The Article That Shaped The Way I Write

[A version of this post first appeared on Medidata Express, my company Medidata’s Jive-powered intranet]

In 2005, I came across an article that inspired me.  No. Inspired is not a strong enough word. This article totally transformed the way I thought about business communication and writing.

I wish I could tell you where I found it. I actually think I received a printout of it somewhere because it lives, all well-worn and crumpled up, among my saved papers.

This article not only shaped the way I write, it became the epitome of everything I believe as a communications professional. It stuck with me more than anything else I’d read save for a very disturbing question a reader asked in Seventeen magazine in 1995.

A few years ago I wanted to reread the article and share it with others. It took a bit of Googling phrases and words I kind-of sort-of remembered without luck. I even gave up and came tried again a year or so later. I remember typing in the author’s name and the title of the article and still not getting it! I guess this explains the printout.

But eventually, I found it! And now I can share the wisdom with you.

Read it, and then let me know what you think. Do you use the words and phrases mentioned? Does this change the way you approach business communication? Will you think twice next time you’re about to send an important email? Has your life been changed forever??!

Writing Effectively - Jim Schakenbach

Writing Effectively

by Jim Schakenbach

I don’t need much encouragement to get up on my soapbox and rant about any number of topics near and dear to my heart, but one topic in particular is in dire need of a good airing and that’s the King’s English.

Now, I can hear the heavy sighing, see the eyeballs rolling back in your collective heads, but bear with me because what I am about to say can give you a considerable leg up on your competition. And it has to do with learning to write effectively. Sound simple? It isn’t. It requires discipline, practice, and rigorous self-denial of lazy, dangerous habits to which we all fall prey.

Those of you who have been in and around the corporate world for any length of time know exactly what I am talking about. Fuzzy, convoluted weirdspeak like “authoring solutions-based metrics”. Why is it that perfectly rational human beings, capable of holding intelligent conversations, suddenly start typing odd, tortuous phrases when confronted with even the simplest of business communications? You know who you are. If you’ve used words such as “implementation”, “impacting”, and “facilitate” within the last thirty days I have two words for you: STOP IT.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not necessarily a word nazi (although there are worse things to be), slavishly devoted to outdated definitions, grammar, and syntax. No. What I’m talking about is the art of writing simply and effectively. Of choosing the most common, easily understood word or phrase and not being afraid to use it. When did we stop writing and start “authoring”? There is a power and elegance to the English language that falls further and further into disuse every day.

You can turn this to your advantage by swearing off trite, overused, ill-defined words and writing in the clearest, most easily understood language possible. This will take some getting used to, so think in terms of “could my mother understand this?” when you sit down to write something. This will work wonders on a business plan, a marketing strategy report, even plain vanilla, everyday e-mails. Purge your writing of the trendy and the corporate and use, as my old journalism professor used to say, a nickel word instead of a twenty-five-center.

You’ll be amazed at the transformation. Potential investors will see more quickly and clearly the real value of your product or service. Clients will immediately discern the advantage you have over your competition. Your company will avoid becoming mired in muddy language and your vision and message will stay focused and intact.

This won’t be easy. But it doesn’t cost a thing and the potential benefits are enormous. Start today. Right now. Before you hit “Send” on your next e-mail, take a long, hard, critical look at it, yank out “utilize” and type in “use”. Then sit back, confident in your newfound ability to cut through the very fog that is blanketing your competition.

My Work (And Life) Uniform

[A version of this post first appeared on Medidata Express, my company Medidata’s Jive-powered intranet]

Back in April, I read this Harper’s Bazaar article: Why I Wear The Same Exact Thing to Work Every Day.

As soon as I finished, I knew I needed my own work uniform. Not only do I waste way too much time in the morning trying on clothes I don’t like, I tend to gravitate towards the same few pieces. I have a closet full of clothes that I begrudgingly wear.

I wear them because they’re warm, or because they were expensive, or because they’re the only thing I own that serves this purpose or that purpose. I wear them because “no one will really see me” that day.

I wear clothes even if I don’t like how the color looks on me or the fit or the fabric or the style. I constantly feel like I have nothing to wear, when the reality is that I have nothing to wear that I like.

A work uniform solves this problem.

I know people have differing opinions about this. “But clothing is how I express myself.” Or, as my friend and colleague Danielle said yesterday, “Will you wear fun pants? No? Well I like colors and prints too much to do that.”

Danielle cares about wearing colors and prints. I don’t.

I don’t want to have to think in the morning. I make so many decisions every day, and I don’t want deciding what to wear to be one of them.

What I do want is to feel confident and comfortable with the first thing I pull out of my closet. That means not owning clothes that aren’t comfortable or flattering. It means finding what works, and wearing just that.


Choosing My Work Uniform

I barely had to put any thought into what my uniform would be. I gravitate towards my black tops. If I know I’ll be meeting people for the first time, like my job interview and first day at my job, I wear black. In fact, I wore black to my first day at the last three jobs I had before coming here!

So why should the way I like to make a first impression be different than any other day? I know how I feel my best. Why not feel my best every day?

Here was my plan:

In the summer, I would wear (mostly) black dresses. I already had a closet full of those. And in the fall, winter and spring I would wear black shirts.

Dori wearing blackWearing black: From work uniform to life uniformAs for pants, that was easy: jeans. Jeans to work, and sweats or yoga pants on the weekend (my “work uniform” is actually becoming a “life uniform”). If I need to dress more nicely for any reason, I own dress pants in gray, black and beige. I donated all my brown dress pants since I no longer had use for them: I can’t wear a black top with brown pants!


Implementing My Work Uniform

This was the trickier part. When I read this article back in April, I decided I would slowly buy more black shirts and start implementing my work uniform in the fall. I like my summer dresses, so this season didn’t concern me as much.

Of course, replacing a wardrobe takes time. It is a costly endeavor, especially since I decided (like the author of the article) to only buy quality pieces after I noticed I avoided wearing my lower quality clothes, even the black ones, because they stopped being flattering after a season or two.

After reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (which truly was life changing) I realized the importance of only owning clothing that sparks joy. I use the wording from the book in jest and I know how ridiculous that sounds, so let me rephrase: I realized the importance of only owning clothing I want to wear.

That means I don’t buy or keep anything I feel meh about. If I am on the fence, it is not for me. If it means spending more for a sweater, I spend more. And in the end I’ll save money because once I have enough clothing, I won’t need more. A few black sweaters, a few black tank tops, a few black t-shirts, a few black long sleeves.

If I find something I love, I buy more than one. If I ever find that perfect black sweater, I’ll buy 10. Then I can spend my time on things far more important to me than shopping, like my dog.

A Work In Progress

I’m proud of the progress I’ve made so far. I recently donated more bags of non-black clothing in perfect condition than I can count. As I buy new black tops, I’ll continue donating what’s left.

“Today, I not only feel great about what I wear, I don’t think about what I wear.” – Matilda Kahl

I already feel better about what’s in my closet. Getting dressed to come to work has been super easy these last two weeks. I’ve felt comfortable every day (clothing wise – I’m still getting there work wise!) and the best part? I don’t have to worry about how I look.

I already know how I look.