Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Keys to Effective Internal Communication

Take a moment to browse online job postings, and you will see the same item listed recurrently under “Qualifications”: namely, effective communication skills. As important as this capacity is for
prospective employees, it is even more vital for businesses of every size. This obtains both for interactions with external stakeholders, and within an organization. No team, regardless of the talent and expertise of its personnel, can expect to achieve its potential unless information transfers seamlessly and comprehensibly among its members.

Although many of the requirements of functional internal communication are common sense, you may find the following guidelines useful:

  Invoke the KISS principle.
When you initiate communication, take a moment to consider whether the information you intend to convey is presented in the simplest, most concise, most unambiguous form possible. Is there any room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation? “Keep it simple and specific” is a useful guideline here. Concision is also advantageous in most situations.

  Accuracy is indispensable.

Double-check e-mails and other documents before you distribute them. If you have doubts about any aspect of the material, seek confirmation either by doing research on your own, or by consulting a colleague. Accuracy is paramount for effectiveness in communication, for two reasons: first, because inaccuracy can compound into missteps and delays that cost time and money; and second, because repeated errors on your part may erode the trust that others place in you. It is generally worthwhile to take a bit of time to ensure accuracy now, rather than spend a lot of time trying to correct mistakes (and repair any damage to your reputation) later.

  Maintain records of important instructions and agreements. Communicate in both verbal and written form.

Even if you’re confident that you understand what you’ve been told, or believe you’ve made yourself perfectly clear, it is important to make use of documentation rather than simply rely on memory. If, as an employer, you have to convey complex instructions to an employee that involve multiple steps, write them down in clear, succinct language. (Recall the “KISS” principle.) The same advice applies to employees who need to communicate information up the chain of command.

  Keep communications relevant to the recipient.

The human brain has a remarkable capacity to “zone out”, discounting intelligence it deems irrelevant. This is an adaptive evolutionary trait; for our distant ancestors, the ability to identify crucial facts, and save mental energy by omitting unimportant or superfluous ones, was a prerequisite for survival. However, in our modern civilization, this immanent skill can occasionally backfire; by skimming a lengthy document in order to save time, for instance, we risk overlooking information that is relevant to us.

One of the ways for managers to avoid this pitfall is by tailoring communications to each recipient, with specific details or instructions. This practice also sends a tacit signal that employers acknowledge and appreciate the unique contribution of every individual.

  Who reports to whom?

All staff should know exactly to whom they are accountable, and for whom they are responsible. As the scale of a company or organization increases, this factor becomes all the more necessary. It is axiomatic that communication should occur through the proper channels, but what are the proper channels? Aim to ensure that everyone who works in your business can answer that question without a moment’s doubt or hesitation.

  Details matter. But never lose sight of the big picture.

Every business should have a mission statement, which is not only clear and accessible, but understood by all staff at the organization. Once every member of a team buys into a common goal, you will have laid the groundwork for collective success.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Simple Cyber-security Practices

Cyber-security has been a topical issue of late in the wake of headline-grabbing incidents, like the Sony hack, the theft of compromising photos of celebrities from an online cloud (“celebgate”), and the revelation of a security vulnerability dubbed “heartbleed”. Unfortunately, as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, so do the techniques used by tech-savvy miscreants to infiltrate computer systems. Further, in this era of Big Data, the amount of sensitive information potentially vulnerable to criminal activity is vaster than ever before.

Few (if any) computer systems can claim to be the digital equivalent of Fort Knox. But there are some simple steps you can and should take to help improve the safety of your data.

  Keep software up to date, including anti-virus applications.

Out-of-date web browsers are susceptible to cyber-infiltration, malware, and viruses, as are machines that don’t have the latest anti-virus software installed. Do a bit of research, and invest in security software from a reputable company with a solid track record.

  Create backup copies of everything that’s important.

Even ostensibly reliable computers can sometimes crash or malfunction, causing you to lose access to information stored on the hard drive. Pay particular attention to financial and human resources documents (including credit card information and social security numbers), records of transactions and accounts receivable/payable, databases and spreadsheets, and any other files you feel might cause a major headache if it ever went missing. Store these essentials either in a secure cloud, or offsite.

  Set up an internet firewall.

Many computer operating systems have a firewall pre-installed, and you’ll simply need to enable it; alternatively, free firewall software can be downloaded from the internet. Again, make sure the software you use comes from a reputable source.

  Control physical access to computers.

 Set up passwords for each machine, and request that each employee create a unique user name and entry code. Aim to change passwords every few months and in the event of employee turnover. Safely stow and lock up laptops that aren’t being used.

  Secure your wi-fi network.

Your wireless network should have a unique password that’s at least 10 to 15 digits in length, containing upper-case and lower-case letters and numbers. Try to make it not only exceedingly difficult for a person to guess, but inordinately time-consuming for a password-cracking program to break.

  Use extra caution with payment-processing.

When setting up a payment-processing arrangement with a bank or financial institution, ask about the latest security and anti-fraud measures and best practices. Try to isolate your payment system, and avoid using the same computer to handle financial transactions and browse the internet.

  Leave software installation to people you trust, or do it yourself.

Many computer operating systems are outfitted to require password authorization  from a system administrator in order to install new software. Make sure this feature is enabled, so that employees (and unauthorized computer users!) cannot install software without your approval.

  Read up on cyber-security.

With the pace of technological advancement occurring in our world today, experts occasionally stumble upon previously undiscovered vulnerabilities, and new programs that can thwart even the most sophisticated network security systems. Although not everyone can or should aspire to become a cyber-security connoisseur, it is in your interest to keep reasonably abreast of the latest developments in that area.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a page dedicated to cyber security for small businesses, including advice and resources. More useful information is available here, via a campaign called Stop.Think.Connect.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Virtue of Resiliency

There is a scene in the film Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) in which the protagonist, Bruce Wayne, tumbles into a derelict well while attempting to hide from his best friend, Rachel. As he quickly discovers, the well connects to a vast network of caliginous caverns—and the subterranean realm happens to abound with the creatures Bruce fears most. Within seconds, a torrent of bats surrounds him, and the dread of the circumstances causes him to momentarily lose consciousness.

Fortunately, Bruce’s ordeal is short-lived; after Rachel alerts Bruce’s father to his son’s misadventure, Thomas Wayne descends into the well to rescue the youngster. Then, as he carries Bruce back to safety in the Wayne mansion, Thomas poses a rhetorical question:

“Why do we fall, Bruce? So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up again.”

The scene demonstrates two valuable principles: facing one’s fears, and recovering from adversity (i.e. resiliency). In fact, those challenges frequently go hand-in-hand—in order to depart from your comfort zone and take risks, you need to be confident in your ability to recuperate after setbacks. Part of that sense of self-assurance owes to preparedness (like ensuring you have adequate resources and alternatives in case of failure), and part of it is related to psychological and emotional strength.

Here is some advice to help you bounce back from mishaps, and overcome difficulties that may arise in the future:

  When something goes wrong, try to learn from it.

You have undoubtedly heard the aphorism “Every cloud has a silver lining.” Similarly, many misfortunes entail opportunities for self-improvement, personal growth, and learning. When a particular situation in your life doesn’t turn out the way you would have liked, ask yourself how you would handle things differently if a similar experience presented itself again.

  Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses.

No one is perfect. By pretending to be an exception to that universal rule, you will only hinder your own personal growth. Instead, be honest with yourself and authentic with the people around you. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it and try to make up for it. When you succeed, don’t be afraid to take (a reasonable amount of) pride in your accomplishments.

  Keep your problems in perspective, and be grateful for the good stuff.

We’ve all had bad days and trying experiences. But unless the earth has just been pulverized by a storm of asteroids or consumed by the sun in its fiery death throes, things could surely be worse.

One useful way to think about hard times, is to ask yourself whether the mishap of the moment will still matter in a year, or five years. For the majority of problems we face in our daily lives, the answer is no. In fact, some of today’s debacles may become tomorrow’s humorous anecdotes.

Finally, by appreciating and seeking consolation in the positive aspects of your life—including loved ones, past triumphs, and passions unrelated to your professional career—you will improve your chances of both handling adversity and bouncing back.

  Practice generosity.

Generosity and involvement in charitable causes can increase self-esteem, and provide new and valuable perspective on life. Thus, although charity is often perceived as a sacrifice made by a giver on behalf of a recipient, in reality, the benefits of beneficence can be mutual.

More generally, by helping others in their time of need, we increase the likelihood that they will be willing to do the same for us.
  Failure is not necessarily a step back.

Sometimes it is better to have tried and failed, than never to have tried at all. If you’ve endured a mishap, it may mean you’ve taken a risk and departed from your comfort zone—a precondition for any significant achievement.

You needn’t view occasional disappointments as the culmination of your efforts; instead, try to think of them as unfortunate but necessary steps along the path to success. If nothing else, adversity offers the opportunity to prove that you can navigate through hard times and come back stronger than before.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

How to Become a Morning Person

We’ve all met people who seem consistently chipper early in the morning, and experience no observable loss of vigour or enthusiasm during the day.

For some, this comes quite naturally. Many habitual early-risers have the built-in ability to get up early and still maintain an adequate energy level without resorting to copious infusions of caffeine. If this description sounds like you, then you’re probably a morning person. Good for you!

Others are less fortunate. If you find you need to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, and feel an urge to whack away at the snooze-bar on your alarm clock (possibly dislodging a few items from your bedside table in the process), then you’re likely not a morning person. Maybe you’re a night owl. Or perhaps you just enjoy getting an ample nightly amount of shut-eye.

To be sure, old habits die hard. If you’re a non-morning person who has recently embarked upon a career path that will require you to get up much earlier than you’re used to, or if you’d just like to increase your productivity early in the day, then you’ll need to adjust your routine. Changes in sleep patterns are not always easy to stomach—but there are some practical steps you can follow to ease the transition.

In any case, the key is to ensure you go to bed early enough to still get a healthy amount of sleep; experts recommend about eight hours for most adults.

  Simplify your morning routine—before you retire for the night.

Lay out your clothes, organize your lunch and snacks for the following day, and pack anything else you need in your luggage/briefcase/backpack. The last thing you want in the morning is to squander precious minutes hunting around for important items, or (even worse) realizing you’ve forgotten something after you’ve left for work.

  To fall asleep sooner, power down and cut the lights.

Several years ago, I spent some time volunteering in a village in rural Costa Rica. In that community, as in many parts of Central America, locals both go to bed and rise quite a bit earlier than I was accustomed to in Canada. This is partly because farmers in pastoral areas are obliged to begin their work early in the day. But it’s also a function of the day-night cycle in regions near the equator, where the duration of daylight hours varies little over the course of a year.

One factor that I believe facilitated my quick transition to the Costa Rican sleep pattern, was that the community where I stayed had little noise at night (apart from a few animal sounds), and was relatively dark after the sun set—just after 8:00 PM. There were no streetlights, and few appliances or television sets.

There is a useful lesson here for those of us who live in cities and industrialized areas: if you’d like to go to sleep and wake up earlier more easily, try to isolate yourself from bright lights and noisy appliances at least half an hour before your intended bedtime. Reading with a nightlight or listening to some gentle music before bed is okay—but watching TV or checking e-mails immediately before you hit the hay might interfere with your ability to fall asleep.

  Find an alarm clock that works for you.

The archetypal alarm clock jars the sleeper into consciousness with a strident “beep, beep, beep”. But that high-pitched hectoring is not for everyone, and it doesn’t exactly launch the day on a pleasant note.

Fortunately, a wide range of alternatives are now available, including daylight simulators that gradually brighten, and high-tech alarms that slowly entice you into a state of wakefulness with gentle tones. There are also various apps available for your smartphone.

  Suppress the urge to hit the snooze bar.

Waking up once is hard enough. Trying to wake up twice in the space of ten minutes (or three times in the space of twenty minutes, as the case may be) can actually disrupt your circadian rhythms, and leave you feeling sluggish and discombobulated. Furthermore, if you stay in bed long enough to allow yourself to slip into a deeper sleep stage, you’ll likely find it even harder to get up on your next attempt.

  Leave yourself plenty of time for a wholesome breakfast—at least twenty minutes.

A balanced breakfast that includes fruits and vegetables, proteins, and complex carbohydrates will allow you to maintain peak performance throughout the day, and help you avoid some of the negative consequences associated with quick (but not necessarily healthy) breakfast options—including heartburn, an upset stomach, or an energy level that wanes by the mid-afternoon.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Perfecting Your Three-second Statement

In their 2009 book Brand You: Turn Your Unique Talents into a Winning Formula.*, social scientists John Purkiss and David Royston-Lee discuss the concept of the three-second statement: a brief (usually one- or two-sentence) response to the question “What do you do?”

Often, people who pose this query expect to hear about your career and professional aspirations. But a three-second statement can communicate more than just what you do for a living—including aspects of your personality, and passions of yours that are unrelated to your vocation.

Why is it important?

Like an elevator pitch, the three-second statement is designed to convey information in a clear, concise form. It permits you to instantly connect with individuals whose interests are similar to your own, and can elicit further conversation and idea-sharing.

Imagine yourself at a typical social gathering, like a reception or mixer. Introductions at suchlike events are typically brief—often less than ten seconds—before the conversation drifts on to another topic. The next person you meet could lead you to a great opportunity, and it never hurts to make an endearing, memorable first impression. A succinct but informative description of yourself will help you achieve exactly that.

Keep the following principles in mind when crafting your three-second statement:

1.    What is your unique combination of attributes?

In addition to your primary job, do you have another hobby or side gig that you think may be of interest to people? What else are you passionate about?

Aim to list two items—for example, “I’m a venture capitalist and hobby photographer.” Or, “I’m an ophthalmologist and blues guitar player.”

Many people have similar professional training, and most of us cannot realistically claim to be the best or most qualified professional in our field. However, by highlighting interests, passions, and personal attributes aside from our day job, we can still stand out from the crowd.

2.    Tell your story.

After your three-second statement, your conversation partner will likely follow up on the item that most interests her (either your career or your hobby/side gig). You can then elaborate on the topic in question. You may find that it’s helpful to think in advance about how you would answer common follow-up questions, like: How long have you been doing X? What do you most enjoy/find most rewarding about it? What are some of the challenges involved?

3.    Keep business cards handy, and your website up-to-date.

If you strike up a conversation with someone who is keen to learn more about you or your work, but pressed for time (as many professionals are), you will find it’s helpful to have business cards close at hand. A frequently-updated website with a memorable, easy-to-spell URL likewise comes in handy for situations like these.

4.    Test your three-second statement on a trusted friend or family member.
Before you put your three-second statement into practice, you may want to seek feedback about it from a person you trust to offer constructive criticism. Perhaps that individual will suggest that the items you’ve chosen are too commonplace, or not sufficiently interesting or memorable. Or she may offer fresh ideas that hadn’t occurred to you.

5.    Honesty is the best policy.

Don’t even think about exaggerating your credentials. Odds are you will eventually come across an expert interlocutor who can call you out on even minor misrepresentations. Instead, strive to offer a realistic appraisal of your skills, talents, areas of specialization, and past accomplishments. This is another area in which the advice of a person you trust (see item 4. above) may prove useful.

*London: Artesian Publishing LLP, 2009.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Vulnerability and Self-interest: Qualities of Great Leaders

What is more important in a leader: the ability to project authority, or a knack for earning the trust of one’s cohort?

Surely both qualities are indispensable. But the latter is a precondition for the former. Unless they trust you, your team will be unwilling or unable to recognize your authority as a competent decision-maker. In other words, their confidence in you is a sine qua non of your effective leadership.

What is the source of this confidence?

There are many possible answers to that question—depending in part on the individual and the circumstances. However, two important but somewhat counter-intuitive leadership traits often go overlooked: vulnerability and self-interest.

Before I elaborate, allow me to define both terms.

Vulnerability in this context refers not to weakness, but rather to the capacity for empathy, humility, and accountability. In order to relate to the personal challenges faced by your employees, accept constructive criticism, and admit your own shortcomings, for instance, you must first let down your guard and accept that you are merely human.

Self-interest means the intellectual and moral steadfastness to pursue your own best interests, and the best interests of your business and your team, even in the face of counter-pressures.

Vulnerability and accountability

Occasionally, you will encounter people who attempt to mask their own vulnerability, presumably because they worry that others will try to exploit chinks in their emotional armour. But this is a false choice. It takes courage to acknowledge one’s vulnerability; on the other hand, many people associate a refusal to acknowledge vulnerability with a lack of authenticity, or even a deficiency of courage. Have you ever known someone who consistently refused to admit her own defects and attempted to mask problems—either personal or professional? Are you left with a favourable impression of that person?

Vulnerability is a prerequisite for developing meaningful personal connections with other people, including co-workers and employees. One of the most important ways this manifests itself is in the form of accountability and forgiveness. We all make mistakes, and the way we respond to them (both our own and those of our peers and employees) is crucial.

 A rigid, institutional intolerance of error has the effect of deterring even mundane risk-taking. A manager who refuses to countenance the missteps of her employees is somewhat like a vehicle without brakes. If we were all obliged to drive brake-less automobiles, motorists would putter along very slowly, avoid hills, and approach stop-signs and intersections at a snail’s pace. In other words, no one would get anywhere very quickly, and our society and economy would suffer the consequences. In the case of a business enterprise, this is analogous to reduced productivity and diminished willingness of employees to venture outside their comfort zone.

Nonetheless, forgiveness is not exactly the same as tolerance of error. Instead, the goal of a leader should be to identify miscues and point them out to the responsible party, allowing reasonable leeway while discouraging repetition of previous mistakes. Naturally, in order to build credibility for this purpose, leaders must be prepared to take ownership of their own failings too.

Self-interest versus selfishness

Through his magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and political economist Adam Smith popularized the idea that self-interest on the part of individuals would ultimately enhance the general welfare of society. One of the examples he cites is that of a baker, who produces bread for his customers not purely out of benevolence, but also in order that the baker himself may earn a living.

Centuries after the publication of that work, debate still rages as to exactly what Smith had in mind, and about the extent to which “greed is good.” But self-interest and greed are not necessarily synonyms. Another interpretation of “self-interest” is “taking care of oneself in order to better one’s chances of helping others.”

Leaders nearly always face extraordinary demands on their time. On a personal level, it is crucial to appreciate the role of time management and the effect of stress with regard to your own health and well-being. If you aspire to a long and successful professional career, you need to ensure that you lead a healthy lifestyle which includes adequate down-time. At times, this will require you to delegate duties to others. It may also require you to turn some invitations and opportunities down.

This concept of self-interest can also apply to your business and your professional team. In order for your enterprise to thrive, you will need to make choices, some of which may be difficult. But by putting the rational interests of your business ahead of competing priorities, you will increase your chances of success over the long term.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Pros and Cons of Friendships at Work

Employers who aim to improve the loyalty, efficiency, and engagement of their workforce would do well to focus on employee morale. And one of the surest ways to improve morale is to encourage camaraderie/friendship in the workplace.

When employees care about each other, they are more likely to become invested in each others’ success, communicate readily and openly, and cooperate on major projects in a way that capitalizes on their comparative advantages. (For example, “You’re better at writing, and I’m more conversational. So I’ll field phone calls while you take care of e-mails.”) Workers who have developed friendships on the job are also more likely to remain with the company, even if the work itself becomes less appealing. Finally, a reputation for camaraderie and positive employee morale may also enhance your company’s prospects for recruiting top talent.

With all of that in mind, here are some ways to encourage camaraderie in the workplace:

  Participation in community service/volunteer events. Set aside some time for employees to volunteer for a charity or non-profit organization, and allow them to choose the organization. Or you could sponsor and take part in a public event on behalf of worthy cause, like the local Terry Fox Run, or a Pride parade.

  Team-building exercises. Though they may seem clich├ęd, team-building exercises can be effective in helping employees develop a “we’re in this together” mentality. Well known examples include the mine field (leading a blindfolded person through an obstacle course) and the trust lean (catching a person as s/he falls backward). Some companies have even tried sheep-herding and scavenger hunts. In any event, remember that the purpose of the activity is to foster trust and a willingness to cooperate within the group, rather than competition between individuals. Choose accordingly.

  Empathize. Make an effort to be consistently respectful, amicable, and professional toward employees, colleagues, and clients. Practice empathy and compassion. Take the needs and concerns of your employees seriously, and take individual preferences, personality types, and working styles into account in your personnel decisions. With respect to the type of workplace atmosphere you hope to instill, be proactive and set an example.

  Keep an eye out for potential conflicts. It is axiomatic that some people simply don’t get along well with each other. Watch out for personality conflicts that you sense may become problematic, and trust your instincts. Where possible, try to match or group people you believe will work well together. If you find that one individual in particular doesn’t seem to collaborate effectively with anyone, you may need to take that person aside to address a specific issue, or even consider letting her go.

The downsides

As the title of this post suggests, the effects of camaraderie in a professional setting are not all rosy. Possible disadvantages include ruptured friendships if one friend departs and the other remains, and more time spent socializing (which may detract from productivity). In certain cases, friendships at work can lead to the formation of cliques and even divided loyalties—consequences that you’ll need to watch out for. As a manager or business owner, you’ll also need to remain cognizant of the line between friendliness toward your employees and friendship with them. While it’s possible to be friendly toward someone while maintaining an air of professionalism, it can be very difficult to reconcile the obligations of management with the responsibilities and commitments of friendship.

In most cases, though, the positive effects of workplace camaraderie far outweigh these potential difficulties, and the challenge of maintaining an affable but professional workplace atmosphere is manageable.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Your Work Environment Shapes Your Mentality

Which is better: a tidy, organized workplace, or a cluttered, messy one?

For most people, the answer to this question seems glaringly obvious. Clearly organization trumps slovenliness and disarray in the workplace.

Or does it?

In reality, the answer may be more ambiguous than you’d expect. A 2013 study led by psychologist Kathleen Vohs suggests that clutter and organization both have pros and cons; the former tends to promote creativity, while the latter is more conducive to observing social and ethical norms, following procedures, and getting mundane tasks done.

In other words, the choice of which of those two states (order or disorder) to favour largely depends on what you hope to achieve, and what sort of work you happen to be doing. (Naturally, personality and individual preferences are significant factors too.)

Messiness can promote thinking outside the box

Innovation, by definition, involves a break from convention, and many of the most successful start-ups in history owe their genesis to a moment’s inspiration. Nowadays, every business owner is seeking a competitive edge, and the ability to come up with fresh and useful ideas certainly helps. Writing in the New York Times, Vohs described the details of the study she and her colleagues undertook, and some of its practical implications for managers and entrepreneurs hoping to spur ingenuity.

One component of Vohs et al.’s study involved two groups of research participants, half of whom were deployed to a tidy room, and the other half, to a disheveled one. All of the subjects were assigned the task of devising innovative uses for ping-pong balls, and the ideas they came up with were rated on both quantity and quality. (Unoriginal ideas, like using the balls to play beer-pong, received a low creativity rating.)

Both groups produced the same number of ideas. But the novelties emanating from the messy room were significantly more creative, and included using ping-pong balls as floor protectors for furniture, and to make ice trays. Comparable results, indicating a correlation between disorganization and creativity, have been found in subsequent studies.
The take-away is clear: a bit of messiness (within reasonable limits, of course) can foster fresh approaches to everyday problems, exactly the sort of thinking that enables small businesses to address unmet needs in the marketplace, and thrive as a result.

But of course, disarray is not without some drawbacks.

Tidiness correlated with generosity, and adherence to convention

While thinking outside the box is well and good, there are also plenty of occasions in life, including in professional environments, where it pays to recognize what’s working, and stick with it. Why re-invent the wheel?

In another component of their study, Vohs and her colleagues found that research participants who had been exposed to tidy environments tended to be more generous in their donations to a charity that supplied books and toys to disadvantaged children. When offered a choice of snacks between a chocolate bar and an apple, participants from the more orderly environment also tended to favour the healthier option.

One needn’t perform a scientific study in order to think of some other advantages that stem from organization. By maintaining order around your desk, you can avoid wasting time hunting around for things, and won’t become sidetracked as easily. Having a clear process in mind for the tasks ahead, and all the tools and materials that you need on hand, can save you mental and physical energy. This is crucial if your workload is heavy, and especially if it involves run-of-the-mill administrative duties.

But as Vohs et al.’s research indicates, it is hazardous to presume that disorganization in the workplace is a liability. In fact, under the right circumstances, it can even be an asset.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How to Acquire a New Skill

We are blessed to live in an extraordinary epoch of human history. At our fingertips is a repository of information (the internet) that most of our ancestors could scarcely have imagined. On the other hand, ours in an era in which the aptitudes demanded by employers and businesses is in near-constant flux. The ability to adapt and acquire new skills is a necessity for anyone who aspires to get ahead in the modern economy.

But the benefits of acquiring a new skill extend far beyond the professional realm. By picking up a new hobby, learning a new language, or mastering a new technique, you can broaden your social circle and increase your understanding of the world. You may even stand a better chance of avoiding dementia later in life.

At first, the task of learning something new will often seem daunting. However, if you approach the challenge the right way, the process needn’t be all that complicated.

  Break it down.

This is one of the most important pieces of advice for anyone who faces a seemingly enormous endeavour. Many big projects comprise a series of smaller, discrete components, each of which may be completed with relative ease.

  Baby steps.

This point flows naturally from the last. Once you have deconstructed a major endeavour into a series of constituent parts, set a reasonable pace for yourself as you work toward completing each one. If your object is to learn a foreign language, or how to encode computer software, limit yourself to a lesson or two every day. Don’t concern yourself too much with the destination; focus instead on the process, and on mastering the specific baby step you’re taking right now.


Can you think of a person who excels at the skill you’re attempting to cultivate? What does that individual do very well? What are her habits? How did she get so good?

The practice of inheriting aptitudes by observation and emulation, also known as modeling, is a pattern of behaviour common to both humans and animals. Children practice a form of modeling instinctively when they learn to speak, read, write, and recognize important features of their environment. When striving to gain a new skill, it helps to think like a child (where modeling is concerned, at least).

  Be patient.

Few skills can be acquired overnight, and everyone learns at her own pace. By placing undue pressure on yourself to develop a skill rapidly, you will risk sapping the fun out of the activity. This is counterproductive; your brain won’t build new neural pathways as effectively if you allow yourself to become frustrated or distracted by “If only” thoughts. Take your time, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes in the course of learning.

  Be disciplined.

Set aside a certain amount of time each day for the acquisition of the desired skill. Make a habit of it, and stick to the plan. Even if you can spare no more than ten minutes per day for the activity in question, you will find that your progress, albeit slow, will be positive and fairly constant. However, if you neglect to exercise the proper mental (or physical) muscles for a while, rust will start to form, and you may experience setbacks in the learning process.

  Look forward, and occasionally...back.

While it’s obviously important to have a goal in mind and “keep your eyes on the prize,” it can be very gratifying to occasionally reflect on the progress you’ve made so far. This can be particularly heartening in those moments when you feel you’re struggling. After all, there’s little point in giving up if you’re already halfway to your goal.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Guidelines for Pitching to the Media

There is arguably no form of advertising more effective than a favourable news story, broadcast segment, or article in an industry publication. The endorsement of a trusted media professional can expand your prospective market, and engender public trust and goodwill toward you and your business. Many businesspeople appreciate the importance of effective media relations, but there is a right way, and countless wrong ways, to communicate with media outlets.

This post will recommend some general best practices for business marketing communications with the media, and detail a few “pet peeves” to avoid.

  #1 rule of thumb: Respect media professionals’ time.

Media professionals tend to have full schedules, and are obliged to keep their interactions with PR and marketing departments brief. If you respect their time—or better yet, can save them time—there is a greater likelihood that they will respond positively to your pitch.

  Personalize your communications with media professionals.

Many journalists and industry writers specialize in a particular subject area—or, in media lingo, a beat. How familiar are you with the recent work of the journalist, publication, or news organization you hope to reach? Have you been in touch with anyone at that that outlet before? Who are its competitors?

Before you pitch story ideas to writers, editors, or broadcasters, make a point of getting to know them and the sort of stories they cover. This will improve your chances of delivering information that is both relevant to them, and of interest to their regular readers/audience.

Each e-mail should be tailored specifically to one individual—avoid sending identical bulk e-mails to many different people.

Always confirm the name, gender, and appropriate honorific of the person to whom your e-mail is addressed before you hit the “send” button.

Don’t pitch to a media professional unless you’re reasonably confident that person will be interested, and hasn’t recently covered a very similar or identical topic. Otherwise, you will give the impression that you’re a self-promoter who can’t be bothered to do your homework—not a good start.

  Get right to the point.

The majority of “hard news” stories are written in the inverted-pyramid format—the most compelling pieces of information appear in the lead sentence, and then greater detail and context follow. Likewise, marketing communications on behalf of your business should be succinct and lead with the most eye-catching pieces of news right away. Toward the end of the text, provide times, locations, and contact information to facilitate follow-up calls and/or e-mails.

Some marketing departments try to entice media professionals to pursue a story by strategically withholding information. Don’t do this. The people you’re trying to reach will rarely take the bait, and may even resent your efforts to sidetrack them.

  Learn each media professional’s preferred mode of interaction.

Many media professionals don’t mind follow-up phone calls, but some prefer to confine all of their interactions with marketing departments to e-mail. Once you know the preferred medium of the person you’re trying to reach, make a note of it. Don’t call up people who prefer not to receive phone calls, or send the same e-mail to the same person multiple times over the course of a day.

When the time comes, be prepared to take “no” for an answer.

  Clarity, concision, and quality are important.

Try to convey your message in as few words as possible, while avoiding insider jargon and rambling. In many cases, time-constrained media professionals will simply re-purpose press releases and publish them as news or advertorial stories, or transform them into broadcast segments. The better they understand the content of your communicational materials, the quicker and easier this will be for them.

  When in doubt, hold off.

It is not unusual for some media professionals to receive hundreds of e-mails and dozens of phone calls each day. So pick your spots, and hold off unless you’re reasonably confident that your pitch is buzz-worthy. If possible, seek the opinion of a disinterested third party whom you trust not to leak privileged information. Is s/he as excited about the story as you are?