Archive for the 'Communication' Category

“I’m sorry.” . . . “Not your fault.”

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

A language peeve I’ve run into with friends from time to time . . .

Friend: [describes death in the family or other hard situation]

Me: “I’m so sorry.”

Friend: “It’s not your fault.”

Please, no, don’t do that. It sends the conversation in the wrong direction because it misses the point.

“I’m sorry” expresses “I have sorrow.” Yes, often, we use this to convey “I have sorrow for what I did to you,” and it’s a very useful—almost magical—phrase when used as an apology. But it can also convey “I have sorrow for your loss” or “I have sorrow over your unfortunate circumstances.”

Clearly, if someone says “I’m sorry” about a situation they have no part in—the death of your loved one or whatever—they are not conveying sorrow for something they did to you, but sorrow over your situation.

A much better reply is “Thank you.” That might more fluidly lead to their saying “Is there anything I can do to help?” and so on—not derailed by the logical non sequitur.

Twitter usage note: “at” and @.

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

So here’s a little Twitter usage peeve of mine. It has to do with the way some people mistakenly drop the word “at” in tweets when it would precede the @ sign.

If you don’t use Twitter, feel free to skip this one; if you do use Twitter, take a look and tell me what you think. I run into this issue all the time, and it consistently wrong-foots me as a reader.


Twitter uses the @ sign to prefix a username (also called a “handle”); for example, my username is @Twalk. You can start a tweet with a username, which means that you’re directing a public tweet at a specific user, like this:

@johndoe Great running into you & your family last night at the park. We should get a cup of coffee soon!

Because of a quirk in the way Twitter treats public replies, the only people who will see that tweet in their Twitter streams are Twitter users who follow me AND follow @johndoe.

But let’s say I want to publicize something my friend is doing. If I want to get around that quirk in Twitter, I can reference him somewhere else in the tweet, like this:

Everybody check out the new site @johndoe just launched — really cool! [link to site]

Experienced Twitter users drop in handles all the time when they want to call attention to another Twitter account, whether that’s a person, a business, an event, or whatever. So you might see this:

Great to run into @johndoe and @janedoe at the dog park last night. Their kids have grown up *fast*.

The problem arises when the tweeter mistakenly thinks that the @ at the beginning of a Twitter handle can do double duty as the word “at” in the syntax of the sentence:

Great to have dinner @johndoe and @janedoe’s place last night. It had been too long!

How do you read that message? I mean, read it out loud — what’s your voiceover?


Maybe you differ from me, which is fine. But for me the voiceover is this:

“Great to have dinner John Doe and Jane Doe’s place last night. It had been too long!”

Here’s why: in MANY, MANY cases, the “@” connected to a handle goes entirely un-noted. When I run into Twitter friends, for example at South by Southwest, they DON’T say, “Hey, it’s at-T-walk!” They just don’t. They say, “Hey, it’s T-walk!” When I read a tweet like the second example above, I don’t read it as “Everybody check out the new site at-John-Doe just launched…” but as “Everybody check out the new site John Doe just launched…”

Short version: the @ becomes a visual marker that indicates you’re referencing a Twitter entity — not a part of the English syntax of the sentence.

More good examples:

  • I’m glad @WholeFoods labels GMOs in food — but I think they shouldn’t even carry those products.
  • If you need serious UX help, @AnnettePriest is the best. That’s just a fact.
  • Can’t wait for @SXSW this year.

In each of these cases, the @ makes perfect sense from the standpoint of Twitter functionality: Whole Foods, my friend Annette, and anyone looking for South by Southwest-oriented tweets will see these tweets. And in each of these cases, you DON’T pronounce the @. It has no function in the sentence in terms of English syntax. Which is why it wrong-foots me when I come across bad examples like these:

  • I could happily spend my entire Saturday morning @WholeFoods.
  • Joining a few friends @AnnettePriest’s place for dinner. Related: Annette is an amazing cook.
  • I saw so many old friends @SXSW this year — like a family reunion!

In these tweets, the @ is trying to do double duty . . . and it fails. I have to reread it, even if only for half a second, to make sense of it.

The Moral of the Story

Putting “at” in front of “@” in a tweet is not redundant when English syntax calls for it. On the contrary, it keeps your reader from stumbling across your words.

Yes, Twitter is a conversational medium, and there’s no need to be a great stickler for the Queen’s English or MLA style there. But you DO want to be understood . . . and omitting that crucial “at” when it’s needed makes you a little harder to understand.

So please don’t drop it.


[Addendum a couple of hours later: the landscape may change if Twitter does away with @ replies altogether — which, in my view, would be a mistake.\]

The Social Media Are Not So New.

Friday, March 21st, 2014

[This is a reprint of a post I initially wrote in December of 2008. I haven’t done a thing to it yet, thus the broken image links, etc.]

Students walking the pier at St. Andrews,
where I studied the Reformation in a former life.

[Note: This is a lightly edited version of the talk I gave at the Austin Social Media Breakfast held on 2 December 2008.]

~ ~ ~

Because it seemed like a good idea at the time, in the mid-90s I took a master’s degree in European history, and because I was going for the glamor, I focused on the Reformation — Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry VIII, all that.

Little did I know that my study of the social upheaval of the 16th century would come in handy today for understanding the social media of the 21st century. And little did you know that I would be here to explain the connection to you.

Lucky us!

So, in the next 15 minutes I hope my painless little history lesson will I’ll convince you that our oh-so-new social media are very much like the media that have gone before, not because the 16th century enjoyed good WiFi connections, but because people tend to use the media available to them for much the same human purposes. Read the rest of this entry »

Is This Headline Provocative? (The Trouble with Yes/No Questions)

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Not as provocative as it could be.

Yes-or-no questions are powerful in their place. But if you want to open up dialogue — in a blog headline or elsewhere — I suggest you ask open-ended questions instead.

Querying the Obvious

The subject has been in the back of my mind for a while, but it came to a head the other day when I encountered this headline on the Big Think blog:

Can We Reach the End of Knowledge?

My reflexive answer — reflexive because I’m certain it’s correct — is “No.” Human knowledge has been growing rapidly for millennia, and seems set to continue down that path. So, even though Big Think often publishes good posts, I would not have read this one at all, except that it annoyed me enough to write this post.

In this case, the headline isn’t even an accurate one, since the post talks about unifying theories, from Thales of Miletus through superstring theory. A more accurate question headline would have been something like “Can a Single Theory Explain Everything?”

The broader point is that I see too many yes-or-no headlines in the vein of “Do You Need New CRM Software?” or “Should Your Company Use Pinterest?” The headline writers are making it too easy to skip these articles for busy readers who believe that they already know the answer.

A Lesson from Therapy

Psychotherapists specialize at getting people to unfold their ideas, and one of their simplest but most effective techniques is to (often) avoid yes-or-no questions. The stereotypical one is “How did you feel about that?” — but the technique works.

If the therapist asked “Did that make you feel sad?,” you might simply say “Yes” and then stay mum. The answer is already delineated for you. But “How did that make you feel?” might elicit a better answer, something like “Maybe . . . well, sad, but . . . more confused than anything.” That answer would give the therapist and client much more to work with: What, specifically, was confusing? Was the sadness a product of the confusion, or did the sadness come first? And so on.

Open a Dialogue

So let’s reconsider the real and notional headlines highlighted above, but reframed so that they stimulate curiosity rather than shutting it down:

  • How Would We Reach the End of Knowledge?
  • How Could a Single Theory Explain Everything?
  • When Is It Time for New CRM Software?
  • Which Companies Should Use Pinterest?

These are just off the cuff, but you get the idea. Instead of offering a binary choice to the reader, you ask an open-ended question that automatically invites curiosity.

How does this idea work for you? What examples would you add?

Commonplace: Vidal

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

“…those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolute are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibility and controverting the evidence of their own senses in a fashion which may be comforting to a terrified man but is disastrous for an artist.”

Gore Vidal, on Norman Mailer

Bad marketing from the Austin Independent School District.

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

The Austin Independent School District starts next Monday. You can imagine how stoked my kids are for this.

A.I.S.D. has had a slew of challenges over the past year or two. Some of these are common to school districts across Texas, and they can be summed up under the heading “Way Less Money.” My sister, who’s an educator in a suburb of Dallas, has faced the same kind of trouble, as has the sister of a coworker who feels lucky that she’ll be commuting only an hour each way to her job as a first-year teacher. At both of them have a job, which is more than many Texas teachers can say.

But some many of the Austin district’s troubles are self-inflicted, especially in the area of public relations. My wife has been a PTA officer for one of our children’s schools for the past couple of years, which has given her a great view of the unfolding train wreck that is our superintendent’s record of decision-making. Possibly many things are being handled expertly, and it’s only red-letter failures like the botched school closure plan that are drawing all the attention. But somehow I don’t think so.

Even If You’re Not in Business, You’re Still in Marketing

My lack of faith in the current A.I.S.D. leadership was reinforced by the e-mail that hit my inbox on Thursday night. I’ll preface my dissection of it by making a general point that seems to be lost on too many people, especially in the public and not-for-profit sector: if your organization does something that any slice of the public cares about, the organization needs good marketing.

I say “marketing” rather than “public relations” or “community relations” or “communications” to emphasize something: even our most essential public institutions have to sell themselves in the marketplace of ideas and money today.

Why? Because if the Austin school system doesn’t sell itself well, more parents will see to it that their kids go to school in suburban districts, or at private schools. More citizens will complain about their tax dollars going to waste, and these complaints may eventually lead to even less money for A.I.S.D. Given the anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric that many Texans (among others) carry in their back pocket at all times, those arguments find a bigger audience with each passing year.

All of this is bad news for the school system, and in the long run it’s bad for the city, too. Given all these realities, much less the controversies that have beset A.I.S.D. the past couple of years, the school district ought to be making every little detail count. Alas.

“Who Are You? What’s This Even About?”

Which brings me to the details of the e-mail that I and many thousands of my fellow citizens received the other night, which appalled me as a marketer. Sure, it’s just one e-mail. But it represents a key missed opportunity to do a small thing right in a way that could lead to other good things.

Back to School 2011-12

That was the subject line in my Gmail. “What is this?,” I thought. “A sales flyer?” I honestly thought it might be a promotion from Zappos or something. Seeing the sender — “Dept. of Public Relations and Multicultural Outrea” [sic] — didn’t help much, either.

It makes me think of two things. First, I wonder if the A.I.S.D. folks who composed this e-mail gave a moment’s thought to the overflow in most people’s inboxes. We’re all winnowing messages on the go, deleting anything we can get away with not reading. Marketers run through brick walls to come up with subject lines and greetings and so on that will hook people immediately, because we know it’s a challenge to get people even to look at your e-mail before deleting it.

The crazy part is that I’d be happy to read something from A.I.S.D. to kick off the school year. I take a strong interest in my kids’ education. I know the district isn’t going to try to sell me something. Yet they didn’t even think to put “A.I.S.D.” at the start of the subject line.

Which brings me to the second thing. I spent several years in the Hoover’s editorial department, where the editors are constantly poring over companies’ annual reports. We used to see dozens of A.R.’s per week. Some of my colleagues and I would joke about the companies who titled these PDFs things like “2003ARcomplete” or “AnnualReportFY2003.” The smart companies, by contrast, would use titles like “GeneralElectric2003AnnRpt” or “IntelAnnualReport2003.” Apparently, it just doesn’t cross some people’s minds to put the name of the firm right up front. But it should.

Hello. This is a message from the Austin Independent School District to welcome your child to a new school year.

This is going to be a great year! And parents, we need you to join forces with us to make this a successful year for you and your family.

One of the ways you can support your child’s success is to make sure he or she attends school, all day, every day. Because every day counts. Attendance increases student achievement, improves the quality of your child’s educational experience, and it prepares them for college, good careers, and successful adulthood.

Okay, I get it. They have to send this to tens of thousands of parents, many of whom don’t have the focus on education that my wife and I do, so they’re keeping it basic. (I would have liked better copy-editing, but I can live with it.)

I am also asking you to help your child in little ways as well… These may seem small but their impact is huge!  Get them to bed on time, feed them a good breakfast and set up a dedicated space for them to do their homework everyday…and most importantly, ensure that they are reading!  In the early years, our students learn to read. But in later years they must read to learn! It impacts learning in all other subject areas.  We all need to make sure our children are reading—every day. So grab some good books from the library and start encouraging them!

As for the overall message, it’s fine. A teacher friend of mine was a specialist for A.I.S.D. one year, visiting the homes of children who were struggling academically. Things like getting a good breakfast and having a well-lit place to study were far from common in many of these families. I do wonder how well an e-mail like this would start a family down the road of regular library use, but who knows — it might nudge some people in the right direction.

But who is “I” in this paragraph? The reader hasn’t been introduced to anyone. Hold that thought as we hit the homestretch . . .

Please remember that Every Day Counts.

And don’t forget: school starts NEXT Monday, August 22nd!

See you at school!

Thank you and have a great school year!

Well, we had been told that “every day counts” above, but I didn’t realize it was “Every Day Counts.” Is that a motto that they’re trying to get across? Apparently it is, given that the district held a student contest last year to come up with public service announcements promoting school attendance. The announcement of the contest winners included this statement:

“Improving student attendance is a key component of the District’s Strategic Plan and is a top priority for the 2010-2011 school year. AISD is working with students, families, and the community to ensure regular school attendance and improve academic achievement.”

It’s easy to see why steady school attendance is important, so why didn’t they use this e-mail to link me to their page describing the “Every Day Counts” initiative? That would have been a good opportunity for the tiniest bit of integrated marketing — one medium reinforcing another — but they missed it . . .

. . . maybe because they have no such page to point to. As far as I can tell, “Every Day Counts” is a tagline they’ve used a time or two, but there are only minimal references to it on the school district’s site. You’d think that they would make it a mantra, possibly with its own real estate on their home page. But no.

Missed Opportunities Everywhere You Look

The rest of the e-mail is just an overkill of one-liners. It’s the sort of thing you come up with in a first draft as you’re trying out different ideas. You leave them all in only so you can shuffle them around to come up with something better. In this case, improving the e-mail could have been as simple as putting “And don’t forget . . .” in the same paragraph as “Please remember . . .” (the thoughts are pretty strongly linked), and then eliminating “Thank you and have a great school year!” altogether.

“See you at school!” would have been fine as a friendly sign-off, but cutting “. . . have a great school year” would also help keep me from suspecting that this is the last I’m going to hear from A.I.S.D. — or, rather, from our mystery correspondent at A.I.S.D. — for a while.

The note definitely needed a personal signoff from the superintendent, the director of curriculum, the director of community relations, or whoever the “I” was who wrote the e-mail. There was no attribution of the e-mail to any person, which represents another missed opportunity from a marketer’s perspective.

Beyond that, though, this note could have been the opening of an ongoing communication from the district to me. Maybe they could tell me more in a few weeks about how attendance numbers have been really good, or about how a new program is helping kids with their reading. But I’m guessing that I’ll hear from A.I.S.D. haphazardly.

The moral of my story is simple: if it’s worth saying — especially in an e-mail that goes out to tens of thousands of people — it’s worth saying well. If you have to communicate to that many people, you’re in marketing, whether you know it or not.

Given how much respect I have for A.I.S.D.’s teachers and my children’s schools, I just wish the district had done a better job of it.

Photo by Robb North.

Words and their meanings: “blog” versus “post.”

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Possibly it’s just me. But I flinch when someone uses the “blog” to refer to a blog post.

Case in point: today I read a blurb via social media that extolled “Four must-read blogs on Topic X.” Given the source, I thought to myself, “Cool, I need to know more about Topic X, and I’ll bet this guy knows what he’s talking about. So let me check out these four blogs. Maybe I can add one or two of them to my RSS reader to help me keep up with Topic X.”

Alas, the guy was just pimping four individual posts from his company’s blog.

I would understand it if the technical term for “post” were something unwieldy like “transmogrification” or “categorical imperative” or “flux capacitor.” But it’s just “post” — as short and sweet as “blog.”

To recap, in my world:

  • “Blog” = venue in which posts are made
  • “Post” = individual installment within a blog

Rant over. Thank you for your attention.

Image by Mark Gstohl.

19 inboxes.

Friday, February 26th, 2010

That’s what my wife, daughter, and I counted up to last night at the dinner table, what with work e-mail, personal e-mail, Facebook, Twitter (two accounts with two channels each), my physical P.O. box, voicemail, et cetera. Those are just my inboxes, mind you.

This “down periscope” thing is looking better and better.

While I don’t feel the intense pressure about this that my friend Chris Brogan does — he has more responsibilities and a much bigger audience than I do — the you-must-respond-NOW syndrome he diagnoses in his latest post is a pernicious one:

The Assault on Anywhen

We need to cut each other some slack in the timeliness of our communications. We need to cut OURSELVES some slack, too.

Now I’m off to rethink how often I check each inbox. I’m hoping to shock myself with my answers.

(Photo by Mick Stanic, used under a Creative Commons Noncommercial license.)

Down periscope?

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Probably this will be my “Rosebud” — the thing that haunts my thoughts throughout my life — but anyway here I go again . . .

You may know that I’ve warned the world before about becoming a Neal Stephenson-like “bad correspondent.”

You may know that I had a vexed relationship with my Gmail inbox for something like a year.

You may know that I obsess at intervals about getting to Inbox Zero — even for Twitter DMs — and staying there.

(You may know that I’m perfectly happy to flog a rhetorical device like “You may know . . . ” well past its expiration date. But I’m done now.)

So, here we are. Once again I awaken to the reality that the communications load in my life is unsustainable. I love talking to people, I’m good at talking to people, and my job depends on talking to people all day long.

BUT . . . if I spend the whole day talking to people, the Real Work doesn’t happen.

Talking to people is Real, too, when it’s sincere and achieves something in terms of human connection or (*gasp*) business success. But I know a lot of really neat people with whom I could talk for hours just for the pleasure of talking. That pleasure is one of life’s high points — but achieving something lasting with your work is even higher.

All that to say this: I’m experimenting with my conversational load.

You likely won’t see me as much on Facebook and Twitter, or, when you do see me, it will be in more concentrated bursts. I may not be as quick to respond to e-mail. You’ll still see me blogging here and elsewhere, but more of my words will be spent in outward transmission rather than in two-way communication.

In sum, you can assume that I will spend more time in my shell than I have been. It’s not you, it’s me.

I hope the results will be worth it.


(Image by MATEUS_27:24&25, used under a Creative Commons Noncommercial license.)

The fate of my Twitter DMs; or, why archiving is important.

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

If you send me a direct message (DM) on Twitter, expect to have it deleted.

WAIT. I know that sounds like complete Twitter geekery, and it’s hard for me to beat that rap after posts like this recent gem, but stick with me here, because it’s not ALL Twitter geekery I’ll be spouting.

Okay, first the Twitter part. If you use Twitter you already know this, but to bring everybody else up to speed, here’s the context: Most of Twitter is carried on publicly, in “tweets” that will be seen by anyone who is following you on the service. (You can follow as many or as few as you like, whether or not they reciprocate. I’m following about 1,140 people and have about 3,300 people following me.) But if you and the other person are both following each other, you can also trade “direct messages” or DMs, which are private between the two of you. Basically, these are like text messages on your phone, travelling in a back-channel parallel to the public tweetstream.

So far, so good? Good.

If you use Twitter as much as I do, and for business purposes like I do, that DM queue can become like another inbox, because it’s an easy way for friends to get in touch with you. And there’s the problem: you can’t archive DMs. There’s no way to store just the ones you want, or to tag only the ones you want to remember. (You can tag public tweets that you want to remember by using the “Favorite” star.)

Since I can’t highlight or archive just the DMs I want — and since I need to remove things from my line of sight that would distract me from what I need to remember — and since in general I’m looking for minimalism in my inboxes . . . I delete every DM that I can.

Which creates another problem: Twitter’s architecture means that when I delete it for me, I delete it altogether and everywhere, so that it also disappears on the sender’s end.


I’d like it if Twitter would let me flag certain DMs for follow-up, or archive — but keep available in storage! — old DMs that don’t need follow-up. But until that happens, if you DM me . . . expect subsequent deletions. Please know that it’s not you, it’s me.

Now for the broader, non-Twitter moral to the story: maybe it’s a good thing that Twitter is so minimalist, as Leo Babuata suggests. Maybe there need not be an archiving or flagging function for DMs, or threaded conversations or any of the other things I’d like to suggest as improvements to Twitter.

But, in general, if you want to increase the utility of any digital communications medium that saves past messages (i.e. not cell phones, which don’t record every call, but e-mail, SMS, etc.), fix it so that a message can be live (in the inbox), dead (deleted), or archived (out of the inbox, but not deleted).


(Photo by Andy Ciordia, used under a Creative Commons Noncommercial license.)