Archive for category Employee Communications

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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Write for your electronic reader

Readers of webpages or emails — or pretty much anything that’s read on a screen— differ greatly from those perusing the newspaper or other printed materials, and a few simple changes to your style can greatly increase the effectiveness of your message.

Get to the point — quickly
While a magazine or book reader may enjoy a leisurely jaunt through the pages, people reading email, web copy, etc., want their information quickly, without having to search for the key messages:

It’s March, and that means it’s time for Main Street Clothing to put our winter apparel away and bring out the springwear. But before we do, we’re holding our annual March Sale, with savings of 20 percent on winter clothing.

Save 20 percent on winter clothing during our annual March Sale.

Use bullets
Electronic readers skim copy, and bullets catch the eye.

Our Memorial Day menu features hamburgers, hot dogs, barbeque chicken, ribs, corn on the cob, and cold slaw.

Our Memorial Day menu:

  • Hamburgers
  • Hot dogs
  • Barbeque chicken
  • Ribs
  • Corn on the cob
  • Cold slaw

Use more headlines
Headlines and subheads, like bullets, draw the wandering eye back to your copy. Remember how it felt when a page of you school book was a sea of text? Headlines, subheads, bullets, and graphic elements make the story or message more inviting.

Be brief
We’re too wordy, and it seems the more important a message, the longer we feel it should be. But some of the best remembered communications in our history were short:

Advertisers understand the importance of brevity better than most. A few memorable advertising slogans:

  • Just Do It
  • The Real Thing
  • Breakfast of Champions
  • Got Milk?
  • I want my MTV

Finally, remember you’re writing to someone. Use clear language, keep it simple, and leave out the fluff. You’ll be fine.

Your thoughts?

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Lessons learned from my best bosses

A good boss can really make a difference in your job and career. I’ve been fortunate to have worked for some terrific people, who really understand the right way to motive people. Here are a few characteristics:

Be a regular guy (or gal)
I worked for a VP who may be the best motivator I’ve ever met. Despite being a very smart guy, he’s also perhaps the most down-to-earth person I’ve known, and he truly cared about his people. Better yet, his philosophy was to set a vision, then “get out of the way” and let his staff make it happen. And, when our unit succeeded (which was quite often), he was very quick to redirect praise away from himself to the team.

Trust staff to do their job
I was a few days into a new communications job when my boss told me “You’re the expert. It’s my job to support you.”  Wow. Talk about trust and making me feel really good about my work. I’ll never forget that.

Positive feedback works wonders
One of my favorite supervisors completely understood the value of positive feedback. The performance appraisals she wrote were incredibly thorough, and included many examples of my good work throughout the year (she regularly listed things I’d forgotten). If something didn’t go well, she provided honest and candid feedback, but was always encouraging.

Focus on the mission
Whenever I found myself scratching my head over the goings on at one job, my boss would remind me of our mission, and the positive impact the organization had on our community. It kept me grounded when things around me seemed off the mark.

‘Got your back’
I’ve been fortunate to work for three or four bosses who served as a buffer between our team and senior leaders. They sang our team’s praises when we did well, and stood by us when we made mistakes. Good support from leaders is particularly important in a field like communications, where you often make decisions based on your experience, instincts, and gut feelings, and second-guessing can hurt the end product.

Learn from mistakes
This is a corollary to the previous item. Having a supportive boss gives staff the confidence to take calculated risks, rather than playing it too safe. Someone once said if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough. A good boss understands that and supports you through thick and thin.

It’s about relationship
As the saying goes, you do get more flies with honey than vinegar. Build relationships, and work together. This is especially important in fields where you generally lack formal authority over those you interact with, and have to rely on influencing without clout. One director taught me the end result isn’t as important as the process and the relationships within a project team. I’ve found that this view pays off in the long run, as the bridges you build today help you meet goals tomorrow.

Lead by example
I spent nearly 15 years at L.L.Bean, a company that does the vast majority of its business during the holiday shopping season. During “Peak”, leaders from throughout the organization — including the CEO — leave their job and spend time helping customers in the store, answering phone orders, picking and packing items in the Distribution Center, and more.  Staff appreciate that. Read my blog, 9 things L.L.Bean taught me

Think outside of the box
Times change, and it’s important to keep up with new practices and technology. Years ago, when newsletters were the primary communication vehicle in Corporate America, I was hired to develop visual communication tools, ranging from video kiosks to splashy photographic wall displays. My boss was a visionary. Unfortunately, two months after I joined the department she resigned, but we were able to continue forward with some of her ideas.

Your turn…. What lessons did you learn from your best bosses?

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Good communication no laughing matter for Seinfeld

Seinfeld may have been a show about nothing, but its well-polished writing offers many lessons to help us improve our communications:

Create an image
Jerry compared the “man hands” of his blind date to the paws of wrestler George “The Animal” Steele. The reference to Mr. Steele made the segment even funnier by drawing this bizarre — but specific — reference.  Our lesson: precision and details in communications help get your message across.

Tell a story
When Jerry’s pal George Costanza rescued a whale by freeing a golf ball from its blow hole, his recollection painted a vivid picture for viewers: “The sea was angry that day, my friends. Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.” Much more powerful than simply saying, “The water was rough.”

Keep it simple
Each plot revolved around a specific theme or two, ranging from marble rye bread and a gassy horse, to an overzealous auto mechanic and President Kennedy’s golf clubs. This is an especially good reminder to limit the number of key points in a message, else you risk losing readers’ attention.

Be an everyman (or woman)
Seinfeld’s character was, in many respects, an average Joe. He played softball, cheered for the Mets, ate cereal while watching late night television, and sported a wardrobe primarily consisting of jeans and sneakers. The audience related to that character more than had he been, for example, an architect.

Leave your comfort zone
One of the show’s funniest episodes, “The  Contest,”  took viewers down a path that ventured far beyond a typical sitcom plot, as the four wagered who could go the longest without … yada yada yada. Kramer, of course, was the first eliminated— seduced by the vision of a naked woman in the apartment across the street.  We later saw Jerry, who was in a relationship with Marla the virgin, singing children’s songs to keep his focus off the naked neighbor. Clever, funny, and out of the box.

Be memorable
Seinfeld featured a unique glossary of terms. Millions of people, young and old, completely understand references such as Library Cop, serenity now, and of course, “No soup for you!”  Colorful phrases catch people’s attention, and are particularly helpful during presentations or media interviews.

Unpredictable? Giddy-up
Viewers never really knew what to expect each week, particularly given the odd behavior of the show’s characters. George learns his fiancée has died and immediately suggests getting a bit to eat. The four watch a robbery and poke fun of the victim. And Elaine showed us dance moves unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Look beyond your walls
Seinfeld regularly connected to an event or newsworthy item beyond its set, such as the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the magic bullet scene from the movie JFK, bathroom hygiene, and The J. Peterman Company.  Good communicators know their audience has interests outside of the topic at hand.

Brevity is better
Some of the show’s most memorable lines were short, catchy phrases. For example, Jerry advised Elaine to “Look to the cookie,” for the path to racial harmony. Those four words were much more effective than a formal delivery, such as: “The black and white cookie symbolizes the synergy between people of different races, creeds, and background, and will serve as a foundation for our future …”
Other short, but effective phrases: “I choose not to run,” “Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” and “Bosco.” The lesson: don’t use 10 words when four will do.

Your turn
What do you think the writers of Seinfeld did particularly well?  If you can’t come up with anything, you’re clearly not Pensky material…


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9 things L.L. Bean taught me

I spent nearly 15 years of my career at L.L. Bean, and consider myself fortunate to have worked a good chunk of my career at such a terrific organization. I began to reminisce on a recent visit to its Freeport, Me., campus, and decided to pen the top lessons I learned during my days as a “Beaner.”

Customer Focus
The company has many stakeholder groups, from employees to vendors, but the customer comes first. Leon Leonwood Bean’s customer service philosophy begins, “A customer is the most important person ever in this company – in person or by mail.”

Stand behind your products
L.L.’s guarantee, established in 1912, remains the gold standard today. Few companies support their products or services so strongly. Customers notice.

Do the right thing
I can’t count the number of times I heard a leader say “We’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do. Integrity was part of the Bean way well before it became vogue. And when leaders model the behavior, employees notice. Soon it becomes part of the culture.

Offer quality and value
You can buy lesser quality merchandise for the lowest price — and that works for many people. While L.L. Bean products may cost more than others, customers know they’ll last longer. L.L.’s Golden Rule: “Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings and they will always come back for more.”

Be humble
Despite its long history of success, the company culture remained humble. Boasting was frowned upon, and success was shared. Good work was recognized by others, and teamwork was a way of doing business.

Embrace change, but be thoughtful about it
The company was very thoughtful about course changes, whether that meant a new product line or store expansion. Leaders understood the importance of prioritization and tackling the most important items first.

Everyone chips in
During a long-ago visit to the Flagship Store, I spotted the store’s director on the floor, sorting hats into the correct size bin. A busy customer day had left the display a bit messy, and he wanted it right.

Treat employees well
Happy employees tend to be better employees. It seems obvious, but I think a lot of companies miss this one. As an employee, I enjoyed good benefits and a generous discount. Plus, treating people well is the right thing to do (see number 3).

Be a good neighbor
Bean gives back to its community in many ways, ranging from free summer concerts and fireworks on Independence Day, to a Road Race and countless sponsorship, particularly when it comes to the environment.


7 ways that social media has changed our lives

Author and educator Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1967 that we should look at how the introduction of communication mediums, such as radio and television, impact our world. His work focused on how television, for example, changed our lives, rather the programs that aired on your TV.

McLuhan’s words ring even more true 45 years later, as we look at how social media has changed our lives:

Faster than a speeding bullet
Information reaches us faster than ever. When US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in January 2009, witnesses shared their observations via Twitter and other social networks. The world knew the story within minutes of the landing.

Short and sweet
By design, social media communications are short and to the point, a practice most writing experts suggest we must now adopt to stay relevant.

LinkedIn has become the new Rolodex, a depository of contact names, job titles, addresses, and phone numbers. Even better than its paper predecessor, your contacts update their profile and you have the most current information at your fingertips. Simple and easy.

Haven’t seen a classmate in years? No problem. Thanks to Facebook, you can keep in touch with your entire class from the comfort of your computer. No need to pick up the phone. Type in a status update and dozens or hundreds of friends know where you took the kids today.

Everyone has a voice
Gone are the days when you needed contacts or access to media to share your thoughts with the masses. Anyone can start a blog, Tweet, pin photos, etc. If you’re good, and a little creative, you’ll find a following.

Advice at your fingertips
Can’t decide which wine to serve with dinner? Post a question to your friends and followers. LinkedIn, for example, has user groups that can answer questions from where to travel in France to which lens is best for photographing sports.

We won’t be ignored
Big brother may be watching, but he’s not in charge. The introduction of the web and social media has taken ownership of communications away from those traditionally in positions of authority. Gone are the days when a company can issue a statement without fear of repercussions. Every half-truth, every misstep can bring a barrage of tweets and posts from angry followers. Bottom line, social media is going a long way to encourage honesty, integrity, and transparency.

Marshall McLuhan died in 1980, but I’m sure the impact of social media would bring a smile to his face, knowing he was right when he penned the phrase, The medium is the message.

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The single best way to improve your communications

The most important tip to enhance your communications may be most obvious — and the most overlooked.

Put yourself in your audience’s place.  Who are they? What do they care about?  What do they want to hear? How does your news affect them?

If you’re merging with another organization, your employees’ first question isn’t about the stock price, it’s likely, Do I still have a job?

Make it easy for them
Too often well-meaning leaders send out dry, long-winded messages that miss the mark. People are continually bombarded with information from dozens of sources, ranging from television and radio to Twitter, text messages, and Facebook. You’re competing with all of these for their attention and have to adjust your communications accordingly.

Let me explain. Let’s say you plan to open a clothing store. Would you locate it in a remote, out-of-the way spot, or near a high-traffic area? In most cases, you’d locate near where customers are, instead of making them drive out of their way.

The same holds true for communications. Your messages should be easy to access, read, and understand. If you make people work too much, you’ll lose them.

Make your point quickly 
If your message fails to engage people immediately, you’re running the risk that they’ll move on before hearing the real news. And if the news is bad, it looks like you’re burying it.

Write TO people, not FROM the organization
This is critical. Use “you”, “your” and “we” often, and avoid referring to readers in the third person. Here are two examples that illustrate this point:

  • Employees who sign up for the Health Walk will be eligible for the $100 gift card raffle.
  • You could win a $100 gift card. Sign up for the Health Walk and you’ll be entered in our raffle.

Because the second is more conversational, and speaks to readers, not at them, it’s much more effective.

Be brief
Longer messages may impress the boss, but they’re less likely to be read. Social media, the web, and texting have trained us to be readers of blurbs, not chapters.

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Improve your photography by planning ahead

I worked as an assistant for a talented photographer who taught me a great deal about the craft. He generally had a vision of each shoot beforehand, and showed me that a little planning and imagination go a long way in capturing better photographs.

Novice photographers often arrive with good intentions but no plan of action. If you know the basics of photography and give some thought about potential photos ahead of time, you’ll see a difference in the quality of your work.

Let’s look at a few easy tips to help you on your photographic journey (BTW, click on an image to enlarge it).

Try something different
I took one of my favorite photos, above, while working at L.L. Bean. Our employee newsletter featured a profile of the manager of retail marketing, a woman who juggles many, many tasks. I wanted the photo to metaphorically show how much she did, and came up with the idea of having her juggle Bean boots in front of the company’s flagship store. Before shooting, I drew a sketch of my vision and then photographed a coworker juggling Bean Boots to see if the concept would work. Finally, I built a frame to hang some of the boots. It’s funny, people think this is Photoshop, but it’s not.

Arrive early for warm-ups
You’re going to a sporting event, but your seats are too far away for a memorable shot. Warm-ups often present some great opportunities for photos. In a previous blog, Take Better Photos with These 7 Tips, I wrote about shooting away from the action, and this is a somewhat similar concept.

Here, I snapped a photo of former Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona walking back to the dugout during warm-ups. Yes, it’s not the same as getting a great action shot during the game, but when your seat is in the back row of the bleachers, this is a pretty good alternative. The same principle — shoot before the action starts — applies if you’re covering a corporate event or your kids’ soccer game.

Note how the color of Francona’s jersey makes the image pop a bit more. When I walk into a room looking for subjects, one of the first things I see are the colors of people’s clothes.

Have fun with your photos

During my tenure at L.L.Bean, the company opened several new retail stores, including one in Burlington, Massachusetts, just down the road from Lexington, where the Revolutionary War began.

A couple of weeks before the store opening, I grabbed a pair of Bean Boots, and headed to a reenactment of the war’s first battle. One of the actors agreed to pose for a shot wearing the boots, and we used the image on our employee website.

The caption we used suggested the Colonists won the war because Bean Boots had kept their feet warm and dry feet. But for the record, the first pair of Bean Boots came along about 140 years after the war.

Be open for other possibilities
I once read about an old-school photography exercise that directed students to walk for a predetermined time, then stop and take a photo from where they stopped. The exercise is said to sharpen your ability to find a subject, regardless of where you are.

And sometimes you look up, and a photo is waiting to be taken …

Each year, Maine maple syrup producers welcome the public to see the syrup-making process in person. After shooting some of the Maine Maple Sunday activities, I happened to look back at the barn, and saw this face peeking out.  Apparently the goat was intrigued by the activity. I went to photograph maple syrup, but came away with a goat photo. The paper I shot for put it on the cover.

Ask for help, especially with children

A kid on a tire swing is a photo waiting to be taken. Trouble is, kids don’t act natural around cameras.

I saw our young friend on the tire swing, and even with a 400mm lens, knew he’d see me taking his photos.

So, I enlisted his father to talk to him (okay, distract him) as I snapped away. The original, a slide, lost some color in its conversion to digital, but you get the point.

Some kids become hams when a camera appears, while others shy away, so having something or someone to hold their attention helps you capture a more natural moment.

Stake out your spot

Author Mitch Albom was speaking about his best-selling book Tuesdays with Morrie at a large conference I attended a few years ago. He’s a terrific speaker, and I wanted a photo. Unfortunately, because I flew to the conference, the only camera I packed was my small point-and-shoot camera.

So, I arrived really early, and took the best seat I could find: front row, a little off-center. An easy, but often overlooked way to get a better photo.

Hang around
I’d never seen Craigslist founder Craig Newmark until he spoke at a similar event I attended.

He’s a very bright guy, and an engaging speaker, and I thought there might be a good photo opportunity.

Unfortunately, the lighting onstage wasn’t enough for my little camera, so I decided to wait until he finished and the crowd began to disperse. He was on stage chatting, and I moved in close enough to use my flash and snapped a couple of quick photos.

Remember, the flash unit on most point-and-shoot cameras is good for about 10-12 feet.

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Good quotes are conversational, not canned

I was reading an article about the late Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the Moon, and was taken by the last paragraph of a statement issued by his family:

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

I love this statement. It’s simple, heart-warming, and reflects Armstrong’s passion and humble personality. It acknowledges the loss of a true hero and simultaneously brings a smile to your face.

The statement also jumped out because it offers a stark contrast to the highfalutin, jargon-filled language so common in today’s business and political world. You know the ones I mean. Those that speak of dedication and commitment to the mission, valuable assets, or strategic plans.

Quotes should be, above all, human. The reader/listener should feel that the statement is spoken to them, from one person to another. Just like the Armstrong statement.

Just for kicks, let’s look at some memorable lines from literature, film, and advertising that are rewritten in this over-the-top, corporate speak:

Rather than spending considerable time in the planning and analysis phases, we recommend you simply begin your chosen activity.

The Terminator
Upon successful completion of my assignment, I shall return to continue our one-on-one interaction.

Based on some newly-acquired data, it’s highly likely that this task will require a larger, more substantial vessel.

Moby Dick
It would be most appropriate to reference me by my generally accepted moniker, Ismail.

Wizard of Oz
Toto, my canine associate, it appears that after a thorough investigation and analysis of the current situation, the only logical conclusion we can arrive at is that we are no longer in our domicile of Kansas.

Three Musketeers
We together combined to form a single, cohesive unit, which in-turn benefits each contributor individually.

I bet you can add some, too. Let’s hear them …

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Looking for brand ambassadors? Try your employees

Company executives spend countless hours and dollars looking for a competitive edge, from launching a new marketing campaign to sprucing up the lobby with customer-friendly amenities. Unfortunately, in these efforts, many organizations often overlook a potentially potent weapon: employees.

Sure, ad campaigns can certainly drive sales, consultants bring great ideas, and tactics like Mommy Bloggers can boost your credibility with third-party endorsements, but focusing on employees — your human resources —gives you a remarkable edge.

First, your employees are generally the point of contact with customers; the face of your organization. Think back to a time where you received terrific service, and how you felt about the company. Good employees can leave a great impression, while unhappy employees reflect poorly on your company.

Secondly, employees frequently field questions from family and friends at everything from neighborhood barbeques to Little League games. Happy, well-informed employees will present your organization in a much better light. Unhappy employees likely use the opportunity to bad-mouth you.

So, what’s the best way to engage staff? For starters, speak with them. Ask them how they’re doing, what they’re seeing on the front lines, and for suggestions to improve your business. You’re still the boss, and nothing says you have to implement every idea, but those closest to the work know it best, and that’s valuable in this difficult economy.

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