Problem Solving 101 – How to Solve Problems

English: Mimi & Eunice, “Problems”. Categories...

Mimi & Eunice, “Problems”(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Ever notice how easy it is to solve other people’s problems? When presented with someone else’s conundrum it can be easy to assess the possibilities, look at what might work and develop solutions. To the person who owns the challenge, our proposed solutions may seem innovative, creative, and perhaps even ingenious. “How did you come up with that solution so fast and make it look easy!?”

When our personal paradigms, perspectives or biases do not weight us down, problem solving is relatively easy. We can get a handle on the problem; look at each possible solution and determine next steps. The challenge of course is that we don’t get to ignore our own difficulties and focus exclusively on other people’s problems. The biggest hurdle to resolving our own problems is that there are two kinds of solutions, the ones that work and the ones we like.

If your emotions, ego or attitude are all wrapped up in the outcomes, how do you avoid distracting yourself? How do we harness our own inventiveness and objectivity, while avoiding natural biases to solve problems? Start by taking a deliberate approach.

8 Tips For Problem Solving

  1. Figure out what the problem is. This may seem obvious, but unfortunately problems can stretch out longer than they need to because we assume what the problems are rather than taking the time to analyze them and make sure.
  2. Once you know what the problem is, refine and define it as clearly as possible. Develop a laundry list of elements that make the problem completely transparent. If there are elements that you cannot define, make a note of them too. Make sure that you list the barriers to resolution.
  3. Consider possible approaches to reach solutions. Do you want to ask for help? Do you need to do some research, interview experts or contemplate the problem more?
  4. Once you have gathered all of your information, put it in one place and organize it so that it makes sense and it is easy to identify individual elements. What do you need to do first? What parts hinge on others in order to be successful?
  5. Determine what represents low hanging fruit or easy fixes. Quick wins are not only easy, but are valuable because they boost morale and build momentum.
  6. What will take more time, money and resources to resolve? All solutions should be either easy or matter. What are the mini projects you need to do in order to get your big projects accomplished?
  7. Keep track of what you are doing as you do it. Make sure you are moving in the right direction by monitoring progress. Team and the communication within the team are critical. Getting the right people in place and making sure that communications is effective will go a long way towards avoiding unnecessary road blocks along the way.
  8. When the process is complete, make sure that the results you have achieved are the ones you wanted. Sometimes we achieve the right out come but create other problems along the way.


What do you think? How do you resolve challenges?  Ever solve a problem that had someone else in knots? Have you had a problem easily resolved by someone else?

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Twas The Night Before Christmas, I Was Thinking About My Blog


Hello everyone,

I’ll ask you all to pardon me for the absence of elegance in this post, but I’m afraid I couldn’t resist this idea once it had slipped into my head.

I wish you all the very best of the season and thank you for making this last year such a special one for me.

Twas the night before Christmas, I was thinking about my blog

Not a sentence was forming, my head was a fog.

The sentences were slow, they simply had no flare,

I searched the internet hoping inspiration would be there.

I thought of my fellow authors who had put their blogs to bed,

While visions of blanks pages with no titles danced in my head.

I started to nod off but I gave myself a slap

I needed to get a post up, this was no time for a nap.

When out of nowhere the fog began to scatter,

I sprang to my laptop and the keys began to clatter.

Ideas flowed onto the screen with a skip and a splash,

Words flowed from me without pause, in bit of a flash.

The mood, days prior had been somber and slow

Gave way to thoughts and ideas that made me glow

I would have my new post, I need not fear

I could give a nod to the season and celebrate with good cheer

Despite my slow server, so old and sick

I knew despite it, this post would be quick.

More rapid than twitter the couplets they came,

And I whistled while I worked, I’d never be the same!

Now dashes, now spaces, now pronouns and adjectives

Inflection, interjection, inversions and split infinitives

From the top of the page till the last word did fall

I wrote away! wrote away! til I’d written it all!

Dear readers forgive me for abandoning my work

But talking about comms before Christmas would make me a jerk

So pardon my lack of effective prose

It was to the mood of the season that I rose

Now comes the end of this little epistle

I wish you the best, may your new year’s sizzle

It’s been a pleasure to know you, though you’ve been out of sight

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

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Body Language – Managing You, So You Can Deliver Your Message – PART 2

Body LanguageYour body can give away secrets you’d never dream of sharing, so when going into a meeting or presentation, take the time to note your body language and the body language of those around you.  Even if you are presenting to a large gathering, you can get a sense of the room based on the level of buzz that happens before you present. Are people laughing and standing close together? Whispering in groups of two and three? Are they standing as individuals and making little contact? If the mood of the room is solemn, then you may want to rethink starting with a dirty joke. Noting your own body language ensures you are not delivering conflicting messages. You could be saying one thing, while your body is saying something else. I’d trust the message your body was delivering since it is more likely to be honest.

I once had a meeting with a client who was trying to gain the support of another organization for a government relations campaign.  The gentleman from the other organization sat  with his arms folded across his chest and as my client spoke the other gentleman continuously shook his head in the negative as he verbally indicated that we could count on his support. I knew before he left the room that he would be an obstruction to my client’s objectives. I also knew that he was willing to be dishonest about it.  That said a lot about his character (I probably wasn’t the first professional contact he’d lied to) and it provided me with enough information to better equip my client. Our communications materials were altered to reflect this consideration and in subsequent meetings with government officials when my suspicions were proven true, we were prepared.

Body language also provides you with indicators about whether or not you should continue a meeting or end it. I have sat in meetings with clients where  officials have gone from attentive to glazed, to outright bored. They began looking at their watch, folding and unfolding their arms, fidgeting in their seats and in one case; they even began to read the material provided by the client while the client was talking. If the person you are meeting with has had enough, then you’ve said enough. Believe me, no matter how long you keep talking after they stop listening, they are not getting the message. If you are going into a meeting as a team try to determine signals for bringing the meeting to an end or moving it along in advance. Then listen when you get the signal.

Mimicry can also help you to understand the body language of the person you are meeting with.  This is simply copying their body language in a non offensive way.  If they sit forward, you sit forward, if they lean back with their legs crossed, assume a similar pose.  Not only does this help to build better rapport with the person you are meeting, but it also means that you are sending your brain quiet messages about how effective your communications are and whether you need to change tactics.  If at some point you find yourself leaning back with your arms and legs folded, then you know that a message is being blocked or something about the message isn’t sitting well. Just remember not to over do it or you’ll weird them out.

A few more physical tips:

  • When shaking hands match the strength of your grip to theirs.
  • Face your audience head-on.
  • Avoid crossing your arms.
  • Don’t slouch in your seat or appear too passive.
  • Avoid putting your hands in your pockets.
  • Do not fidget with your hair, pens, coins …
  • Use gestures sparingly, keep them natural and spontaneous.
  • Don’t point a finger or raise a fist.
  • Don’t bang on the desk or the arm of your chair.
  • Keep facial expressions natural and friendly, don’t frown or raise a brow at a comment or question.
  • Keep your presentation fresh by altering your vocal pitch, volume and rate of delivery.
  • Speak clearly, enunciate, emphasize or punch certain words.
  • Use simple language, avoid jargon and acronyms.
  • Keep humour gentle.

Maintaining good eye contact is also an important component in face to face meetings.  Eye contact is a tool that helps you appear sincere, demonstrates confidence, engages your audience and can help you confirm understanding or detect other signals. Don’t stare (that’s just creepy) but hold the connection for a few seconds or while you complete an idea.

Finally, be polite to everyone. Aside from being the kind of thing most civilized people learn in kindergarten, being impolite can have unanticipated consequences. How believable is your message that you are client centred or community focused, if you have just blown off the receptionist and blustered your way past the assistant?  Remember the story of the airline executives (Every Contact Counts) and the impact their behaviour had on their government relations efforts. Based on inappropriate treatment of a staff member, I’ve seen rude visitors greeted by a Minister with a coldness that could chill wine. The way you behave when it doesn’t count says more about you than what you do when you’re in the spotlight.

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Leading with Heart

businessman-with-heart-big-id-100106166Perhaps in a time when online personas and personal branding are the norms, it’s not surprising that we would also see the emergence of a concept that is essentially grounded in being true to ourselves. Over the last few years, the idea of authentic leadership has taken hold of our corporate imaginations. We are encouraged to be true to our values and told to seek authenticity in our bosses. It’s meant to indicate everything from honesty in the workplace to corporate morality.

All the chatter makes me wonder if we weren’t supporters of authentic leadership before, what were we supporting?  Surely no one was championing that our leaders be inauthentic? I doubt that shareholders, employees or members ever thought, hey, hope that guy is a little hard to talk to, a -tad fake or – mildly dishonest.

The idea of authentic leadership first emerged in the 1960’s and originally focused on the activities of the organization rather than individual leaders. However, over time, it is an idea that has become grounded in what it means to be a powerful or effective leader.

Harvard offers courses in discovering your inner authentic leader. Forbes, Inc. and even Psychology Today offer up their opinions on what authentic leadership entails. Bill George, the contemporary Harvard guru of authentic leadership, described it this way in a 2015 Huffington Post article:

Authentic leaders:

  • Understand their purpose
  • Practice solid values
  • Lead with heart
  • Establish connected relationships
  • Demonstrate self-discipline

I’m can certainly relate to the idea of leading with heart and establishing connected relationships.  It means that it doesn’t have to be lonely at the top, a concept that has been pervasive in management circles for years. Being an isolated decision maker is an idea that would make most reasonable people shy away from leadership roles and leave the door open to narcissists and egomaniacs…hmmm that explains so much.

It isn’t all that long ago that heart and connectedness would have been seen as weaknesses. It speaks volumes about the shift we have seen in business thinking over the past decade. I’m not sure if it’s the success of new entrepreneurs, who motivated their people with carrots instead of sticks. Or, whether it’s the fact that we see slightly more women at the helm of big successful organizations or if it’s just that common sense stepped in and said, organizations are run by people, not androids. Whatever the cause, it’s a move in the right direction.

Related Reading:

Image courtesy of pakorn at

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How Do You Know You’re Not Producing Crap?

how do you know you are not producingWhat would you do if you found out that your best practices had become your worst practices? Would you stop doing them? Most of us would probably say yes, but its not that easy is it? If we could stop when we recognized that something was a bad idea, then we would have far fewer smokers, alcoholics, gamblers and other addictive behaviors. 

Ok, what if we removed addictive behaviours from the conversation and simply looked at those behaviours that are just bad practice, we would stop right?  Well, actually, not really or not easiliy.  Often what people do instead of changing their behavior is to work harder at their old models.  They don’t do it out of stupidity or spite, they do it because they are absolutely convinced  that if they apply themselves, if the tools are right, if everyone would do their part, if any array of things were different  then  the old models would be effective and they in turn would be proven correct. On a regular basis new and better ways of doing things are revealed and ignored.

Psychology Today shared results from recent psychological research that revealed that the five worst learning practices are the ones we are most likely to use in schools.  Think about that. We teach our young with methods that are most likely to ensure they don’t learn.  Do we hate our kids?  Unlikely.  Are we committed to seeing them learn and develop new ideas? Yes.  So why aren’t we using the five best learning practices? 

Think about the corporate world’s persistent use of brainstorming sessions as a way to generate new ideas.  Research has shown that we actually generate more ideas when we are alone, than when we are in group settings.  The reasons are many, ranging from a reluctance to share because we might be ridiculed, to feeling too much pressure to perform.  Regardless of the reasons for low output, we know that we are less innovative in group settings, yet we not only persist in brainstorming sessions, but we work hard to make them work better.

What makes the sessions so very appealing is that we like how we feel when we participate.  We feel that we have produced more.  They generate trust and generally make us feel more connected to our colleagues.  Not bad for a bad practice and if we had feeling good as our objective, then that would be great, but that is not the outcome we are looking for from the activity, so why persist? The answer is simple and really complex, we don’t like change.

Change is hard and it can seem frightening or futile. We will work hard to avoid change. If we can understand what motivates us to do the things we do, then we are in a better position to manage performance, manage outcomes and manage expectations.  As leaders we need to understand that what we are comfortable doing isn’t always what we should be doing. Some of the most destructive words in any workplace, community or culture can be,  “That’s how we have always done it.”

This s not to say that traditions are wrong or old way erroneous. We just need to  be aware of why we cling to activities and ways of doing things.  We should also constantly be looking for the ways to improve.  We may determine that the old ways are still the best ways, but being blind to possibility, or closed to opportunity is not only a way to fail ourselves, but when managing people it can be disastrous for an organization.

One of the most interesting aspects of social media is that it behaves like a continuous improvement process.  It never stops assessing and adjusting, it asks participants to continuously adapt, it regularly produces metrics that you can measure performance by and it never stops changing. Not bad practices for the rest of our lives. Not surprisingly, it also happens to be one of the few places where brainstorming actually produces a quantity of innovative ideas.

Applying some of the adaptability that we use to navigate the social media world in the real world would be a great start to ensuring we are not producing crap. What do you do to stay effective? How do you ensure that your practices are still best practices? Share your ideas with me in the comment section.


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We Are Built For Change

We Are Built For ChangeWhen you work in the health sector, you know that something new is always around the corner.  When you do communications in the health sector, you’d be lucky to get to the corner without something changing. Change is not just inevitable, it happens faster all the time, we do not walk forward, we leap. At times it can feel overwhelming, yet once it’s complete you may wonder what all the fuss was about, but then, we’re built for change. We are designed to shift, bend and flow in new directions. We are never the same person twice. It’s important to understand that our bodies anticipate change even if our minds shy away.

Consider brain plasticity, it’s a fascinating subject.  What it tells us is that even in the face of traumatic physical impact, our brains learn to reroute and work in different ways to accomplish the goals we set out to achieve. When we learn new things, our brains physically change, we forge new neural networks to accommodate our new skills. Conversely, when we don’t think about something for long periods of time, those networks may begin to decline and in some instances may even break.  Our brains are a use it or lose it proposition. Our gray matter can thicken or thin depending on what we do. In fact, our brains can change functionally, chemically and physically. We are literally creatures of transition.

When we shy from change or fight it we are fighting our very nature.  This does not mean that all change is good or good for us, but that our instincts should be to understand why the change is happening as opposed to fighting it simply because it’s happening.  What our body’s reaction to change also tells us is that we should learn to embrace new opportunities as they are presented. We should at least take the time to learn more about the options that are available to us rather than always playing it safe, which is sometimes just another word for stagnant.

I’ve worked with and in many different organizations as they moved through change. Some changes seemed impossible when we started, almost monolithic in scope.  Others were more subtle but still required a shift at a fundamental level. I have managed through professional transformations, new service delivery models, technology changes, policy changes and political changes. Although they all held their unique challenges, the thing that stayed consistent were the reactions of people. There were those who keenly embraced the coming transformation, the majority who moved along at a slower rate of change and those who fought it until the very end. When I see broad scale resistance to change I know that there has been a failure to communicate the need for change effectively.

The single most important feature of change management is communications. By that, I don’t mean leadership telling people what they need to change, but involving them in the process of change.  This means informing them early and keeping them appraised of change all along the way with persistence and consistency.  It involves listening to their input and allowing them to adjust. We are built for change, but we still need to adjust to new tasks.  Imposed change does not allow that process to take place in a healthy or efficient way. If we wake up one morning and can’t use our right arm, our brain isn’t going to suddenly reroute and make it useful again. We will need to take time and consistently practice the use of that right arm until the brain redirects messages and finds new pathways or we will need to learn to rely on our left arm, either way, change isn’t instantaneous. When change happens in our personal or work environments it is no different, we need time to adapt.  Even when we decide to embrace change ourselves, we still need to take the time to adjust to that decision or we will become overwhelmed.

John P Kotter, former Harvard Business School professor, founder of Kotter International and well know author on organizational change management, identifies eight steps for successful change management:

Step 1: Establish a Sense of Urgency: Help others see the need for change and they will be convinced of the importance of acting immediately.

Step 2: Create the Guiding Coalition: Assemble a group with enough power to lead the change effort, and encourage the group to work as a team.

Step 3: Develop a Change Vision: Create a vision to help direct the change effort, and develop strategies for achieving that vision.

Step 4: Communicate the Vision for Buy-in: Make sure as many as possible understand and accept the vision and the strategy.

Step 5: Empower Broad-based Action: Remove obstacles to change, change systems or structures that seriously undermine the vision, and encourage risk-taking and nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions.

Step 6: Generate Short-term Wins: Plan for achievements that can easily be made visible, follow-through with those achievements and recognize and reward employees who were involved.

Step 7: Never Let Up: Use increased credibility to change systems, structures, and policies that don’t fit the vision, also hire, promote, and develop employees who can implement the vision, and finally reinvigorate the process with new projects, themes, and change agents

Step 8: Incorporate Changes into the Culture: Articulate the connections between the new behaviors and organizational success, and develop the means to ensure leadership development and succession.

 What do you do to manage change in your life? Do you race towards change? Do you need time to accommodate change?

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How To Be A Charismatic Leader

How To Be A Charismatic Leader -

We have such a laundry list of things we consider important to effective leadership that I often wonder if a leader could exist who met even half of the requirements. We want leaders who are brilliant, multi-talented, visionary, creative, insightful and the list goes on. The job gets harder still when we start to pull in abstract characteristics like charm or charisma. Imagine trying to practice your compelling. Perhaps they offer courses in being fascinating at Harvard. When we start to describe that quintessential something that great leaders possess I think our imaginations can contribute more than any one leader can produce.

Despite my misgivings about the importance of the charm factor, I can‘t escape the fact that there are a preponderance of leaders who also happen to be charismatic.  Those people who walk into a room and draw others to them. There are men and women who can motivate others to do as they say, even when what they are saying is nonsense. If great leaders are charming and leadership can be taught, it follows that charm and charisma can also be taught. So I went looking for my leadership charm school.

Cover of "Social Intelligence: The New Sc...

Cover via Amazon

As it happens, I didn’t have to look very hard. Almost immediately, I was overwhelmed with articles on emotional intelligence or social intelligence. There has been a lot of research done in this area over the past twenty years with perhaps the most notable work being done by psychologist and author, Daniel Goleman. His book, called simply, Emotional Intelligence, first published in 1995 marked the start of a proliferation of literature in this area.  His most popular work since that time is his 2006 book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, which really marks the expansion of his theories.

Whether you are looking at emotional or social intelligence, it really comes down to your ability to know and control yourself so that you respond to the people around you appropriately. What’s more, it’s reading them and then knowing how to use those cues to influence or motivate their behaviour. In effect, it comes down to your capacity to step outside yourself, and accurately assess your environment and the people in it.  Not surprisingly, the ability to deep listen was an essential component of emotional intelligence. If you can’t listen, you can’t lead or at least not well. Emotional intelligence is seen as a more predictive trait than IQ in determining effective leadership.

When you look at some of the more consistent measures of social intelligence, then you also see why the behaviours associated with descriptions of charm or charisma are also seen as factors in high emotional intelligence.  The best part is, emotional intelligence can be learned.  The most difficult part is determining that you actually want to learn because you will have to remove old habits and ingrain new ones.  Not an easy task as any one who has tried and failed to diet successfully knows.

At the heart of emotional intelligence is emotional control.  Control over yourself and in many respects, those around you. It is the ability to stay calm in an emergency or peaceful when things or people conspire to frustrate or make you angry. Emotional intelligence enables you to chose the feeling you’re going to feel best about when you reflect back on any given exchange.

Below are some tips for achieving emotional intelligence:

1)      Be self-aware: Being self-aware means that you are always present in the moment.  If you are talking to someone, they are your priority, the centre of your focus. Remember its not just what they are saying, but what their body is reporting to you.

2)      Know Your Options: Be aware of the choices you can make.  Sometimes that may mean choosing not to respond or engage in a behaviour.

3)      Know Your History: History has always been a terrific teacher and in our personal lives that remains the case. Be aware of which actions have worked for you in the past and which have failed. Learn from experience.

4)      Be at Peace: Regardless of the setting, stay calm. The calm gives you the space to make smart decisions.

5)      Win-Win:  One of the things you quickly discover in lobbying is that win-win outcomes will mean that results last longer. Conflict oriented approaches tend to result in more conflict.

6)      Respect and acceptance: If someone disagrees with you look at it as an opportunity to learn more.  This is not easy, nor is it about being Pollyanna.  This is tied to remaining calm and being aware of your options.

7)      Abundance. Benjamin Zander‘s and Rosamund Stone Zander’s book, The Art of Possibility includes this mindset as part of the critical path to achieving your objectives.  It opens you up to sharing and exchanging ideas. Knowledge shared is power squared.

8)      Patience: This is easily the one I have the hardest part with, but by embracing it my stress goes down and my productivity goes up.

9)      Delayed gratification.: This is very much like patience with the exception that you can have something, but choose not to because by waiting it will be better.

10)   Foresight. This is really about using your imagination and knowledge to think about what might happen next and then following a chain of consequences out as far as you can.

11)   Deep listening: This is back to body language, it’s about hearing more than words. Try to remember that 85% of what we understand comes from unspoken cues.

12)   No egos allowed: Although we like to think of ourselves as the centre of our personal universe, if you are the centre then you are not focused on the people around you or the options available to you.

Have you ever met a leader who had it all or came close? How easy do you think it would be to gain more emotional intelligence? What do you like in a leader?

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The beauty of plain

Embraced by WordsWhen I dream of writing, the words are chosen with care.  They are short and clear to all who read them and most of all, they are plain.

Plain language writing is not what you think. It is not for the slow. It is not for those who cannot read. It is not a tool for others. Well, it is all of those things and more. Plain language helps you to share the complex. It puts your audience first and makes sure you reach the busy. Think about that for a moment. Who has time to untangle complex language so that they can get to the meaning? How often do we simply skim ideas because they will take too much time to understand?

Plain language isn’t about how smart your reader is. It’s about how smart you are. It’s about how important your message is. If it matters, it should be plain.

Out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge.

Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all.

Winston Churchill

 Did you know that the general public has low literacy levels? The exceptions are Japan and Finland. If most of your readers are in North America, this means you need to keep things plain. Plain does not mean creative stays home and boring takes flight. You’re probably using plain language techniques now. It’s about using words that are better known, more familiar and more clearly understood. Take a look below. To make language plain you would replace the words on the left with the words on the right.


  1. Accomplish                      Do
  2. Ascertain                          Find out
  3. Disseminate                    Distribute
  4. Endeavor                          Try
  5. Optimum                          Best
  6. Strategize                         Plan
  7. With regards to               About


Plain language is about being approachable. Using a conversational tone instead of formal language. It’s about using logic when you present. That can be a challenge for me at times, but with a little patience I generally get there. It’s really about using common sense and a little patience.

Plain language is also about the length of sentences and the space around them. White space is your friend. Do not bury words in complex patterns. Give words room to breath and be seen. Plain language is about the fonts you choose. Are they complex? Do you have to look twice to identify letters? It’s about the use of examples, charts and images to illustrate ideas. Images are popular on social media because people can understand them quickly. They make the text come alive. They go a long ways towards making ideas clearer. The same goes for bullets and bold type to make ideas pop.


“Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in a few words.”



When I work on an annual report, I work with the writer and designer to ensure that readers can easily see the most important ideas. Those ideas are repeated in the text. They become images, graphs, headlines and call-outs. We make sure that they have enough space around them to be seen. The objective is to make sure that if the reader just skims the report t still walk away with all of the right messages.


Here are some tips for planning your next document.

  • Use titles & subtitles that are informative and summarize text
  • Cut out non-essential information (cover only 3-5 points)
  • Prioritize information and put the most important at the beginning
  • Use a formal table of contents or introductory paragraph
  • Keep sentences under 35 words
  • Use the active voice where possible


It’s also useful to use verbs instead of nouns for your action. Sometimes this is as easy as removing “ion” from words. For example, which of the two sentences below sounds simpler?


Could you give an explanation for why you suggest I make a modification to the way I present information?

Could you explain why I should modify the way I present information?


In case you think that I believe using plain language is easy, I don’t. I started out by saying that when I dream of writing, the words are chosen with care. Plain language takes time. It takes commitment and perhaps more than anything, it takes practice. It is worth doing. It allows you to move from good to great and the best part is, you’re probably already doing a lot of it.


Do you use plain language principles in your work? What kinds of everyday items do you think use plain language? Can you think of things that could benefit from plain language?

Embraced by Words (Photo credit: Robbert van der Steeg)

Posted in Communications, Internal Communications, public relations | Tagged , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Mean What You Say, Know The Meaning of Sayings

English: A bandwagon in the 2009 Great Circus ...

English: A bandwagon in the 2009 Great Circus Parade, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few years a ago a friend of mine who teaches and does research through various universities was trying to rally some of her colleagues around an initiative and used the phrase, “Jump on the band wagon.” Shortly afterwards she was reprimanded by the administration for using politically incorrect language. Apparently the interpretation of the phrase she used was that it was racist. Confused?  So was she.

To me the phrase means, go along with an idea or get on board with an idea, but apparently the interpretation was somehow associated with First Nations and Inuit bands and in a derogatory way. It was only recently that someone was explaining to me the origins of the expression. It started with PT Barnum and he was referencing the band’s wagon.  That is the wagon the band performed on…no connection to First Nations or Inuit people whatsoever. It would seem the reprimand said more about the prejudice of the university administration than it did about my friend.

The bow of the ship

The bow of the ship (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The experience made me think about the origins of phrases that we commonly use, or as the case may be, expressions that we assume are commonly known, but are really regional in origin or known by specific people. A friend of mine once received a document from a client that was so full of local phrases she couldn’t make sense of it. She called me to see if I could help.  The client who lived on Canada’s east coast had used such lively phrases as, “cut of his jib” and “shipshape and Bristol fashion” and my personal favorite, “A shot across the bow.”

My friend had no idea what her client was talking about but as it happens, I could explain it, not because I knew the east coast of Canada, but because my family comes from an island and there are more than a few fisherman in the family.  The phrases that were stumping her were all nautical in their origins.

Using expressions and old sayings can add colour and interest to language and can even be instrumental to the adoption of ideas by making things sound more familiar to the recipients. They can also be distracting and disturbing if they are misinterpreted. Consider the expression, “cotton picking”, depending on context it can have a wealth of meaning. Does “Wait a cotton- picking minute” mean the same things as, “Don’t touch me with those cotton picking hands.”?

So before using them, know your audience and more importantly, say what you mean and know the meaning of your sayings.

Have you ever come across a phrase that left you stumped?  Or used an expression that made your audience confused?

Some expressions and their origins from the “Phrasefinder

Expression Meaning Origin
A shot across the bow. A warning shot, either real or metaphorical. The action taken by an approaching ship to warn off another.
Cut of his jib. His general appearance and demeanor. Some ships had more than one jib sail. Each country had its own style of sail and so the nationality of a sailing ship, and a sailor’s consequent opinion of it, could be determined from the jib.
Jump on the bandwagon Join a growing movement in support of someone or something The wagon the band performed on which would pick up followers as it made it’s way across a town on the way to the circus/performance.
Done a runner Leaving in a hurry under questionable circumstances. From running out of a restaurant before paying for a meal.
Quid pro quo. Something given in return for an item of equivalent value – like tit for tat. From Latin meaning, something for something.
Cotton picking minute bothersome, difficult or challenging Earliest reference from the UK and associated with the hard work of picking cotton.
Cotton picking hands referring to someone n a derogatory way Largely associated with the American south (though there are early references from the UK) and with the hands of the cotton picker, generally black person.  Can be interpreted as racist.
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Wanted: Communications Goddess

Wanted - Communications Goddess

When job descriptions become a communications nightmare.

Chatting with old colleagues, fellow communicators and bloggers on LinkedIn is always good fun and every once in a while I come across something that makes me want to share more widely. In this instance, it started with a series of odd job descriptions that I came across a few months back. In one notable announcement the job description ran for more than three pages…that’s over three pages of required skills and responsibilities. One of my more discerning fellow communicators posted the ad to our LinkedIn group and posed the question, “Who could possibly qualify for this job?”


Wanted Communications Goddess

Many of us read the ad, there are about 163,212 in this particular group, and with some amazement we debated about who had written it. Who could be so clueless? Was there an internal candidate they were trying to protect or avoid? It couldn’t have been written by a human resources professional…we hoped. While we mused over who could have been so silly, more concerning was, who would apply for it? Surely anyone foolish enough, confident enough, delusional or desperate enough would quickly find herself overloaded and overwhelmed. No one thought the individual could exist who had all the skills. The responsibilities were simply too diverse, web master, product marketer, social media strategist and on and on it went. We decided that even if there was someone on the planet who could lay claim to most of the skills, when on earth were they ever going to find the time to put them into play? It made us all wonder about the firm who posted the ad. What on earth would their culture be like?


No Super Heroes Need Apply

The challenge with a bad job description is that it not only means you won’t find who you’re looking for but it also takes a toll on how your organization is perceived. Jobs with ridiculous descriptions or ones that have to be posted multiple times make people think twice about applying. They assume the role was filled and vacated and that begs the question, what happened? If you do manage to find some brave soul to apply then you have to manage their inevitable despondency and disengagement. To add insult to injury, it often takes a long time for the employer to know that it’s the description that has failed and not the employee. In worst-case scenarios employees are fired and replaced several times before someone figures out that they should rethink the job. Most of the time employees figure out pretty quickly that the job simply can’t be done, but coming to that realization and trying to explain it to a boss are two very different things. In some instances the employee throws themselves at the job with great abandon hoping that if they just apply a heroic effort they can make it happen. Burnout will eventually get them and then it’s back to the drawing board.

Noted human resources consultant, Lou Adler explores the job description challenge in various articles on LinkedIn and Inc., as well as, in his book, Hire With Your Head: Using Performance-Based Hiring to Build Great Teams. Adler suggests that instead of describing a job based on skills, hiring managers should consider what the right candidates would need to do in order to be successful in the job. He argues that when performance is the lens through which a job is viewed, flaws in the description become evident. He also suggests that managers interview departing employees to discover if the job has changed over time. Take a look at this short video.


What do you think? Would you would prefer, to be interviewed on performance or skills? Would you be more responsive to a job description based on skills or performance? Ever come across a job that would take a goddess to perform?

Image courtesy of Gameanna/



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