the bottom of this post.

Funny thing is, writers who previously wrote their stories on their laptop and experimented with writing longhand say they are sold. There is something about that physical process that helped them be more productive and access their imagination more readily. Some writers claim that there’s a stronger hand-to-heart connection that helps them access deeply held emotions which comes across in their writing.

The process of writing longhand can be liberating. By writing my stories longhand, I’m able to focus on the story development process. Writing longhand seems to open up a pathway to the brain where the core of creativity lies. Amazing things have happened as I write. Characters began showing up that hadn’t been part of the story before, and scenes went off into different unanticipated directions. That’s the fun part of writing.

Writing longhand provides physical proof of your progress. Every notebook or legal pad you write on shows the results of your daily efforts. Seeing your work in black and white can make you feel good about your progress and you’ll want to keep writing. It’s a great motivator to your writing practice. If consistency (or lack thereof) has been a problem for you, try writing longhand and see how it affects your writing practice.

When choosing between the mighty pen and laptop, also think about your typing skills. How fast do you type? If you aren’t fast or accurate, writing longhand might also be a better option for you. Writing might seem slower than typing, but ideas may begin to flow at a rate you can keep up with.

When I first tried writing stories on the computer, I didn’t get very far. I was too busy editing as I was writing. Or I would go back to correct misspelled words. The process you think would be faster and easier was actually slower because I was trying to do both writing and editing at the same time, which means I was using both sides of the brain.

Multi-tasking might be fine, but not when your brain is engaged. Now I use a pen and notebook for writing while I reserve the laptop for typing my stories from the page and editing them. Yes, that might seem like an extra step. But maybe it isn’t. I am editing as I’m transferring my words during that process so it now becomes my second draft. I feel I have gotten more done because I am focused on one activity at a time and I’m not overloading my brain.

Another problem with doing your writing on the computer is the temptation to check details via the Internet, which is obviously more accessible. If you stop writing to check a piece of information, chances are you won’t get back to your writing for another three hours because you got lost in the World Wide Web. You won’t have that temptation if you write longhand.

Here are a few other ways writing longhand can improve your writing:

* Writing longhand may help undo writer’s block. The next time you feel blocked, try writing longhand. Experts say the process of writing has a cognitive benefit. It is directly connected to the part of the brain that governs creativity. By writing longhand, you are actually getting in touch with your creativity.

* It forces you to focus on one activity at a time – writing — which is actually more productive than trying to write and edit at the same time, which uses both sides of the brain. That kind of multi-tasking might actually be counterproductive.

* Brain dumping is easier when writing longhand. Let’s face it. The first draft is always a mess. So what if you write it by hand? You give yourself permission to write crappy copy from the start. With a pen it’s easier to cross out, add, write in the margins, or make notes about what to look up later. Yes, it will look messy, but that’s your brain at work.

* Pen and paper are more portable and lightweight. These writing tools travel easily anywhere you go, whether it’s your front porch, your bedroom, the local coffee shop or the library. You don’t have to worry about missing cords or recharging batteries. It’s just your pen, paper and your ideas. That’s what I call traveling light.

* Pen and paper isn’t hard on your eyesight the way a computer screen is. Sitting in front of computer screen for hours each day is hard on your eyesight. Is it a wonder so many of us wear eyeglasses? And the rays from the screen can affect our ability to sleep at night. Paper and pen don’t have the same impact.

Before you dismiss the idea of writing your stories longhand, give it a try. See how it affects your writing.  Are you more productive? Are you more focused on your story and less distracted by the Internet of things? The computer has its place in the writing process. But when it comes to launching your first draft, pen and paper may be the best way to get you to “The End.”

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

woman in teal dress shirt sits near wall
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

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.