Epic fails and lessons in writing from the school of hard knocks

Mark Zuckerberg

This week, on the 14th anniversary of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg shared a posted about his failures. He wrote, “Over the years I’ve made almost every mistake you can imagine. I’ve made dozens of technical errors and bad deals. I’ve trusted the wrong people and I’ve put talented people in the wrong roles. I’ve missed important trends and I’ve been slow to others. I’ve launched product after product that failed.”

There are many days when I feel like an epic failure as a writer (or mother, or wife for that matter). The other day I read something I wrote a year ago. It was crap.

Writing for someone else’s voice is probably one of the hardest things for a writer to do. I need to do this a lot in my work. Here are some of my epic failures in writing over the course of my career.

  • Assuming someone’s spoken voice is the same as their written voice. I worked with one leader who was personable, funny and engaging in person, but whose written prose was formal and stilted.
  • Creating a narrative that wasn’t the narrative of the person giving the presentation. I prepared a presentation once for a leader and weaved a theme through it that I thought would resonate with the audience, using references to popular culture. It fell flat because it was my narrative, not their narrative.
  • Not using enough stories in my writing and not digging harder to find stories. Everyone has a story.
  • Slipping into corporate puffery. If something I’ve written sounds like a company wrote it, not a person, I’ve failed at my job, and I have.
  • Being too wordy.
  • Not being able to convince people to use clear language; people will often default to language they are used to or think others want to hear.

Yes, I have failed miserably time and time again. But there is one thing that makes me happy. I’m in good company.

 

Advertisements

Say what you mean

cat in the hat say what you meanWhy can’t people just say what they mean?

Being clear and honest would solve so many problems.

Relationships would be stronger because we would forge stronger connections from shared understanding.

There would be less uncertainty and confusion in the world.

We would make less mistakes.

We would save precious time from trying to interpret what the other person is saying or what they want.

Saying what we mean could also help advance our interests.

Look at Donald Trump. One of the key reasons he has gotten this far in the U.S. presidential race is because he says what he means. If Hillary Clinton stopped playing the political game, and just once, came out and blasted him, and said what she really felt, I wonder if she would see a spike in the polls in her favour.

Our reluctance to say what we mean is even more of an epidemic at work.

There are some professions where I swear they actually train you to speak in euphemisms and jargon. It drives me crazy.

Last week I got an email from a colleague. The first line was, “Here is the PPT that I presented to the RLT based on the work that the INV team did.”

Now, as it turns out, I actually understood the email because sadly, I’ve worked there long enough that half of these terms are second nature to me. But god help any new person in the organization, or someone who isn’t exposed to jargon and acronyms as much as I am.

Saying what you mean is even more important for some people, for instance, people with autism.

Because Grace has a tendency to interpret everything I say literally, I’ve learned to be as specific as possible in my language. For instance if I said, “I don’t care if you want to do X, you have to get your homework done first” or whatever the issue we were discussing, she would literally interpret it that I didn’t care about her. Having an autistic child makes you think about your language choice very carefully.

Of course, there are times, when it is better to not say what you mean. Here are some golden rules of communication to keep in mind:

  1. Think before you speak.
  2. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
  3. Always think about whether your words could be interpreted the wrong way or how they would make the person feel.

As Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This week’s #HappyAct is to say what you mean, keeping in mind the golden rules. Share a comment. Why do you think people don’t say what they mean?

The power of positive words

Puppy with words who is awesome, you are awesomeRecently I was in a team planning session at work and for an icebreaker, we had to share what our favourite word was. I was intrigued by the words the people at my table chose and why.

One girl chose the word “fluffy” because of the way it sounds, and all the f’s. Another girl liked the word “cozy” because of the way it made her feel. One guy loved the word “awesome” and said he used it all the time.

Words are the frame for the pictures we paint for people. Let me give you an example. I used to complain about being overweight. One day a co-worker said to me, “you know, Laurie, I never thought of you as heavy until you kept calling yourself overweight.” Needless to say, I’ve stopped saying anything about my weight any more. Through my choice of words, I had painted a negative image in the person’s mind.

Never underestimate the power of positive words. They can be highly persuasive and influential in creating the outcome you want to achieve. This is no secret to any business leader or those of us in communications and in media who know it’s all about crafting the right message to achieve a desired behaviour or action.

This week’s Happy Act is to join me in a little experiment. Choose five positive words and use them at least twice a day for the next week and see what happens. One of my words is going to be Awesome. Some people say words like Awesome are overused, but I think that’s just because the word is so awesome.

Report back on what you found: did you find you had a more positive outlook this week? Did you notice any change in the behaviour of the people you talked to? Leave a comment. Have an awesome week.