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?
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.
- 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.
- Use language and visuals with precision. Don’t use “weasel words” or play with statistics to make things seem better than they are.
- Prefer simple, direct expression of ideas. Avoid “legalese” or Byzantine language that hides the true message.
- 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.
- Observe copyright laws & avoid plagiarism. A no-brainer, I think. Litigation is no fun.
- Respect your audience’s privacy. Don’t spam them or sell their names to spammers.
Anything else? Please add a comment!
(I seem to be very rules-adverse lately. Check out my previous post, Breaking grammatical rules–why not?)
Both my husband 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:
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 grammarphobia.com
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.
Photo credit: unknown
I like to think I’m a pretty good proofreader. Assuming I can clearly see the screen or printout–which is more of a challenge as I’ve gotten older–I often find the mistakes that others gloss over. (See the billboard at left; I think I would have caught that one.)
But even with perfect vision, most of us can’t proof our own writing very well. It’s incredibly easy to overlook mistakes if you’re “too close” to the writing. And if you are a good writer, you should get close to your writing!
(Case in point: according to the company responsible for the billboard, the sign passed muster with no less than four other readers. I guess they were having an off day.)
Assuming you have the time and resources to work with a proofreader, that’s your path to error-free writing. Professional proofreaders are worth their weight in gold.
But what’s a conscientious but cash-poor writer to do? Here are some tricks I’ve collected over the years. Some might work better for copy-editing than for proofreading, but hey, it’s all iterative when it comes to writing.
- Turn on the hidden formatting characters of your word processor. These characters show things like paragraph breaks and spaces. You may find them annoying onscreen, but they won’t print on paper or PDF–try it and see. They are there only to help you find those extra spaces or mismatched font sizes.
- Manually double-check the spelling of all proper nouns: people, places and things. Spell-Check tools can learn new words, but sometimes my writing contains words that aren’t in its dictionary yet. If you’re writing something important, such as a job application letter, you’d better know how to spell the employer’s name. If your résumé boasts of your mad PowerPoint expertise, don’t spell it as power point.
- Run readability tests to tone up your copy. I cringe at the idea of a standard algorithm that rewards word or syllable count–completely antithetical to concise business or technical communication. But if you are looking for some independent verification of the complexity of your writing–and you understand the limitations–a readability test can be useful. An interesting one is The Writer’s Diet. It tells you whether your writing is “flabby or fit” in relation to vocabulary, sentence structure, and more. If you’re interested in the old Flesch or Gunning Fog-type tests, try Joe’s Web Tools or Juicy Studio for starters.
- Print your paper & read it one line at a time. Time-consuming? You bet. But sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Taking the time to carefully read your writing can help uncover typos and even problems with tone.
- Read your paper aloud, one line at a time. Why this works I don’t know, but reading my writing aloud always brings problems to the surface.
- Run your paper through an assistive technology product. This one may sound unusual, but don’t knock it until you try it. Assuming you don’t already use assistive technology, check out the built-in screen readers that exist in Word, Acrobat, Apple OS and other products. When my eyes (or brain) tire, I sometimes turn these on. The computerized voices don’t always give you an accurate pronunciation, but they can alert you to obvious errors by reading EXACTLY what is onscreen. In fact, any way to shake up the standard view of your screen can be useful. Browser extensions on Chrome & Firefox provide not only screen readers, but also the ability to switch to reverse type (black background and white text).
- Run Spell-Check any time you make changes (but understand & verify its suggestions). Technology is wonderful, but Spell-Check would not have flagged that billboard’s text as an error. All of the words are standard English. On the other hand, my WordPress spell checker doesn’t like résumé or assistive, which are both in a standard English dictionary as well. Use Spell-Check, but be cautious. Understand the reason it wants to change something, and decide whether or not you agree.
Any other ideas? Please add them in the Comments below.
To me, speech recognition is nothing short of a miracle. A piece of software can take the words I speak (in my nasally-southwestern Ohio twang, no less), work its magic, and translate that messy sound into relatively coherent text. If you’ve ever transcribed spoken conversation using a tape recorder and your own fortitude, you can appreciate the enormity of this accomplishment.
My first experience with speech recognition came about five years ago when I purchased a copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking. The product was marketed mostly for people with disabilities at that time, but I wanted to use it to record comments on student papers during a particularly grueling online summer course.
The idea was that you could skip the keyboard and “train” the computer to learn your voice. You could even teach it common acronyms or jargon.
Once you got the hang of it, the thing was pretty accurate, although it sure generated some amusing errors from time to time. (Here’s an entire blog devoted to that sort of thing.) So in the end, using it for student comments caused some issues, and didn’t really save me any time at all.
Fast forward to VoiceOver, Siri, Google Voice and all the rest. The technology is undeniably getting better, but there is still a missing piece. Much like a trained parrot, speech recognition software is really just a means of processing speech patterns and looking for distinct differences (“yes” versus “no,” for example.) Right now, natural language processing (understanding the semantics and syntax of those sounds) is still a ways off.
Finally, for an interesting exploration of the differences between speech recognition and natural language processing, check out Geoffrey Pullum’s excellent article: Speech Recognition vs. Language Processing – Lingua Franca – The Chronicle of Higher Education.