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.


Photo credit: unknown

New Year’s Resolutions for Workplace Communication

ElephantAnother year has flown by. To tell the truth, the years fly by faster every year. Two weeks ago, I said goodbye to my fall semester students (what a good bunch!) and in about four weeks I’ll be meeting my new students. While I still have some time, I wanted to jot down ideas for the workplace writing I’ll do in the coming year.

1. Organize: the filing cabinet, the desktop, the email inbox, the files, the photos…it seems to be a never-ending struggle. One baby-step I can take now is to start using file-naming conventions the right way.

2. Learn something new: I’m a firm believer that learning never ends. In 2014, I am planning on finishing my graduate certificate in Interactive Media Studies. Two more courses, and I’ll have it!

3. Update professional profiles, such as LinkedIn and Slideshare: As you do learn and achieve new things, update the places that matter to you professionally. Some of us keep an up-to-date vita. Most of what I do is online, so it’s time to revisit the page and all the other places that could contain outdated info.

4. Use technology to automate tasks: Anything that I can outsource to a computer is fair game! I recently bought my very first smartphone, and I’m learning about how to get Siri to find things (although she’s not as smart as I had hoped.) I’m also beginning to store things like coupons & boarding passes on my phone. For my teaching, I’ve used services such as IFTTT and Remind 101 to trigger events or send reminders. I need all the help I can get!

That’s my list, and I’m sure I’ll add more as the year goes on. Add your list in the comments! And Happy New Year!

Photo credit: user Donnawetta

The Halo Effect

Statue with haloIf you’ve ever chosen a product based on its packaging, taken an instant liking to a person because he/she was tall & good-looking, or defended the merits of your hometown against all others, you’ve experienced the Halo Effect.

According to Wikipedia, the halo effect (or “halo error”) is “a cognitive bias in which one’s judgments of a person’s character can be influenced by one’s overall impression of him or her.” Some speculate that it grew from our most primitive ancestors: a tall, good-looking person was well-fed, had won (or avoided) battles, and seemed to be a good candidate for fathering one’s children.

Around here, we’ve been looking at our current and future needs and trying to figure out which products will help us achieve what we want. Some of us take an instant dislike to a product because of a  seemingly-trivial factor. It could be color, the salesperson, or almost anything that triggers a negative memory about a previous product. That’s called the “Devil Effect,” by the way: we demonize something because of deep-seated and inexplicable feelings. Imagine the consequences of the devil effect in a jury trial!

If you think about it, the halo effect is just as treacherous. We might overlook a product’s failings because we like the color, the salesperson…you get the idea. The halo effect makes it tough to be impartial.

While we can’t do much about our cognitive wiring, knowing about the halo effect can help us be more aware of the potential for bias. It can even make us more aware of how we present professional writing: even if my message is rock-solid, if I don’t present it cleanly, the reader might not receive it favorably.

That’s why we care about good page or screen design, sometimes even more than the content. There are cognitive reasons to pay attention to alignment, balance, contrast, consistency–what some of us refer to as the CRAP design principles.

Finally, the experts at Nielsen Norman Group applied the halo effect to web usability testing, and the results are interesting to say the least. Take a look at Alertbox: The Halo Effect and see for yourself.

 Photo Credit: bossa67 via Compfight cc

10 great resources for infographics and visuals

Minard infographic 1869Don’t you love a good infographic? According to Wikipedia, infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present complex information quickly and clearly. My favorite part is in that last prepositional phrase: to present complex information quickly and clearly. Yeah!

Infographics aren’t new; they have been around at least since the days of lithography. The famous infographic at top left is Charles Minard’s 1869 chart showing the number of men in Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign army, their movements, as well as the temperature they encountered on the return path.

An infographic can be created in almost any software that offers good support for visuals: Adobe InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator, PowerPoint, even Word. Infographics can be poster-sized or notebook-sized. It’s all up to the designer.

Infographics sure are great. But here’s the rub. Not all of us are visual designers–I count myself among the aesthetically challenged.What to do?

Fortunately, there are some great resources for designing infographics and images. Best of all, you might discover that someone else has created the perfect infographic, and with proper attribution, you can borrow it for your own purposes.

In no particular order of favoritism, here are 10 of my go-to sites:

10. Cool Infographics: Randy Krum’s blog highlights some of the best examples of data visualizations and infographics found in magazines, newspapers and on the Internet. This site can inspire you to greater heights in your own visuals.

9. Daily Infographic: According to the founders, “We spend countless hours searching the web for the most interesting, stimulating, mind-blowing infographics. We then curate our findings and choose one infographic to publish every week-day.” It’s true! Much like Cool Infographics, you can gather inspiration or find the perfect infographic for your presentation. Bonus: subscribe to receive a daily infographic in your inbox or feed reader.

8. Not to be confused with Instagram, this site allows you to build infographics and charts from templates. Like most free sites, your options are pretty basic. If you upgrade to pro, you get a few extra perks. But for a quick infographic for school or a business presentation, this site will do the trick.

7. MorgueFile: When you need some free high-resolution stock photographs for your infographic, MorgueFile might be just the ticket. Don’t let the name scare you: in newspaper terminology, a morgue file is a place to keep post production materials for use of reference, an inactive job file. This is one morgue you’ll enjoy visiting!

6. IconsPedia: This site is great for when you need some stick figures, social media icons, or other themed icons for your infographic.

5. Piktochart: A drag-and-drop infographic editor, with several good-looking free templates. One caution: that nice functionality means that the site uses lots of Flash. The paid versions might be worth checking out if you plan to create infographics for your company or school on a regular basis.

4. Wylio: Wylio functions much like a Google image search (it’s not, but you can use your Google login to get up and running quickly). The free version of Wylio allows you to download 5 free images a month. Wylio is a “bootstrapping startup”, so you never know what you’ll find.

3. Mashable Infographics: Need to convince your company to launch a social media campaign? Mashable’s infographics cover every aspect of technology and social media. You’re sure to find something interesting here.

2. CompFight: CompFight searches Flickr Creative Commons images and produces some great hi-res images. You can filter by license, and best of all, they provide the HTML that will allow you to credit your source.

1. Lots of cool infographics to pin, embed, or favorite. also bills itself as the marketplace for infographic designers and customers; you can find each other here.

Bonus:, another do-it-yourself infographic builder, is one I just discovered. It allows you to apply a theme (timeline, maps, etc.) and add objects. Seems like a really user-friendly site!

There you go! Get working on your awesome infographic. And add your favorites in the comments!



The dreaded team project

The team project is every student’s worst nightmare. The grim acceptance of yet another doomed academic exercise seems to be an unavoidable part of higher education. Yet, as I tell my students, you will work on some kind of team project in virtually all modern workplaces. With a little bit of planning, you can–and will–survive.

First, let’s define a project. It is

•a temporary endeavor
•focused on achieving a goal
•an allocation of resources: time, money, people, equipment…
•bound by constraints: time, budget, scope

The key to survival is focusing on that first bullet point. A project is temporary. Hang on to that hopeful thought.

It’s also comforting to know that conflict is a natural part of teamwork. Almost 50 years ago, Bruce Tuckman identified his famous team stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. If you are “storming” within your team project, you can remember that your project is following the Tuckman progression just as it should. (Of course, the problem is that some teams never get past the storming stage. More on that in a bit.)

Meredith Belbin (1981) looked at team projects through a behavioral lens. He noticed that different individuals in a team displayed distinct “team roles” to varying degrees. A healthy team features a fairly balanced distribution of the roles:

  • Coordinator (Chairperson): sets agenda, tracks, coordinates
  • Resource Investigator: finds new info, new ideas
  • Team Worker: looks for his/her part, gets work done
  • Shaper: focuses on action tasks, completing project
  • Implementor (Company worker): turns plans into actions
  • Completer/Finisher: detail-oriented, schedule-aware
  • Monitor/Evaluator: IDs flaws, focuses on outcomes
  • Plant: creative, focuses on big picture
  • Specialist: adds depth, masters a specific topic/area

Knowing that people exhibit their unique set of dominant team behaviors (Plants versus Completers?) helps us understand why we have conflict. Teams truly do have a personality, a mix of traits and behaviors.

The ultimate secret to project success is communication. This involves planning the project (brainstorming, asking questions), establishing a common vision (sharing ideas, setting goals, understanding scope) and time management.

Time management is probably the aspect that causes the most pain. Attending (or efficiently running) the team meetings, meeting deadlines, and completing tasks in a timely manner all contribute to the success of a team project.

Team project tips and coping skills

If you’re about to embark on a team project, here are a few helpful suggestions based on personal experience and Study Skills: Team Work Skills for Group Projects, an article written by students for students.

1. Begin by describing your project. As a group, write a few sentences to establish the exact deliverable (report, poster, PowerPoint, etc.) and what it should cover. Get everyone on the same page, so to speak. It also helps to define what types of work you will need to do to complete the deliverable: research, writing, surveying, gathering stats…

2. Create a project plan. At minimum, a project plan should define the responsibilities of the team members, establish a schedule, and map out conflict resolution.

  • Share email addresses, phone numbers, and any other contact information that could be useful.
  • Decide how quickly team members should respond to project communications: within one day is reasonable.
  • Sit down with calendars and mark off the days that will and won’t work for team meetings. Mark the deadlines of any deliverables, including intermediate steps (drafts, progress reports). Anticipate holidays, birthdays, and the inevitable demands of other classes’ projects. (And be sure to build in time for editing and proofreading!)
  • Hope for the best but plan for the worst. If one team member drops the class/gets sick/stops caring about grades, what will you do? Figure this out on Day One. Avoid some of the “storming” and put your team on the path to “norming”.

3. Divide & conquer–or not? Most team projects take a piecemeal approach: you do the introduction, I’ll do the bibliography, he’ll do the graphics. There’s nothing wrong with the divide and conquer approach–it can be a very efficient way to work. Well, that is unless it’s the last hour before the project is due and you are the person who ends up assembling and editing all those inconsistent, unrelated, or missing pieces.

To reduce frustration, be sure to also build in time for the group to simultaneously work on the project. In this approach, all of you assess your progress, assemble the pieces each person has completed, and identify what still needs to be done. This is an iterative process, depending on how much time you have to devote to the project.

4. Take advantage of collaboration technologies. If you have never used Google Drive for collaboration, get yourself to Google now and start learning! Google Drive is free cloud storage for all kinds of formats: Docs, Spreadsheets, Presentations, Forms, and more. It can be a bare bones substitute for Microsoft Office, and best of all it allows you to share, track versions, and see who added that hideous purple text on page 4. Google also offers video and text chat (IM), so you can work together even when you’re apart.

Other technologies include Dropbox (free shareable cloud storage for files), Doodle (a simple calendaring app that lets you schedule meetings at convenient times) and a whole bunch of others. You can even build a free website on Weebly or Wix or (hey!) WordPress.

If you need a high-powered (costly) solution, look for 30 day trials or academic versions. And don’t forget to check out your school’s site-licensed software. You might be pleasantly surprised at what is available.


Stay positive and stay flexible–you will get through this. Look at it as a chance to build your management skills and snag a good story for a job interview (“tell me about a time you had to solve a problem.”) And if all else fails, seek motivation.

Aristotle wants you to ace your job interview

AristotleMost of us learn about Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle in high school and again in freshman English. The concept is simply this: in order to persuade your listener or reader to do what you want, your argument should be informed by ethos (credibility), logos (fact, logic) and pathos (emotional appeal). In case you were wondering, that rhetorical triangle sure comes in handy outside of school, too. Here’s a YouTube video that applies the rhetorical triangle to images from advertising.

So how does the rhetorical triangle fit in to your job interview?

  • Each of the three rhetorical strategies can be accomplished through metaphor or storytelling
  • Success depends upon your delivery and the audience’s reaction

 Telling the story via the CAR method

The CAR formula (also known as STAR) is borrowed from many, many other people. And it works beautifully for an interview situation.

To answer most interview questions, you need to tell a story. To structure your story, use CAR:

  • Context
  • Actions Taken
  • Results.

To illustrate, let’s pretend that the interviewer has just asked The Little Engine That Could (LETC) to describe a situation when he (it?) was challenged. The LETC begins with context: A train full of toys and candy needed to be pulled over the mountain to the children of the neighboring town. None of the big engines in the rail yard wanted to take on the task of pulling the heavy train up the mountain. I knew that the children would be sad if they didn’t get their toys and treats.

Then the LETC describes the action: I didn’t want the children to be disappointed, so I volunteered to pull all the cars of the the train myself, even though I am only a Little Engine. I went very slowly, but I kept going. All the way, I said to myself, “I think I can, I think I can.”

And then, the results: I made it over the mountain, and I said, “I thought I could, I thought I could!” I delivered the goodies to the children. They were so happy! And now I am well known for my determination.

There you have it–a way to plan for both the common interview questions and the ones that come out of left field.

The audience reaction

rhetorical triangle

Aristotle believed that rhetoric was effective only if the audience was moved to take action. And what moved them? A credible speaker (ethos), backed up by solid facts (logos) and an appeal to what we value in our hearts (pathos). In the triangle illustration at right, we can see movement from the writer (or speaker) to the audience.

The triangle encompasses trustworthiness, passion, and any number of character traits.

  • You build credibility through your appearance (classic, tailored clothing), your actions (greeting each person cordially, arriving on time or just a bit early), and your words. (My advice? Take time to plan what you want to say before you speak!).
  • The facts you emphasize should be sprinkled throughout your résumé. Bring work samples and references to further support these facts.
  • Research the company and the field, particularly if you are just starting out, and understand what they value. Understand who the competitors are, what problems this particular industry faces, and identify ways to align your skills to help them reach their goals.

What do you think? Please leave a comment!