Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Power of Punctuation

One of my favorite children's books is Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! by Lynne Truss. The book helps kids to see how placement of a comma can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence. The title of the book, itself, refers to a panda's diet. As in, pandas eat shoots and leaves. However, an added comma can turn the sentence into that of a gun-toting bear who, after a meal, fires off a few rounds and splits. A big difference, wouldn't you agree?

The power of punctuation is quite remarkable, and it is admirable to read how Ms. Truss is able to take a concept that can be quite overwhelming to many adults and break it down so simply that even a 7-year-old can understand its importance.

With Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and plain old email running our communication lives these days, it is becoming more and more challenging to stick to the basics of grammar. Capitalization has gone by the wayside; semicolons, colons and parentheses now symbolize emotions; and, abbreviations seem to be the rule, rather than the exception. After speaking with concerned parents, frustrated professors, and dumbfounded employers, I can ascertain that the age of texting may have ushered in a surge of written communication, but its impact has been more of a curse than a blessing.

I recently read an article that suggested that online social networking sites and texting are actually helping communication. While I understand that communication itself probably is flourishing (think of all the long-lost friends with whom you might have recently reconnected and now chat with daily), grammar - and thereby "proper" communication - is nearly a lost art.

This is a problem because business communication centers on proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Consider this scenario: a small business (let's name it Company A) is selected to submit a proposal for a project that will exponentially increase its market share and, also, make it a leader in its particular field. As is typical with requests for proposals, at least two or three other companies also are asked to bid for the job. Company A works diligently on its proposal by analyzing the job as a whole, creating a plan of action for each step, determining pricing for the individual components of the project, and running the final budget by each department head to ensure that the numbers are on target. Company A seems to be doing everything right.

However, the time to compile all that information into a written proposal arrives and Company A hands it off to the sales manager, who is a remarkable salesperson, but is sorely lacking written communication skills. He writes the proposal as best he can, adds a few "cool"-looking charts and graphs, runs the spell-check function, prints it, slaps on a pretty cover page, and mails a hard copy to the potential client. A few weeks later, Company A learns that Company B won the account. After hearing through the grapevine that Company B's bid was actually a bit higher than theirs, they start to wonder why they (who have been in business longer than Company B and would likely have more to offer the potential client) were not chosen.

One look at their proposal would have given them their answer: spelling and grammar errors that turned a good proposal (that would have won them the business) into a sloppy mess. The potential client read Company A's carelessly written report and assumed that a business that would lack such attention to detail on a proposal would most likely lack that kind of attention to the project being proposed. Company B's proposal was flawless, detailed, easy to comprehend, and visually stunning. They wanted to contract a company that exhibited that level of pride and professionalism in its work.

"The devil is in the details" is an expression for a reason. Proper punctuation, perfect grammar and spelling, and an eye-catching presentation require significant attention to detail, and can, therefore, be easily overlooked. However, carelessness can make or break a project, or even a business. So you need to ask yourself, "can my company afford to overlook the power of punctuation?" Chances are, the answer is "no."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Networking Game

For many business people, the first step in marketing their services is the most difficult: networking. In fact, it stirs fear and causes serious panic in some who truly have a hard time meeting and greeting, wining and dining, and all the other social norms that are associated with networking.

The good news is that networking doesn't come easy to most people, so those other business owners who you meet at these events are often just as nervous as you are. Here are a few tips to help you break the ice:
  1. Set Goals - before you attend an event, think: Why am I going to this? Who am I looking to meet - potential clients, good contacts, business partners? What do I want to accomplish before the event is over?
  2. Prepare - all events are different and you need to know what to expect before you go. A Chamber of Commerce after work function will likely call for business attire. A weekend function may be more casual. A fund raiser may have a theme. If networking is already difficult for you, then think of how difficult it will be if you feel especially awkward for not looking like you fit in. Also, make sure you know if you need a ticket to the event and, if so, can you purchase it in advance or buy it at the door. Do you need cash or will a credit card suffice? Finally, know what you are planning to tell others about yourself and your business. Take a stack of business cards with you; that should be something you do everywhere you go.
  3. Smile - a big smile goes a long way in helping you approach others. Now, I'm not talking about an inappropriate, goofy smile that makes you seem overly-cheerful or juvenile, but a pleasant, warm smile that lets others know that you are someone they might want to meet.
  4. Mingle - approach others, whether they are standing in groups or sitting alone, and introduce yourself confidently. A strong handshake is a must. It conveys self-confidence and assertiveness. Don't spend too much time with one group, since your goal is to cover a lot of territory. Remember step #1: set your goals for the event and stick to them.
  5. Follow Up - after the event, you'll realize that you've come home with dozens of cards from others who were there doing the exact same thing you were doing. These people gave you their cards for a reason: they want to be acknowledged by you and, ultimately, get your business. And, while you may not need the services of all the people whose cards you attained, you may know of someone who can use those services. In either case, let the people you met know that it was a pleasure to meet them and that you will think of them the next time you require XYZ service/product. If you want to make an even greater impression, think of someone who can use that person's service or product and refer them to him/her. There is a good chance that that small effort will make you stand out above all the other people he or she met at the event, and he or she will feel inclined to return the favor.
These are just a few pointers that I've picked up over the years. There are dozens of others that I'd be happy to share with you. And, if you find that networking is so challenging that you don't want to tackle it alone, then you can always contact me and I'll help you get the ball rolling.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Frustrations in Business Writing

As a business owner (particularly, as the owner of a communications business), it is necessary that I write about my services, market them via the appropriate channels, develop a user-friendly, informative website, and network like crazy. Easier said than done.

What's interesting is that I have no trouble communicating about other people's businesses. In fact, I thrive on it. But when it's time to market myself, I'm nearly at a loss. Why? I wondered.

After spending countless hours on my website's content, I realized what the problem is: I'm too close to the subject. I know TOO much. And, knowing too much can be as bad as knowing too little, at least when one is trying to write about one particular subject. Nothing is more frustrating to a writer than a blank page. It's not that I don't have hundreds or even thousands of ideas floating in my head. The issue is that I can't contain them and put them on paper in a cohesive manner. There's just too much information! Luckily, I know how to write a plan, develop a flowchart and then break each section down so that it can be easily managed (or at least more easily edited!).

The positive outcome of this exercise in frustration is that it has afforded me the opportunity to state with the utmost conviction that writing about one's business is much more difficult than it seems. The good news is that I can do the dirty work for you, so you won't ever have to worry about it. Now, if I could only get through my own site...