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Leader driven Harmony #42: Working in the Big City

by Mack McKinney on October 29, 2011

It seemed like a small thing but once I finished it, I realized that it was actually a really big deal!  A friend recently left her job in New York City (NYC) and moved to a much smaller city in the southern US.  Today at lunch I saw her file in my Outlook Contacts and when I opened it, noticed that her NYC work address was still there.  As I deleted that address, one character at a time on my Blackberry, I got the most delightful feeling of relief when the last number of the NYC zip code disappeared into the ether!  It was as if I closed a chapter of her life.

I recalled the stress that the City levies on her residents, the constant fear of violent street crime, the challenge of grocery shopping without a car, just the general uneasiness my friend seemed to have whenever I visited her there or we talked on the phone.  She and I watched a drug deal go down across the street from her apartment one summer night.  And the cost of living in Brooklyn was surprisingly high – – -it took almost everything she made to buy the $5 boxes of cereal and the $3 quarts of milk.  And she was always sick.  Sinus infections, a bout of MRSA in a knee that she nicked shaving, a chest cold that wouldn’t go away: There was always something going on with her health.  A physician’s assistant friend told her “Yep, you’ll STAY sick for your first year in NYC because of all the germs that exists there and nowhere else, and the constant influx of immigrants from all over the world – – – nobody has immunity when they first arrive and it takes at least a year to build up a resistance to the bugs”.  We will never know if that would have been true in my friend’s case because she left at the one-year point.

She said the idea of renewing her apartment lease and living another year there was not at all appealing.  She enjoyed the work there as a TV producer and she really liked the company she worked with.  And she liked most of the social life and she loved the restaurants.  But she said the final straw for her was being so tightly packed in a subway car one morning that, with every breath, she inhaled into her mouth the stranger’s hair in front of her.  And she was too tightly sardined to move.  Turning her head helped a little but she apparently made a decision to change jobs (and cities) that morning.  I don’t blame her at all.  I wouldn’t have lasted a month there.  Maybe not a week.

So here’s the deal:

  1. Have some respect for people who endure the City.  They put up with a lot.  And if you need them in your business, as a supplier to you for example, or a customer, be thankful they put up with life there.  It isn’t easy.
  2. Try it yourself sometime.  If your industry/career values time spent in a major metro area, consider NYC for a 6-18 month stint.  You might even like it.  And lastly, well, I don’t have a third point – – –  I’m just VERY glad my friend is out of there and in a friendlier, slower-paced city in America’s southland.

No place is perfect, there is some crime everywhere and she may have issues what some facets of life in Charlotte in the years ahead but the big cities come with their own challenges, which sometimes, get the best of even the bravest and the most enduring!

In Summary: When you conduct business with what seems to be someone who is a little irate, or cold or unapproachable… be patient; you never know what they have endured just to get to that meeting or to make to that conference call…

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Last week I told you about my passions and I described what a mess they make of my life and of our house and office!  But how do baby birds fit here?  And how do YOU fit here?  Those college students I mentioned are the baby birds.  They seem to always be waiting for the next college class to feed them information, the next semester of study that will give them what they need to be good . . . and so on.  They seem to be intentionally ignoring information on medically-related subjects because . . . well . . . I am not really sure WHY they are doing that.  Here are four possibilities:

  1. Other Plans. They are secretly planning to go into car repair instead of medicine and they just haven’t told anyone.
  2. Embarrassed to Admit: They have already secretly earned their PhDs in their chosen fields and are embarrassed to admit that they have already read those articles, or maybe wrote them.
  3. Hedging. They are hedging, not allowing themselves to get excited about a career, not digging in and investing time now, because they are afraid they may not make it into the medical field they have set their sights on.  And they don’t want to set themselves up for disappointment later.  If this is the case, they need to snap out of it.  Viking ship captains burned their boats on the beaches so the message to the disembarked troops was clear:  We are STAYING here, boys, so make it work!  Same for mamby pamby students – – – get committed, get resourceful and make it happen.  Immersing yourself in the subject now could teach you something arcane (look it up) and give you just enough head start on other more hesitant colleagues that you might beat them out of a slot in medical school or in that nursing program you want.  Being hesitant or unsure now might keep you from learning that one item which, in a competitive interview, could actually have WON you the admission slot!
  4. Waiting to be FED. Like baby birds, they are just waiting to be FED all the information required for their profession, as part of upcoming college and medical/nursing school courses, and they see no reason to try to learn any of that stuff now.  (This is my current theory to explain their behavior, although I also like the second one.)

I am the opposite of those people.  I am voraciously hoovering-up information like a human vacuum cleaner, wherever I find it.  I am “going for it” and sucking the marrow out of the bone, licking up every tidbit of info I can find on the subjects that interest me.  And I have waded in with both feet, by DOING those things, not just reading about them.  I saw a great T-shirt that read:  “When I have money, I buy books.  When I have extra money, I buy food.”  That’s me.  The family usually will not enter a bookstore with me because it is so hard to get me out of there.  And now that they all have coffee . . . oh . . baby.  Plus, the family gave me a Nook Color so my nose is going to be welded to that thing!  I’ll be LIVING at Barnes and Noble, surfing through the e-books there!

And I have news for any baby birds out there.  Wake up! Get out of the nest and get up to your EARS in your chosen field.  Make it a job/profession that people are (or will be) making a living at.  Whatever it is, you can spend an (enjoyable) lifetime in it, if you just will get all the way IN IT.  Business, retail, real estate, banking, dentistry, chiropractic, farming, nursing, appliance repair, EVERY FIELD can provide you with a lifetime of thought and involvement if you will just dive in and commit to being the best at it.  Commit to a lifetime of learning, and staying current, and pushing the edge of the enterprise.  Plus being the go-to person makes YOU the expert.  It means other people will come to YOU on that subject.  And here is the good news – – –  the years will FLY by, you’ll travel and meet great people, and you’ll feel GOOD about yourself.  An entire profession will be indebted to you, as well as all the professionals in it!   And on that pillar of respect and success, my friends, you can build a great life and support a family.

As we asked in a previous blog, do you have a “fire in the belly”?  Three years ago I saw a plaque on the wall of a castle in northern Germany that said:  “Most people believe they need money to be happy.  But all you really need is something to get lost in.”  Go find that subject (or two or three) and get yourself lost for life!  Trust me, It’s great!

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corp.

Why should you read this post?  Because this little crash course in effective writing is the collective intelligence of thousands of people just like you.  It is a living document and benefits from ongoing improvements suggested by our students.  Their suggestions and observations, especially in the final section, make us all much better writers.

In this series we have discussed Purpose, Audience, Content and Style and how each works with the others to determine the utility and readability of any document you write.  We will close this series with a discussion of writing “Mechanics” in the form of a simple list of annoyances readers complain about most often.  If you want to make sure you never experience these annoyances again, we humbly suggest you Tweet the link to this document to your family, friends and everyone you work with.  Once they see what they are doing wrong, their writing will improve and your stress level will drop!


Here is a partial list of our students’ and our pet peeves, assembled through the years. 100-101 dumps As a reader, if you find that a major aggravation is not listed here, email me at and we will consider including it in the next update.

This is a collection of the most common mistakes we have observed (and periodically been guilty of) in writing and assembling technical reports, CONOPS, proposals and other documents:

  1. Spell-Check. Failure to spell-check the final version, just before the final printing. Simple typos will lead some readers to conclude you are lazy, careless, stupid or all three.
  2. Total reliance upon a spell/grammar-check program, which will not necessarily catch improper word usage, for example the accidental use of “form” instead of “from”.  Read the document   s-l-o-w-l-y   and be certain every sentence makes sense.  And get others to read it. IIA-CIA-PART1 dumps Microsoft’s automated “help” features often are not of much help, especially with punctuation choices and grammar decisions.  Do not trust Bill Gates to protect your reputation.
  3. Failure to include a list of acronyms or failure to define every acronym the first time it is used.  Assume nothing about what your audience knows.  DOD (Department of Defense – – – see, we follow our own rules) workers, government and contractor, are especially guilty of this.  An example is “CONOPS” which, depending upon the agency, can mean Concept of Operations, Contingency Operations, Continuity of Operations, CONUS Operations (an acronym and an abbreviation within an acronym – “Continental United States Operations”), Continuous Operations and others.  Define it or don’t use it.
  4. Failure to define complex technical terms.  Don’t assume all readers are PhDs.
  5. Incorrect graphic/figure/table numbers. When these are manually input and another graphic/figure/table is added later, there is the ripple effect whereby every subsequent graphic, etc. must get a new number.  Instead, let the application (MS Word, Word Perfect, etc.) assign the numbers.  It precludes the ripple effect and automatically lets you later assemble a Table of Contents, List of Figures and List of Tables.
  6. Incorrect page number references in the text, making it difficult or impossible to find referenced sections.  This is usually caused when text or graphics are added somewhere in front of the page being referenced, causing the referenced section to slide onto the next page.  If sections are numbered as they should be and section sizes are less than a half-page in length, reference the section by name and number.  But if sections are large and referencing them would require the reader to search through several pages to dig out a referenced passage, cite the actual page number but double check all such citations for correctness just before publishing.  And be aware that a web-based document, especially an Adobe pdf document, may have page numbers that do not correspond to the hardcopy.
  7. Changing text color in the main body of the document.  Keep it black.
  8. Failing to italicize non-English terms (fait accompli, ad hoc, coup de grace, blitzkrieg, etc.) so people can mentally pause to remember what the term means or using the terms improperly (and we are not talking here about commonly used terms such as “via” or “vice versa”).  If you cannot pronounce a foreign term properly, or don’t know exactly what it means in the native language and how it are used in the native culture, it is probably not commonly used here in the US.  So don’t use it.  And a special caution to Francophiles (lovers of all things French):  We have found that ad nauseum – – –  Latin for “excessive to the point of causing vomiting” – – –  use of French phrases is often the hallmark of a person flaunting a writing education they never received, insinuating an intelligence they don’t actually possess or adopting a French perspective which, by itself, may upset some Americans.  Politics and cultures aside, English is a fine technical language with plenty of precise, descriptive terms.  Use them.
  9. Beginning sentences with “but” or “and”.  This is common use now.  Increasingly, people write like they speak.  It isn’t the death of English as we know it.  Get over it.
  10. Assuming that the reader can mentally keep track of where all the pieces of a CONOPS reside.  In the case of a CONOPS or proposal that has components classified at various security levels, this assumption is folly.  Give the reader a roadmap showing where all the components are, their classifications, etc.
  11. A document manager’s failure to provide a style guide and then complaining about all the work he/she must do to pull the final document together.
  12. Failure to provide references in support of key claims, instead hoping the reader just accepts the claim.  As in medicine and science, the bigger the claim, the more solid the proof needed to substantiate it.  And be certain the trip is worth it for the reader: make certain the proof you cite is directly related to the claim, not a peripheral issue!  Remember that technical professionals do not spin findings or conclusions.
  13. Failure to cross-check every text reference to a table or figure to ensure
    • The reference is correct, i.e. such a table/figure a) actually exists and b) adequately discusses the subject indicated in the text
    • The table or figure follows the reference
    • The references in the text are sequenced properly (for example Table 3-2 should be discussed in the text before Table 3-3 is discussed)
    • Any referenced document is the most current version available.  And be sure to cite the revision number and date or just use dates as revisions (rev 15 Feb 09).
  14. Reliance upon complex graphics to make a key point instead of to support a point.  Excessive use of graphics throughout the document/section is often an indication of a poor/rushed author or an unskilled writer attempting to use graphics in place of text.
  15. Misuse of the forward slash (/).  The commonly accepted meaning is “and-or”.  If you cannot substitute “and-or” then the slash is inappropriate.
  16. Beginning to write the report without an outline and letting it meander. This is often evident to even a casual reader of the resulting document.
  17. Misuse/absence of embedded links in a document.  In our web-based world, most documents are reviewed in softcopy.  So use hyperlinks to take readers to key sections and appendices. But be sure that each linked page has a “return to previous page” link so the reader can quickly return to the previous page being read.
  18. Starting the report too late and then rushing to finish. The resulting report almost always suffers with sections obviously written by different authors, key conclusions glossed-over, graphics overused and unaccompanied by explanations, typos, etc.  The typical excuse that managers hear most often is “I was too busy DOING the work and did not have time to REPORT on the work!”  My advice is not to use this excuse.  It marks you as a rookie who cannot plan his time properly.
  19. Use of vague terms like “recently”, “some” and “few”.  Quantify!  Use numbers wherever possible.  Imprecision invites varying interpretations.
  20. Use of hidden assumptions.  I’ve heard writers say things like “Everyone knows that quartz is preferable to glass in this infrared application” or “Well, the sponsor obviously knows why we are changing our technical approach because he directed the change.  So we don’t need to say that in the report.” Wrong!  Assume nothing! In the latter example, the sponsor is only one of potentially several dozen (or hundred) eventual readers of a report, most of whom will never know why your firm abandoned a perfectly reasonable technical approach in favor of a very risky one, unless you tell them!  Omit that single detail and you are likely to be labeled foolish in later meetings where neither you nor your sponsor is present to explain your actions.
  21. Excessive use of the passive voice which makes for difficult reading and complicates a document.  Here are a few common examples:
    • “The system will be capable of  . . .”  or “the system will have the ability to . . .”  (just say “the system will…”)
    • “. . . consider implementation of . . .”  (say “implement”)
    • “It was decided that . . .”  (say, instead, “Our team decided . . .”)
    • Other examples to be avoided include “…is favored by . . .” and “it was concluded that . . .”
  22. Use of “shall” in place of “will”.  You aren’t writing a specification so don’t use “shall” which is typically a legal term in business agreements and has a “binding” connotation. Write like you speak.  Use action verbs and an active, future tense.
  23. Lawyer-talk:  Don’t try to use lofty words when a common one will do, for example obtain (use get), accede (use agree), aforementioned (use already discussed), subsequent (use later), cognizant of (use know).
  24. Run-on sentences. A sentence should have a single, main point, not several.  Take a meat cleaver to long sentences.
  25. Lengthy paragraphs.  Most technical writers use fewer than ten lines per paragraph.  Robert Gunning even has a “Fog Index©” that quantifies how easy a document is to read, based on length of words, sentences and paragraphs (see reading list item #3).  Even when you have no page-count restriction, strive for conciseness.  While perhaps not as crisp and unambiguous as German, English is still a wonderful technical language when used concisely.  (This one sentence, written in formal Arabic, could require 3-4 lines of text!)
  26. Excessive use of “which” when “that” would be clearer.
  27. Use of expletives leading to wordy sentences
    • There are, is, were, was, will be . . . .
    • It is, can, was . . .
  28. Awkward page breaks.  Hold thoughts together in the text, forcing a page break to occur where it makes the most sense to the reader.  The worst infraction here is to allow a table/figure caption to become separated from the table or figure. Almost as bad is allowing the first sentence of a section to begin at the bottom of a page: push it to the next page to be with its friends!
  29. Commas inserted where they aren’t needed at all and absent where they are needed.  If you would not actually pause there when reading the text aloud, then you should think twice before putting a comma there.   If in doubt, leave it out.
  30. Lack of proofreading by anyone other than the writer.  Silly mistakes are not caught.
  31. Lack of white space: paragraphs crammed tightly against paragraphs/graphics, with very few blank lines.  Even page-constrained documents need some white space to improve readability!  The human mind appreciates occasional white breaks in the monotony of black text – – – it seems to provide time for ideas to sink in before new ideas show up in the text.
  32. Use of 10-point type size, to cram text into a page-count-constrained document.  Use 12-point or larger and cut the amount of text to make things fit.  Many senior people cannot comfortably read 10-point type and may get annoyed if you force them to use their bifocals.  And an annoyed reader may not even know why he dislikes your report (and hence, your firm), just that he does.
  33. Inconsistent use of abbreviations, terms, capitalization, etc. within the same document.
  34. Overuse of underlines versus italics.  Don’t be boring.  Mix it up but be consistent within sentences.
  35. Failure to add page numbers.
  36. Failure to insert a blank line between paragraphs.
  37. Inconsistent use of indentures.
  38. In a CONOPS, failure to number the sections, making for difficult discussions about paragraphs/sections of interest.
  39. Inconsistent depth in the outline, with some sections a shallow 2-alpha and others at an almost microscopic 5-alpha.  The temptation is to include lots of data for areas where you have it, leaving other areas barren.  Don’t do it. Balance the outline and the body of the document, putting details in an appendix.
  40. Use of “e.g.” (for example) or “i.e.” (in other words).  Since many readers don’t know these definitions, and high schools don’t seem to be teaching much Latin these days, let’s stop using these terms.
  41. Pairing people with “that” or pairing objects with “who”.  Do not write about anyone “that” did something or said something.  Use “who” when referring to people.  Use “that” when referring to anything else (objects, organizations, etc.)
  42. Use of “reiterate” when “repeat’ would do fine.
  43. Excessive use of questions as the opening sentence in a paragraph.  Occasional use of this technique is fine but be aware that it forces the reader to move out of the passive-reception mental mode and actually think, which annoys some people.
  44. Excessive employment of “utilize” when “use” would work fine.
  45. Don’t use “in order to” when “to” works just fine. For example, instead of: “In order to complete the signal processing chain the filter must be tuned to…” use this more succinct and directed version: “To complete the signal processing chain the filter must be tuned to…”
  46. Lifting Power Point ™ graphics and plopping them into Word ™ documents without regard to complexity, applicability or suitability.  In these hurried times this is common but still criminal.  Build graphics from scratch with a pencil and paper, outlining them first to answer the two questions “what do I want this graphic to accomplish” (inform, persuade, explain, motivate, etc.) and “what would be the most effective, efficient possible graphic for that purpose?”.  Then search existing graphics for candidates and give STRONG consideration to using pieces of them to custom craft a crisp hybrid.
  47. Confusion of compose and comprise.  Roget’s Thesaurus© even has this wrong.  Compose is a verb in the music business and in specialized writing such as poetry.  Elsewhere the phrase “composed of” describes a single thing and is often used in place of “made up of”.  A single, complex thing can be composed of many smaller things. But Comprise describes an assembly of multiple things and means “make up” or “add up to”: multiple things can comprise a larger thing.  But published definitions for these two terms overlap so we suggest only infrequent and careful use of them, especially of comprise, to avoid confusion.  Instead of saying “The items inside this bag comprise all my personal effects” (which is correct usage) instead just say “This bag contains all my personal effects” and hand it to the jailer.  He probably won’t believe you and you’ll be strip-searched anyway.

Crisp, clear technical writing is a learned skill and increasingly in demand.  Crafting a crisp, well-worded section in a blog post, book, proposal or report is very satisfying.  And like any other difficult-to-master skill, becoming a good writer takes practice and effort.

Lastly, remember to submit your writings early to peers and others for review because none of us is as smart as all of us.

Suggested Reading List:

  1. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, 4th Edition (a classic reference book, over 10 million copies sold, available at any major book store)
  2. Systems Engineering Handbook, International Conference on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), California, 2006
  3. Technical Writing, Process and Product by Steven and Sharon Gerson (Prentice Hall, 1992)

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Why should you read this post?  Because this little crash course in effective writing is the collective intelligence of thousands of people just like you.  It is a living document and benefits from ongoing improvements suggested by our students.  Their suggestions and observations, especially in the final section, make us all much better writers.

Last week we discussed the importance of understanding the purpose of anything you write, long before you hit the first key on the old laptop.  This post discusses the crucial importance of understanding the likely audience of your document, the main content and the most appropriate style for your purpose.


Do not begin writing, or even outlining main points, until the main target audience is chosen and then include a little something for everyone.

Will the report be read by seasoned technical staff or by program management people whose technical backgrounds are unknown?  You will, of course, want to report at a level of technical complexity that mirrors your primary customer’s level of technical comprehension.  Even then, you should introduce your key points in plain speech, followed by detailed engineering discussions about why you chose the approach you chose, how your conclusions were reached, the trade-offs you performed, etc.  And if you expect your report to be read by a multi-level audience of lay and technical people, making your main points early in each section is even more important.

This is also a good time to think about the access your competition is likely to have to your report.  If the audience is the US Government, then SETA (Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance) contractors, perhaps even your competitors, are likely to read it.  If you have Intellectual Property (IP) that needs to be discussed in the report, you should try to discuss it in sufficient detail for the customer to get a feel for its significance, but not in so much detail that you lose competitive advantage to a competitor.  Consult your company’s Marketing and Intellectual Property staffs on these issues, before you write those sections.  (If you write those sections first and they are later rewritten or deleted, and if the authors of other sections have referenced your earlier [now nonexistent] paragraphs, you may cause lots of confusion.)


Rookies talk mainly about the format of a document.  Professionals talk about the content.  Ensure that the content and technical/operational level of detail matches the customer’s expectations.

How deeply does your sponsor expect you to discuss key topics and important findings in this report?  How much support for your findings will she expect?  If in doubt, ask her! One hint can be found in the proposal that won you the job to begin with, and the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) in your proposal/Statement of Work (SOW): how much funding did you/he allocate to do the report?  A report for which 10 hours were allocated in the WBS should look very different from a report that was to consume 120 hours of the team’s time.  A study that changed its main thrust in mid-stream also probably needs a little more explanation/support than a study that remained true-to-proposal.  If you already know the report will be used to convince/persuade others, then you must be certain to provide sufficient rationale to carry your arguments.  Include possible objections and arguments that may occur to the reader and address those crisply and thoroughly. One way to do this is to offer those arguments as ideas that occurred to your team as well, and which were then considered during the course of the study.  Psychologically, the reader may then feel vindicated that he thought of the same issues as your technical team.  And he may also begin to believe that you and he think alike, a very important psychological milestone in your relationship!  And all of this is made possible simply by how you worded your findings.

A cautionary note:  If you are working from a document that originated elsewhere, you may not want readers of the finished document to know its detailed lineage. One US prime contractor was writing a proposal to a NATO RFT (Request for Tender) back in the 1990s only to discover that the NATO RFT’s Statement of Work actually had originated months earlier at a competitor’s facility.  Previously just pasting a document into a fresh shell document was deemed sufficient but not anymore.  Lineage data is still available to a determined sleuth.  Software plug-ins are available that can permanently erase the originator, editors and record of changes for a document.  Converting MS Word™ and Power Point™ documents to Adobe™ pdf documents works well and also makes alteration more difficult.


Do not permit the concept of writing style to become an excuse for poor writing. Have trained technical writers review important documents before release.

Writing style can determine to a large degree how well the author’s information is conveyed.  Our personal writing style is the product of our education, experience and training.  A person may have a deep technical education and lots of experience in a given technical/other field, but unless they have been trained to write clearly and succinctly, their writing style is likely to be confusing and verbose.  Writing is a skill.  It must be taught (even self-taught), practiced regularly, and its impact fine-tuned via feedback from readers.  Typically, much of that feedback comes from the writer’s peers.  This is why After-Action Sessions are so useful to proposal and report writing teams.  These sessions examine what could have been done better and often solicit the opinions of other employees (preferably from varying disciplines) regarding improvements needed in writing style, content, format, etc.

When confronted with recommended changes to a report they authored, technical writers sometimes get defensive, saying “well that is just my style and I cannot change the way I write”.  But often the claim of a “unique writing style” is used to mask poor writing skills, plain and simple.  There are generally accepted standards for English usage and they should be followed.

Writing user manuals is both a science and an art form.  When you need user manuals, do not let the hardware and software teams who built the system/device also write the manuals.  Employ people who are trained to write these or risk having your system unfairly maligned by every user who struggles to understand the directions.

When you write a report on behalf of your employer, you are representing the employer.  In fact, your report may be the only thing some readers will ever know about your firm.  Readers may draw all kinds of conclusions based solely upon that document, far beyond an opinion about the writer’s likely grade in English 101:

  • Clarity and Decisiveness. If the document makes clear points and does so quickly, your company will be seen as a team of clear thinkers and decisive managers, as opposed to a bunch of hand-wringers.
  • Careful, not Convoluted. If the conclusions are well supported, the firm will be seen as comprised of careful thinkers, as opposed to a group of convoluted thinkers who draw conclusions from thin air.
  • Sparingly and Effectively Detailed. If the entire document hangs together well, with short write-ups where warranted and longer sections where needed, your firm will be viewed as being able to communicate complex ideas, with a good appreciation of where the reader might need supporting detail.
  • Thoroughness. If there are no typographical or grammatical errors, the reader will feel that the writer cared enough about the impression he would make to thoroughly proofread the entire document. It probably means the company pays attention to detail.

In the next post we will provide a rogues’ list of the main offenders in writing; we will discuss many of the mistakes, large and small, that keep writing from being as clear and crisp as it should be.  And if you do nothing more than just read about the mistakes that aggravate others, you will become aware of those errors and I guarantee you will become a better writer!

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Why should you read this post?

Because this little crash course in effective writing is the collective intelligence of thousands of people just like you.  It is a living document and benefits from ongoing improvements suggested by our students.  Their suggestions and observations, especially in the final section, make us all much better writers.

Clear, sharp writing is almost a lost art.  And it is sad because to get along in life you must be able to explain yourself clearly.  Texting and its shortcuts and abbreviations let us communicate simple thoughts quickly but texting is not suited to explaining complex issues, refuting others’ positions or reporting on a technical approach.  In business if you cannot craft a grammatically correct, well-written document that people find pleasing to read, you will always be working for someone else who can.  Heck, if you cannot write, you may not be able to get a bank loan for your business or even get a letter-to-the-editor published in your local newspaper!

Once you get the basics right, it also helps to write in a flowing, friendly style that makes people want to read what you write.  But why are some documents, even long and involved ones, easy to read while others are difficult to get through?  It turns out there are five key considerations in writing: Purpose, Audience, Content, Style and Mechanics. In discussing the first four considerations we will give you some basic rules for creating effective, efficient papers of all kinds (especially the fear-inducing technical reports and business studies).  Then in the “Mechanics” section we will help you avoid the wince-inducing writing errors often found in popular articles and papers.  The goal is to prevent readers’ getting balled up finding annoying mistakes, and to instead relax, understand your points and enjoy reading the things you write.

Why should you listen to us?  Our company, Solid Thinking, teaches short courses in building Concepts of Operations or CONOPS.  These documents are combinations of systems descriptions and user’s manuals, brought into one document for use by end users and systems engineers.  CONOPS are hard-hitting documents that provide continuity for multi-year (and multi-million $$$) systems development projects, ease reorganizations of major enterprises, and help describe the operational uses of things.  CONOPS are read by senior people who have little patience for long, meandering, wordy documents so we have learned to write crisply and succinctly.  You will find references to CONOPS throughout this document but in each case, the lesson also probably applies to any written document.

We also teach Project Dominance courses which are basically Project Management courses on steroids.  Project Managers are constantly writing and reading, editing and enhancing documents.  Our courses teach people to sort out, structure, organize and manage major projects of all kinds by helping them make the best possible use of the talent on their project teams: young and old colleagues, rookies and grey-beards, scientists and business managers – – – everyone has something to contribute.  And crisp, clear, unambiguous writing by each person on a team can save time, avoid frustration and help achieve the workplace harmony we all seek.

Note that this paper uses masculine and feminine forms interchangeably.  Some people like it, others don’t.  Also, a friendly warning: Please do not edit this paper.  Editing will cause you to focus on the minutia and you will miss the learning value.  Just relax, stay at the 50,000 foot level, read for meaning and content and resist the perfectly human urge to improve everything.  But if we have entirely forgotten something really important or we have gotten a concept or technique completely wrong, please tell us in an email.

In our classes we find that just about everyone gets something beneficial out of this paper.  But if you are working in a large company or in a government organization (Federal, State or local), or you plan to someday, you will really benefit from reading this paper and applying the no-nonsense lessons.  Now let’s get into the meat of effective writing!


Decide on the ultimate purpose of your document and make the main points up front. Make your key point in a single sentence, succinctly and in plain English, in the first part of every section/book.  Then support your conclusion/results with as much detail as needed to meet the objective of the report (inform, persuade, support, etc.).

Is the report intended to inform a sponsor (via documentation) about work recently completed?  Is it intended to persuade a sponsor to support a new idea or to award a follow-on contract?  Or will the report be used by other people, perhaps people in the sponsor’s chain of command, to secure funding for additional work?  Perhaps all three uses are foreseen for the report: it is usually safest to assume as much and then write for a technical audience but introduce each major section and key point with layman-language.  After the main point has been made, support your contentions with text and graphics and with the appropriate technical depth.

This writing technique of main-point-first is the reverse of how many scientists and engineers tend to write.  Most judge each other professionally on the thoroughness of their reasoning and on the extent to which they thought-through the various aspects of any given problem.  Consequently, when they write down their solution to a problem, they tend to present their solution using progressive-discovery.  This involves disclosing a little bit of information at a time, to lay the groundwork for their assertions and arguments.  This is supposed to convince the reader of the author’s qualifications and reasoning skills before the assertion or conclusion is unveiled.  The hope is that the reader will then be more inclined to accept the writer’s conclusion or position. Here is how this typically unfolds: First the scientist or engineer defines the problem they faced then they discuss aspects of sub-areas of the problem, weaving a web of complex interrelationships.  Then they discuss key issues associated with each aspect they uncovered.  Next come the assumptions they had to make (because nobody ever has a 100% complete data set) and then the trade-offs they made and why they made certain choices.  Lastly they describe the various conclusions they could have reached, and only then do they tell you their actual conclusions.

Why would people write this way?   It is human nature.  People inherently fear rejection of their ideas so they lay a supporting foundation prior to springing their solution on the audience. This minimizes the chance of initial rejection.  But if an entire section of a technical report is written in the discovery-style, it will inevitably have an unintended consequence: managers, technical and non-, who are reading for conclusions will be forced to wade through the entire document to understand the writer’s main conclusions.  Similarly, scientific and engineering professionals from disciplines other than that of the author must also wade through the text, and the often-unfamiliar acronyms, to get to the nuggets.  These readers will also find the detail too tedious.  Do not do this.  Use an “elevator speech” to state your conclusion up front and then support it as needed.

Always be clear, blatantly so if possible.  Whenever your chosen approach will result in clear benefits to the customer or user, say so! If faster processing will display results faster, or higher fidelity information will aid decision makers, or fewer boards will lower acquisition and life cycle support costs for your system, say so and do it up front in the section where you also present your conclusions.  But do not exaggerate: whereas engineers are likely to omit key competitive discriminators in technical reports (a serious mistake), marketers are likely to lean too far the other way (almost as serious), sometimes embellishing the benefits of a study’s findings.  To a technical reader, this may appear as an exaggeration of the facts, a “sales pitch” at best and dishonest at worst.  One way to highlight your competitive discriminators, without alienating the technical reader, is by quantifying the benefit and couching the description of the finding/result in terms of the benefit to the user. You can also write about how your approach reduces program/technical risk or reduces program cost.  An example might be in the case of a redesign effort that permits an assembly to be built using two processor boards instead of three.  One way for your team to subtly take credit for the positive aspects of this redesign would be as follows:

“While not required in the government’s Statement of Work, our team wanted to decrease the board count and believed it would be worth the 15 man-hours spent in redesign.  Our initial calculations were born out in the cost reduction assessment that followed our redesign: dropping from three to two boards in the receiver will have four major benefits – – – the initial acquisition cost of the prototype will be reduced by $3K (and each subsequent system will be $2K cheaper); we will save at least 110 man-hours in software development for the prototype because we eliminated a very complex board; one entire module can be deleted from the user’s maintenance training sessions; and a chapter can be removed from the course manual we will write as part of our contract.  Perhaps most importantly for the users, the system will now be much easier to configure and maintain.”

Remember a business or technical report may be initially written to inform but 80-90% of the time a technical report will be eventually used somewhere as a proposal to sell an idea.  Often this reuse of your report will take place without your knowledge or involvement and a later audience may be very different from the original one for whom you wrote the report.  Since the intent of a proposal is to persuade or convince someone to take an action, write every report with that possibility in mind.  Write the opening part of every document and every section with the assumption that the audience will be relatively unfamiliar with the subject matter.  Then dive as deeply as needed into the technical discussions.  Just remember the old Sears© slogan: “Something for Everyone” (technical and non-).

Next week we will discuss the critical importance of knowing your audience.  Mess this up and you’ll be writing for . . . well . . . nobody.  And we will briefly discuss content and style.

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Leader driven harmony #1: Communication by Handshake

by Mack McKinney on December 3, 2010

Introduction to This Series

This Series is about life and business.  We will discuss tips and techniques to enhance your business; reduce your stress level; simplify and strengthen your relationships with work colleagues, family and friends; in short we are going to show you ways to smooth out your business life.

Our family has lived and worked in a lot of places in the US and Europe.  In the US we have lived in the northeast, the mid-Atlantic and the south. We have also lived in Germany and I have spent lots of time in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.  I have done business with people from the US, Europe (western and eastern), Asia, South and Central America and the Middle East.  We have worked in small villages, medium towns and large cities.  From these places and the people I’ve known and worked with, I will be bringing you world class, time-tested, practical business tips and techniques.  We have cherry picked only proven, best-of-breed techniques from successful business and government professionals.  And we will concentrate on timeless lessons and tips that span multiple cultures and are applicable now and for many years to come.  Our first topic should be of interest to anyone doing business anywhere – – – the business handshake.

Communication by Handshake

Studies have shown that people decide how they feel about you – – – basically what kind of person you are and whether they will trust you – – – within the first fifteen seconds of your first meeting.  One study found that this decision is often made within the first eight seconds!  Wow.  Think about that.  In less time than it takes to read this sentence, a person you have only just met will judge your trustworthiness and character, based on . . .  well . . . what?  On the flimsiest of “evidence” that’s what.  Let’s see what information you are “telling” people about yourself during those initial seconds.  What can they possibly experience about you in those few seconds?

Studies of interpersonal dynamics estimate that communication between individuals is 70% non-verbal and only 30% verbal.  Humans have extremely heightened senses when first meeting other people.  We primarily use four organs to stream information to the brain:  Our eyes, ears, nose and skin.  What decisions are people making in those first few seconds?  In addition to the trustworthiness decision mentioned above, people often reach almost instantaneous conclusions about your personal hygiene, general health and level of fitness, honesty, self-confidence and friendliness.  What gives a person the cues they use to make these decisions about you?

  • Handshake
  • Body posture
  • Body odor
  • Personal appearance (clothing, shoes, appearance of teeth, breath, hair, make-up, skin condition, facial hair)
  • Eye contact (or lack thereof)
  • Smile (or lack thereof)
  • Your spoken words (content, delivery, accent, pitch and grammar)
  • Physical distance you put between people

We’ll discuss each of the above “messages”, what each communicates and how to manage them all, in upcoming weeks.  But let’s start with one incredibly important “transmission” that you can change, if needed, right away – – – your handshake.  Once you know what you are communicating with your handshake you can easily change what it says about you.  In fact, the handshake is probably one of the easiest impression-makers to change.

But first let’s dispense with two common myths especially rampant among Generation Y-ers (aka Millennials):

  1. “Handshakes are for old guys.  They don’t really matter these days, not like they used to anyway.” Wrong.  They matter very much in the business world, especially in the US and Western Europe.  It is true that handshakes were recorded in ancient Egypt but even today business is still based upon trust.  And handshakes can communicate trust.  Gen-X-ers, Baby Boomers and Traditionalists take handshakes very seriously, many of them without even realizing they do so.  If you don’t think your handshake matters to others, it probably won’t.  Because YOU won’t matter much to others.
  2. “My handshake is _______ [fill in the blank yourself – strong, quick, etc.] but it is just my style. And I like it that way. It reflects my unique personality and sets me apart from others.” Wrong.  If your handshake is odd in any way, YOU will be seen as being odd and odd people don’t get much cooperation in the business world, which is still based fundamentally on trust.  Let your excellent work or your conversational skill or something else set you apart, not an odd handshake.

A predictable, firm handshake is an important tool in business, in fact, in life, in general.  A handshake is over in a few seconds yet it helps us reach a number of conclusions about the other person.  We tend to take our own personal handshake style for granted, not giving it much thought.  Yet surveys of thousands students attending Solid Thinking’s Concept Development and Project Dominance courses over the years paint a very different story:  About a third of the handshakes we have experienced from course attendees since 2004 are … well… odd.  They are memorable, which is not good.  You do not want your handshake to be remembered by the people you meet.  Your handshake is part of the entire impression that others get when you meet them.  It is part of a person’s overall impression of you and you do not want it to be remembered any more than your teeth, body odor, hairstyle, tie color, cut of your suit or anything else.  In our courses we critique each attendee’s handshake style, what it “says” about them, and then we correct it as needed.  (And we do it in such a way as to be non-threatening and without causing embarrassment).

People draw several conclusions about you just from a brief handshake:

  • Too strong a grip is often interpreted as you trying to prove your strength.  Savvy business people also recognize that a too-strong grip can mean just the opposite as well: a weak person disguising their weakness behind an artificially strong grip in a handshake.  So a weak handshake can signal either of two things, both opposites and both bad.
  • Too weak a grip (offering the limp-fingered “fish” handshake or not wrapping your fingers completely around the other person’s hand) indicates you are a weak person.  In the US, Western Europe and the Middle East, this weakness can be perceived of men or women, young or old, from any culture.  And don’t think that appearing weak is just a good negotiating ploy, encouraging the other person to underestimate you.  It doesn’t work – – – the impressions a handshake provides are often subliminal.  People don’t even realize why they have a certain impression of a person after the handshake, just that they do.  Don’t risk being labeled weak or ineffectual from a limp handshake.  (More on the woman’s handshake, both giving and receiving, a bit later).
  • A handshake that lasts too long is interpreted as a sign the person will be “clingy” in any upcoming relationship (business or personal).  When you feel the other person let go, let go.
  • A handshake that is too brief often says the person isn’t interested in a relationship with me (wants out of here).  People expect a handshake to last a minimum of 3 seconds unless there are several people shaking hands in which case 2-3 seconds is acceptable.
  • A person who rotates his hand over mine, with both our hands going from vertical to horizontal, is saying that he is probably going to be difficult to deal with (at best overly dominant and aggressive and at worst pathological)

We want a “normal”, predictable handshake because that tells others they will be dealing with a normal, predictable person:  a firm handshake is perceived as belonging to a reliable person who “offers no surprises”; the right duration (3-5 seconds) tells us the person is interested in us but not overly so; direct eye contact means the person is more likely than not to be honest and sincere; and a sincere smile indicates a friendly person.

In the next post we will describe the eight simple parts of a solid, professional handshake and how to fine-tune yours.  We will also talk about hugging and cheek-kissing in place of handshakes, including when (and how) to do them without embarrassing yourself; the special rules for shaking hands with ladies and much more.  After reading the upcoming second half of this article you will have much greater confidence when meeting people and, with just a little practice, you’ll have a new tool in your social skills toolbox!

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation