A tribute to tone in writing

Talk about upbeat! The Oct 3, 2011 issue of Woman’s World magazine featured a tiny article titled “The Upside of Allergies!” that explains how people who get “rashes, itching or other such skin woes from touching certain materials, such as nickel or perfumed detergent” may be less likely to develop some kinds of cancer, like breast and skin cancer. I guess avoiding cancer is a really shiny silver lining around a rashy cloud.

This small segment of writing is a glimpse into the overall tone of the entire publication. It’s punchy and kicky like a super-happy pom-pom. Other headlines squeal “You Need More Chocolate!” and “Slim Down with doughnuts!” and my personal favorite, “Protect Your Heart with cheese!”

There’s a general myth that travels around offices, whispered from cubicle to cubicle, that “email doesn’t have tone.” It’s one of those warnings you get at a workshop promising to help you email your way to the top, but it’s misguided. Of course email has tone. Writing has tone. Some writers are just better at elucidating their tone than others. The folks at Woman’s World magazine have laser-focus on a perpetually upbeat, can-do, eat sweets and feel great tone.

At a recent business development workshop at the Center for Women’s Entrepenuership at Chatham Universtiy, I was assigned to read this segment on the Rapid Growth stage of the business lifecycle.

“In the rapid growth stage, the business outpaces industry growth rates…This stage is very risky since many resources are dedicated to the business but there is no guarantee of continued success. …Some entrepreneurs decide to sell their businesses…some find their businesses have outgrown their skills because they are unable to cope with the increasingly complex management and growth challenges.”

Did you have an emotional reaction to that abbreviated passage? I felt stressed, nervous, doubtful and anxious, and it wasn’t even my business. The tone was gloomy, foreboding and negative. All in all, the writer did a great job of using words of warning to convey the chaotic and uncertain atmosphere of this stage of business.

Two excellent examples of tone, from two widely divergent kinds of writing, but both accomplishing their task. I tip my pen cap to both writers, whomever they are.

The Best Fitness Advice for your Social Media Strategy

If you don’t already go running, walking, lift weights, or some other kind of physical activity to increase your creativity and productivity, stop reading now and do 50 push-ups. If it takes you all day, so be it. Get it done.

During my most recent run, I realized that the best fitness advice is also excellent advice for businesses embarking of their first forays into social media.

1. Set goals. You don’t want to start any running or workout routine without a goal.  Couch to 5K is a great program with a reasonably challenging long-term goal – get off the couch and run a 5K. Your social media goal could be similar. For instance, “Connect with 250 followers on Facebook.”

2. Start small. A friend’s personal trainer asked her to see how far she could run in 12 minutes.  It was a very small step toward her goal but it was essential to completing the 5K. Same goes for your social media campaign. Set a goal like “Create a Facebook page for my business today.” You’re not going to get any followers unless you start somewhere.

3. Be consistent. Every day, do something to work toward your goal. Some days you may walk more than others, but you have to get out there. For your Facebook followers goal, make sure you work on this every day. Plan relevant content to share. Reach out to potential followers and engage on their terms.

4. Be honest. Don’t cheat your running goal by stopping short on that difficult hill. Don’t cheat your social media campaign by avoiding customer research, addressing negative feedback and product improvement. Give your best in each endeavor.

5. Be accountable. A great tweet suggested marking red x’s on the calendar when you miss a workout. The same thing goes for building your online relationships. It takes work. Seeing a lot of red x’s in a row could be the thing that motivates you NOT to skip your activity for the day.

6. Get a partner. Running is lots more fun with someone and you’re less likely to bail if you know someone else will call you out! This can work for your Facebook strategy, too. Find a non-competing fellow business owner or even a willing friend and ask them to check on you. Bounce ideas off them, too.

7. Cross-train. You get better at running if you add in stretching and weights. You’ll get better at social media if you experiment with different methods, like using video or images to build relationships, engage customers and earn followers. Try out some other platforms, like LinkedIn.

8. Limit your junk food. Eating healthy will help you run better. Include some fiber in your diet. Check the nutritional content of your own social media feeds. Are you including too much junk? Are you filling up on empty calories and left feeling hungry? Get some high quality content from leading experts.

9. Get good gear. Those high-end running shoes cost more but can improve your total workout experience. And ladies, do not neglect the sports bra. Great gear can prevent injury, increase your enjoyment and enhance your performance. Try a refurbished smartphone if your budget is tight. Other tools can be accessed for free, like HootSuite and LinkedIn.

10. Reward your efforts. When you finish that 5K, celebrate! It doesn’t matter how fast you did it, save that kind of competition for your next effort – the 10K! When you hit 250 followers, celebrate! Host an event for your followers and promote the heck out it, starting with the next social media platform you plan to master…there’s no stopping you now!

A version of this post appeared on 12Most.com – read it here!

Do You Take Twitter Seriously? I do!

I read my Twitter feed several times every day.

I read it for humorous tweets, tweets about what my friends are doing and tweets from business, political or social leaders that interest me.

I don’t read the newspaper everyday.

I don’t read a magazine everyday.

I don’t even watch television everyday.

But I read Twitter several times a day. It’s content I can access 24/7, customized completely to my interests. And I frequently look for new Twitter accounts to follow.

So when I noticed @_workingmother_, the Twitter handle of a magazine and website that I enjoy, had several typos in the recent tweets, I sent a quick reply.

@epagelhogan @_workingmother_ seeing typos in your tweets! Careful!

The typos weren’t huge. “Your” instead of “you’re” and “Kid’s” instead of “kids.” The typos didn’t bother me as much as this response to my tweet:

@_workingmother_ @epagelhogan We all type so quickly & take this kind of social media less seriously, esp. when trying to fit into 140 characters!

So the communications team at Working Mother  take this kind of social media less seriously? I’m hurt! I’m a customer who basically only interacts with them via Twitter and they don’t care if they are sending me quality content?

In 2009, over two years ago, Twitter was already the 3rd highest ranking social media site according to Compete.com. It has a top ten Alexa rating. Remember how the raid on the Bin Laden compound broke on Twitter first?

My personal usage of Twitter should indicate to media outlets like the folks at Working Mother that Twitter is their main way of reaching at least one reader and since I’m a very busy working mother and I bet I’m not the only one.

I love the content and editorial perspective of Working Mother magazine and Working Mother online.  I’m a big fan.  But I don’t always have time to read their emails let alone follow one of the links. I really appreciate the info and links they send out via Twitter a lot more, because I see them more frequently and can quickly read one article. Clicking on a link in Twitter on my smartphone, which I always have with me, is easier than enlarging an email and trying to tap through to an article.

I think reaching customers via Twitter should be taken pretty seriously.

Social media is a great way to build customer relationships. Don’t take chances with your social media feed. Make it as precise and effective as every other communication strategy and use it to build better relationships with your readers, your subscribers, your followers, your buyers.

What word is spelled wrong most often?

You know the answer to that old joke, right? It’s the word “wrong.”

A colleague of mine recently received a really lovely note from a potential business partner that read, “Looking forward to growing our bushiness together.”

Spelling errors are no joke in professional communications, but people make them all the time. I spend a lot of money as a customer of a local business and their recent email announcing new web content and new services had some obvious spelling errors, including the classic “principal” instead of “principle.”

Are we just too lazy to look up words? I’m not sure who bothers me more – people who have a sense they’ve spelled something incorrectly but don’t bother to check or people who don’t have even have a sense the word might be spelled wrong. Is there some fundamental spelling skill that people don’t ever acquire?

I started to wonder if Americans are terrible spellers or is it humanity in general? So I did a little research and contacted many of my friends who aren’t native Englsh speakers.

From a native Dutch speaker: “Spelling is actually not really a problem for me anymore, if anything my Dutch spelling is now worse than English….there are tons of tools available online or even within programs such as Word to help one out if errors are made due to ignorance or speed……however, grammar can be challenging at times.”

From a native Tamil speaker: “I do make a lot of spelling mistakes when I write in my native tongue. However that is because I rarely write in Tamil and so have less practice. Also, I think Tamil is inherently harder (as is Hindi). Let me explain, for e.g., there are 3 versions of the sound “n” and I am still not sure when I should be using which. English is also quirky with weird rules (i before e except after c and in weird words like “weird”), silent letters, homonyms and heteronyms (which I see you have blogged about). However, I would think this would give the native (albeit educated) speaker a leg up over non-native speakers…but I inherently think English is easier than my native tongue.”

From a native Spanish speaker: “Yes I do [make a lot of spelling mistakes]. However, now they tend to be of different nature than when I was leaving in Argentina. The keyboards that we use don’t have all the letters and tilde so over the year I typed words that “sounded” correctly in spanish but the spelling was wrong. Unfortunately, I noticed that now I make those same mistakes when I write with or without a computer.”

And my personal favorite response…

From a native Chinese speaker: “It is unlikely I will make “spelling” error when I write Chinese on paper. Chinese characters do not involve letters like western alphabets. Each Chinese character is unique itself and has its own meaning. Of course, sometime I do miss a stroke or dash here there, create my “new” non-existent character, or write a completely wrong word. All these mistakes usually cause by lack of practice and definitely not a “spelling” kind. For example last month, I forgot a character completely when I was filling out a questionnaire in Taiwan. I can pronounce this character without any problem. However the “sound” does not help me to assemble this character at all.

Then again, if “spelling” error can be described as “sound misrepresentation”. Perhaps Chinese computer user who use Zhuyin input methods (a popular sound base keyboard input system in the Taiwan) may commonly make “spelling “ error by selecting the wrong character that sound exact same as the correct one.”

So there you have it, spelling problems seem to plague people the world over, although in Chinese they face a completely different kind of spelling challenge. We rely on technology so much to catch and correct our spelling errors but language itself is too complex for any human or computer to be foolproof.

When I first put this website together, I was guilty of a pretty obvious spelling error. It’s ironic, and I may share it with you, if you ask nicely.

Ain’t isn’t OK

Is it ever ok to use the word ain’t?

As I was interviewing a professional wellness coach for a feature article, we both agreed it is a “hillbilly” word. We were sort of right, sort of wrong. In fact, the word ain’t is a “contraction of a negated auxiliary verb.” And while this contraction of a negated auxiliary verb is widely used by many people, including lots of my co-workers and some of my children’s childcare providers, it is still considered improper.

There are times when we seem to be ok with people using the word ain’t. We give people a pass only when we are sure they know better. Musicians love the punch provided by the word ain’t. Sheryl Crow croons “This ain’t no disco…” and Bob Dylan “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.” Ain’t is almost never appropriate in formal business communications, but marketers and advertisers use it freely to grab attention and create memorable messaging. The use of ain’t in songs and advertising rarely lowers the perception of the artist or product, as long as the audience knows it is an intentional violation of proper English. Improper it may be, but it ain’t going away.

It’s when people use it and don’t know they shouldn’t, that they begin to look uneducated and potentially less reliable, their ideas less valuable. Hearing a co-worker use it while trying to express herself in a departmental meeting made me doubt anyone would take her point seriously. I always wondered if I should have mentioned that she used the word, and encouraged her to avoid it in very public situations like that. Small language mistakes can undermine the overall message and eventually hurt your professional communications and image.

So, follow your mother’s advice and think before you speak. And if you ain’t got nothing good to say, don’t say nothing at all.