On Choosing Your Battles

Are you charging in the wrong direction?

Are you charging in the wrong direction?

Marketers, here’s a hard fact: You will never have enough resources to promote every new product, program or hire with the vigor its advocates think it deserves.  Instead, learn to choose your battles. Here are three I would avoid:

The Battle of New Orleans.  Remember the last skirmish in the War of 1812 — the one that was fought after the war was won? Don’t engage in the marketing equivalent. I once worked for a university that started life as a teacher training program. We were tasked with “debunking the teachers college stereotype” to a generation that had never heard the words normal school.

Pickett’s Charge.  Robert E. Lee’s classic case of hubris during the Battle of Gettysburg sent the Confederate Army — fresh off victories in Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg — stampeding into disaster.  Since then, overconfidence has sunk many a marketing initiative, from Zune to Crystal Pepsi.

The Battle of Zama.  The Romans turned Hannibal’s secret weapon — his elephants — against him in this humiliating defeat. Kind of like the Internet turned the #AskJPMorgan Twitter campaign into a bloodstained rout.

Like most disasters, these could have been avoided through a combination of research, planning, and a good long look in the mirror. Make sure your clients do all three.

My shoes think my bag is hot

Writer/editor John Rambow grouses:

Here’s my pet peeve–the misuse of compliment vs. complement. In most cases it’s “compliment” that gets (mis)used–hats are forced to compliment the rest of your clothes, fries compliment burgers, etc.

Even New York magazine drops the ball on this one. The writer could, I suppose, argue that this non-alcoholic cider is a “gesture of affection” toward the hard stuff but either way it’s BAD.

As John notes, a compliment (with an i) is a gesture of affection. A complement enhances something or, to use the dictionary definition, “brings it to perfection.”

Which means that the free mimosa complements your meal (or your morning). Bags complement shoes. I compliment your beauty because, of course, it complements my wit and skill.

What’s your pet peeve?

Or maybe it’s just a technicolor dream

It’s been a busy time for The Corporate Writer and her colleagues. We’re proud to have contributed substantially to a new website for a leading Midwest law firm, and are immersed in a similar project for another firm. We’ve also been working on a new website for a state university.

With so much going on, it’s been harder to chronicle the daily challenges facing writers of corporate communications. So I’m grateful to college pal Jeremy Epstein for providing today’s guest rant:

“I just saw a phrase referring to a variety of colors on a palate; of course, the opposite would be a mix of flavors on your palette or–even worse, but fortunately rarer–colors or flavors on a pallet. At least the latter gives a nice connotation of a forklift unloading a giant shrink-wrapped cluster of cardboard boxes, all filled with colors or flavors. Still annoying though.”

I will be posting more often in coming weeks. Meanwhile, please keep those peeves and whinges coming!

Fight flab(by writing)

Helena Rubenstein famously said, “There no ugly women, just lazy ones.” The same applies to writing.

The worst work I’ve seen isn’t poorly written–it’s lazy. Language is overly general and stuffed with cliches. Sentence structure is juvenile and/or repetitive.

Here’s an example: “Higman’s Hideout offers fine wines and good food at prices that won’t break the bank. Higman’s has everything you need for a memorable night out.”

This is the literary equivalent of a beer belly: flabby and unappealing. Yet a couple of authentic details–the kind you’d know if, say, you’d been to Higman’s–would turn it around.

Who cares?

That’s the first thing you need to ask yourself when starting  a new business document. If the answer is, “I do,” stop writing and think again–because that’s not good enough.

I am amazed at the number of emails, brochures, articles and web pages that address the writer’s needs rather than the reader’s. Here are three samples (names changed) from the past week:

“Just wanted to give you a heads up that celebrated infant safety author Paul Blatt will be available for interviews next Tuesday.”

“I’m pleased to announce the opening of our new state-of-the-art facility in Paramus, New Jersey.”

And my favorite: “Great news! We’re changing our name!”

My response to each of these statements was, “Who gives a f***?” followed by a tap of the delete key or slow pitch to the trash can. I’m pretty sure that’s not what the senders had in mind. Next time, maybe they’ll tell me why I should care.

Bad business

Yesterday afternoon, I called a technology vendor for a price quote. I am a serious prospect: that is to say, I work for an organization that plans to purchase this product, I am the person tasked with choosing the vendor, and I don’t sound like a serial killer on the phone.

I left a polite message, and quickly received an email from the sales manager saying: “Got your message. Am in the car. Will call shortly.”

No call.

Before leaving the office, I emailed back and asked if we could set a time to talk. I received this missive today:

“Sorry I didn’t call yesterday. I went home sick. This morning I am working from home, but it’s only 5:50 a.m. here in California so I will call you in a few hours. I don’t want to wake my daughter, who hasn’t been feeling well either.”

This made me feel a) guilty for making her return an email so early in the day; b) guilty for somehow almost waking her daughter (I guess they live in a single room?); c) guilty for interrupting her crisis to find out about her employer’s product; most of all, d) annoyed at having been pulled into the personal life of a woman I don’t know.

It’s been about six hours, and guess what? No call. it’s fine, though, because it would be a cold day in hell before I bought anything from this person.

The moral of the story? Getting personal is bad for business.

I say abrasive, you say concise

According to my wholly unofficial poll, emails are more likely to be misinterpreted than any other form of business communication. The writer dashes off a friendly note, but the reader perceives an abrupt tone. You soften the message with a smiley face, and I think “What a flake.”

Here are some guidelines for friendly but professional emails:

  • Say hello, but don’t get chatty. Pretend it’s a business call. You would greet me,  but you wouldn’t ask if I was enjoying the spring weather.
  • Don’t start with a name. When I see “Deborah:”, I assume I’m going to be lectured or instructed.
  • Break out the positive language. Don’t go over the top–I recently got a direct mail piece that said, “We were unbelievably excited to see you at the conference!” But let me know you care.
  • Don’t free-associate. Repetition and long sentences might sound endearing on the phone, but they look disorganized on the page.
  • It’s okay to be a little informal. Avoid stilted language and phrases like “As per our conversation, the attached….”
  • Don’t get personal. Ever. Imagine your email on the gigantic screen in Times Square, and make sure it won’t embarrass you if the whole world reads it.

Passive aggressive

I hate the passive voice; it’s sneaky and whiny. Most people use it to slither out of something they feel guilty about, whether it’s missing a deadline (“the newsletter was delayed”) or fathering a child out of wedlock (“the situation was unfortunate”).

I’ve been calling for the death of the passive voice ever since I picked up a blue pencil (we used these quaint tools to edit copy back in the last century, children). But after 20 years on the front lines, today I admit defeat.

The passive clause is essential to corporate writing. Like the heads of the Hydra, every time I lop one off, two come back. Whether justifying ourselves to shareholders or placing the blame on another department,  we can’t get by without it.

This sad fact can no longer be denied.

Shooting down corporate clichés

If you work in the digital world, you should know about The Hired Guns, a slick and useful recruiting site with some equally slick and useful blogs. Blog editor John Rambow interviewed me about the perils of workspeak; please check out “Drinking the Kool-Aid” and Other Corporate Clichés to Avoid.