Monday, May 29, 2006

The Pros and Cons of Newsletters

For the most part, I'm a fan of business newsletters. They can be a great tool for businesses to communicate information to all sorts of groups, including employees, clients, customers, peers. (In a future posting I'll talk about crafting newsletters.)

Deciding whether to have a newsletter
In the old days (before digital publishing), the decision of whether to do a newsletter was taken very seriously. The decision was significant because the cost of creating a newsletter was fairly high in terms of the production costs (set-up and printing), as well as mailing costs -- not to mention the time and energy necessary to write the copy.

Desktop publishing has revolutionized the newsletter business, reducing the cost and difficulty of creating newsletters, while e-mail and the Internet have made the cost of distributing newsletters pretty much a non-issue.

But, these benefits have also meant that businesses are plunging into newsletters without much thought. That's a bad thing, I think.

Not Just a Vehicle for being "Top of Mind"
One of my main gripes about newsletters is that too often they are "content light" -- if not content void. Many businesses use newsletters -- especially electronic ones -- as simply a way of staying in touch with clients or customers in an effort to stay "top of mind" (as the marketing term is used).

You know the type of newsletter I mean -- typically you get them after you've swapped business cards at some function and the next thing you know, you've been added to some company's e-mail list. Though I still grapple with the etiquette of taking the liberty of sending someone a newsletter just because they gave you their business card, I have less of a problem with it if the information sent at least provides some useful content. (Of course, I'm assuming the recipient is given the opportunity to opt out of future mailings.)

No matter what you call it, a communication that consists only of "news" of a company's latest product or service is an advertisement. To put it another way -- if it's the kind of information that could just as easily be placed in a banner ad on a web site -- it's not content worthy of being called newsletter information.

Creating Goodwill vs. Annoying
The purpose of a newsletter should be to create goodwill between the business and the reader. One of the best ways of fostering goodwill is to provide useful, timely information. The great thing about doing so is you'll also be, in effect, advertising your business. But, you won't be running the risk of annoying people or turning them off, or away.

The simplest way of determining what's appropriate for inclusion in such communications is to remember that the name says it all: newsletter. And, the best way to differentiate yourself from the sea of business newsletters people are flooded with these days is to offer the reader substantive information. If you don't, you risk alienating the very people you're hoping to impress.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

A celebration of dance ... er, words...

Given the name of my business and my blog, I figure it's appropriate to celebrate clever use of words, so I thought I'd mention something I heard last night at -- of all things -- a modern dance performance. It was a performance called "Diary" by the dance troupe Cas Public.

Before I tell you the line, let me set the scene a bit. The theme of the piece was love (according to the program notes written by the dance company) and every now and then one (or more) of the dancers would stop and give a line of narrative. The statements always had something to do with the theme...

I'm relying on my memory here, so I may not have it exactly right, but you'll get the drift. The line was:

"With two people, you have a story. With three, you have a plot..."

Ahhhh, the beauty of well chosen words... Puts a smile (or at least a smirk) on your face...

Monday, May 22, 2006

Top 5 Reasons to Avoid Jargon: Reason #4

In Reason #5 I (loosely) defined jargon as a language that's unique to a particular line of work. As I sat down to write this, I thought it would be interesting to see what the proper definition of jargon is. I'm relieved to report that my definition is pretty close to at least one of the meanings given in Webster's New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition):

"the specialized vocabulary and idioms of those in the same work, profession, etc..."

I've had clients argue it's important to use jargon when speaking with others in their profession because doing so demonstrates to other professionals that they know what they're talking about. Also, between members of the same profession, jargon often is used as a sort of short-hand.

But, Reason #4 for avoiding jargon must always be remembered: even between people in the same profession, jargon can have subtly different meanings -- and, worse yet, these subtle differences (which can be quite important) can easily go undetected.

I came across an example of this early in my career as a tax lawyer. As part of my tax training in the U.S. I learned about capital gains. One of the most important features of a capital gains in the U.S. is that such gains are taxed at different -- usually much lower -- rates than so-called "ordinary" income.

When I began practicing tax in Cananda, if I came across the term "capital gain" I automatically thought about the low tax rate. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that such gains are not necessarily taxed at lower rates in Canada.

Though the significance of capital gains treatment is very different for Canadian and U.S. tax practitioners, it's interesting to me that at cross-border tax conference I've never heard a speaker acknowledge the difference. Conference participants assume that because they're speaking the same language (English) and they're talking to other professionals trained in the same specialty (tax) -- when they use the jargon (capital gain), they assume others understand the significance that they've attached to the term.

In fact, in such a situation the use of jargon actually causes a subtle misunderstanding. Makes you re-think the usefulness of jargon, doesn't it?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Finding the balance

Editing your own writing is harder than editing someone else's -- especially if you're editing for substance rather than just grammar. That's because it's difficult to be objective about what you've written. This is particularly true when writing about something you've worked on, like a case or project.

There are two main traps people tend to fall into when they write about something they've been intimately involved with:

  1. they omit significant details or information; or
  2. they include too much information or too many details.

The problem of omitting significant information happens because you forget what details you've learned as a result of working through the project. Think about it -- if you've been working on something for a month and you know how it works backwards, forwards, upside-down and inside-out, it's pretty easy to forget that not everyone knows all the background information you do.

The problem of including too much information or detail can come from the desire to impress people with all the steps it took you to arrive at your conclusion or decision, or from being so close to the subject that you can no longer differentiate between crucial details and less important ones.

In writing about the project, your job is to strike a balance between necessary information and excessive information. The best way to do this is by putting yourself in the position of the reader and by remembering that readers are counting on you to tell them what they need to know, while taking care not to waste their time with information.

If you're in doubt about whether you've said too much or too little -- find a test audience. After the person's read the document, ask him or her to summarize it for you. Don't ask for a critique of the document -- ask for an explanation of what they read and listen to what they say. (If it's a long document you may have to ask them to explain it section-by-section.)

You know you have more work to do on the document if, as you listen:

  • it's clear they've misunderstood what you were trying to say,
  • you feel compelled to explain something more, or
  • you feel the urge to interrupt them to tell them about it in another way or using other words.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Good to know people are paying attention

I just have to comment on an item in Patricia Best's column "Nobody's Business" in the business section of the Globe and Mail on Tuesday, May 9th. According to Ms. Best, at the Thomson Corporation's recent Annual General Meeting, a shareholder stood up and read the following sentence from page 2 of the company's 2005 Annual Report:

"And in the fixed income market, Thomson TradeWeb processed a record US$43 trillion in trades as it continued its aggressive expansion into new asset classes and new geographies."

When he finished reading, the shareholder apparently commented (I'm quoting from Best's column):

"I've travelled a lot; I've been around the world. But I've never heard of a new geography. What are you talking about? ..."

Apparently, when the CEO, attempting to answer, explained that the division had expanded into Europe and Latin America, the shareholder cut him off and said, "None of those are geographies."

To borrow an expression from my Australian friends, I say "good on ya" to the shareholder for calling the company on such language!

After reading the column, I went and looked up the Annual Report to see if what the shareholder said was true. Sure enough, it's right there in a letter signed by the Chairman of the Board and the President/CEO.

Mind you, by the time I got to the sentence in question, I realized that what was probably bothering the shareholder wasn't so much the misuse of the word geography as all the other jargon and nonsense the reader had to wade through before getting to the end of that page -- gems like: "value chain", "locus of value creation", and "workflow solutions".

Given all the time, effort and money that goes into Annual Reports, it's refreshing to know that people actually (try to) read them!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Top 5 Reasons to Avoid Jargon: Reason # 5

Nearly every profession or line of work has a language -- jargon -- that's unique to it. (Hobbies even have their own jargon -- sailing's a good example: ropes are called "lines", left is called "port", etc.)

It probably took you awhile to become familiar with the jargon of your profession or business and to learn exactly when and how to use it. Learning to use the words appropriately and with confidence was probably even a right of passage and is a skill you're likely proud of mastering. You may even consider fluency in the use of this jargon as a way of demonstrating your special knowledge and qualifications.

But, have you ever considered the fact that using jargon can actually work against you?

When I try to convince professionals and business people that they shouldn't use jargon, I'm often met with skeptical looks and sometimes even with lengthy explanations about the importance and role of jargon in their particular field.

Borrowing a technique that's popular with magazines of all sorts -- from Cosmo and Toro to People and Fortune -- I've come up with a list of what I call the Top 5 Reasons to Avoid Jargon.

So, I'll be sharing my list in blog postings over the next little while, starting here with reason #5 for avoiding jargon: Using jargon can put people off. (If you're the type who's more impressed with bigger words, let me re-phrase it: by using professional jargon you risk alienating potential customers and clients.)

Think about it, when you can't understand what someone's saying, what do you do? You might ask them to explain -- but doing that takes courage (after all, you risk looking dumb) and it takes time and patience to wait for more information or an explanation. Another alternative is that you might seek the advice of someone else -- someone who explains things in ways you can understand.

If you believe either of these alternatives (making someone feel dumb or causing them to turn to someone else) are bad for your business, then you'll agree that explaining things using simple, easy to understand words -- in other words, avoiding jargon -- makes good business sense.