Thursday, October 9, 2008

Writing a Resume for Susie the Screener

Susie the Screener is sitting at her desk in the human resources department at Megalarge Inc. when the latest batch of resumes arrives. They're in response to Megalarge's recent ad in The Daily Planet for a regional marketing manager. There are 58 resumes in this week's load, down from 74 last week. Susie's heart sinks. She picks up the first response and glances at the cover letter:

I was born at an early age and from that point forth I had a dream, a dream that would challenge...

Susie drops the letter and resume stapled thereto into the large gray wastebasket next to her desk, which bears the hand-lettered sign, "File 13: Preliminary processing."

The second response is housed in a black vinyl window binder with the phrase: "Nomination of J. Blokes Cranston to the position of Regional Marketing Director." Clank: Into File 13.

The third resume is headed: Objective: I want a challenging position in a progressive company that will provide me with career challenge, draw on my skills and experience, and allow me to contribute to the goals of the company." Clink: File 13 again.

Susie isn't some aberrant hard-hearted monster. She's a professional resume reader and is behaving in a way typical of the species. She's pressed for time, short on sympathy, perpetually suspicious and fully authorized to deep-six any response that bores, confuses, annoys, or seeks to con her. Megalarge thinks she performs her screening function extremely well.

Susie isn't unique; she's a composite of the way human nature works when confronted with a job seeker's marketing brochure. Resume reader's responses to your efforts are governed by four major principles:

  • Address my needs and priorities, not your wishes and aspirations.
  • Don't tax my patience.
  • Don't tax my credulity.
  • Give me the information I want - and only the information I want - in a sequence that lets me make the most accurate snap judgment about you.
While it's true that a potential employer should have some concerns about what will make you a happy camper, her primary priority is getting her needs met. She's paying the money and thinking in terms of what value the new employee brings for that money. Resumes and cover letters that carry on ad nauseam about the job hunter's needs and goals are a definite turnoff.

Susie also notes that if there's nothing atop the resume that serves as a product description and you simply jump into "Professional Experience," she naturally will assume that you want to continue doing exactly what you did in your last job.

During Susie's first trip through the resume stack, she doesn't actually read them. She scans them at hyper speed, perhaps 20 or 30 seconds per resume. She weeds, sorts, and creates a pile that she'll go back to and really read (about a two-minute process, if you're lucky).

Accordingly, the most egregious sin the resume writer can commit is to submit something that's physically hard to read. You can’t make Susie’s job harder than it already is and expect to enjoy her favor. So no single-spacing or full declarative sentences (not, "I wrote the plan," but "wrote plan."). No eighth-inch margins. Nothing longer than two pages (unless the subsequent pages are labeled "Addendum" and contain non-crucial information).

Give Susie lots of air. Through the wonders of desktop publishing software, offer distinct formatting cues to aid her eyes in scanning the page (e.g. caps/bold, Caps/no bold, Bold upper and lower). Quality, 30 pound paper and ink that doesn't smudge onto her fingers. Create a resume that, upon Susie's first glance, triggers an involuntary little voice in her head: "Thank you, thank you, thank you for understanding how tedious resume screening can be."

Unless you're working in a creative profession (public relations, advertising, graphic arts or writing government budgets), avoid stunts like brightly colored paper, Olde Englishe type, diagonal formatting, tri-fold mailers, etc. They suggest to Susie that you're trying to stand out by artificial means rather than your own merits.

Remember, Susie wasn't born yesterday. She's read a lot of resumes and has seen a broader spectrum of lies, puffery, distortions, clever omissions, and creative historical interpretations than you can possibly imagine. Her hogwash meter has been fine tuned.

Susie won't automatically accept your unsupported praise as gospel. You say, "significantly enhanced productivity," and she thinks, "What do you mean by significant?" You say, "major program, " and she'll ask, "By whose standards?" Susie doesn't like adverbs and adjectives unless they describe something objectively measurable. At best, they simply don't register on her brain. They become "invisible words." At worst, they twang her hogwash meter and you're headed for File 13.

Susie loves numbers because she instinctively believes them. You say, "significantly increased sales, lowered costs and improved productivity," and Susie turns skeptical. You say, "increased division sales by 14% in seven months while decreasing costs 23%" and she'll believe it. After all, she thinks, these data can be objectively measured and checked. "You wouldn't dare lie to me about something I can easily verify."

Susie also has a fondness for past-tense verbs expressed in tight telegram-like phrases: "Managed department. Drafted five-year plan. Recruited all staff. Negotiated entire transaction." She likes past-tense verbs because they describe what's already happened. In her mind, there's no better proof of what you can do than the fact that you've done it before. "Negotiated sale of six multi-million dollar shopping centers in 14 months," not "able to negotiate high-ticket real estate transactions."

Incidentally, about 80% of Susie's time and effort is spent on the first page of the resume, the second page gets a fast glance, usually to check your educational background, find the year you graduated from college, subtract 21 from that year and get a rough idea of how old you are. That means if there's really hot information on page two, you'd better find some way to highlight it. Susie reports no particular interest in the personal section found on many resumes, and no interest whatever in whether you like to read, take long walks, or play chess.

Susie doesn't like controversial activities or memberships ("enjoy alligator wrestling and Bart Simpson fan club meetings"). Susie doesn’t need to see that your health is excellent or "references upon request," since everyone had better be healthy and have references.

Resume readers don't like being told what to think. They want information laid out for them in a sequence that allows them to use their own judgment to size you up. That's why many of them report on an almost fanatical distaste for functional resumes, in which the writer omits or downplays his career chronology and instead attempts to create a menu of marketable qualities.

A good resume reader can deduce a lot from your career path - where you started, how long you stayed, whether you shifted roles or settings, how fast and often you were promoted and, perhaps most important, who has seen fit to employ you. If we can eavesdrop on Susie's mental organizing process as she scans each resume, we'll find a mind set that sees almost everything in terms of trust, the risk to her if she guesses wrong about you, the stakes, the job's responsibilities and your previous accomplishments.

Automatically, she'll fire a series of questions at your resume focused on who has previously trusted you with what:

  • What's the product statement here? (What do you claim to be in terms of level, roles/functions and prior work settings?) This information is found in the profile, summary statement or objective.
  • Who trusted you before? (Oh, Exxon? Well, they're pretty demanding. If they thought you were worth hiring maybe I can, too. Joe & Eddy’s Fine Refinery and Travel Agency? That doesn't tell me much.")
  • How long have they trusted you? (If it's more than about three years, you can’t be a complete screw-up or they would have fired you, right? Twenty years without a promotion? Not much ambition there.)
  • What were the stakes? What was the biggest thing they trusted you with? This usually is reflected in your job title.
  • What were your responsibilities? (Stop! Don't brag yet. Just give me a nice, objective job description to show me the nature and scope of your responsibilities.)
  • Did you do anything with those responsibilities? ("Now, give me some examples - past tense- of all the marvelous things you've achieved.")
  • Who trusted you before that? How long did they trust you? What were the stakes there? Responsibilities? Accomplishments? If there's a lot of jobs or you're going back more than 15 years, collapse the history into a category called "Earlier Experience."
  • Where did you go to school?
  • Anything else I need to get a full and accurate understanding of you and what you offer?

All this data should hang together, paint a picture and not raise alarming, unaddressed concerns (Why is the date of your college degree missing? Why is there a four year gap in your employment history?). Without an answer to these concerns, File 13 awaits.

If there really were a Susie, she'd emphasize one last point. The resume doesn't have to say everything. It's a screening tool, a brochure to help employers decide who's worth meeting in person. There will be time in the interview process to flesh out details, amplify strengths, and demonstrate your personal attributes. A resume is a suitcase; travel light and don't try to turn it into a steamer trunk. If you keep it lean, objective, orderly, and logical, it will be one of just a few resumes that Susie will welcome.

Basic Rules Of Punctuation For Business Writing

An interesting incident happened in one of our writing seminars. We were talking about punctuation--when and how to use it--and that the reality is that business writing today demands fewer rather than more marks of punctuation. An alert woman raised her hand. In front of the group she confessed, "I like to use a lot of different marks of punctuation, just so my readers will think I'm more intelligent." She continued, "I'm not even certain that the marks I use are correct, but I figure that the more semicolons, question marks, colons, and exclamation points people find in my writing, the more intelligent they'll believe I am." We had to chuckle at her honesty. It's so typical of what people tend to do with all aspects of their writing!

The sad thing is, though, that instead of believing you to be smarter, your audiences will perceive you to be obscure, pretentious, and uninformed.

Punctuation is a vital and necessary part of good writing. In fact, the best writers know that they can have wonderful ideas and cleverly phrased sentences, but poor and inaccurate punctuation will ruin their writing.

The Power of Proper Punctuation. Punctuation demands a book in itself.

We recommend that in conjunction with a good grammar and reference text, you purchase a punctuation manual. Several are listed in Appendix C, Additional Resources for Business Writers. We will highlight here several aspects about punctuation that good business writers need to know.

Put the Period. The mark of punctuation most needed and least used in business writing is the period. Why? Because most writers create sentences that are much too long. They don't put the period soon enough. When do you put the period? When you have completed a thought.

This mark of punctuation gives your reader a chance to pause, to digest what you've just written, and then to move smoothly to your next thought.

Instead of writing:

Poor: Your analysis of the brochure we published yesterday was coherent but I still would like some more concise explanations because many of your examples were vague.

Better: Your analysis of the brochure we published yesterday was coherent. But I still would like some more concise explanations. Many of your examples were vague.

Curbing Comma Fever. The next vital mark of punctuation is the comma.

English has dozens of rules for using the comma, and your grammar reference book will show them to you. Look at the sentence below and see how the writer has linked two independent or complete thoughts with a comma.

Poor: You should have received your check, we mailed it to you on Friday 20.

That's what editors call a "comma splice," or a run-on sentence. You should separate these two sentences by a period or semicolon, not a comma. Keep this rule in mind: commas can't separate sentences! Some of the other uses for commas are between items in a series, between lengthy introductory phrases and clauses, and between two clauses separated by conjunctions. You will come across these needs and uses as you are writing. Just keep in mind that the comma is an effective mark of punctuation for separating thoughts and phrases in your letter writing.

A lot of people have "comma fever"; that is, when they don't know what else to do with their punctuation, they insert a comma just to show any kind of pause or break. Although the comma is a necessary mark of punctuation, it can be overdone. You don't want to break up the flow of a sentence unnecessarily. Try just using commas where you would pause to take a breath when reading the sentence out loud. If you don't have a reason to use a comma, leave it out. The comma should not come too often in the flow of a sentence; otherwise, what you have is choppy rather than connected thoughts.

Avoid sentences like the following:

Poor: Please, analyze, prepare, and evaluate, then, print out a new, complete brochure, so that James, the editor, can reread your work.


Poor: That idea, which contradicts everyone else's may be good, but it's a problem raiser, and we should, if we can, avoid problems, at all costs.

Delete commas and any other excesses. If you need to, begin new sentences where commas now exist. For example:

Better: Please analyze, prepare, and evaluate. Then print out a new complete brochure so that James, our editor, can reread your work.

Better: That idea contradicts everyone else's. It may be good, but it is an issue raiser. We should, if we can, avoid problems.

Secrets for the Semicolon. Now what about the semicolon? Many people are confused about when to use the semicolon; they don't really know what one is. A semicolon has two primary uses: (1) to separate independent clauses that are closely related or (2) to serve as a "super comma" for a list of items when any one or more of those items contains a comma. Look at the sentence below and see how the writer has used the semicolon:

Good: The original materials came from our Charleston plant; the finished product was made in Toledo.

That's one long sentence that could have been divided into two sentences with a period or separated by a comma and conjunction. But the two parts of the sentence are very closely connected and the semicolon shows the close link between them. Thus this semicolon separates independent clauses. Note that following the semicolon there is a complete thought. An alterative revision could read:

Good: The original materials came from our Charleston plant, but the finished product was made in Toledo.

Both examples are grammatically correct. It is up to you to choose the style you want. By using both, you can add variety to your letters.

Often when two sentences are closely related, the second part of the sentence following the semicolon begins with a transition or connective word such as "however."

Right: We went to the store; however, they were all out of the items we needed.

The second use of a semicolon is as a super comma. How many people are mentioned in the following sentence?

Wrong: Jack, a junior, Jane, a senior, and Bill went to the movies. The answer is unclear! You could have three named and two unnamed people or three people, two of whom happen to be a junior and a senior. To clarify this situation, a semicolon is needed.

Right: Jack, a junior; Jane, a senior; and Bill went to the movies.

Knowing About Colons. First cousin to the semicolon is the colon.

Colons are primarily used to indicate that other material follows.

The most effective use of the colon in business writing is to introduce a list or example.

Right: The general manager called the meeting for two reasons:

1. To specifically identify the problem

2. To determine a feasible resolution to the problem

Posturing the Apostrophe. The apostrophe is a mark of punctuation used to show possession and contraction. First, possessives show ownership. "The manager's" shows ownership by the manager. That's not much of a problem. Most people get in trouble by trying to decide where to put the apostrophe when the word ends in "s" or when they have a plural. Look at the following examples and see the correct uses of the apostrophe.

Singular Singular Possessive Plural Plural Possessive employer employer's office employers employers' office week week's worth weeks two weeks' worth dollar dollar's worth dollars 5 dollars' worth woman woman's purse women women's purses

Rules for deciding where to put the apostrophe include:

1. Decide if the word showing possession is singular or plural.

2. If it is singular, add 's.

3. If it is plural, and doesn't end in s, add 's.

4. If it is plural, and ends in s, add ' to the right of the s.

Refer to a grammar book or comprehensive style guide for exceptions and more particular points regarding the possessive.

Apostrophes are also used for contractions. But, should you use contractions at all in business writing? Ten years ago most business letters, and reports avoided them. Words like "cannot, do not, should not" appeared instead of "can't," "don't," and "shouldn't." However, the trend in business today is toward more relaxed writing. There is nothing wrong with "can't," "don't" and "shouldn't" if they maintain rather than undermine the tone and purpose of your letter. The more formal the tone of the letter, the more contractions should be avoided.

If you use contractions in one part of your letter, try to be consistent and use them throughout. Look at the following sentence written by a well-intended business writer. Notice that what you see is a mixture of contractions and non-contracted forms.

Poor: You didn't get your check because you did not send us the correct form. It doesn't matter when you return the form. You are entitled to your benefits.

If you mix and match contractions and the non-contracted form, you're shifting back and forth between the formal and the informal tone. That can create confusion and an inconsistent tone in your letter. Again, there is nothing wrong with using contractions if in fact your tone is informal, especially for in-house letters.

Your boss writes an informal letter:

Informal: We can't meet tomorrow afternoon at 5 p.m. so we'll reschedule the meeting next Monday at lunch. I hope it's convenient for you.

The same letter could have been written:

Formal: We cannot meet tomorrow at 5 p.m. so we will reschedule the meeting for next Monday at noon. I hope it is convenient for you.

The content is the same, but the tone is not. The second tone is more formal, distant, and perhaps does not make the reader feel as comfortable. After all, imagine that you are the listener. You want to be communicated with like a peer. Contractions can sometimes relax your words enough so that even bad news can be softened.

Hyphens. Hyphens cause most writers a lot of confusion. You should hyphenate compound adjectives when they are used together before the noun they modify:

Right: The well-known engineer.

But not if they follow the noun:

Right: The engineer was well known.

Be especially careful with numbers.

Right: He painted three 40-foot ceilings.

Right: The neighborhood had two-, three-, and four-bedroom houses.

Adverbs, which typically end in "ly," are not hyphenated.

Right: The highly recommended report finally arrived.

Using Dashes and Parentheses. Many people are unclear of the meaning and use of dashes (represented on a typewriter by two adjacent hyphens) and parentheses. Use dashes to indicate a break in thought, or to highlight and give greater importance to additional information inserted in a sentence. Use parentheses to diminish tangential information that is added. If the inserted information is about as important as the information in the sentence itself, set it apart with commas.

Right: Mary, feeling low, decided not to come to the party.

Right: Mary--who was having the worst day of her life--skipped the party.

Right: Mary (she parked the car crooked) decided not to go to the party.

A dash can also be used to set off information at the end of a sentence.

Right: We all signed the contract--finally.

Parentheses are also used if you give a lengthy name of a company or document, and then give the abbreviated form or acronym, for example, Employees Assistance Program (EAP). The parentheses should enclose the acronym when it first appears. You can then refer to the acronym only, without parentheses, throughout the rest of the letter. This is one way you can use abbreviations in your letter and be certain your reader knows their meaning--event then, however, don't overuse acronyms.

Quoting Quotation Marks. Quotation marks are necessary and functional marks of punctuation. Most people know that quotation marks are effective in indicating what someone has said. The problem is not when but how to use them. Below are examples of the proper use for quotation marks.

1. Rule 1. Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.

He said, "Let's meet soon."

2. Rule 2. Semicolons and colons always go outside quotation marks.

He said, "let's meet soon"; however, no meeting was scheduled.

3. Rule 3. Exclamation points and question marks go inside or outside the quotation marks depending on the sense of the sentence.

Have you read "Business News"?

We are going to discuss the question

"What is our strategy on the Miller Project?"

He shouted "Watch out!"

Watch out for "bozos"!

Again, a complete grammar reference book will give you sound guidelines for using quotation marks, but those three rules should help.

Many business writers are hesitant to use the question mark and the exclamation point. I recommend that if you are trying to achieve variety in vocabulary, style, and format, that you experiment and use both interrogative and exclamatory sentences, where appropriate.

What's wrong with starting a letter with a question? It's a very effective way of drawing your reader into your letter and getting him or her involved in the subject matter. Have you ever attended a speech where the speaker opens with a question? Immediately, the audience looks up. They are involved. They're drawn into the subject. You can do the same by opening a letter with a question, speaking directly to your reader, rather than speaking at him or her. "What are your thoughts on the Simington project?" "Can you arrange a meeting in my office at 5 p.m. tomorrow afternoon?" Those are effective letter openers that directly address the topic and attract your readers' attention.

To express emotion, there's nothing wrong with writing, "That was a great report you gave yesterday afternoon!"

Unconventional punctuation, like offbeat vocabulary, can be overdone, overused, and inappropriate. But a modest sprinkling of various punctuation marks, used appropriately, energizes your writing. Punctuation need not be a terribly complex subject, and you certainly don't have to review your seventh-grade English notes in order to learn it.

However, knowing and using the correct punctuation will increase your confidence in your writing.

The Essentials of Writing a Good Business Plan

A good business plan is the key to attracting investors to a high-tech start-up company. The plan must be well-written and encourage venture capitalists that your idea, your management and your financial predictions are worthwhile. This article explains how to do that.

The Executive Summary

If you're seeking investors for your business, writing a business plan is one of those daunting tasks you'll have to face. Whether you choose to hire a professional business-plan writer to help or you choose to do it yourself, you'll need to be the chief architect of the ideas that will lead to success. Here are some tips to help you through the process.

Every plan should start with a one- to two-page executive summary. This section isn't a warm up, preface, forward or "make 'em feel good (rah rah) about your business" section. Rather, it's your entire business plan reduced to its essence. And your essence had better boil because if it doesn't, they (the ones with the checkbooks) aren't going to read the rest of your plan.

Those of us who have to read business plans hate it. I've yet to meet anyone who would choose to read a business plan over doing -- well, anything else. It's amazing what it takes to make a dental appointment look like an attractive break.

Your executive summary must capture your reader. You have two pages to make your jaded reader want to learn more about you.

You have two pages to talk about things such as your market, your product or service, why your management team is the best lineup put together since the squad that brought home Apollo 13, your projected revenues and expenses, how much money you're seeking, what you'll do with their money (this isn't the time to pay down the home equity loan) and, most importantly, "why you."

The Management Team

After the Executive Summary, I'm an advocate with front-loading your business plan with information about your management team. Tell the venture capitalist ("VC") about the business experience and successes of the team.

It's a simple formula. VCs invest in people as much as, if not more than, they invest in technology. Most will tell you that they'd rather have an "A team" and a "B technology" than vice versa.

If there isn't much to say here, you're probably not going to find venture capital. You may not want to hear this, but the sooner you come to terms with this reality check, the sooner you can begin moving in a path that may lead to success -- like adding strength to your management.

"Why You"

The next section begins the body of your plan. At some point, you're going to need to present the mundane facts. You'll talk about things like when you incorporated, who owns the company and what you've accomplished.

Today, the venture capital market is clearly tighter than it was a year ago. More than ever, VCs are looking for new, unique and hard to duplicate technologies and ideas.

The key to funding in today's market is a great explanation to answer what I referred to earlier as "why you." In writing your plan, never lose sight of the fact that VCs may read hundreds of business plans for every one they agree to fund.

People, like attorneys and accountants, who act as filters to VCs, similarly read many plans for every one they send to those in their venture capital network. Those of us who do this know that our credibility is at stake every time we forward a plan.

I know that if I want VCs to read the business plans I send, I have to prove to them that it only gets beyond me if it's quality. If any professional who gets involved in venture capital sends clunkers to VCs, he could find his packages heading straight for the trash.

Your plan must answer "why you" in such a way that it's clear that you have an unfair and sustainable advantage over your competition. You have to demonstrate how you'll survive direct competition, reverse engineering and a bigger company entering your space. Further, you need to explain how you'll sustain any advantage you have.


Remember, VCs aren't looking for 10% or 15% per-year return on their investment. They could invest in mutual funds and hope for that. They're looking for returns upwards of 25% per year and some would say upwards of 100% per year. Your plan must show numbers like this are possible.

Now, of course, the paper will hold whatever numbers you put on it. While some level of optimism is acceptable in projecting your numbers, you should increase your anti-hallucinogenic medication to where your delusions are at a moderate level when you do the financial projections. Absurd projections won't help your cause.

If you want venture capital, hunker down and get to work on that business plan. When you have it done, don't mass mail it the VCs. Look to your network of professionals and friends to present it to a VC they know. Mass mailed business plans have something approaching a zero chance of being funded -- no matter how well-written.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Business Writing: Choosing the Right Paper

When you send a letter to a friend, or pen pal, the stationery can give clues to your feelings, and your opinion of the recipient. Many times the clues are as subtle as body language in a face-to-face conversation. What does your stationary say about you and your attitude towards the recipient? You wouldn’t dream of sending a business letter on a sheet of notebook paper torn out of a notebook, maybe with calculus notes in the margin, so why send a note on ripped out notebook paper with notations in the margin to a friend.

Notebook paper has its place, and if neatly trimmed can make excellent stationary for a friend who is in school, or getting ready to take tests. Notebook paper would not be appropriate to your aunt Mildred, unless of course you are asking for money to buy better stationery.

When selecting stationery for letters consider who you are sending the letter to. Your friend Jamie who likes bugs and has a pet tarantula would probably get a laugh out of stationary with bug stickers on it. Susan, who is a lace and ruffles kind of girl, would not appreciate it, but the stationery that has lace edging would tickle her. When considering the person who is receiving the letter try to describe them with adjectives, then see what type of stationery would be described using those same adjectives.

It isn’t just the printing, or fancy edging that portrays your opinion of the recipient. If you use cheap stationery all the time, then you say that they are not worth the few extra pennies good stationery will cost. If you truly need to cut costs when mailing a letter, use the good stationery for the first page and for subsequent pages use less expensive paper. This will show you care about them, but that the cost of mailing a letter is prohibitive.

The condition of the letter when it reaches your pen-pal says a great deal. Don’t send a letter that has a coffee cup stain in the middle, or chocolate fingerprints on the edges. This shows they are not worthy of your care and concern. Send a nice clean sheet of paper, unmarked by debris and dirty marks. When you fold the letter for the envelope, take the time to fold neatly, if you fold the letter in thirds, then it will usually fit in the envelope that goes with the stationery.

Using a matching envelope is a nice touch and shows how much care and consideration you deem the recipient of. As with anything written, the cues given by your letter should let the recipient know with what high regard you hold them. Take the time and find the perfect stationary to match both your recipient and your letters contents. You wouldn’t want to send a letter expressing your sympathy over the loss of a pet on paper that has sunshiny faces, a more subdued stationery would be most appropriate. On the other hand, stationery that has a black border wouldn’t be appropriate for the letter about your penpals upcoming wedding.

Before you place the pen on the paper consider the message you are sending with your paper and envelope. A little bit of thought will insure that your friendship is not strained because of unspoken/unwritten messages. Happy writing.

The Value of a Thank You Note

It seems like a lifetime ago when thank you cards were a strong part of everyday life. Thank you’s were sent to show appreciation for everything from someone sending an unexpected gift to getting help with a garage sale. Over time, thank you cards only seem to be sent for shower and wedding gifts.

Why is this? Have we lost our appreciation for random acts of kindness? Do we not value the help we receive from others? Have the generations of parents following this lost tradition forgotten to teach their children the special meaning behind sending a written note of thanks?

I’d like to believe the answers to those questions are, “no.” How many times have you done something for someone and received a thank you note? When it happens, don’t you feel more appreciated? How many times have you received help from someone or a random act of kindness and sent a thank you note? When you did, didn’t you feel a great sense of gratification for expressing thanks?

Sending and receiving thank you notes has really opened my eyes to a whole new level of understanding gratitude and appreciation. Since I began diligently sending thank you’s three years ago, I’ve noticed I have been blessed with a lot more to be grateful for. It seems more people are available to offer a helping hand or favor when I need one.

For those who don’t actively write and send thank you notes via the postal system, I have a challenge for you:

Next time you receive a random act of kindness, a much-needed helping hand or any type of favor from someone send them a thank you note within one week. It doesn’t need to be long, just long enough to express yourself.

  • Think about how sending this thank you note made you feel.

  • Think about how appreciative the person receiving the thank you feels.

  • Think about how good you would feel if someone sent you a thank you note each time you did something for them.

Sending a written thank you is much more personal than sending an Internet greeting. Yes, this method is quicker and more convenient than using the postal system. Yes, the majority of the sites offer free cards. Yes, the recipient will receive the thank you much quicker. BUT, that’s part of the problem!

What am I talking about?

Technology can sometimes cause a loss a appreciation, particularly in the areas of greeting cards and letter writing. How many times have you received a letter this past year? Probably once. How many times have you received an email letter containing “half-thoughts,” poor grammar and not much personality? Probably more than once per week. This same problem holds true for Internet greetings a lot of times. I’m not putting this system down, I just know from using these sites how effortless and easy it is to send them. This is what I do when I’m really pressed for time and can’t get to the store, not when I really want to show someone I care.

Remember, the thoughts expressed in this article are purely my opinion. I welcome any feedback or suggestions you’d like to offer.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Your Voice on Paper

It's wise to match the personality of your prose with your business image and your target market. Do you want to present yourself as the customer's ally? As a no-nonsense expert? As a refined, cosmopolitan colleague? As an efficient, down-to-earth service provider?

Whenever you speak with a stranger on the phone, in just half a minute, your listener gets an impression of a personality, background and attitudes. Brusque. Upbeat. Slow-witted. Prissy. Confident. Similarly, whenever you put words down on paper for business, you create an aura that accompanies the meaning you intend to convey. Your reader gets an impression of what you'd be like to do business with. Energetic. Pretentious. Genteel. Candid. Slimy.

For instance, imagine the person behind each of these four business communications.

  1. Next January 15, I will be crossing the finish line of the first ever, nationally televised Pensacola Pentathlon -- first. If you act right away, your company's logo will be exposed to millions on my shirt.
  2. I don't know if you remember me, but I'm the short red-haired woman who spoke to you after your talk to Pen Women United in Kenarsie last September. I hope it's all right to take you up on your invitation to send the completed manuscript of my first novel.
  3. We appreciate the opportunity to serve you. So that we may continue to offer you the finest business information available, kindly fill out our survey form.
  4. Despite the good work I did for you, doubling your profits, I haven't heard from you again. Have you gone out of business? Died? Unfortunately, if you don't set up another appointment this month, I will be forced to expunge you from my file of contacts.

To me, person #1 appears brash, but not arrogant. Person #2 strikes me as unusually timid. Writer #3 comes across as a faceless, insincere corporation, not a person at all. Person #4 gets the biggest rise out of me, impressing me as a rude egomaniac who assumes that I owe him my business.

Your reactions may differ. You might appreciate person #2's apprehensiveness or find person #4 refreshingly forthright. There is no magic voice that appeals to everyone, every time.

Still, it's wise to match the personality of your prose with your business image and your target market. Do you want to present yourself as the customer's ally? As a no-nonsense expert? As a refined, cosmopolitan colleague? As an efficient, down-to-earth service provider?

  • Feel free to use words you rarely see in business, such as "haggle," "wacky," "peachy." Distinctive language makes your message more memorable.
  • Avoid stuffy word choices like "apprise," where shorter, ordinary words like "inform" or "tell" communicate well.
  • Convey a friendly, personal spirit by addressing the reader as "you" and referring to yourself as "I."
  • Present tense ("Our program brings you...") conveys more confidence than past tense ("...brought..."), future tense ("...will bring...") or the conditional ("would bring...").
  • Unless you're an uncommonly nimble writer, don't try to become someone in writing that you're not. Phoniness hurts in marketing. Even if your sleight of words worked, you'd run the danger of disappointing the prospect when he or she called or showed up at your office.

Avoid These Mistakes in Your Online or Paper Brochure

Someone who picks up your brochure or clicks onto your World Wide Web page is thinking, "Why should I buy from you?" or "What's in this for me?" And right at the top, during the first moments of contact, those are the questions your marketing piece should answer.

Suppose I tell you I'm interested in five plain-paper fax machines, and ask why I should buy them from you. Would you stand up straight and proclaim, "We're Frank Fenn Faxes, serving Sinclair City since 1985"? I doubt it.

Yet that's exactly what hundreds of thousands of you have been doing, in effect, for years on printed brochures and more recently, on electronic World Wide Web pages. "We're Frank Fenn Faxes, serving Sinclair City since 1985" will not move even a motivated buyer closer to the decision to buy. Nevertheless, it's the most common (and ineffective) message on the front panels of printed brochures or headline for home pages on the Internet.

Someone who picks up your brochure or clicks onto your World Wide Web page is thinking, "Why should I buy from you?" or "What's in this for me?" And right at the top, during the first moments of contact, those are the questions your marketing piece should answer.

Computer consultant B.F. Boudreau of Waltham, Massachusetts, heads her brochure, "Puzzled by computers?" If I'm an appropriate prospect for her services, I'll think "yes!" and turn the page. Similarly, the Sagat Speech Institute would do better with "Secrets of Spectacular Speaking" as a World Wide Web page headline than with the name of the organization.

Once you motivate your reader to find out more, spell out what you sell or do for people in language that makes sense to your customers, not your own jargon. Someone who is indeed puzzled by computers responds more readily to "We patiently get you past the frustration of learning your software" than to "Specializing in Windows applications, SQL and RDBS's." A homeowner needing trash disposal should encounter, "We get rid of it safely and legally," not "We comply with all 5.4893 regulations."

Yet another common mistake is citing credentials and achievements as if they were selling points. Notice how the "After" statement in the following pair slants the facts to show prospects vividly why business qualifications matters.

BEFORE: From 1987 to 1997, Keith Stone served as outplacement director for Textron, Inc., and started his own firm in January 1998. He holds an M.A. in counseling from the University of Wisconsin.

AFTER: With a decade of corporate outplacement experience and a counseling degree, Keith Stone offers jobless or job-unhappy folks guidance and support while shortening their path to the ideal job.

A fourth common mistake in brochures is failing to ask for action. After you catch prospects' attention, describe your product or service and bolster your offering with qualifications, explicitly ask your readers to do something. "Call 800-XXX-XXXX for a free evaluation of your business lease today." "Call 213-XXX-XXXX from your fax machine for a catalog of free legal reports available through our fax-on-demand system." A parting gesture like this makes an enormous difference, either because we human beings are obedient creatures or we enjoy being reminded to take action.