Make the Most of Your Next Phone Conversation

In a time when business people have access to multiple ways of communicating via computers, tablets and smartphones, phone calls and voicemails have seen a decline.

We still believe face-to-face meetings are the most impactful and meaningful. But, there’s something to be said for picking up the phone and talking to someone. For those of us used to sending a quick text or email, our phone manners may need a tune-up. Here are four tips to make the most of your phone conversations.

Pay attention to your body language

While face-to-face interactions allow for communicating through words and body language, phone conversations are voice only. However, your body language does play a part in your tone. Pay attention to your body language and you’ll keep your tone conversational.  While speaking, focus on one object, sit upright and use gestures. Most importantly, smile, the listener can hear it!

Build rapport

If you are calling someone for the first time, begin your call by offering up your credentials, how you were referred or a common interest that you share. This will help you build immediate rapport with the person on the other end.

Don’t shy away from an assistant

The assistant or secretary can be seen as a gate keeper or an ally. They can share important information about the person you want to reach. Ask for advice on the best time to reach the person and whether they prefer email or voicemail. Finally, see if they can set a phone or face-to-face meeting. Be sure to thank them for their help.

Make the most of voicemail

Think of leaving a voicemail as a short commercial. State your name and phone number first, include a tease, give specific times to call back, restate your phone number and say that you will call again. Before you pick up the phone, anticipate leaving a voicemail and plan out your talking points so you can be concise and professional.

This is a highlight of some of the content we cover in our Consultative Selling Skills program. For more sales tips, contact us.

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Podcast: Jay Sullivan’s Tips from Simply Said

Jay Sullivan, author of Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work and Beyond, spoke with Kevin Kruse from LEADx about being a more effective communicator. Jay and Kevin address making the most of your body language, being a better listener, acknowledging the emotions of others, and so much more.

Play  Listen Now

Jay and Kevin are both authors as well as contributors to
You can read Jay’s articles here and Kevin’s articles here. Enjoy!

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Know Your Strengths and Challenge Assumptions

Often in business, we are underestimated. Whether it’s due to gender, race, age, or experience, assumptions are made quickly and they are hard to change. To set yourself apart, you need to recognize your strengths and market them appropriately. If you don’t put effort into personal promotion, you can stall your career and allow others to undervalue you.

I learned the dangers of not speaking up at the age of 10 when my extended family was together for a reunion. The girls were planning their perfect weddings while the boys were playing baseball. For me, the choice was obvious. I grabbed my glove and ran onto the infield to take my position at third base. I was quickly cautioned by a distant cousin’s soon-to-be husband, Ted, to “be careful, little girl.” He then sent me to play in the outfield next to my uncle for protection in case anyone hit the ball near me.

When it was my turn to bat, Ted told me to find a lighter bat than the boys were using. Silent about my softball experience, I allowed Ted to strip away my confidence. He handed me a wooden toddler bat and walked halfway to the pitcher’s mound. He decided to pitch much closer to me than the boys. So, I thought I probably couldn’t hit the ball as hard as they did. He lobbed the ball through the air and said, “hit it as hard as you can, little girl.”

I did. I hit a line drive. Unfortunately for Ted, it was directly into his face. Ted dropped to the ground as blood covered most of his soon-to-be-married face.

I split open Ted’s chin and knocked out a few of his teeth. Ted and I both learned important lessons that day. While Ted realized that gender has nothing to do with ability, I realized the danger of not speaking up about my talents.

I see this happen all the time in business. Don’t let someone else minimize you and create self-doubt. Here are a few tips to help you demonstrate your expertise and set yourself apart:

Chin Up

Be confident in your strengths. If you have an aptitude for something, let it be known. Avoid using diminishing language like sort of, maybe we should, or I guess. If your supervisor is looking for someone to take on a new responsibility, they won’t choose the employee who is “sort of good at it.”

Speak Up

Make sure you are always on the minds of your superiors and peers. You want to be the first person they think of when a new task surfaces. Volunteer for special projects that leverage your strengths and set you apart. And, don’t phone it in at meetings, whether live or virtual. Be sure to engage in conversations and find a way to add value.

Social media is a great way to share experiences and achievements without it coming off as bragging. Posting articles on LinkedIn, engaging in content on Twitter, and promoting yourself on company intranets demonstrates your confidence and knowledge while keeping you relevant.

Look Up

Observe those in positions that you aspire to fill one day. Learn from them and make their strategies your own. Consider how you dress and dress the part for the position you want. Not the position you have. This will help others see you differently.

In business, you will always be competing with people who have a similar skill set and experience. Set yourself apart and challenge assumptions by demonstrating your confidence in person and online. Being aware of your strengths and marketing them appropriately will help you get to the next level in your career. And, call us if you need help.

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3 Steps to Easy Small Talk

For most business professionals, success depends on building relationships. Although some people are “solo contributors,” bringing some phenomenal, unique skill or talent to bear for the world, most of us need others to succeed. We need to build a network. Relationships require getting to know people, understanding their needs and wants and desires, and sharing the same about ourselves. But relationships don’t start “deep.” We wade into relationships, starting at the shallow end, with small talk.

Relationships begin with that key moment when we make a first impression. Sometimes that moment occurs when we meet a potential client on a sales call. Other times, it’s when we interact with dozens of people in a short amount of time, such as at a conference. As with many things in life, getting started is often the hardest part. Here are three steps to engaging in small talk.

Start with what is immediately in front of you.

Small talk doesn’t have to be difficult. Don’t overthink it. Just start with what is most immediate to you and the other person in the conversation.

If you have just arrived at a client’s office and it’s raining outside, comment on the weather.  “I’m glad I remembered my umbrella this morning. It’s really pouring out today.”

If you have never been to the person’s office before, complement the setting. “Nice office space. How long have you all been in this building?”

If you are standing in front of the buffet at a charity function, a simple, “This is quite a spread they have put out,” is all it takes to get the conversation started. After the other person’s reply, a simple, “How long have you been connected to this group?” takes you to the next level of the conversation.

I just returned from attending a conference with about 300 other people, some of whom I have known for years, and many of whom I was meeting for the first time. Everyone arrived on Sunday and left early Wednesday morning. As we all met up at various events and venues on Sunday, every single conversation started with, “When did you get in?” And on Tuesday night, at the invariable moment in any conversation when you run out of something to say, someone would ask, “What time do you head out tomorrow?” They are simple, unchallenging questions, that launch or restart a conversation.

When meeting someone new, “How was your flight in?” segues easily to, “Where were you coming from?” followed by, “Great. Are you a native of Minneapolis (Denver, Long Island, Atlanta)?” Some people feel that these superficial conversations are pointless or insincere. I suggest the opposite. Keep the end goal in mind. You are trying to build a relationship with someone and you have to start somewhere. Perhaps you don’t care where the person lives or how long they have lived there. But you do care about getting to know this person, either so you can find a way to work together, or just to build connections with others, a goal in and of itself. Starting the conversation is the first part.

Take your cues from the other person about where they are comfortable taking the conversation.

Being able to take the conversation from one point to the next effectively requires you to be a good listener. If the person’s tone of voice, or facial expression when they say, “I’m from Des Moines,” tells you they love everything Iowa, ask them questions about Iowa. “How long have you lived there?” or “Is your family from Des Moines?” or “Hawkeyes fan?” Whatever seems appropriate. Just don’t go in over your head. Personally, I avoid the sports references, since I don’t know anything about sports. (I had to ask my wife who the Iowa teams are).

If you’ve just met a potential client at her office and asked, “So how long have you been in this space,” if the person says, “The company’s been here for years, but I just moved over to this location a few months ago,” she has just primed the conversation for you to ask, “Where were you before here?” Now you’re into a conversation about her work history. Continue to listen carefully and take the conversation to the next step.

Share something about yourself, in small bits.

Very often people are concerned about small talk because they think they won’t have anything interesting to say. Accept that as you get started with the more perfunctory parts of the conversation, you’re in the same league as everyone else. The impact of the weather on you, or where you’re from, or a bit about your work history, is as interesting as the same facts about anyone else. As you get deeper into the conversation, and you listen for clues as to what interests the other person, chances are they are doing the same. Between the two of you, you’ll think about what you know about the topics the other person raises. Keep listening. Now, focusing on what’s right in front of you means listening to the topics and comments the other person mentions. They’ve just told you what’s important or interesting to them, and, de facto, what should be most interesting to you at the moment. Engaging in effective small talk requires a certain suspension of self-focus, and an effort to learn more about the other person.

In summary, if you want to get better at engaging in small talk, start with what’s right in front of you, listen to the person’s responses, and be comfortable knowing that you are just as interesting as they are (even if you don’t know anything about sports).

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Good Medicine Is Good Business – 5 Leadership Lessons In The Wake Of The Health Care Debate

In the wake of the failure of health care overhaul, the next question becomes how leaders in the health care industry continue to provide quality service. I had a chance to speak with Warren Geller, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. Based on his 20+ years in health care administration, he offers these top five pointers on leadership.

Lesson #1 – Keep the focus on your client base.

Sullivan: You lead 4,000 people across four counties in Northern New Jersey. How do you get everyone on board and rowing in the same direction?

Geller: We try to give everyone at the organization a sense of purpose. That purpose starts with clear focus. Our mantra is, “There is a patient at the end of every conversation.” That means every time we are discussing a new initiative, brainstorming a solution to the latest problem, or trying to meet new legislative requirements, we think about how it will impact patients.

Lesson #2 – Deliver clear, consistent, simple messages.

Sullivan: You can’t be a presence at every EHMC facility. You can’t even get to each site each year. What does that suggest about leadership?

Geller: I am only one of the leaders at Englewood. Part of good leadership is knowing that you can’t be everywhere at once and you need to rely on a team of leaders. That means it’s essential to get everyone on board with the organization’s key messages, and that those messages have to be simple. Our vision statement emphasizes “a humanistic environment.”  We ask everyone to care for our patients as if they were caring for a family member. Making patient care personal is important.

We also don’t over-communicate in volume. More communication doesn’t equal better communication. Simple, consistent messages, repeated often, and from many voices – that’s the key.

Our team of leaders has to hear consistent messages from me as well. One of those messages is that in leadership, you get a “do over” every day. Each day you can ask yourself, “How can I be a better leader today?”

Sullivan: I’m not hearing any medical jargon so far.

Geller: Jargon gets in the way. We try to keep it simple.

Lesson #3 – Bring all voices to the conversation.

Sullivan: Ideas are easy to come by. How do you generate the best ideas?

Geller: We innovate from the bottom up, meaning we seek out ideas from everyone in the organization. Listening to and respecting all the voices at the table allows you to leverage the best ideas of the group.

In our quest to constantly improve our performance, we recently conducted a “culture of performance survey” to see how well we were performing as an organization and what areas we could improve upon. The results provided a sense of pride; they said we were already doing a great job. We are “internally aligned and externally focused,” which is what any organization should be. Every effective client-service organization needs to have everyone in the organization focused on the end user of the services.

Now that the survey results are in, we will choose one item to improve upon for the year. That singular focus will enable us to make great strides.

Lesson #4 – Remain flexible.

Sullivan: How do you guide people through all the changes?

Geller: We all deal with changes at work. As a leader, you have to be flexible. Any corporate entity is organic in nature. It grows and changes. When new ideas are presented, we need to be flexible. That doesn’t mean accepting every new idea. It means asking ourselves, “Is it in the plan? If not, why not, and should it be?” We can adapt and incorporate new ideas if we manage the pace of change. Too much change at once can be crippling.

When we get resistance from someone on adapting to a new environment, it’s important to engage that person so that we understand where their fear is coming from. Since we’re all focused on keeping the patients’ needs in mind, we rarely see resistance for the sake of resistance. It’s usually tied to some fear about how a change will impact patient care. Understanding that fear is essential to making sure changes get incorporated in a way that optimizes care. It keeps in mind that patient at the end of the conversation.

A hospital is a building. A medical center is a care provider with locations throughout a community, bringing health care where it can have the greatest impact. In a hospital setting, one of the key reflections of patient care is “did you keep the rooms clean and the areas quiet at night so that healing can happen?” In a medical center, with hospitals, clinics, outpatient services, and home care services, the standards are more diverse.

As we introduce changes within Englewood, we are always asking ourselves, “What are we doing to address the anxiety this will cause?” That means we need to convey the change throughout the organization consistently, creating a culture of transparency. It’s easier to do that when you have all of the leaders in the organization on the same page, delivering the same message in various forums – town hall-type meetings, small group gatherings and one-on-one conversations. People need to be hearing the same thing from all leaders.

Lesson #5 – Engage in the debate.

Sullivan: In the heated rhetoric around health care, how do you maintain your focus?

Geller: Good medicine is good business. If we do a good job serving people, making health care easy to access at the soonest possible point of need, we’ll continue to be a critical resource for our community, meaning people will continue to seek us for services. Medical treatment shouldn’t be a transaction, where you came in for a service, we provided that service and got paid. That’s not a model for effective health care. Instead, we have to treat health care like a relationship. We should get paid on value. The energy and effort put into preventative care and early intervention have been increasing for years. The length of hospital stays has been decreasing. That’s not a coincidence, and everyone has benefited.

Sullivan: How do you deal with the politics of health care?

Geller: The politics are endless, at the federal, state and even local level. We make sure we engage in the debate. We have a great cadre of elected officials and enjoy working with them. There’s an old saying, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” We always look for opportunities to keep the dialogue open with our political leaders. We know they have many constituents to serve. Even in those exchanges, we remember, there’s always a patient at the end of the conversation.

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3 Questions That Cut Through The Clutter

We’re all self-focused. That’s not a criticism; it’s an important fact to acknowledge so that we can learn to connect with each other better. Since we’re all wrapped up in ourselves, we tend to communicate from our own perspective and through our own filters. Because we communicate from our own perspective, we make assumptions about what others want or need. We even make assumptions about how we hear other people’s comments and questions. Those assumptions cause us to waste time and energy as we approach tasks with a misunderstanding of what the other person wants.

Our only purpose for existing at work is to be of service to someone else. Obviously, away from work, we have a different intrinsic value. But at work, if we aren’t helping other people accomplish their goals, why are we showing up?

“Jane,” your client or customer, calls and shares with you a problem she is facing. Here are three questions that will help you avoid making assumptions and serve Jane better.

  1. How can I help?

I know this sounds unbelievably basic, but the best things usually are. Instead of assuming what Jane needs or wants, just ask. Often, we feel our value is based on having the fastest answer. It’s not. Our value is in understanding our clients’ issues well enough that, when presented with a tough situation, we know what questions to ask so we can go find the right answer. Not only will you be more likely to understand Jane’s needs better, you will show Jane through your behavior that you want to understand her better. Then, of course, listen to her response. That’s crucial.

After Jane’s response, still resist the urge to talk. Jane may have shared several concerns or issues, or explained a complex problem. Respond by saying, “Jane, I hear a number of issues going on here,” and then ask:

  1. What would be most helpful to you?

Putting “most,” “helpful,” and “you” in the same sentence has a remarkable impact on other people. It causes them to pause and think about two things.

First, Jane thinks, why did I call you instead of someone else? It makes the client or colleague think about the value you bring to the table. That’s good for you.

Second, Jane will tend to focus on the word “most.” Asking this question helps your client prioritize, and helps them view you as someone who helps them prioritize. You’ve suddenly become more valuable.

With the first question, you have already avoided making an assumption. The second question helps you focus on being efficient.

Occasionally, a client will call and you can tell from her tone of voice that she is wandering in the wilderness. She hasn’t got a clue as to what she needs.  In that setting, it’s not going to be helpful to ask, “What would be most helpful?” She doesn’t know, and will only get more frustrated that she must admit it. Instead, now make an assumption based on your skills and expertise.  Ask:

  1. Jane, would it be helpful to you if I…?

Then, propose a solution positioned as a question rather than a directive. Positioning your suggestion as a question opens a dialogue rather than pushes an agenda. If you instead say, “Jane, I’m going to do X,” you have assumed not only what she needs, but that she wants you to take the lead in the process. If, instead, you begin with “Would it be helpful…?” you have indicated, “I have no interest in going down this path if it isn’t helpful to you.” You aren’t trying to control or take over. You are just trying to be helpful.

Jane has two options here.  She can say, “Yes. That would be great.” Kudos to you. You have solved his problem.

Or she says, “No. That’s not really what I need.” In that case, you need to dig deeper into her issue. In addition, remember, when she called she didn’t know what she wanted. You have given her what seems like a viable solution. Even though it’s not what she needs, by making the offer, you have helped her realize what she doesn’t need, which takes some of the clutter out of the way. She’s now more likely to see what she does need.

In summary, use:

  1. How can I help?
  2. What would be most helpful to you?
  3. Would it be helpful to you if I…?

All three questions will help you avoid making assumptions and be more helpful to your client.

So, how can I be most helpful to you? Contact me at

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3 Habits that Detract from Your Credibility and How to Avoid Them

Most communication skills are not about “right” and “wrong.” The overall impression you make on others is a combination of many factors, and the frequency of certain behaviors. Here are three language habits that undermine your authority.

Qualifying Language

Sometimes, we can’t state things in the absolute, and need to qualify what we are saying. Lawyers are taught never to say, “You will win the case.” Financial advisors are quick to point out, “Past performance is no guarantee of future success.” Because we must qualify much of what we say, it’s important to state with certainty that which you can. Yet too often, we pepper our speech with “kind of,” “sort of,” “basically,” and “essentially,” among other words and phrases. All these phrases qualify the integrity of our statements.

If I say, “I kind of like sushi,” I’m suggesting I don’t dislike sushi, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.  But if I say at a business meeting, “I sort of think we need to go with plan A,” I come across as hesitant, reticent to take a stand, and weak. What does it mean to “sort of think” something anyway? And if I say, “I sort of think we basically need to do X” I’m now three steps removed from taking a stand.

I’m not suggesting you should never use these words or phrases.  I only suggest you use them when you mean them.

Moreover, although many people use these phrases frequently while speaking, some people use “basically” and “essentially” in their writing as well.

The Fix: To minimize the use of qualifying phrases in your writing, search for “basically” and “essentially” in your document and make sure you are using them appropriately.  To minimize your use of these phrases in your speech, slow down.  If you pause between sentences, you will not only seem more poised and in control of yourself, you will be more conscious of your word choice and be able to cull out the unnecessary language.

Filler Words and Sounds

Muttering “um” and “ah” and other hesitancy sounds undermines our ability to sound confident and convey our ideas fluidly. We tend to fill in the pauses, particularly between sentences, because we are uncomfortable with the silence. The pauses between sentences are rarely as long as we feel they are in the moment. In fact, the silence between sentences gives our listeners the time they need to process the ideas we are conveying. We tend to use filler sounds most frequently when looking down at our notes or away from our audience to gather our thoughts.

The Fix:
 To avoid using filler sounds, only speak when looking directly in someone’s eyes.  If you talk only when you are looking right at someone, almost all the filler words will disappear.


Up-speak is the inflection in our voice that, traditionally, indicates we are asking a question; our voice goes “up” at the end of the sentence.  “Would you like fries with that?” In the last two decades, many people have started using up-speak to end every sentence, undermining the sense of certainty in their speech.  You many know this habit as ‘Valley-girl’ speech. This habit is often used by those early in their careers.

If I ask someone, “Where do you live?” and they respond, “I live in Hoboken,” with their voice inflecting up at the end of the sentence, I know they aren’t asking a question or uncertain where they live. They are saying “Are you familiar with Hoboken?” or “Have you ever been there?” But if that becomes their speech pattern and they then say in a business meeting, “I think we need to close the deal sooner,” with their voice inflecting up at the end, it sounds like they are looking for confirmation, or hedging their bets. Neither result come across as confident.

The Fix: To avoid using up-speak, use clear, sharp, definitive gestures when speaking. If your hand gestures are strong and emphatic, it’s more likely your voice will match the power of your gestures, and you will land each sentence as a statement instead of a question. You will sound more confident. The size of the gesture doesn’t matter as much as the crispness of the motion, such as a flick of the wrist in a karate chop motion, rather than a gentle pat-on-the-head motion.

In conclusion, your overall impact as a communicator is not based on an isolated instance of what you say or the way you say it. It’s based on the cumulative effect of many behaviors – these and others. If you say “sort of” or “basically” two or three times in a long conversation, who cares? There will be little or no impact on your credibility. But if in every sentence there are “um’s” and “kind of’s” and instances of up-speak, you’ll undermine your sense of confidence in yourself and your ideas. So, slow down, only speak when you are looking at people, and use sharp, definitive gestures when speaking.

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How to Write Like Warren Buffett…Or Not

Warren Buffett’s 2016 Shareholder Letter came out last week. It’s the year’s most awaited business publication and is probably read by more people than the average SEC pronouncement. It’s easy to read and enjoyable. In addition to providing an update on Berkshire Hathaway’s business, the letter reads like a business school primer. Buffett is to business and finance what Carl Sagan was to astronomy and Albert Einstein was to everything; he makes complex ideas easy to understand.

Translating complicated material into simple language is not “dumbing down” your material. Any idiot can make something easy sound difficult. It takes a smart, conscientious writer to make something complex easy to understand. Buffett accomplishes that goal. What lessons can we learn from Buffett’s letter?

  1. Make it personal. Your writing should sound like it’s coming from one human being and going to another human being. Create the impression of a conversation. Your writing will have more impact if you focus less on yourself and your content, and more on what the audience is trying to learn from your content. You’ll accomplish that goal if you write in a conversational style, where there are fewer barriers between you and the audience.

First, use personal pronouns. At the start of his 2016 letter, Buffett identifies who is in charge at Berkshire – he and Charlie Munger. Thereafter, it’s clear to whom “we” refers. His letter is written in the first person, referring to himself and his team as “I” and “we.” More importantly, he addresses the reader directly. He refers to “you,” “your,” or “yours,” more than 100 times.

Second, use rhetorical questions. Can rhetorical questions help? Absolutely. In both presentations and in your writing, rhetorical questions create the illusion of a dialogue.  Your audience hears you responding to a question. It’s irrelevant, and often unnoticed by your audience, that you are the one who asked the question. All the audience hears is that you are engaging them rather than talking at them. Six times in his letter, Buffett uses rhetorical questions to link the conversation back to the reader.

  1. Write the way you speak. Since all of us have a different style, your conversational voice in your writing will sound different that Buffett’s. He is a folksy, Midwestern, octogenarian, off-the-charts-successful business leader. You are you. Don’t try to be him; it won’t work. Buffett’s engaging, matter-of-fact writing style is consistent with his in-person persona. If you have ever seen him interviewed, you recognize the positive tone, the engaging voice and the intelligent banter as pure Buffett. You can almost “hear” his voice in his writing.

In the letter, Buffett confesses that he has made mistakes in some key business decisions, particularly in issuing shares to purchase a company. He even says that he’d “rather prep for a colonoscopy than issue Berkshire shares.” Not many business leaders would attempt that type of statement in a shareholder letter; that’s a good thing. Most people would not sound genuine being that frank in their discussions. If you have a more formal approach to communicating, if you aren’t as vivid or visual in your descriptions, don’t try to be so in your writing. It will be difficult for you to write, and likely awkward for the reader to read.  Once you’re done writing, read each sentence aloud. Could you actually imagine yourself saying that sentence to someone? If not, what would you say? Write that.

  1. Keep it simple. Microsoft Word provides a ‘readability’ assessment for all documents. See below for how to activate that feature. After you run a spell check on your document, you can see some basic stats about your writing. It might be eye-opening for you. Based on the readability stats in Word, Buffett’s 2016 letter is written between a 9th & 10th grade reading level. That means that a typical 10th grader can read any paragraph in Buffett’s letter once and understand the meaning. It’s written for an audience of educated business investors, and yet it doesn’t require you to draw on everything you learned getting your MBA in order to access the information. He made it effortless to understand complex ideas.

Again based on the readability stats, Buffett’s letter averages 4.9 characters per word. That means his summary of Berkshire’s performance in 2016 is nothing but a bunch of four-letter words. He didn’t overcomplicate things. Furthermore, once sentences exceed 17 words, the reader will struggle to grasp the concept easily. Buffett’s average sentence length: 13.5 words.

Activate the readability stats in Word. Aim for a readability as low as possible.  If you write at a 3rd or 4th grade reading level, you won’t sound like a 3rd or 4th grader. You will sound like someone with such a solid command of her content that you can make things easy for others to understand. If your readability comes in over 10, see if you can break up your longer sentences into two sentences, or use shorter words where appropriate. Don’t force it. Just think about how to make it easy for your audience.

To Activate Readability Stats:

On Macs:

  1. Click on “Word” at the top of your screen
  2. Click “Preferences.”
  3. Click “Spelling and Grammar.”
  4. Check the box next to “Show Readability Statistics.”
  5. Spell check text.

On PCs:

  1. File
  2. Options
  3. Proofing
  4. Check the box next to “Show Readability Statistics.”
  5. Spell check text.

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‘Small Mishap’ Or ‘Huge Problem’ – Emails That Don’t Hit The Panic Button

Like many college juniors, my daughter, Magdalen, decided to travel abroad for a semester. Rather than go somewhere in Europe, where I would have gone, she traded the comfort of Boston College for a four-month stint in Uganda. My wife and I are not overly-anxious parents; we are normally-anxious parents, which means we look forward to each new email or FaceTime call to see how she is handling this experience.

Last Monday, we woke to an email ominously titled, ‘Small Mishap.’ I am sharing parts of the message to show how to write clear messages.

“Mom and Dad, 

I first want to say that everything is okay. I am okay. If you take away one message from this email, it is that I am okay.

I spent yesterday in the hospital….”

Maggie then detailed her body’s reaction to a food allergy.

I continued reading as Mary googled ‘flight options to Entebbe Airport – Kampala, Uganda.’

Maggie started with the key message. She’s OK. It put everything else in context. When you write with a purpose – compared to creative writing – put your message up front. It allows the reader to hear the details with perspective. If your email subject line is, ‘Update on the Acme Project,’ the first line should be, ‘With regard to Acme,…

…everything is on track,’ or

…we just hit a roadblock,’ or

…the deal isn’t going to happen.’

That key message at the front, tells me how to read the rest of your message. It prepares the reader for what’s to follow. It also allows the reader to prioritize your overall message. If I’m sitting at my desk and your message comes in and says ‘Regarding Acme, everything is on track,’ I might decide, ‘Great. I’ll read the rest of that later when I’m done putting out the fires in front of me.’

If your message says, ‘I need your help to get to the next step,’ I’ll keep reading to see if I can solve this quickly and then put out the fires. Either way, the key message up front helps me understand how to move forward.

Some people like to build an argument, or share background before stating their main point. This tends to be a less effective approach than just getting to the point. Regardless of your role at work, your title isn’t ‘Mystery Novelist.’ Don’t hold the big secret until the end. Just get to the point up front.

Back to Uganda. Maggie has battled severe asthma her whole life. Although it didn’t prevent her from being a high school athlete, it played a behind-the-scenes role in many of the choices she has made over the years. We sent her off to Kampala with enough albuterol to stock a small clinic.

In her email, after she described her food allergy she wrote:

“Now let’s get to the Q&A portion:

1) Is my asthma acting up? No. Not even a little bit.”

She knew what her audience’s most immediate question would be. She even framed it as a question to show she knows her audience and their concerns. She knew the intensity of the concern so she didn’t just say, ‘No,’ she emphasized it appropriately.

When you’re writing a work email, think about your audience. Your email isn’t about your content, it’s about what the audience needs to do with your content. Instead of thinking broadly, ‘What are my readers’ concerns?’ think specifically, ‘What’s the first question the readers are likely to ask themselves about this issue?’ The more closely you can identify with your reader, the more likely you are to provide them what they need. After telling me, ‘We’ve hit a roadblock on the Acme deal,’ address my main concern. ‘Will we still be able to close the deal? If so, on time? At what cost?’ Think of how you can be most helpful to your reader.

Maggie then posed and answered lots of questions she knew we would ask, each one more in depth than the last. But she also knew that the key message should not just be up front in the communication. It should be reinforced throughout.

Her final question and wrap up:

“8) Am I sure my asthma isn’t acting up? Yes, very sure.

I hope I anticipated all of your questions. Remember, I am okay.

Talk to you soon,


A well written email puts a clear message up front, anticipates the main concerns of the reader, and reinforces the main point as often as necessary.

Just FYI – We have spoken to Maggie several times since last Monday. She is fine. On a separate note, please let me know if you are interested in a non-refundable coach ticket to Kampala. Going cheap.

Originally published on

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Motivating Your Team: Why the Golden Rule Doesn’t Always Apply

MotivationWe all have different preferences. My wife, Mary, watches sports. I watch nature shows. She roots for the Knicks. I root for the young impala dodging the cheetah. Occasionally, I surprise her with tickets to a game at Madison Square Garden. While she whoops and hollers, I get a beer and hot dog, and enjoy people watching, which is really just another nature show.

For all of us, our varying likes and dislikes are what make us interesting, but also what lead to some confusion. While we all know we are unique individuals, we also tend to think that we are each fairly normal. Therefore, we tend to think, ‘What motivates me, will motivate others.’ That’s where we get into trouble.

Some organizations are structured in a traditional linear fashion with clear lines of reporting. Others are a matrix structure, with lots of dotted lines and concentric circles of influence. The structure of our organization dictates to what degree we can demand performance from people and hold them accountable for delivering. But regardless of which structure we work in, we get better performance from people when we motivate them to do their best work.

At work, there are two general types of forces that influence our behavior – External Maintenance Factors and Internal Personal Motivators.

External Maintenance Factors

External Maintenance Factors are the elements that are largely dictated by others and over which we have little control. They include basic features of our employment, such as:

Salary – usually dictated by the market.

Benefits – provided on a company-wide basis, not particular to an individual.

Working conditions – determined by the nature of our work and the economics of our industry.

These elements keep us showing up each day, and play an important part in our commitment to doing our job well. When you are trying to influence someone to do her best job for you, whether you manage her directly or indirectly, it’s hard for you to leverage these factors because you don’t control them. If you help set someone’s bonus, that certainly is a powerful factor in influencing her behavior, but most of us as managers have a very limited ability to affect these factors.

Internal Personal Motivators

Internal Personal Motivators are those elements unique to each of us that keep us engaged. They keep us providing not just the minimum performance to get by, but motivate us to do our best on the job.

These “true motivators” include:

Achievement – which we each define differently.

Recognition – of our hard work and added value.

Foreseeable growth – whether in what we do or how we do it.

If you need to influence others, these are the factors you can leverage to get better results.

Each of us has what’s called “discretionary energy,” the effort and enthusiasm that we bring to work beyond what it takes to perform at the minimum level of expectation. If you effectively motivate those around you, they are more likely to expend that discretionary energy to do a better job for you. If you don’t pay attention to motivating others, they are likely to use that energy while at work to shop on-line, play ‘Words with Friends’ on their phone, or work on their resume.

Awareness of your own motivators is the first step in understanding how to motivate others. What keeps you engaged at work? My colleagues frequently come to me, unannounced, with complex questions, and ask for a few minutes to brainstorm. I enjoy the intellectual stimulation and the acknowledgement that I can help them. Frankly, I also like the interruption because I get bored easily. I expect people to say ‘thank you’ at the end of the meeting, but beyond that, I don’t have a high need for praise. Now, if I assume others are motivated by these same things, I will show up unannounced, distract them from their concentration, and then show only a modicum of appreciation. But, if the person I interrupt values respect for his or her schedule, time to thoroughly analyze an issue, and effusive praise after the fact, I have undermined his or her dedication to their role.

So ask yourself, ‘What keeps me engaged at work?’ Keep that list of attributes in mind.

Now think about someone that you need to motivate to do a better job. What factors motivate that person? Are they the same elements that motivate you? If not, how can you approach this person not as you want to be approached, but in a manner that works for her?

How can you figure out what motivates those around you? Ask. Whether during a performance review or in a less formal setting, checking in with someone about what keeps them engaged is the first step toward actually keeping them engaged. It’s not hard. Here are some simple starter questions.

  • What do you like about your current role? What don’t you like?
  • What keeps you engaged here at work?
  • What could I do to help you get the most out of your role?
  • What learning opportunities have you had lately?
  • What’s the hardest aspect of your job?
  • Asking these questions, and then listening well to the responses and asking follow up questions will help you understand how best to keep someone engaged.

Jack wants to motivate Jill to hike up the hill to fetch a pail of water because Jack likes physical exercise and the great outdoors. He says, ‘You’ll enjoy the crisp breeze and the chance to break a sweat.’ However, Jill’s idea of enjoying the great outdoors is to sit at the kitchen window with a glass of chardonnay watching the blue jays at the birdfeeder. Jack needs to try a different motivator. He’d be better off saying, ‘Why don’t I grab a blanket and a bottle of wine and we can enjoy the sunset from the hilltop?’

The Golden Rule has certain assumptions built in – that others want to be treated the way we want to be treated. That may be true on the most basic levels of fairness and human behavior.

But motivating others requires a more nuanced approach that steers away from the assumptions and toward an approach focused on the individual.

So, what motivates you?

Originally published on

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