Category: Clarity

5 tips for responding to emails that will save your professional life

Emails are one of the most dynamic and unwittingly dangerous communication tools that exist. And they are here to stay.

As we jet through facebook, tweeter and google+ on to the emerging applications of the future, the email will take the ride buckled into the seat right beside ours, sipping a cocktail, sure of its destiny.

The use of this powerful tool calls for no license, training or mentorship. It is a technology open for all to use — freely and innocently. The email is seen as an efficient, flowing and communication-fomenting vehicle.

Until your first crash.

It is then that you realize the amount of damage this tool can cause in the blink of a human eye. And you also realize, much to your horror, that emails are less biodegradable than steel. They are permanent.

Once you push the send button, they cannot be taken back or amended. Ever. Just that simple thought makes me shudder.

As a content and communication strategist, I believe we all need a little guidance to avoid disasters — a few handy tips or rules that will help to keep our professional relationships healthy and robust.

Before I go on to the 5 tips, however, I first need to make a confession.

A few days ago, I broke my own key rules on responding to professional emails. I also broke the back-up rule that I had set up in case I wanted to break a key rule.

Of course, a small crash ensued.

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The three strategies of the classic world

After many journeys to distant lands as a kind of modern day Ulysses, after wandering far and wide, back and forth over the seas, I finally arrived safely to the mythical port of Ithaca—Barcino, in my story.

In my voyages over the years I have come to know scores of projects and their strategies from many different lands. I have loved them, nourished them, warred with them, and even left many of them to travel their own journeys with new maps and cunning.

As I reflect back on the types of strategies I have seen used throughout the world by entrepreneurs, organizations, and businesses, I see clearly that they can be categorized into three classic groups that I will briefly describe below.

In honor of my own journey’s end at the ancient Roman port, today known as Barcelona, I thought it appropriate to coin names for these strategies that still thrive with good health in our modern times. Thus was born: strategius spiritum, strategius erraticum and strategius precisum. 

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The shimmer and shine of failures

Failures. We don’t talk about them much. We don’t put them on our CVs, and we don’t open our cover letter, job interview or project pitch referencing them.

But maybe we should.

Risky? Perhaps.

Sassy? Yes.

Illustrative of our capacity to pay attention, learn and evolve by looking at situations squarely in the eye and having the courage to keep going, this time with more understanding and skill? Definitely.

And the project scouts, headhunters, team builders, above average bosses and great human relations professionals know how very important it is. As a matter of fact, fearless learning from failures could be the most important ability you have.

It goes something like this: if you have any real experience in the work world then you have surely been part of a project that has failed (meaning it didn’t meet objectives, either those formally stated or personally desired). And you know what? That’s great. That’s absolutely perfect. There is no better opportunity to learn—no better opportunity to put your analytical, critical and creative thinking skills to use than to take a failed project apart.

Maybe this is not initially easy for you, and that’s understandable. Here’s what you can do right now. Sit back, push your chair away from your computer a bit or set down whatever screen you have in your hands, raise your eyes upward toward your brows and think: what was the last or the biggest project failure of mine? Not a mistake, not a misstep, not a bad decision, but a true failure. Meaning, you did not do what you set out to do—either with your own money and resources or those of others, it doesn’t matter for this exercise. The only criterion is that the project did not work. Period.

Now that you have that in mind, let any surge of emotion that comes up pass through you like the wind that passes through the leaves of a tree, to then become still and calm again. Spend a few minutes thinking about what went wrong, strategically speaking. No blaming other people. Think objectively and be cool about it. Deconstruct the whole project if necessary; find the parts that were weak, the blind spots, see what was missing or overly abundant. Name it all, honestly. Free of guilt and resentment. Examine it, cut and polish it like a diamond in the rough. Discover its size, dimension, shape and contours and let the opportunity shine so brightly that you become mesmerized by its reflective brilliance. You, my friend, have discovered a treasure.

Why can we learn even more from a failed project than a successful one? Because there is precise and detailed information about the exact type of action, absence, oversight, thinking or strategic misstep that lead a project down the wrong road or a road to nowhere. This information is your treasure. It will turn your strategic toolbox into a treasure chest, and if you do this exercise honestly and with genuine curiosity, you will never ever make those same mistakes again. Your next projects will be strategically clearer and have a greater chance of meeting goals and of being successful.

Still finding this unpleasant? Would you like an example from my bag of experiences? OK, here goes.

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Three values important to you

This is not easy to write. And I am not entirely sure why.

One reason could be the deceptive levity of the word ‘values’ compared to the depth of influence the word has in our world, and in our every day lives.

What, then, are values? A question that philosophers, writers, poets, politicians, creators and common folk have contemplated since the concept came to life a very, very long time ago.

Wikipedia says: personal values provide an internal reference for what is good, beneficial, important, useful, beautiful, desirable, constructive, etc. Values generate behavior [...] and provide answers to questions of why people do what they do and in what order they choose to do them.

But we don’t really need those definitions, do we. Because we inherently know what values are. We feel what they are much more clearly than we can probably describe them. Values reside in a place deep inside us. Deep inside the individual and the collective self.

I think the reason this post was not easy to write is because of the very nature of values themselves —of their deep seated place within ourselves and within in our society. And reaching into ourselves and wrapping language around what we find, can sometimes be, well, challenging.

When I put myself and a few colleagues to the task of naming three of the most important values for us, I was met with silence, smiles, pursed lips, searching eyes and groping for words. Everyone eventually came up with three, but the effort it took intrigued me. I wanted to know more.

So, I hit the streets of Barcelona on a weekend afternoon with a digital recorder wanting to hear what people’s most important values were —people I had never met, randomly chosen. The question was not easy to construct, nor was the answer easy to convey, though, interestingly, every single person I approached seemed sincere in their desire to answer, everyone took the question very seriously. The basic question I asked was this: What are three values, important to you, that you look for in others or in society?

And here is what a few people said:

So, if you were to take a moment to answer that same question, what would you say? What are three values, important to you, that you look for in others or in society?

1._____________
2._____________
3._____________

Now let’s turn to your project, organization or business. Are any of the three values you have just named clearly reflected there? In the mission statement? In the objectives? In the relationship with your public? Do they guide you in your daily management?

They could be reflected in your project in a number of different ways. Why?

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Your mission: A story well told

This is a story with a happy ending. It’s about communicating the missions of our projects. It’s also a story about fish.

First, before we get started, we should clear up the difference between mission and vision:

Classically, a mission statement tells you the fundamental purpose of the organization; it is about now.

A vision statement tells you what the project wants to be, or how it wants the world to be if the mission is achieved; it concentrates on the future.

It is commonly accepted though to see a mix of the terms values, mission, vision, philosophy or credo to refer to an organization’s statement of purpose.

And second, we should let history add a bit of context to our story. The origin of the word “mission” is from the mid 16th century and referred to the sending of the Holy Spirit into the world, derived from the Latin word “mittre”, meaning “send”. Today, five centuries later, we can pencil the word’s definition as: a strongly felt aim, ambition, or calling.

That sets things up rather nicely, doesn’t it.

The beginning

In the beginning there was a project.

But before the project became a reality, it was first an idea. An idea with a notion to create, change, effect or produce something. When this idea matures into a project with a clear purpose, then it needs a plan to achieve its particular aim, or, in other words, to achieve its ‘mission’.

In the formulation of any plan, the statement of mission should be the second item scribed, be it on parchment or an iPad, right after the name of the project, organization or business. It should clearly and boldly state what a project does and what it intends to achieve ­­— its mission or reason for existing.

All people that come into contact with any project should know what its mission is.

The goal is to

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One simple question

There is a simple question that needs to be asked. So, here it is:

What percentage of projects and enterprises in today’s environment clearly articulate their mission, vision and values to their public?

(Click on your selection)

Low

Medium

High

You might have been surprised by the answer. Or by the question.

Or maybe you think the question should be this:

Do the mission, vision and values of a project or business have a place in the digital era, in multi-platform environments and in our professional and social networks?

That’s another good one. And here’s the answer:

Yes. Because these elements speak of the reason for being, the core of your project, and what you want the world to see, know and feel connected to. It’s your story.

In the next post, I’ll talk about and clearly define these key terms, I’ll make them usable ideas, dust them off, make them shine. They’re the very essence of good strategy.

The trumpet player and the president

A brief tale about focus groups.

There were once two men with talent; one was a gifted musician and the other an elected president of a beautiful country. The musician played his trumpet every evening for change from passersby in a long underground passageway that connected two lines of the city’s metro. The other delivered very important speeches that sought to explain the country’s difficult economic situation to his constituents. The musician played his music quite well, but he played his instrument so loud that people hurried past, and some even slightly turned away, shielding themselves from the blare of the trumpet which produced a painful sensation as they neared. Not far away from there, the president, who was an intelligent man and competent orator, looked squarely into the television camera and endlessly put forth complex data and technical vocabulary while the citizens listened in their homes with confusion and impatience.

Neither of these talented men was engaging their public. Both had missed their mark. They desperately needed feedback from their targeted listeners. A small focus group would have easily told the trumpet player that he was playing too loud and the president that his discourse did not help them to understand their country’s very real problems.

For the musician, this meant that no people stopped to put money in his hat. For the president it meant that thousands of people grew frustrated and distrustful.

Think for a moment about your talent and your project. Do you know how your public engages, how they feel, and if your art is making the impact you desire? If not, find out. Run a focus group.

It could mean the difference between your success and going home with an empty hat.

A strategic mantra

If you had to choose one strategic mantra for your business, project or initiative, the chanting of “clarity, clarity, clarity” might be your best choice. It is surprising, however, how often this very simple idea is never chanted, or even considered, as we busily go about our daily routine with our team, our project development, our production and our communication.

Clarity begins with the core vision of our project, a vision that everyone involved needs to understand and share in order to fully participate and use their skills to their maximum potential. Clarity is also key for the smooth choreography of a team of people working together. People must understand their role, what is expected of them, timelines, goals, as well as the roles of the other members of the team.

This is one of the most common oversights experienced in countless projects in all parts of the world. Why? Because achieving clarity is a highly refined skill and is not always easy. As a matter of fact, it can take quite a bit of effort – beginning with the conscious desire of the project’s leader. However, when the hard work is done, and the difficult moments have passed, the strongest and most effective enterprises are created; attitudes change, output improves and people reach commonly shared goals together. It works. And things get easier from there.

The artist Gary Larson gets it. So pick up a metaphorical paintbrush and start clarifying.

The cartography of economies

Let’s take a very common term and expand it a bit. Economy. Let’s define “economy” as the wealth and resources of a specific thematic or geographic area, in reference to the production, use and availability to people of material things or ideas. Ok, that’s good.

Now let’s use this definition to frame today’s world – easily conceived as a construction of an increasing number of different, autonomous yet interconnected economies. Let’s define just a few: well, there’s the global economy that we all participate in by default, then there is an individual country’s economy, then a city’s. But within this basic cartography of economies, what other areas can we draw lines around to then form a more defined community or tribe of relations?

The economy of technology, the economy of health, the economy of human relations, the economy of communication, the economy of culture, the economy of architecture, the economy of food, the economy of story telling, of craftsmanship, of music, of leisure, of beauty, of consciousness, of justice, of education, of talent, of knowledge, of nature, and, why not, the economy of the soul.

These economies overlap and fold over each other; the lines we draw around them are soft and fluid. Yet, if we take a look at the world using this map, it could help us to see more clearly the contours of our areas of influence and contribution, and to visualize and plan the movement of our projects with greater awareness.

And I’m guessing that if you actually do take a moment to see the fuller picture of what you are helping to create, shape and expand in this world, it will give you a particularly nice feeling.

Marketing and the hyperreal

In Pattern Recognition, a novel by “cyberpunk” writer William Gibson, one of the many intriguing characters the reader meets is Magda, a young woman who works freelance for an advertising agency to help finance her art as a hat maker. She is paid by the agency to go to carefully selected social venues, and while casually chatting with people she meets, mention a new clothing label, a film recently released or a new product on the market. It’s not a pitch, just a casual, favorable mention.

Or, if a person she meets mentions a specific product, say a man in a bar that seems attracted to her, then she is paid to say that she likes that product too. The agency’s objective is not to create immediate consumers of a particular product, but that the information is recycled by people to others: a viral model.

As time goes by, however, something begins to happen to Magda. When she is out for an evening of leisure, not working, having a cocktail perhaps, she may meet someone and they begin talking. And that person might casually mention a designer, a film, or a product in the course of their conversation. Magda then stops cold, no longer able to enjoy her social interaction. She begins to distrust people, distrust their authenticity. She doesn’t know what is real anymore.

The notions of ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ in our high-speed world of multi-environment marketing have been slowly moving toward the center of our collective storyline for some time now. Yet, the ‘real’ versus the ‘simulated’ have no clear boundaries or shared definitions. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard puts forth that a simulacrum is not simply a copy of the real, but that it becomes a truth in its own right – it becomes the hyperreal. In essence: the simulated becomes the reality.

But what does one do with these ideas? Their implications are as much philosophical as they are practical. We continuously make decisions regarding the communication strategies of our projects and products that intersect with questions of authenticity, whether we have paused to think about this or not.

It could be that it is entirely up to each one of us to develop marketing paradigms and content that reflect our own personal values. Better yet: that illuminate our own values.

This will not be done for us from the outside. And, there is no clear map, no clear set of rules. Here we stand, stripped down to our essence, with nothing but desire and intention to guide us through the changing labyrinth of possibilities.

Magda’s story could, at least, serve as one of the guiding voices in our quest: her acts of simulation finally folded themselves back onto her, and she began to doubt the people around her – the real had become indistinguishable from the hyperreal.

She yearned for authenticity.