Show me a Sign!

Sometimes the simplest communication works best.

Take, for example, a recent business meeting. Because of poor communication I missed the meeting entirely. Instead of moving an important project forward, all of us involved lost precious time and productivity. And it was completely preventable.

Here’s why. I was driving to downtown Toronto for this meeting. While I usually take transit, I was going to drop off and pick up several boxes and needed a vehicle. Given it was a Sunday morning, the trip would typically take  a maximum of 30 minutes. Except, without warning the traffic on the highway came to a standstill. I crawled along, then exited to another road, and then another, trying various routes to reach my destination.

Police barricaded streets for miles but weren’t close enough to ask them questions. Hundreds of streetcars, buses and cars were entangled in gridlock. Nowhere was a sign indicating what was happening or where we should go to avoid the road closures.

The trip took 1 1/2 hours. I missed the meeting. In fact, several people did.

Turns out there was a charity run event. Apparently this had been mentioned in the local news but  none of us who were attending the meeting saw this. A news announcement however, should not be the primary means for informing the public about this type of situation. Effective communication requires considering numerous factors such as audience, occasion, location, time, cost and impact.

Seems to me weighing these factors points to a simple communication solution: signage along major routes into an event area, situated well in advance of the event location to allow drivers and transit passengers to choose alternate routes. So much wasted time and misery could have been avoided with one of the most basic communication tools – signage.

This is a good communication lesson for all of us. Let’s not get so caught up in our social media strategy, online presence or mobile apps that we overlook the most fundamental communications to reach our target audiences. Sometimes all it takes is a simple sign.

City of Toronto, are you listening? Show me a sign.


It’s not about Me, it’s about You

When it comes to business writing, it’s always helpful to keep this in mind: it shouldn’t be about me, it should be about you.

In fact this is the single most important rule for effective writing. Too many of us have read to the end of too many documents and still haven’t a clue as to what the writer expects from us.

Don’t be that writer. Instead, be the writer whose documents people like to read because they’re clear and to the point. When you’re writing an email,  letter, article or other business document to inform, request or persuade, this requires thinking about:

1- the goal of this communication, and

2- what you need to communicate to the reader in order to achieve this.

Start by picturing in your mind the recipient and briefly explaining the purpose of your document. Then answer questions the reader might ask, such as:

What – should I do/understand?

Who – is involved with this?

When – should I do it?

Where – should I do it?

How – do I do this?

Why – should I do this?

Wrap up by summarizing why knowing or doing this will benefit the reader.

Before sending it, read the document from the reader’s perspective. Does it seem clear, positive, respectful?

Good. When it’s about you rather than me, you’ll get the results you want.

First rule of effective communication: spell my name write – oops – right

Okay, admittedly neither my first or last name is easy to pronounce or spell. Therefore I’m generally not offended if someone gets my name wrong once or twice. And let’s face it, we all occasionally forget names. However, it’s becoming increasingly common these days for people to misspell and mispronounce names over and over again.

When you communicate with someone in order to persuade them or to request something, getting the  person’s name wrong will not help you achieve your objective.

Correctly remembering someone’s  name is the most important rule of effective communication. If I read “Corinne” on an email, you immediately have my attention. On the other hand, if I see Connie, Coreen, Coryn, Corrine or hear “kor-een” or “corn” instead of “kor-in,” here are my reactions. First I’m miffed the sender couldn’t be bothered to look up the spelling of my name or ask me how to pronounce it. Second, in my mind this person’s competence falls a notch. And third, I’m less likely to want to do what this individual wants me to do.

Using someone’s name correctly shows respect for the individual. This helps to create a positive connection and increases your chances of getting the other person onside with the goal of your communication.

So take just a few seconds before writing an email or calling someone whose name you aren’t familiar with and check the spelling or pronunciation. And please don’t use the shortcut of omitting the name entirely. Few people like being greeted with a generic “hi.” Most will interpret this as “hi-I-can’t-be-bothered-to-remember-your-name.”

Always  try to spell and pronounce names correctly. It’s not only courteous, it’s effective communication.

Use It or Lose It

Writing is different than reading.

Once we learn to read, we don’t forget how to read. This is an enduring skill because most days, we read at least a little something. We’re not even aware of reading when we’re reading.

But, when  it comes to writing skills, if we don’t use ’em, we can lose ’em.

As many of us increasingly rely on short-form communications like texts and tweets, we can lose the ability to write clear sentences and logical paragraphs – essential skills in many positions and fields of work.

So be sure to use it if you don’t want to lose it.

Practise writing at work and away from work. At work, request opportunities to write documents such as letters, reports, presentations or articles. Ask for feedback on your writing to help you improve.

Away from work, write what inspires you to want to write: notes, poems, plays, songs,  blogs, books, biographies, recipes. Any kind of writing that you do will improve your skills.

So don’t lose it, use it, and you’ll find that your writing skills will add value to your work and to your life.

Master the Thanks

When it comes to communicating effectively, there’s lots of opportunity for improvement in expressing gratitude.

When was the last time you were thanked during the course of performing your work? “Thanks for doing this project so quickly.” “Thanks for sending me that document I needed.” “Thanks for explaining to me how the process works.” “Thanks for working this weekend to meet the rush deadline.”

It seems to me that we’re getting better at communicating dissatisfaction and worse at communicating appreciation.

Why is expressing thanks important? Because it can enhance goodwill, build relationships and improve performance – all important influences for advancing our careers and businesses.

Let’s admit it, all of us want to be appreciated for our efforts. So let’s spread some gratitude and master the thanks.

It’s easy to do this by getting into the habit of acknowledging the efforts of people who help and support us. Next time you feel grateful, communicate it: in person, via email, on the phone. “Thank you for your hard work.” “I really appreciate your help with this assignment.”

Such a simple gesture – “thank you.” Such powerful effects: more goodwill, recommendations and referrals, better performance, more positive relationships.

Oh, and thanks for reading this….

You’re probably a worse writer than you think you are

When it comes to building a successful career, good writing skills are essential in many fields. Professionals, managers and executives must be able to write clearly, accurately and competently. They must be able to prepare clear, concise emails. Understandable reports. Letters that make a point. Persuasive proposals. Presentations that engage audiences. Therefore, if you want your career to progress, you need to become a good business writer. Here are four articles I wrote that offer ideas, examples and tips to strengthen your writing.

Think you’re a good business writer?
When someone proclaims, “I’m a good writer” and then we receive a report from this person that’s literally indecipherable, it can be like watching an audition for Canada’s Got Talent…

Write to the right people
It’s not about me. It’s about you.

Get to the point
Ever waded through page after page of a business document until your eyes glazed over, but you couldn’t figure out the point of it?

Watch your language
Don’t let sloppy writing, poor grammar or inappropriate tone undermine your message.

The Authentic Apology: How do You Effectively Communicate “We’re Sorry” to Customers?

We’re sorry.

Are you really?

Seems the Canadian Transportation Agency didn’t believe that Air Canada was sufficiently sorry for leaving passengers stranded at airport gates because of overbooking flights. The CTA recently ruled the airline must compensate passengers more than $100 cash or a $200 flight voucher.

An authentic apology delivered effectively to a customer builds trust, satisfaction and strengthens an organization’s reputation.

An insincere or deficient apology does the opposite – sometimes even compelling customers to take drastic action. Apparently Air Canada’s meagre apologies incensed a few too many travellers, who took their complaints to the CTA. This could prove to be an expensive lesson for Air Canada to learn how to sincerely communicate “we’re sorry.”

Other organizations (are you listening, Toronto Hydro?) would be wise to take note. Here’s a refresher on how to deliver a genuine apology.

1. Words

“Credibility requires that an apology be immediate, unforced, sincere and specific in terms of what exactly one did that was wrong and who specifically has been hurt,” says Linda Stamato, a faculty fellow in planning and public policy at Rutgers University, in the Ivey Business Journal.

When we spent a miserable 18-hour period without heat and power in our home this winter, I was impressed when a VP of Toronto Hydro responded to my letter of complaint by immediately launching an investigation regarding the reasons for the lengthy outage. He conducted an internal investigation and sent us a letter summarizing the results. Essentially a series of errors on the part of Hydro employees contributed to the extended duration of the power failure. He also apologized for the inconvenience and frustration the blackout caused. So far so good. Until the second part of the apology….

2. Actions

In order to be meaningful, an apology requires actions to back it up. Companies need to do something suitable to show they want to make things right for the problem they caused for the customer; otherwise, words are hollow. This is where Air Canada got into trouble: being bumped from a flight at the last minute can be incredibly aggravating and problematic. A hundred bucks doesn’t cut it when you have to be at an important meeting or make a key connection.

Same for Toronto Hydro’s apology for our power outage – a blackout that went on for hours and hours because one Hydro employee forgot to investigate our initial call reporting power problems and another gave us an incorrect timing estimate for repairs and failed to request a meter base jumper to provide temporary power. When we asked for a Hydro credit for unnecessarily freezing in our home for 18 hours, being unable to cook, work or sleep and having to replace an entire fridge of spoiled food, we received a terse letter from Hydro’s insurance adjuster offering just $125 – much less than we requested.

To us, $125 seemed fair compensation for say, a broken blender. It didn’t, however, demonstrate to us sincere regret for almost causing us to freeze to death. And so we wrote to CEO Anthony Haines. No reply. Instead, we received a letter from a Hydro lawyer stating, “Toronto Hydro-Electric System Limited is under no liability to you for the matters raised in your letter.”

Here’s where Hydro’s apology fell apart. The organization did not try to make things right. It didn’t deliver an authentic apology, which requires not only appropriate words but also meaningful amends.

How executives handle mistakes has a direct impact on an organization’s reputation. At a time when the CTA is forcing Air Canada to pay more than $100 for a cancelled flight, Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines stands at the front of an organization that claims “we care about our customers” – and then offers $125 for causing a family to endure 18 hours without power, heat or light during a cold winter night.

Most organizations say they care about their customers, but does yours do the right thing to back up this claim when things go wrong? An authentic apology (the right words, the right actions) should be a standard part of every organization’s customer service policy. This is the right way to effectively communicate “we’re sorry” and to earn credibility and respect.

Oh and by the way, we declined Hydro’s $125. We felt it was insulting rather than apologetic.