Sunday, August 31, 2014

Oh Captain, My Captain

William Arthur Ward said, “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails”.  If one considers our clients, bosses or colleagues as the captains of their respective ships, it is obvious which captain would be most desirable to serve.

The pessimist can act in a number of ways under duress.  Probably the first reaction from these types of personalities is to assign blame before fully investigating the problem.  This is probably because pointing fingers is so much easier than rolling up your sleeves and looking for solutions.  Sometimes so much time is wasted in the blame game, both by the act of blame and then the obligatory defense of those blamed, that the problem can spiral out of control.  One only has to think back to a hurricane named Katrina to support this theory. 

The optimist is too quick to throw in the anchor.  Inaction is their course of action, with the expectation that higher powers will set them on the right course eventually.  While the winds are blowing, the safe thing in their minds may be to sit tight.  This may be the right thing to do in a typhoon (think if Gilligan and the Skipper had dropped anchor during that three hour tour), but when in competition with other ships, this inaction may -put too much space between you and your rivals.

The realist takes a good, hard look at the wind and adjusts their course of action with their original destination in mind.  Blame becomes irrelevant and the thought of stopping never crosses their mind.  I think back to Apollo 13, when the astronauts’ vessel did not have enough power to return to Earth, the crew used the gravity of the moon to sling shot it back home.  Hundreds of people pulled together with the common goal to get Tom Hanks and those other two guys home.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Strong, Silent Typewriter

The Strong, Silent Typewriter

Garry Cooper was the strong, silent type.  I think he would have done well in business.  When it comes to writing it is almost always better to use fewer words to express a thought rather than more.  This is especially true in business writing and the same can be said for presentations and speaking.  That is not to say that one should haphazardly remove words, or force sentences to their minimum lengths, but a well thought out paragraph should remove extraneous phases and redundancies.  As all things relate to Seinfeld; this is not a suggestion to gloss over the body of the story...

But this takes some time and thought, as does improving anything, and that is why it seems to seldom happen in business correspondence.  To illustrate, below are some of my favorite quotes on the subject:

Thomas Jefferson quipped, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

Blaise Pascal said (in French), “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

This last historical example I will use is not only clever, but ironic.  In Hamlet, Polonius states “brevity is the soul of wit” in a long winded explanation as to why the Prince is mad.  The Queen then interjects, “More matter, with less art.”  Quite possibly the most elegant way to say, “Get on with it,” that I have ever come across.

If I can be indulged with one personal example, I was working with an engineer on faucet specification.  Exciting, no?  There was a major difference between the faucet the facility manager suggested and the type we typically use.  First I received a ten minute phone call from the engineer explaining why the one faucet was specified and how they differed, the details of which are not relevant here.  Then the same engineer sent me the product cut sheets along with a very lengthy email further explaining the situation.  My task was to distill all this information to get a decision from the Owner.

I was able to shave 1/3 of the word count from the original engineer generated email and send it to the owner for a value-based decision.  I believe it was clear, concise and yet courteous.  I actually got a note back from the engineer thanking me for sending out the question because, as he put it, my correspondence was what he was trying to say in his head, it just wasn't coming out that way.

The Gettysburg Address contained 270 words, roughly 200 less than this article.  Lincoln’s Address was not the only speech that day. Edward Everett gave a two hour eulogy prior to Lincoln’s two minute talk and no one remembers the former’s content.

For the record, the owner responded the way we hoped he would and used only nine words to do so.