Eradicate buzzwords from your workplace vocabulary

people at a meeting

Startup Stock Photos

In a previous post I mentioned Buzzword Bingo, the subversively fun game to play at your next conference or meeting. Buzzwords are those feel-good but meaningless phrases (like “bleeding edge”) that seem to creep more and more into our daily workplace vocabulary. It’s not just a phenomenon of the realm of marketers and salespeople, either. When was the last time you told someone that you were “thrown under the bus”?

It’s tough to figure out how or when these phrases became so popular, but we’re now seeing a backlash. Certain phrases have become so common that they have taken on an ironic or humorous cast. A great article that covers this silliness is Travis Bradberry’s Please Stop Saying These 25 Ridiculous Phrases at Work.

My personal pet peeve is anything that makes it sound like we’re in the military. Equating a workplace meeting with a military exercise is both overblown and disrespectful, in my opinion. But does it slip into my vocabulary? Of course.

What are your favorite buzzwords to banish?

Breaking the Silicon Ceiling

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has been asking the question for years: Why are there so few women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)? These careers are lucrative and vital to our economy, but according to AAUW, women make up only 12 percent of engineers and 26 percent of computing professionals.

I don’t think I have any answers, but I do think there is reason to hope that young women coming up through our universities may be poised to change that equation.

First, let’s look at an ignominious moment in recent history: the release of Dell Computer’s “Della” site. According to Jenna Wortham’s 2009 blog post, “The site originally featured tech ‘tips’ that recommended calorie counting, finding recipes and watching cooking videos as ways for women to get the most from a laptop.” So a mere six years ago tech companies thought that women wanted cute, colorful machines to help them with lady computing. Heck, maybe they still think that. Seems a  little depressing if you are an aspiring female programmer.

But here are some things to give you hope. At the same time Dell was gendering its netbooks, the President of Harvey Mudd College, Maria Klawe, was quietly building an engineering program that was designed to bring more women to the field.

NPR profiled President Klawe in 2013, and her story makes a fascinating read. By hiring more women faculty, adding more introductory courses, and by integrating research experiences and conferences, the college became a case study in how to break the Silicon Ceiling. By 2014, the college awarded more engineering degrees to women than to men. Take that, Silicon Ceiling!

Finally, let me circle back to AAUW. They recently posted 10 Ways to Get More Women into Engineering and Tech, which includes practical and simple ideas for those who have the power to help: employers, practitioners, and….parents? That’s right. If parents show their little girls that science is cool and encourage a problem-solving mindset, those girls may grow up to be the engineers of tomorrow. A simple yet powerful message to take to heart.

Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger Disaster

January 28, 2015 marked the 29th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Seventy-three seconds into the flight, the shuttle exploded high over the ocean, sending the astronauts to their deaths. The nation and the world were shocked and grief-stricken at the loss of life. Furthermore, thousands of schoolchildren were watching the launch live, and were psychologically scarred for years to come.

In the immediate aftermath, people couldn’t fathom how such a thing could happen. As it turns out, engineers had known for years that there was a potentially fatal flaw in the shuttle’s design. Even though they had tried up until the night before the launch to warn NASA of the likelihood of failure of the O-rings (a part designed to prevent blow-by of hot gasses), the engineers were overruled and ignored by their own management.

Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012), a mechanical engineer working for Morton Thiokol (the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters) participated in that late-night conference with a heavy heart. In late 1985, Boisjoly explicitly warned his managers that if the problem was not fixed, there was a distinct chance that a shuttle mission would end in disaster. He and the others watched the launch and witnessed their predictions coming true.

Boisjoly’s testimony during the investigation of the disaster cost him his friends and ultimately his job. But it also led him to speak out against ethical lapses in the workplace, earning him the Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1988.

Doing the right thing

In the workplace, we are faced with ethical dilemmas every day. Writing ethically might not require us to rise to the level of Boisjoly’s bravery, but it’s important to understand what stops us from doing the right thing.

Bruce Weinstein, the ‘Ethics Guy’, believes there are three obstacles:

  • Fear of not being accepted by peers, or of reprisals
  • A focus on short-term benefits, not looking to the future consequences of a decision
  • Foul mood: one’s own emotional or physical health prevents you from acting selflessly.

Boisjoly and his colleagues overcame those obstacles, and did their best to prevent the disaster. As writers, we can follow some practical rules for our communications.

  1. Use language and visuals with precision. Don’t use “weasel words” or play with statistics to make things seem better than they are.
  2. Prefer simple, direct expression of ideas. Avoid “legalese” or Byzantine language that hides the true message.
  3. Hold yourself responsible for how well the audience understands the message. Don’t violate your readers’ trust in you. If someone tries to get you to back down, stand your ground.
  4. Observe copyright laws & avoid plagiarism. A no-brainer, I think. Litigation is no fun.
  5. Respect your audience’s privacy. Don’t spam them or sell their names to spammers.

Anything else? Please add a comment!

8 tips for pain-free progress reports

Bored man snoozing on computer keyboard

via Flickr user Brandon Heyer

A progress report (also known as an activity report or status report) is requested by those who are interested in the past, present, and future of something you are working on. Unlike a more formal research report, a progress report can be brief, with no need for cross-references or detailed front and back matter. A progress report can even be delivered verbally, although most organizations also require something in writing. Often a template will be provided, but occasionally you may be asked to draft something on the fly.

Planning the report

1. Assume the reader is 100% unfamiliar with your work. Even if your supervisor is familiar with what you do, a future supervisor or different department may not be. Plan to write the report to account for those things that are internalized: things you might (incorrectly) assume everyone already knows. Don’t skip or gloss over the details that your reader needs. This is where a journal (tip #8) can be a lifesaver.

2. Understand the time-frame you will report on. By definition, a progress/activity report is not a summary of your entire project. It covers a specific time segment. Progress reports can be weekly, monthly, quarterly, or some other combination. In any case, the basic format is to explain what you have accomplished and what you still plan to do. Stick to this time-frame so that your content does not become bloated.

3. Define the purpose, audience, and format for your report. Even in a short, informal report, the good old “reporter’s questions” are a fine starting point. Two important things should be considered:

  • What are the special needs or interests of your readers? Do they like lots of detail or just the big picture? Do they prefer graphs and charts? Are they interested in reporting to stakeholders outside your organization?
  • Who else might read your report? In addition to your supervisor and any stakeholders, consider your organization’s executive level, future employers, auditors, and even lawyers. The need for accuracy and ethics is higher than it might appear.

4. Structure your report logically. A structure will help you cover all the highlights. Your employer may give you specific guidance, but a progress report typically contains these items:

  • Introduction
  • Summary and Results of Activities (past, present)
  • Future Activities
  • Conclusion

Some employers also ask for things like expenses and risks to be called out separately. A simple table or bulleted list often does the trick.

Drafting the report

5. Find a quiet time to write your report. (Good luck with that!) If you try to write when you are busy or distracted, you might forget important details.

6. Take a straightforward approach. Write in plain style and keep your page design simple. Avoid long paragraphs if a short paragraph (or list, or visual) will do the job. Brevity is both a requirement and a bonus for progress reports. As we know, most readers prefer short communications, even when the content is important.

7. Proofread! Carefully review, edit, and proof your report. Even though it is tempting to dash off a progress report without taking time to check your spelling and writing style, your supervisor will appreciate the extra attention. And as tip #3 suggests, other people may read your report and make judgments based on what they see.

Going forward

8. Keep a project journal. Depending upon your organization’s tools and customs, you may already be recording tasks at a granular level. But if not, find a way to record your daily activities–in a wiki, an online journal, or even a paper journal. You will save time in the long run.

What other tips do you have? Add them in the Comments below!

More grammar “rules” that were meant to be broken

(I seem to be very rules-adverse lately. Check out my previous post, Breaking grammatical rules–why not?)

Both my husbanddog with sign and my students have had occasion to think about grammatical rules lately. My students are revising projects to hand in for a grade; my husband is completing a dissertation. Both types of writing place value on correct grammar, but there are some things you just don’t need to stress over.

For years, I was under the impression that there was a rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. I’ve since learned that it is more a matter of style, going back to an attempt to Latin-ize everything back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In fact, according to Oxford Dictionaries, there are times that an ending preposition is completely appropriate:

  • passive structures (she enjoys being fussed over)
  • relative clauses (they must be convinced of the commitment that they are taking on)
  • infinitive structures (Tom had no one to play with)
  • questions beginning with who, where, what, etc. (what music are you interested in?)


Another “rule” concerns the split infinitive. The famous Star Trek example (“To boldly go where no man has gone before”) is arguably weakened when the adverb gets moved (“To go boldly where no man has gone before”). Once again, the attempt to turn English into Latin is at the heart of this rule.

There are times when a split infinitive avoids ambiguity. In the sentence. As Oxford Dictionaries points out:

The sentence 
You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’]
doesn’t have quite the same meaning as:
You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’].


Because split infinitives tend to tick people off, experts recommend avoiding the split infinitive in professional writing, including job application letters.

But don’t let anyone tell you that there is a “rule” against split infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition. Rules like that are meant to thoroughly be broken…er, you know what I am getting at.

Another entertaining read about grammar “rules” is available at

Breaking grammatical rules – why not?

WallofTextAfter a long hiatus, I’ve decided to bring my site back to life by sharing a short article about breaking rules. How’s that for a comeback?

Just to be clear, these rules are sort of meant to be broken, at least when it comes to websites. For example, your teachers always told you to write in complete sentences, but on the web–where perhaps only 28% of the words are actually read–a sentence fragment or two might be both acceptable and appropriate.

Writing for the Nielsen Norman Group, Hoa Loranger explains why a one-sentence paragraph is OK and that it’s OK to break that old rule about writing out numerals less than 10. She suggests that to improve scannability and comprehension on the web, writers should adjust their writing to the situation:

The rules that you can violate depend on the context, the target audience, and the brand or tone of voice. For example, the tone applied to professional publications is usually more formal than the tone of blog posts from the same company. Formal tone usually requires adhering to traditional writing conventions more closely, whereas conversational tone allows for greater flexibility (“Break Grammar Rules on Websites for Clarity“).

In about ten days, I’ll be meeting a new group of writing students. Although we will be learning the rules and characteristics of formal writing, I hope that by the end of the class we can talk about when it’s appropriate to break the rules. I can’t wait!

When you are The Decider


I like to think that I base most of my workplace decisions on facts, not biases, but there’s no denying that we humans are imperfect. How might subconscious biases affect the decisions or judgments we make in workplace communication? You may be surprised.

A couple of months ago I wrote about The Halo Effect. This week, I read a terrific related article by Buffer’s Belle Beth Cooper. Citing numerous examples and experts, Ms. Cooper describes eight ways our minds can play tricks on us. I’ve added some workplace context to each of her points, but I’m greatly indebted to her for pulling together all of the research!

1. Confirmation bias happens to the best of us. Confirmation bias happens when we gravitate toward those who think like us. Ms. Cooper acknowledges the need for confirmation of our beliefs and acceptance by our peers, but there is a downside to this need. Gradually we tend to ignore or dismiss anything that doesn’t match up with our own beliefs. Considering the rate of change we deal with in most modern workplaces (technology, globalization, economics…), a confirmation bias can lead to significant problems down the road.

2. We confuse selection factors with results. This one is sort of a “chicken and the egg” situation. Ms. Cooper gives the example of a swimmer’s body: did the body become suited to swimming after training began, or was it already naturally suited to the sport because of broad shoulders, strong arms, etc.?

Or consider a high-performing university. Is it a result of great teaching or the careful selection of great students? Even if the answer is not completely clear, it’s important to understand how people (particularly advertisers) are prone to blurring the lines between causation and correlation. If you are marketing your company’s product, you may need to make the distinction at some point.

3. We fall for the sunk-cost fallacy. This one is tough to overcome. We are hard-wired to feel loss very strongly, and we can make some pretty poor decisions based on this feeling. Ms. Cooper cites the example of buying a ticket for a movie, only to belatedly realize that the movie is terrible. Should you stay to “get your money’s worth” or cut your losses and leave? Most of us would probably stay. But a more reasonable response might be to let go of the monetary investment–it’s over and done–and just move on.

In the workplace, we hang on to sub-standard software, hardware, processes, and many other things just to prove to ourselves that the investment was worthwhile. When do we make the decision to kiss that investment goodbye and cut our losses?

4. We fall for the gambler’s fallacy. If you play cards, this one is probably well-known to you. When you’ve lost, say, five hands in a row, you figure that the odds are in your favor for that sixth hand–surely this will be the winning hand–it has to be!

But probability doesn’t work that way. A coin toss has a 50/50 chance of landing on heads, no matter how many consecutive times it lands on tails, right? The lesson is that in both cards and the workplace, we can’t rely on luck or hope to turn things around. It usually involves a tough decision and some hard work.

5. We avoid cognitive dissonance by rationalizing our behaviors. This is a fancy way of talking about how we deal with situations that induce “buyer’s remorse.” To resolve the mental discomfort (cognitive dissonance) when we make a bad purchase, we either find a way to justify it (“I needed a new Porsche for my commute to work”), or censure ourselves for poor judgment (“I can’t be trusted with money.”) It’s important not to let one bad decision convince us (wrongly) that we’re bad decision-makers.

While it’s also important to avoid “analysis paralysis” in decision-making, it’s almost comforting to know that a certain amount of post-mortem rationalization will be in store when decisions don’t pan out; cut yourself a break when it happens.

6. We get fooled by the anchoring effect. As explained by Dan Ariely, we tend to make decisions by comparing the value of two or more options rather than making a decision based on pure value for investment. We do this all the time in the workplace. Whenever we choose the lowest bid simply because it is the lowest bid, the anchoring effect is at play. Lowest cost does not always equal the best value.

The takeaway: Calculate the value and cost of any option independently from its competitors. Then begin the process of choosing the winner.

And as Ms. Cooper notes, any marketer knows that the word “free” is a surefire hit. Even if what we’re getting for free is not so hot, we consumers can’t resist when the headline includes that magical word. If you are the marketer in your company, use this power wisely.

7. Memory and gut instinct can be wrong. It’s more than a little disheartening to realize that we don’t always remember things reliably. If you need to make decisions in the workplace, look at the facts and data to confirm what you think that you know. While gut instinct can be spot on, you’ll rest easier knowing that you can back up your decision with facts.

8. The conjunction fallacy leads to illogical thinking. This one has to do with the way preconceived notions and a love of detail affect our thinking. The conjunction fallacy was documented years ago by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. As stated in Michael Lewis’s fascinating Vanity Fair article about Daniel Kahneman,  “The human mind is so wedded to stereotypes and so distracted by vivid descriptions that it will seize upon them, even when they defy logic, rather than upon truly relevant facts.”

Relying on stereotypes that assume that people are always logical and uniform in their thinking is bound to cause problems. Popular culture offers stereotypes ranging computer programmers (nerdy, pudgy guys who play World of Warcraft) to uptight librarians (ask any modern librarian if he or she goes around “shushing” the patrons, and you’ll get an earful.)

Well, that’s where my mind is today. Let me know where your mind is in the comments below.


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