It’s not about the money

After a long and difficult year I seem to have entered a deeply philosophical phase where I spend a great deal of time contemplating the circles of life, and of course, death.

I’ve just reached the place where I could find the strength to read ‘When breath becomes air”  – the story of Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant neurosurgeon whose life and career are ended prematurely by lung cancer in a cruel and wicked turn of fate.

It’s a disturbing read not only because it’s sad, but also because it makes you question why you are here, whether you’ve lived a good and meaningful life, and what you should do next, if you are lucky enough to be able to contemplate ‘next’.

In my case I’ve arrived at another turning point in my career, although in reality, that sounds too grand. It’s more like arriving at a bus station really. Just another decision point in a career that has changed direction many times but has ultimately been interesting and rewarding. I’ve been lucky to work with some very inspiring people over the years and I think I’ve made some useful contributions to various projects.

Now it’s time to contemplate a new direction. One which challenges and interests me, but doesn’t consume all of my energy and attention and doesn’t keep me awake at night worrying about what I should be doing to ensure that everyone in my team is feeling valued and engaged.

Ultimately the next step isn’t up to me, it’s up to the decision makers. People with the power to pick and choose who they want and what skills and experience they value. All I know is that for me, career choices are not about the money. They’re about what kind of contribution you can make and what you bring to the role. I like to think that I can spend the next few years doing something useful, but if I don’t get chosen for this particular role, then I’ll just create my own future.

Life is, after all, about choices. We can choose who we want to be, where we want to live, and what we want to spend time on.

when breath becomes air

Writing well

I’m currently managing a real live communications team. It’s been a great experience to work with people who care about communicating and in particular, care about writing.

For many people, writing well is not important. Most people don’t view the ability to write well as critical to their career path. They regard writing as something that everyone can do. If you can speak, you can write – right? I don’t think this is true. Good writing is required in every profession.

I come across some very poor writing every day and sometimes my own writing is less than perfect, especially if I’m tired or stressed or in a hurry. Sometimes it can be difficult to find the right words and put them in the right order. I would never claim that writing is easy, but I am grateful that for me, writing isn’t scary. I know this isn’t true for other people. For them the blank page can be terrifying and being asked to write a report can be overwhelming.

One piece of advice that I always give people is that you should write with the expectation that you will need to revise. Don’t ever expect that your first draft will be perfect. Good writers are good editors. They change, polish and review their work. They know that getting the words down on the page is the hard part, editing and revising is easy once you’ve made a start.

Another tip is to stop thinking that your ideas have to be fully formed before you put them down on paper. Writing is a process of thinking and learning and you don’t need to know exactly what you are trying to say when you write your first draft. You can be ruthless later. And make sure you are, because no-one wants to read your waffle.

The saddest part about managing a team of good writers is that their skills aren’t necessarily recognised by other people in the business. We are frequently asked to publish material that is poorly written or confusing. It’s very frustrating to go back to clients with an offer to improve what they’ve written and be told that they don’t want it changed. They think that we merely want things to be shorter, when we really want them to be clearer.

Good writing isn’t necessarily simple (or simplistic). Good writing is concise, lucid, nuanced and compelling.

 

A fresh start

There have been a lot of changes at my workplace recently. We’re having a re-structure and this means that people are being moved into new reporting lines. This can have a profound impact on their sense of wellbeing.

It’s funny how reporting to a new boss can make people feel insecure even though their livelihood isn’t necessarily at risk. They still come to work every day, they still get paid, and they might even be doing the same work, but nevertheless they feel threatened. It’s that loss of the familiar that rocks people even though they might have been complaining bitterly about their situation. The old boss understand their quirks and foibles. They don’t have to explain their complicated family arrangements or the fact that they are more productive in the morning than in the afternoon. Communication styles are established across the team and everyone knows that certain people like to receive their instructions by email, rather than in person. They know that some people are best avoided until they’ve consumed at least one cup of coffee.

It’s true that people don’t like change. I don’t like change even though I pretend that I do. Change requires more concentration and makes me feel less secure about what I’m doing. I have to think more, and that’s tiring.

The upside is that I have the chance to start over and re-invent myself. If I’ve been in a bit of a slump it’s a chance to pull up my socks and show the world what I’m capable of. It’s a fresh start for me and for everyone in my team. We all get the chance to do things a little bit differently and a little bit better, and that’s a good thing.

What is lorem ipsum?

Lorem IpsumLorem ipsum is dummy text that is used in the publishing and graphic design industry to show where the text is going to be placed in a document, advertisement, or web page. It’s used to give people a feel for the layout of a page when the actual words (also called body copy) have yet to be written.

Lorem ipsum has been used since the invention of publishing in about 1500 and as you can imagine it both looks and sounds like genuine Latin. Contrary to popular opinion, lorem ipsum is not actually meaningless babble, but is a mixture of Latin words taken from a passage by Cicero (according to Richard Mc Clintock, a Latin professor from the University of Virginia).

Where do you get it?

The best place to get dummy text is from a dummy text generator. My favourite is Blind Text Generator. Not only does it generate lorem ipsum, it can also generate dummy text in a few other varieties such as far far away, which kind of sounds a bit like a passage from the Hobbit.

Here’s an example of far far away:

Far far away, behind the word mountains, far from the countries Vokalia and Consonantia, there live the blind texts. Separated they live in Bookmarksgrove right at the coast of the Semantics, a large language ocean.

It’s nonsense, but it’s funny.

Why is it useful?

A blind text generator is useful because you can specify the number of words or characters you need, as well as the number of paragraphs. You may not know exactly what it is you are going to say, but it can help you work out how many words you actually need. If you are constrained by space (and you often are), you can pop a few of these sentences and paragraphs into your layout and it will give you a pretty good idea of what you have room for and what will look good. By looking good, I mean you will end up with text that is big enough for your audience to read and doesn’t look squashed or uncomfortable. If someone else is writing the copy, you can let them know that you only need three or four sentences, for example.

Do you always have to go online to generate dummy text?

Some software programs have built-in text generators. In PowerPoint for example, you can generate text by typing =lorem(p,s) into a text box and pressing enter. The ‘p’ stands for the number of paragraphs and the ‘s’ is for the number of sentences you want. Here are some detailed instructions.

Try it, it’s fun.

Design principles in practice

Thomas BrownIt’s rare that you see such a perfect example of clarity, simplicity and design principles all coming together to such good effect. I stumbled on this website belonging to photographer Thomas Brown and was blown away by its perfect balance, restrained colour palette, and judicious use of white space.

As well as being simple and beautiful, it sends a very powerful message about his approach and the kind of work that he’s interested in doing.

Don’t be a grammar snob

Grammar policeEvery time I write about language or grammar I worry that people will think that I’m a grammar snob. You know, one of those nasty mean people who delight in pointing other people’s writing errors and mistakes.

I often correct errors in other peoples’ writing, but not because I’m trying to prove a point or to show that I’m somehow superior.

I do it because it’s part of my job and I like to think that I’m being helpful. But am I?

This is a question that troubles me greatly and I know there are times when it doesn’t matter and that I should just restrain myself. My husband is still annoyed about the time that he wrote a poem for me and I corrected the spelling. How awful of me.

People will judge you

I think it does matter when you are writing documents at work because it reduces your credibility if your documents are littered with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. It’s really just a case of looking as if you don’t care.

I’m fully aware that everyone makes errors when they are rushed or tired. I do it all the time and don’t expect to be humiliated or hauled over the coals for this. I’ve probably made an error somewhere in this post. I usually do…

I try hard never to be cruel or unkind when I’m reviewing documents. Most people are doing their best and want a bit of support, but I also don’t think it’s helpful to let obvious grammatical errors slip by. I figure that if people are asking for help with their writing then they really do want to learn.

I try not to be a grammar snob

I prefer to think of myself as a word nerd – a person who likes words and language in all its forms.

I don’t know that much about grammar actually. I often can’t remember what the parts of speech are called (subject, verb, object, adjective, adverb etc.) although I was pretty pleased with myself this morning when my husband asked me what the word ‘the’ was called and I knew it was a definite article. Actually, I was just guessing, but it turned out I was right. It’s the only definite article in the English language so it’s not that hard to remember.

My mother taught me everything I know

Most of what I know comes from having a mother who insisted that we spoke properly when we were growing up and this has been very helpful over the years. If I’m not sure about something, I just go with my gut feelings and this has been a pretty good policy. Keep in mind that there are also some situations where you can be technically correct according to the rules of grammar, but you will sound like a complete weirdo, so I suggest that you try and stick with the most common usage. Only a grammar snob will pick you up and quite frankly they should find something better to do with their time.

I’d be interested to know if there are aspects of writing that you find particularly challenging?

Discover the wonderful world of podcasts

podcastOver the past year I’ve become an avid podcast listener. As a result, I’ve noticed that conversations with friends frequently revolve around great podcasts we’ve discovered recently. We share notes about new and interesting programs in the same way we talk about good books that we’ve read, or would like to read. It’s all enormously entertaining and endlessly fascinating if you’re the type of person who likes interesting ideas (and since you’re reading this blog, that probably includes you).

Quite often though, one of my friends will tell me that although they’ve heard about podcasts, they either don’t know where to start or what to listen to, so I’ve decided to write a little beginners guide for all of you who fit into this category.

Lets start with what a podcast actually is

Basically, podcasts are like radio programs that you can listen to whenever or wherever you choose. It’s like radio ‘on demand’ but the program choices are much wider. Some podcasts feature people rambling on about stuff that they are interested in, others feature in-depth interviews, discussions, comedy and so on. There’s a strong focus on storytelling in many podcasts.

Podcasts are even more intimate than radio because you choose to listen by subscribing. (We’ll get to how to do this in a moment). Podcasts are cheap to produce, meaning that anyone can make their own radio show. This means that the quality varies, but also means that you can find quirky little shows about pretty much anything you are interested in.

Like good radio, the best podcasts are quite well-produced and easy to listen to. They vary in length from 10 minutes to around an hour, although there are some longer ones. The format makes them ideal for people who walk or commute. I often listen to them at night if I’m having trouble sleeping.

Best of all, podcasts are FREE. They cost nothing to download, except for internet access of course.

How do you listen to a podcast?

Listening is easy. You just need a computer or a smart-phone. Apple devices have a built in podcasting app, which is very convenient.

In researching this post, I came across this wonderful and easy to understand description of how to access a podcast.

How to listen

What should you listen to?

If you use iTunes to find new podcasts, you can easily become overwhelmed. The link I’ve posted above tells you how to subscribe to Serial, a very successful podcast that’s been downloaded more than 5 million times from iTunes, but is actually not my favorite, so I’m not recommending that one.

I would start with this one produced by BBC Radio 4 called In Pod We Trust. Listen to the first episode called Welcome to Podland where Miranda Sawyer talks to podcaster Helen Zaltzman. Helen has a  show about language called The Allusionist. You can find episodes of the Allusionist on iTunes or from the show’s website.

My third recommendation is 99% Invisible which is about the design of every day things. My son recommended this show to me and it’s still one of my favorites.

What about you?

I have quite a few other podcasts that I’d like to share, but I’m interested in discovering what you’ve been listening to?

Have you come across any good ones lately? Please share!

Being concise is hard work

At my workplace we have a new trend which involves conveying entire concepts and strategies on a single page. This has evolved from the various ‘plan on a page’ and infographic documents that have become commonplace over the past couple of years.

The documents vary in quality. Some look good but are essentially meaningless, and some are ugly but give a fantastic overview of a complex project or proposal. When they are both well-designed and easy to understand, magic happens.

Even though I have a tendency to be super-critical about most of these documents, I am truly excited to see that my colleagues are really knuckling down and have a really hard think about what it is that they are trying to say and how they can best convey their ideas. I saw a fantastic example today which explained (in one page) the contents of two and half folders of information. It was an awesome piece of work and a credit to the author.

It reminded me of the joke about being concise which goes…

I could have made this shorter if I’d had more time.

Being concise forces you to clarify your ideas in way that just doesn’t happen when you have the freedom to write a long document. I’m not against long documents per se, but they can often lead to fluffy writing. Short documents impose discipline. You have to get your ideas in order and provide just the right amount of context for the reader.

This can be really hard work, but it’s worth it.

Cole Nussbaumer has this to say about being concise in her latest post.

There might be a lot you want to say about a given topic, but if you can’t condense it crisply and clearly in a way that can be understood and remembered by your audience, you’ve not positioned yourself for success.

I think this is good advice. Check out the complete post.

The long, the tall and the short

I’ve noticed that lots of people have become mysteriously taller and thinner in the documents and presentations I’ve been reading or reviewing at work lately. Either that, or they’ve become shorter and fatter, and who needs that?

English: John Wayne and Audrey Long in Tall in...
English: John Wayne and Audrey Long in Tall in the Saddle Trailer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whilst I applaud the use of images in newsletters and presentations there is really only a few people who are that tall, or indeed, that short. John Wayne (6’4″) and Danny de Vito (5′ 0”) spring to mind. The rest of the time people are unwittingly distorting images, including graphics, because they don’t know how to constrain the proportions.

It’s really easy to keep your images looking good

In MS Word and in emails, you simply adjust the size of the image from the corners (not the sides). In PowerPoint, adjust from the corners while holding down the SHIFT key and you’ll be right. If your image doesn’t quite fit, try cropping it, rather than squishing or stretching it.

Why does this matter? Because distorted images, like spelling errors, distract people from your message. It also looks unprofessional.