Category Archives: Advice

What I learned by recommending someone on LinkedIn every day in October

Every day in October, I recommended someone in my LinkedIn network as part of what I creatively call my LinkedIn Challenge. I didn’t just ‘endorse’ them (let’s face it, this can be pretty meaningless – I’ve been endorsed for things I’m not good at by people who hardly know me). Instead, I took real time to write actual words about my experiences working with people.

After 31 days of writing recommendations, I’d like to share a few of the lessons I’ve learned.

  1. It’s easy to be vague. ‘Carol is hardworking.’ ‘Derek is a great team player.’ It’s so easy to share vague opinions about a person’s strengths; the way we get to know them is to stack up individual experiences into a general feeling. The first few recommendations I wrote fell straight into this trap (sorry to my guinea pigs!) and will probably not be as valuable to readers as the ones I wrote later, which were way more specific. It’s best to think about the individual moments that add up to the vague feeling: did that person defend you in a meeting? Offer help at an event? Teach you a new skill? People want to know about encounters like this so they can build up their own vague picture of someone.
  1. Recommendations are a total gush fest. I didn’t write a single negative thing about anyone the whole month. Of course, the point of a recommendation is to highlight someone’s strengths, but reading back over all of them I see a rather skewed version of reality. I chose the 31 people I recommended because I respect and admire all of them, but it would be unrealistic to think that at least some of them didn’t have flaws. I sure do. Would I do it differently? No. LinkedIn isn’t designed to take ‘realistic’ recommendations, and I don’t think we are either. Reading something flattering is great, but if I received a short paragraph saying ‘Lucy came up with some innovative ideas but many of them didn’t get off the ground because she isn’t always very organized’ I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t publish it to my profile.
  1. Writing good things makes me feel good. Thinking about the people I recommended, reflecting on why I respect and admire them, writing it down and sending it to them was an exercise in creating joy – for me and for them. I found myself smiling as I wrote, partly because I was enjoying remembering working with them and partly because I knew it would make them feel good to read what I had written. I also got inspired to focus more on certain aspects of my work. Breaking my vague feelings down into individual experiences gave me ideas about simple things I could do to be more creative, empathetic, organized and helpful.
  1. We should give each other feedback more often. Being so happy to write these recommendations made me realize we probably don’t take enough time out to praise each other for a job well done. The first few times I submitted my feedback about people I felt nervous and even embarrassed – who was I to think they would value my opinion? – and that in itself suggests to me that I’m not forthcoming enough with feedback and praise. October might be over, but I intend to keep recommending people for the brilliant work they do. Just not every day.

In my messages to the people I recommended I asked them to pay it forward (or back, if they wanted to). I want to try and spread some praise on LinkedIn and replace the empty endorsements with meaningful tales of teamwork, stories of super salespeople and experiences of empathy. So I challenge you to recommend someone on LinkedIn today. Then maybe do it again tomorrow. Try it until you feel like you’ve mastered it. That way we’ll all be better at giving – and receiving – feedback.

(In case you’re feeling brave and want to try it for a whole month, here’s what I did: I trawled through more than 800 LinkedIn contacts and wrote down the names of the 50 people I most admire and respect. I then randomly chose 31 of them, put them in a random order and started at the top. I’d love to say I stuck to one recommendation a day, but that would be a lie. But I did write 31 in October.)

Are you up for the challenge?

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5 top tips for good #hashtag grammar

A hashtag isn’t a free pass for bad grammar.

We see hashtags everywhere these days – I even caught myself using one on a network that doesn’t support them yesterday (come on, WeWork, get with it). They’re useful, effective and funny. But they also make people careless. Here are my top 5 tips for how to use hashtags the right way, avoiding #LazyGrammar.

Designer Chris Messina is credited with the first use of a hashtag on Twitter – in 2007 he asked his followers: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 10.23.52

(As an aside, what a shame that Messina didn’t put a couple more seconds into writing this Tweet. It’s been retweeted 815 times, and by now has reached potentially millions of people.)

 

Since then, hashtag use has exploded. Starting on Twitter, hashtags have become familiar features of messages on most social networks, including Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube and even Kickstarter.

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by a hash (or pound) sign, which is used in a social media message to identify a topic. By using # you can make a word or phrase (with no spaces or symbols) searchable on that network, identifying your message with a certain topic and enabling people to find other messages on that topic.

Thanks to its widespread use, the word hashtag was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014, and to The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary a couple of months later. (Incidentally, the word hashtag can only refer to the sign in the context of its use in a hashtag; the # is technically called an octothorpe.)

There’s a huge amount of advice out there about what to hashtag, how to sell something by encouraging hashtag use, and the etiquette of hashtagging. All great advice, of course, but one thing that’s missing from all this is hashtag grammar.

#edityuorhashtags

The last rule on this infographic from Social Times is “Use proper spelling”. Always good advice, especially when using searchable hashtags. But I think the language aspect of hashtagging goes deeper than this; hashtags seem to be distracting people from what they’re writing, leading to some real howlers.

Here are my top tips for good hashtag grammar

1. #Followtherules. You can’t use spaces or symbols, but other than that it’s wide open. When you type the #, anything you type that’s attached to it will become a searchable link, until you type a symbol or space. So read carefully before you post, to make sure you’ve hashtagged what you intended to.

Bad: #I love cheese
Good: #Ilovecheese

2. #Dontpunctuate. If you want a phrase to be linked, take out the punctuation. Sure, this is painful at first, but hashtags have their own special rules.

Bad: I’m crying because #it’smyparty
Good: I’m crying because #itsmyparty

#badgrammar3. #Pluralshavenoapostrophe! Hashtags can be used within a sentence as a #wordorphrase. But, like with any normal word or phrase, you have to use them in the right context. If you want to make a hashtag plural, the linked hashtag itself will become plural. One common workaround is to use an apostrophe… DON’T DO IT! Reshuffle the sentence instead.

Bad: Discovering people on #FollowFriday’s
Good: Discovering people every #FollowFriday

4. #UseCamelCase. Capital letters can help the reader identify what you’re saying more easily, or avoid ambiguity in hashtag phrases.

Bad: Join our #Susanalbumparty
Good: Join our #SusanAlbumParty

5. #Proofbeforeyoupost. Posting online is digital publishing, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re happy with what you’ve written before you show it to the world. Proofread before you post – check your spelling (a misspelt hashtag is useless) and if you’ve used a phrase, check that it makes sense in the context – imagine it’s there without the #.

Bad: The importance of #proofreadnig
Good: The importance of #proofreading

Now let’s laugh at the whole thing.


A New Year’s resolution that will make a difference

Four easy ways to improve your writing and reap the benefits

It’s that time of year again – wrapping up 2014 and planning 2015. We’re thinking about priorities and coming up with new paths to the land of success, whether that’s a place with more clients, new customers or stronger relationships. Whatever your objectives, there’s one simple resolution you can make this year that will give you a better chance of reaching success in 2015:

Improve your writing.

Simple, right? And yet so many people and companies are failing to put in the effort year after year. Good writing and high quality copy is falling victim to our perpetual state of panic and lack of time – we’re just too busy. Too busy to notice, let alone invest in improving.

photoHere’s the problem: other people notice. They care. If your text is sloppy, your customers will assume that your service is sloppy. If there’s a mistake on your product, it looks lower quality. If your annual report is littered with typos, your funders will start to doubt their investment. And if your website is grammatically disastrous, your potential clients will go elsewhere.

So how can you avoid all this and make sure your text is top quality, even though you’ve got no time? Firstly, there’s no magic wand to make your copy flawless with no effort at all.* Let’s get real: you’ll have to work at this. It won’t take you hours, but you will need to invest a little bit of your time. That’s why now is the perfect moment to make a resolution: you’re making plans and setting goals for 2015, why not make this a priority?

There are a few simple tricks that will help improve your text, even if you don’t have that magic wand.

  1. Spell check

Aren’t those red squiggly lines annoying? NO I DIDN’T MEAN TO USE A ‘Z’! I’m right with you. But they’re extremely helpful, especially if you’re in a hurry. Sure, spell check often misses typos that are still words, but it’s really handy for a quick check, especially if you’re short of time. (And did you know you can switch it on in emails too? That could really help protect your professional reputation.)

  1. Get a text buddy

We never see our own mistakes. When you’ve written something, you’ve probably seen it dozens of times and can no longer see the wood for the trees. That’s totally normal, and it’s why every writer has an editor. If you don’t have that resource, why not get yourself a text buddy? Check out my tips on how to choose your buddy.

  1. Sleep on it

Everything looks different in the cold light of day. You might even see that mistake you overlooked last night. Sleep refreshes everything, and gives you the distance you need to be more objective about the quality of your work.

  1. Read it out loud

This is my favourite. So many long, grammatically incorrect sentences would be avoided if only people would read things out to themselves. It’s simple: literally read out the text with your voice. If there’s a mistake, you’ll hear it before you see it.

Now’s your chance to resolve to improve your writing – and your image – in 2015. Here’s to a beautifully written new year!

* Unless you wave one at an editor: http://www.telllucy.com


First impressions last

Have you ever rolled your eyes when an email popped in? Assumed something is junk mail on the basis of the poor English in the subject line? Or made a judgment about a person or a company because of the first impression they made with their email?

Email subject lines are important. They are easy to get right. And they are so often messed up.

This isn’t a blog post about how to write effective email subject lines – there’s plenty of that on the internet. This is about how to avoid five common mistakes that affect the first impression you make electronically.

Full of typos

When you’re firing off a million emails a day, it’s easy to make spelling errors. It’s also easy to identify them, thanks to the lovely red squiggly lines we all appreciate deeply. Unfortunately, subject lines of emails don’t afford us that luxury.

‘Check out this new atricle about scniece’

One way to eliminate these errors is to write the subject line in the email body or in Word first to check it. However, this won’t pick up the best typos: when the mistakes create actual words – like ‘best’ to ‘bets’. My favourite ever email subject line went something like this:

‘New research has impact on pubic policy’

Genius.

Tip: check carefully for typos – especially the invisible kind.

Badly punctuated

There is no excuse to omit an apostrophe in an email subject line. It baffles me how often people fail to punctuate their subject lines properly. And simply because they are short and not covered by the standard spell check service as the main body of the email. That’s laziness.

‘Biziorek, Wed like to welcome you back to Kaiser Permanente’

In this example, provided by Travis Biziorek, the company Kaiser has missed the apostrophe in we’d. The result is jarring, unprofessional and annoying.

Another thing with noting about this is the capital letter of ‘Wed’. Presumably this is the result of the recipient’s surname being automatically entered into the subject line, and the person responsible for the text probably thought it looked more acceptable starting with ‘W’ in the absence of the name.

Tip: check your subject line carefully for correct punctuation.

Too complicated (and wrong)

People notice when your grammar is wrong. Some people will tell you: Matt Korostoff is a man I can relate to. On this forum, he politely informs Bibucket that the subject line of one of their automated emails is grammatically incorrect, because ‘I thought you would like to know.’ Thumbs up to Matt, and thumbs up to Zach Davis from Bitbucket, who responds ‘Thanks Matt… this will definitely be changing (to the “You have been granted…” form, if you’re curious)…’

The subject line of the original email was: ‘You have hereby been granted write access to organization-name/repo-name.’

When I read this the word ‘hereby’ jumps out at me. Why? It’s unnecessary. It’s old-fashioned. It’s almost certainly grander than it needs to be.

Tip: treat your subject line like any other sentence. Read it aloud. If it sounds wrong it probably is wrong.

Inflexible

These days we don’t all boot up a desktop computer to read our emails. Between smartphones, tablets and pop-up notifications, email subject lines get squeezed and distorted in all sorts of ways. You really have to think about this when writing them, as pointed out by Bill Lampton, PhD on this Business Know-How blog:

‘When I received my copy of the New York Times online, the title of one article was supposed to read: “No one sure what will happen to Ken Lay’s assets.” Because the title was too long to fit the allotted space, the ETS got cut from ASSETS.’

Tip: cut your subject line in different places to make sure it makes sense, makes an impact and doesn’t make anyone giggle.

Ridiculous

Groupon’s got this one in the bag:

‘Father’s Day deals for the man who gave birth to you’

Tip: it’s always best not to say something completely stupid in your subject line. If you’re unsure about what you’re saying, ask a colleague/friend/sanity checker to read it before you hit send.

It’s pretty simple – just pay attention and pause before you send. Read the subject line. If it’s bad, it will make you look bad. And if it’s the start of a long exchange of emails, it could wind up making you look bad repeatedly.

From now on, if I receive an email with a subject line that falls under one of the categories I’ve listed here, I’ll correct it. Will you?


The improtance of proof reading: how to choose your sanity checker

How did that headline make you feel about me and this blog? Disappointed? Angry? Slightly smug?

You’re running the risk of people thinking bad things about you and your product/company/brand by failing to proof read your text effectively. It’s not something you can do yourself, so you’ll need to choose a sanity checker.

StPancreas
Would you pay £12 to be taken to St Pancreas? (I think I might… it sounds like a terrifying adventure.) Thanks to Nico (@nfanget) for the photo!

Whenever I’m planning to issue a press release, send out an email campaign or post an important form, I call on one of my sanity checkers to read the text and identify typos. (They earn the name as a result of my reaction to them finding errors: ‘I must be mad to have missed that!’)

I said sanity checkers plural – that’s important. People have to have holidays. People get sick. They don’t all work in your office and live in your house. And if, like me, you produce a lot of writing, you can’t expect one person to check every word.

Choosing your sanity checkers can be tricky, so here are my top tips.

1. Look for attention to detail. It’s no use choosing someone who doesn’t notice typos. See number 2.
2. Test them. Plant a few typos, wrongly placed apostrophes, double spaces. See if they notice.
3. Don’t choose your co-writer/editor. Your sanity checker should not be familiar with the text you ask them to check. That’s the easiest way to miss mistakes.
4. Pick someone who won’t show off. There’s nothing worse than haughtiness in a proof reader.
5. Pick someone honest. It’s pointless having a sanity checker who’s too shy or polite to tell you about typos.
6. Go for a native speaker. In an ideal world, they will be checking their natural language, making it easier for them to spot mistakes.
7. Make sure they can work MS Word. Like it or not, we write using Word. So make sure they understand how to track changes.
8. Check that they follow instructions. You don’t want endless comments and suggestions on your style of writing and argument structure at proofing stage.
9. Favour convenience. Yes, it’s easy to work with someone in Mongolia thanks to the internet. But is it convenient? If you need quick feedback, choose someone who’s awake at the same time of day as you.

What do you look for in a sanity checker?


Pull yourself together – the abuse of reflexives

If you’ve ever worked in an office or business environment, you have invariably heard any number of abuses of the English language (see this hilarious article from Forbes on business speak).

But the thing that really makes me burn – the mistake that’s more bafflingly annoying than all the rest – is the flagrant misuse of reflexives.

Does this ring a bell?
‘We received the price list from yourselves on Monday.’

How about this?
‘It’s a product sold by ourselves.’

Oh dear. Here’s what Partridge has to say about the matter:

Myself, yourself, herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves. There is a tendency to employ these pronouns where the simple I (or me), you, she (or her), he (or him), it, we (or us), you, they (or them) are sufficient. The self forms are either reflexives, as in ‘I hurt myself’ or emphatic additions, as in ‘He himself did not know’.

(Usage and Abusage, p.199.)

One of the examples of misuse Partridge provides is heard all too often in today’s offices: ‘He sent the inquiry to yourself.’

It should be: ‘He sent the inquiry to you.’ (Or, even better, ‘he sent you the inquiry.’)

Fowler considers this use of reflexive pronouns ‘questionable’ and ‘beyond reproach’. (Fowler’s Modern English Usage, p.510.) Yes, reflexives have an air of officialdom about them. Shoving them into otherwise simple sentence makes the speaker sound, well, more official. Only that’s not the case at all – it makes the speaker sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about. It makes them sound like they’re glossing. The misuse of ‘ourselves’ and ‘yourselves’ is an attempt to over-decorate language, and it doesn’t work.

In technical terms, words like ‘myself’ are used if the object of the sentence: ‘I hurt myself.’ (Someone (subject) hurt something (object).)

If you want to refer to ‘us’ or ‘you’ or ‘me’, try using those simpler words before you resort to ‘ourselves’ or ‘yourselves’ or ‘myself’. Does it sound right? Then it is right.

Fortunately, this practice hasn’t yet crept too far into written communications. So we still have time to pull ourselves together (yes, that’s ok) before it’s too late.


Enable or allow? Why you need to get it right.

There are some important things to say about enable and allow – two words involved in one of the most common mistakes made in business communication. For starters:

They are different words with different meanings.

This might seem simple enough, but it is being disregarded left, right and centre in the world of business. How many times have you seen an advert that promises ‘this new thing allows you to be happier/richer/taller than ever before’? Allows? No.

Allow is another way of saying permit. Your parents allow you to stay up late at the weekend. Your boss allows you to leave the office early.

Enable is defined as providing with the means or opportunity. A mobile phone enables you to talk on the move. A blog enables you to rant about bad grammar.

Quite different. The problem is that they get mixed up all the time. A new product doesn’t give you permission to do something. It might help you do something, or facilitate that action (i.e. enable) but it doesn’t give you permission (i.e. allow). I’ll say it again:

They are different words with different meanings.

But if it’s truly too difficult to select the appropriate word, there is an alternative – a word that is a synonym for enable and allow: let. Let means permit and facilitate – and it’s nice and simple.

So if you can’t decide whether to use enable or allow, use let instead. Maybe we should all use it anyway, it’s far more straightforward.