Archive for category Business skills

A dozen tips for graduates entering the real world

College graduation season is upon us, and for most, it’s time to turn in the textbooks and begin your career. I think back to those days — bright-eyed, ready to take on the world, and completely unaware of what waited around the corner. I wish there had been more real-world wisdom to draw from. Would have saved me many hard knocks.

In that vein, here are some thought for those just starting out, or anyone who looking for a few workplace tips.

Get out and meet people. Go to business or social events and introduce yourself. Connect with people on LinkedIn and other social media sites. More connections translate into more job leads, and also to more resources if you have questions or want advice.

Life isn’t fair, but that’s okay
Disappointment is part of life, and bad things happen for no reason: someone else lands your “perfect job,” your iPhone is stolen, or you miss lunch with a friend because you boss schedule a meeting at noon. Sure, that stinks, but what really matters is how you react. You can say, “Things happen,” and move on, or you can sulk and complain. I promise that if you do the former, you’ll be a much happier person in the long run.

Keep plugging — perseverance and patience pays off
My dream out of college was to be a sportscaster at one of the local stations. I learned of an opening that  July, and spent much of the summer and fall helping out (without pay) and learning the ropes, until I finally got the nod from the news director — in December. I busted my butt for 6 months to show them what I could do, and to make sure they never considered anyone else.

Be ready when opportunity knocks
I’m a firm believer that if you prepare, the opportunity you seek will arise, whether it’s a job, a trip, or a date. In the example above, my foot in the door came when I ran into the station’s top news anchor in a parking lot. I introduced myself and asked for career advice. I had a degree from a great communication school, along with some solid experience, so she set up an interview for me with the Sports Director.

Be true to yourself
Look to work for organizations that share your values and personality. I spent 14 years at L.L. Bean, a company that prides itself on treating people — customers, employees, vendors, and its neighbor — with respect, honesty, and integrity. That was very important to me, and was one of the reasons I stayed there. The same barometer works with friends.

There’s an old saying that you learn more by listen than talking. Very true.

Look into the mirror
The person you’re most accountable to is you. Can you look at yourself in the mirror at the end of each day and be satisfied with your effort and actions?

Ask questions during job interviews
While a big part of an interview is promoting yourself as the best candidate, it’s also an opportunity to see if this is a good fit for you. Plus, hiring managers appreciate candidates who come prepared with questions.

Don’t oversell yourself
One of my graduate school professors told us were didn’t have enough experience for a two-page resume. And if you worked as a lifeguard, don’t put Crowd Control Officer on your resume. I know lifeguard work is tough, and I’ll give you points for that, but if you exaggerate, you’re onto the rejection pile.

A former boss of mine left a resume and cover letter from a potential intern on his desk. He’d circled all of the typos.

Do your homework
Check out a company before you meet with anyone. Look at its webpage, Facebook account, etc.

Everything works out
I’m a believer that things always work out in the end. So if you’re turned done for one job, be ready for the next one. You might find it’s an even better opportunity.

Good luck!

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Being humble makes you a better communicator

During a live shot on the news this week, a local reporter caught my attention when she used the word “I” three times in a sentence. Sure, it’s conversational and brings the reporter into the story, but at the same time, use of that pronoun takes away from the subject of the story.

Know your audience
Communicators often talk about identifying your audience. If you’re selling fishing flies, you want to target people who fish. Manufacturing a new soda? Aim for kids and teens.

That’s pretty basic stuff, but writing to your target audience is where many messages fall short.

My favorite example is the typical, annual benefits enrollment announcement that you see at many companies: “Benefit enrollment packets will be mailed to eligible employees beginning November 1.”
In this message, you’re talking at employees, not to them. Contrast the above example with, “Look for your benefits enrollment packets, coming in the mail in early November.”

The second version rises above the first because it 1) carries a friendly, more conversational tone; and 2) speaks to the reader, not from the company.  It’s a subtle adjustment, but a very effective technique to improve your writing.

What’s the secret? Be humble, and put readers ahead of you and your organization.  Think about what they want to read. It’s human nature to be proud of your accomplishments or your company, but remember that you’re writing for your readers, and the message should focus on them.

Another example
Company focused: XYZ Company, the nation’s leading developer of pain-relieving medications, announced a new, over-the-counter medication that extensive studies show significantly reduce pain caused by arthritis.”

Audience focused: Relief is on the way for arthritis sufferers, thanks to a new over-the-counter medication that studies show significantly reduces joint pain. The medication, Pain Away, was developed by researchers at XYZ Company, the nation’s leading …”

While the company was bumped from the first sentence to the second, your message is more likely to be read and remembered because it addresses an issues many readers have (arthritis pain). And that’s what matters.

Being humble does pay off.


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Lessons learned from a self-made man

John_BizantakosSaturday would have been my Uncle John’s 99th birthday. I grew up in the house next to his, and being named after him, always felt a special bond.

He was also a self-made man, who taught me a great deal. So, in honor of his birthday, some of his lessons:

‘Kill them with kindness’
His single most repeated piece of advice. Took me years to realize he was right, but it’s spot-on wisdom. Whenever I feel the urge to tell someone off, I smile and think of these words.

Reward loyalty
I shoveled his driveway and mowed his lawn from junior high school through college. I never asked for a raise, but he gave me one each year.

Take responsibility
My grandfather died at a very young age, leaving my grandmother with a houseful of kids. Uncle John became head of the house at 14 or 15 and began working to provide for his mother and siblings.

Teach responsibility
One summer Uncle John decided we’d paint his house. He told me I was the boss and he the helper, so the task of deciding what and when to paint fell on my young shoulders. We also set an hourly rate, and he asked for a weekly bill, with my hours worked. It was one of my first financial lessons.

Set a direction and let people do their work
The first time I mowed his lawn, he walked around with me, letting me know whether to cut or leave a variety of items growing around the house. After that, he left me alone to do the work.

Be a gentleman (or lady)
My uncle was polite, courteous, and well groomed. His clothes were always neat and pressed. I sometimes wonder what he’s thinking as he looks down on me, going to the supermarket unshaven and in paint-covered jeans.

A penny saved …
Okay, it was originally Ben Franklin’s idea, but Uncle John believed in working hard and saving his wages. He encouraged us to do the same.

Family first
I could write pages about this one. He worked hard to provide for his family, and all of us owe him a debt of gratitude. I hope to be half the man he was.

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More than ever, good customer service stands out

I’ve received some great customer service this year (and some mediocre, but let’s not dwell on those).

They’re a good reminder that taking care of your customers pays dividends in the long run. That’s particularly critical in this challenging economy, as this great service 1) brings me back; and 2) has me telling my friends.

What makes me — a customer — happy with service? Here’s a quick list:

Some time ago, I was looking for a watch to wear when swimming laps. I picked one that seemed perfect. The salesperson offered an alternative that was considerably cheaper. I’ve always remembered and appreciated his honesty. And I still have the watch.

A simple “thank you” goes a long way. Enough said. By the way, thanks for reading.

The customer service team at my bank is incredible. If I call with a rare question they can’t immediately answer, I know that they’ll check and call me back promptly. And they always apologize for the delay. It makes me feel like I’m the only customer they have.

I’ve done a fair amount of business  this year with a local nursery. Prices are great (value), plants are healthy (quality), and the owner listens and remember our conversations from week-to-week. She asks questions to understand what I want, and can really hone in on the right plants for my yard.

Customer-first philosphy
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, good people and organizations put the customer at the center of their work. They have a very “can-do” attitude and make the experience almost fun.

Your turn. What do you think makes good customer service?

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Times change, but skills remain key

Think about the changes an 80-year-old has seen. Growing up, the family’s primary sources of news and events were likely the daily newspaper and word-of-mouth from family and friends. Then came the telephone, radio, and television. That generation witnessed a shift in the methods and speed of communication greater than any group prior.

Now we have the internet, email, social media, smart phones, tablets, and apps that will do everything from paying bills to creating a talking Santa cartoon.

Staying in touch has never been easier — while being an effective communicator has become increasingly difficult.

The following tips will help increase the odds your audience will pay attention to your message:

Be clear and concise
Regardless of your field or message, your writing (or speaking) should be direct and to-the-point. If your readers have to look for key message, you’ve likely lost them. Make your point without lengthy introductions, then follow-up with details.

This is particularly critical when targeting younger generations that are accustomed to more direct communication.

Consider your audience
A NASA engineer speaking to her peers would likely use very different language than when addressing a group of high school students on the same topic. Ask yourself what you audience knows about the topic, how much detail is appropriate, and if they’ll understand terminology associated with the subject. If’ I’m chatting with another photographer, I might mention shooting an image with my 135mm at f2. However, if speaking my aunt, I’d simply say I adjusted the camera to blur the background out of focus.

Be objective
Passion is a double-edge sword. It’s what makes you good at your job, but also makes effectively communicating about it much more challenging.

I’ll explain. You want to tell people about a project, and assume they’ll share your excitement. You begin to tell them the specifics of your work, and before you can know it, they’ve lost interest, either because they can’t follow the details or the story ran too long.

A programmer friend once told me a story about a project she was working on. As much as I tried to follow along, I was lost within 3 minutes. The story continued, with me struggling to keep up. It’s became jokingly known as the “Flat File Story.”

Be timely and time sensitive
Readers are incredibly busy, so you have to reach them where they want to hear the news, and then present it in a way that they’ll want to read/hear.

In my early years, we often drafted newsletter articles or messages from executives that were fairly long, and people seemed to read them. Now there’s great competition for readers’ attention, and you run the risk of losing them with a message that’s too jam-packed. And given the speed at which news travels, by the time you craft your detailed message, it might be old or outdated.

Follow Twitter’s lead
Twitter, with its 140 character limit, provides a great exercise in good writing. It forces you to be direct, clear, and concise. Give it a try.

Your turn. How do you reach your audience?

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A lesson in customer service from Frank Burns

In one of the early episodes of the popular television show M*A*S*H, bumbling Frank Burns tries to impress a shapely 20-something who was visiting the camp. When she commented how nice everyone was, his pithy reply was, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.”

Oddly, old ferret face is right. I’ll explain.

Saturday was errand day for me: supermarket, gas station, department store, office supply store, etc. Between stops I made a couple of phone calls to stores and customer service numbers. Clearly, a very exciting day.

What really struck me was how terrific (and nice) everyone was. For example, I called Staples a couple of times, and both employees I spoke with were helpful and incredibly polite. While neither was able to completely grant my request, their attitude left me feeling okay about that.

Later, I visited our local Staples, and came across one of the employees I’d spoken with earlier. Despite being interrupted by me several times, he remained pleasant and very helpful. When I reached the cash register, the young woman there was also very friendly.

While this might sound like an ad for Staples, it’s simply the story about the impact of good service, which begins with being nice to customers.

On the other hand, I recently heard a story about a customer who called a tire company about a quality issue. He was unhappy with their resolution, and shocked to hear the representative tell him, “Take it or leave it.” Clearly, the customer has taken his business elsewhere, and I’ve made a mental note to steer clear of that brand, too.

Your turn. Do you make purchase decisions based on how you’re treated?

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3 things to ask before you begin typing

You’re sitting at your computer (or on the couch with your iPad), ready to start work on a long overdue memo, upcoming speech, or new Facebook post. You’ve got a pretty good idea of what you want to say, and start to type the first letter …

Like the song says, Stop right there

Before you begin, ask yourself the following questions. Your end product will be better for the extra 2 – 3 minute you take to ponder:

Who is your audience?
What do they already know — and need to know? Is the topic important to them? Are they friendly, hostile, or neutral?  In an earlier blog I stressed the importance of speaking to your audience, not at them. While you may be passionate about the topic, it’s wise to consider potential disinterest, perhaps resistance. Let’s say, for example, you have an update of a new, unpopular policy. Remember to show empathy for staff, acknowledging that the change may be difficult.

What is the best vehicle to reach your audience?
Too often we put the cart before the horse and choose a vehicle before deciding on the message or defining the audience. Before settling on a vehicle, look at your options — email, video, team meetings, posters, face-to-face conversations, etc. — and then decide which will be the most effective, given your audience and the message. Remember, the best option is often a combination of vehicles.

What are your key messages?
Your message should be clear, concise, and obvious. Too often, important messages are buried in the fourth paragraph (or closing remarks), and skimmed past by busy or distracted readers. I generally advise people to make their most important points upfront, then support or build on them. Think back to the terrible bombings at the Boston Marathon. Nearly every communication started the same way: Two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Simple, direct, and clear. Details and background followed.

Your turn. What do you think about before beginining a communication?

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Keys to success? Start with relationship building

I was cleaning out some folders and ran across notes from a discussion about success with a director at a former employer.  I’ve always been intrigued by what makes a person successful, and found her thoughts enlightening.

Relationships come first
My director stressed the importance of building relationships, particularly important at that organization, L.L.Bean. First, because it’s the right thing to do — we’re all people, after all — but it also helps you in your job:

  • On a practical level, a good relationship helps builds your personal and professional credibility. That should enhance the credibility of your perspective and help influence the outcome.
  • Good relationships with co-workers make the work more enjoyably and productive.

Take people at face value
Yeah, you’ll run across people with questionable scruples, but start by assuming the best. With that as a foundation, build trust, and remember that everyone sees the world differently. Perhaps her most salient point: be open to disagreement with your point of view, and resist the urge to automatically push back against other views.

Be a learner
In this ever-changing world, it’s crucial to stay abreast of new techniques, technologies, and information. Be a constant learner: read about best practices, take classes, or development sessions. This helps develop your potential, and may even change your world view.

Your turn. What advice have you been given?

Related blogs:
9 things L.L.Bean taught me

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What makes an item newsworthy?

I’m often asked to pitch stories to media. Some are terrific and easy to promote; others are a stretch.

So, what makes a story worthy of media attention? It could be a number of factors — sometimes the topic is enough to draw reporters, other times you have to create news around it to gain coverage.

Be Objective
The biggest tip I offer is to be objective and look at the topic from a reader’s or viewer’s perspective. Just because you or I think the latest widget is extraordinary doesn’t mean the media or public will agree. Ask yourself: Will people find this information interesting?

Consider the impact
How many people are affected, positively or negatively, by your product or service? Cancer impacts more people — and more seriously — than hair loss, for example. A new procedure that offers hope for breast cancer patients is more newsworthy than a treatment for baldness.

An often overlooked impact is the number of jobs created by a new product, location, expansion, etc. So, if you’re opening a new gas station, talk about the jobs you’ll create, not the additives in your gasoline.

Cool is good
Apple has built a reputation — and loyal following — because of the wow factor of its products. Every new launch brings anticipation, creates buzz, and stirs lots of talk at the water cooler. You may not have the allure of Apple, but your product could be interesting to many. For example, selling a new type of shovel isn’t that exciting, but suppose you learned a local doctor recommended it to her patients with back problems.

Newsmakers make news
Well-known people are often good media draws. The list ranges from local Olympians and university presidents to the governor or mayor. If you can create an event and incorporate a celebrity presence, your odds of coverage increase.

Pictures tell stories
This is important. While you may be able to secure some coverage in newspapers without any visuals, good images are required when working with television news. In the manufacturing field, identify employees the camera crews can film making your product. If you’re a chiropractor, reporters will want to record you working with a client. Think of “action” shots that help tell your story.

Be nimble, be quick
Remember, the first three letters in news are N-E-W. Unlike the tortoise and hare, speed does matter. Be ready to act (or respond to calls) on a moment’s notice. Reporters generally call more than one contact, and the first one prepared to respond usually lands the interview. You’ll also build a reputation as being a reliable resource.

If a newspaper already reported on a new service offered by a competitor, you’ll need to come up with a different topic to pitch. It’s not enough that you do that service differently or better. The story is done. It’s old news.

What else is going on?
When thinking about the newsworthiness of your story, consider what other items are in the news. Late October and early November means elections, winter brings blizzards, etc. Are there legislative battles in your state, or a big court case that’s a priority for media? If you can tie coverage into these, great, but if not, you might face a much tougher pitch and may want to wait a bit.

Find a local angle
Let’s say a fire in Boston destroys a historic building. Media in Delaware might be interested in speaking with your fire department or an owner of a hardware store about checking smoke detectors, replacing batteries, etc.

If you own a bike shop in Ohio, and a bike helmet saved the life of a national personality in New York City, call your local media and offer to speak about bike safety.

Focus on people
Viewers like stories about people. For example, celebrating your antique store’s 20th year in business is certainly exciting to you, but would that be newsworthy? Probably not. But, if you had the same group of employees for all 20 years, and perhaps two of them married, and their twins girls now work at your store in the summer … that’s a good story.

Another good pitch would be a small-town woman who overcame cancer to sing the national anthem before a Red Sox game.

Know when to say when
Too often, I see people trying to force a story. Media relations is about building relationships, and that means accepting that one story doesn’t work, but keeping the door open to another. If you push a story idea too far and lose credibility with the media, your next pitch will be that much harder.

Your turn. What tips to you have for people who want to pitch stories?

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Quotes that make you think

Some of my favorite quotes, seen and gathered over the years.

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”
John Wooden, Legendary college basketball coach

“Life is not a spectator sport.”
Jackie Robinson, Baseball Hall of Famer

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 16th President

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”
– Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President

“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.”
Mark Twain, Author

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Nelson Mandela, Former South African President, activist, revolutionary

“I don’t give in, don’t give up, and never take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Doris Roberts, Actor

“Never do things only half-way; give it your best effort every single time. You will be noticed – and appreciated!”
Tess Gerritsen, Best-selling author

“Never put an age limit on your dreams.”
Dara Torres, Olympic gold medalist

“Practice. Practice. Practice.”
Lee Trevino, Hall of Fame golfer

“In life, try to be kind to everyone and I think you’ll be surprised at the results. In work, find your passion or you dream and stick to it.”
Jim Nabors, Actor and singer

Your turn. What are quotes do you like or find inspirational?

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