The best advice I was ever given – don’t wee all over the document!

The best advice I was ever given was by my boss when I worked in telecoms. The office was like a library that morning — everyone was beavering away and the hush was palpable…until, that is, my boss came flying out of his office, shattering the silence with, “What have you done? You’ve weed all over this document!”

Now, I should pause for effect at this point so, like me, you could let the potential meaning of this statement percolate. No, he couldn’t smell wacky backy. No, the pages weren’t damp. His shock was at my overuse of the word ‘we’, which meant I hadn’t put the customer at the heart of my writing.

I’ve never forgotten that advice (how could I?) and now always check for two things when writing:

1. That the piece identifies with the readers and their needs
2. Whether writing in 1st, 2nd or 3rd person, that I don’t overuse words like ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’

Sometimes it helps to read the piece out loud — you’ll soon find out if you’ve weed all over it!

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The best advice I was ever given — writing is about the reader, not the writer

It was one of the more nerve-wracking moments of my life. I’d been a journalist for maybe a month or two and was waiting for my editor’s feedback on the first feature article I’d ever written.

“It’s lovely Su,” she said, to my relief. I should have realised there was a big ‘but’ coming. She pointed at my final paragraph, the culmination of some 1,000 words of copy, and added: “But you see this paragraph here? This is the start of the article; it’s what it’s all about, it should be right up front.”

The issue wasn’t that I’d failed to follow some preordained method of writing such as ‘inverted pyramid’. We weren’t reporting news; we could open an article with an anecdote, scene-setting, a question to be answered, a summary of what was to follow… whatever worked.

My editor’s point — and it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten — was that I’d failed to stand back and assess my work to see if I’d told the strongest possible story for the reader. I’d failed to place the most interesting and relevant part of the story at the centre of the narrative. I’d written a well-organised piece, but it was a structure that worked for me, the writer, to organise my thoughts clearly. To draw in my readers, I needed to reassess my logical workings and, well, start again.

I’ve lost count of the times that applying this advice has helped me improve a piece of writing. I don’t think I’ve ever again made the mistake quite as badly as burying the lead all the way in the conclusion; but often I do find I need to work and rework the first half of a piece to try and get that ‘essence’ across as quickly and immediately as possible.

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The best advice I was ever given — adapt or die

In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.
– Dwight Eisenhower

My slightly geeky other half — he runs a Warhammer 40K after-school club for his students — reeled off this quote to me when he caught a glimpse of my day-by -day, colour-coded itinerary for our epic trip round Australia.

[For those of you not in-the-know, Warhammer 40K is a table-top miniature war game set in a dystopian science-fantasy universe.]

Don’t tell him I said this (I’ll never hear the end of it), but he was right. My carefully crafted itinerary more or less went to pot within a week. Don’t get me wrong, it was still an invaluable source of ideas and information: I had the right visa, knew which company to trust for skydiving, and never ran out of places to go or things to see. But there are so many things people only tell you about once you get there that I’d have missed out on a lot of fantastic experiences if I hadn’t been flexible enough to change my plans!

I’ve kept this piece of advice with me in business and in particular when it comes to drawing up project plans. Project planning is never just a single event at the beginning of a project. A project plan needs to be regularly revisited and actively modified throughout the project. It’s all about flexibility and change management: how you deal with, say, a new deliverable that’s been identified, a reviewer who’s become unavailable, or an external event that changes something about the target market.

What’s more, a skilled project manager will ensure that all the stakeholders involved in the project, with their different points of view, openly collaborate about the trade-offs that can be made during the course of any project in order to maximise its success.

So, never forget…

Don’t allow your prior planning — outflanking Chosen with Meltaguns coming in on the flanks — to override your common sense, or you’ll end up getting far less value from the Chosen than if you would have simply loaded them into their Rhino and moved straight into the battle lines 😉

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The best advice I was ever given — CYA

Lots of people offer up advice and not all of it is always as helpful as it might be. We all have friends like that, right? Sometimes you have to look inside the advice to find the essence that has real value for you. Here’s one such tale.

“You’ve got to think CYA,” said the Kingston Business School lecturer.

It was a dull Wednesday morning and I was sitting in a marketing tutorial, wishing the morning away and looking forward to getting out in the sunshine forecast for that afternoon. The unfamiliar acronym woke me up. CYA? What was that all about?

The lecturer continued: “When you leave university and start out in the big wide world of business, remember to cover your arse. Don’t give them an excuse to hang you out to dry; if you CYA you won’t have anything to worry about.”

Well, that sounded more than a little paranoid, but of course the valuable take away advice here is about the importance of preparation and diligence. I always put myself in the shoes of the person who’ll be receiving my presentation, my report, my budget, my plan. What are they trying to do? What questions will they ask? I always check and double check my sources. I know what’s fact and what’s assumption. I make sure I think about the risks that are posed by gaps in that information. I wouldn’t say I never get caught out, but I’ve mostly got the bases — and my arse — covered.

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The best advice I was ever given — to follow my gut

Dr A Witten:
“I have a degree in Clinical Psychology. Do you have any expertise in the area, Agent Gibbs”?

“No. No I don’t. Just a gut instinct”
NCIS: Season 2 Ep.19 “Conspiracy Theory.”

Agent Gibbs, from the popular TV series NCIS, has a famous ability to follow his gut. Somehow, he just knows what route the team’s investigation should take or even who the murderer was. I often wonder whether his gift is wholly instinctual or a subconscious evaluation of external stimuli. Either way, it works. And it just so happens that the best advice I was ever given was to be a bit more like Gibbs.

When I first joined HN Marketing, I was advised to trust my instincts more, and it’s a tip that has guided me down the correct path — one that has benefited our clients — on more than one occasion.

It’s an approach that isn’t as risky as it may appear either. Research by MacGregor et al, 2005, suggests that “using a readily available affective impression (gut instinct) can be easier and more efficient than weighing the pros and cons of various reasoning, especially when the required judgement or decision is complex or mental resources are limited.”

So if ‘gut instinct’ is a fast rationalisation of all readily available information, then it follows that all the possible reactions and alternatives have been assessed, accepted or rejected, to the best of your abilities.

So I put the question to you:

Does your gut aid your daily decision making?

If not take the challenge, for one week, to not over-evaluate or deliberate challenges put to you; follow your gut instead. And do let us know how you get on!

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Teamwork is key – after all, even superheroes need sidekicks

I’ve been lucky enough to work with many great minds and so picking one or two pearls of wisdom to share is a tough choice. I let my brain graze across several before alighting on this little tale.

Feeling a little frayed one Friday morning I stomped into my boss’s office. I did stomp and I didn’t knock. The excuse for such bad manners? I was young and he was very patient. I proceeded to rattle off my list of ‘to do’s and underline the closeness of the impending deadlines, and that delivering everything in the timescale was impossible, even for a superhero like me (I probably left out that last bit of the sentence). I think we’ve all been there; that sinking, creeping feeling you get when your logical left brain finally realises what your creative right brain has been hiding for days. There are too many things to do in the time available; something has to give.

“What, precisely,” I demanded, “did he want me to do about it!” He smirked. It was definitely a smirk and with no hint of sympathy he said: “you know the answer to that. All of it. So go and find a way. Oh and by the way,” he added as I stomped out again “you don’t have to do it all.”

There were two things I left his office with that morning: confidence that there was a solution and that I was the one who had to find it. I needed to prioritise, draft in support, and get creative about how to resource certain aspects of the workload. Even today when I’m wrestling with some thorny topics I grab that feeling with both hands and dig in. My boss taught me that very little is impossible if you put your mind to it. Hard work gets you a long way and smart work gets you further; however, it’s usually teamwork that gets you to the finish line. Thanks boss.

Best advice I was given — you can’t afford to be quiet in business

As a young, shy engineer, I found myself bumping along in the back seat of the VP of Engineering’s rather sporty sports car, on our way to a team-building event. This loud, exuberant North American whizz kid was troubled and it was all because of me.

“Say something!” he shouted over his shoulder. “You quiet people freak me out. Now loud people, you know what they’re thinking ’cos they’re saying it. I have no idea what you’re thinking and that scares me!”

I knew I’d struggle to rival the VP in the loudness stakes, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t learn to express myself better. It turned out to be one of the greatest pieces of advice given to me and, in following it, I began writing down my opinion — the first step towards a career I really love.

But this isn’t just about spending time doing fun stuff. The deeper message is that in business, we can’t afford to be quiet. The greatest products and services in the world are worthless if no one out there knows about them and if you keep your cards close to your chest, you may even scare potential customers off.

That’s why, however you choose to express yourself, it’s really important to get a loud, clear, coherent message to the outside world.

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