Goofing off for fun and profit

This time of year, some people are slammed with work to be wrapped up by year’s end, but some people are bored stiff with little to do until after the holidays. Which situation applies to you?

If you’re swamped with projects and wondering if you’ll reach December 31 without going stark raving mad, I sympathize. If you’re twiddling your thumbs until January 1, I can relate. But here are a few things you can do instead of sharpening pencils down to a nub and surfing the Net.

1. Make a To-Do List
Have you neglected some projects around the house? Little, niggly things that kind of bother you but aren’t extremely horrible? Like a loose doorknob or a burned-out light bulb in the garage? Put ’em on the to-do list. Oh, yes—then do them.

Examples include:
• Clean grody-looking switchplates around the house.
• Organize your bureau drawers.
• Sort through your clothes, and donate things you don’t wear to Goodwill.
• Write a sweet note to your mom or dad, your significant other, your son or daughter, or someone else you love or appreciate.

2. Read
If you’re like me, your coffee table is littered with more magazines than you could possibly read. Pick up one or two and enjoy a few articles. Or how about making it at least to the middle of that library book on your nightstand before you have to return it?

3. Phone a friend
Is it kosher to call a person your “friend” if you never contact them except at Christmastime, with a few hurried lines on a greeting card? Why not renew your friendship with a phone call? Cards are cold; calls are warm.

4. Play mind games
Your brain, like your car, needs a tune-up now and than. Online, you can find dozens of free “Brain Games” that will help you improve your memory. And those games are fun, especially as you see your scores improve with practice. Get thee behind me, senility!

5. Take a walk
When my dad was stuck for ideas, he would do what he called “The Hat Trick.” It meant putting on your hat and going out for awhile. Sitting at a computer all day dulls the senses. Your fingers and eyes are active, but what about your glutes and quads—not to mention your creative mind? When weather permits, go out for a walk, even if it’s only around the block. Your mind will be refreshed, and you may bring back some cool new ideas or solutions to problems, too. G’wan, get out there!

Do You “We” On Potential Customers?

Ever been on a blind date with someone who chatters incessantly about himself or herself, never bothering to ask a question about YOU? As the unrelenting drone of “blah-blah-blah-me-me-me” anesthetizes your brain, you plot to escape out the bathroom window. You wonder if your date would notice.

Wake me when you stop talking about yourself.

It’s amazing, but some companies sound like that boorish blind date, using business communications that “we” on their prospects. They unintentionally turn off potential customers by focusing exclusively on themselves. For example:

“Here at Acme Corporation, Inc., the Midwest’s largest widget manufacturing company, we produce 3.2 million widgets daily, and we ship them to more than 2,300 major customers across the nation with our fleet of 250 tractor-trailers.

We have won more than 40 “Widgie”® awards from the Widget Association of America (WAA) for excellent safety records in our state-of-the-art production facility.”

As a potential widget customer, all I hear is “we-we-we.” What about “me-me-me?”

I’ll do business with a company that offers me ways to solve a problem, save money, or find a better way to get something done—not a company that just crows about how great they are. I’m thinking of buying widgets from Apogee Corporation. Their brochure says:

“You have a problem: leaky dolyflappers. The solution: Apogee customized widgets.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could eliminate the safety hazard of dolyflapper leaks on your plant floor and the time and labor costs of cleaning them up? Now you can, with Apogee customized widgets.

“Customers told us their number one headache is leaking dolyflappers. Those leaks occur because most widgets are manufactured to such wide tolerances that they can’t possibly prevent leaks in every application. But Apogee widgets can, because they are custom-manufactured to your dolyflapper specifications. . . .”

As a potential customer, I think, “Hey. Leaking dolyflappers IS my biggest headache! These folks really know my business! I’m calling Apogee!”

To gain new customers or clients—

• Communicate using less “we” and more “you.”
• Be interested in learning about potential customers’ challenges.
• Develop a dialogue with them, as you would with a fascinating blind date.
• Find a way to meet their specific challenges, and
• Tell them about it in a compelling way.

Now, that could be the start of something big!

Proofreading: The Professional’s Must-Have

A prominent communication professional asks,
“Does this sententence make me look dumb?”

Well, yes. You need a professional proofreader to make you look as smart and professional as you are.

You might be the world’s greatest authority in marketing, communication, sales or Web 2.0, but if your blog posts, letters, ads or articles are shot through with errors in grammar, punctuation and word usage, well, you don’t look so authoritative.

Find a proofreader who can go over your writing before it hits the press, the Web or TV. (BTW, if you’re a TV news station’s graphics person, please have someone look over your work before it airs. I’ve seen some real knee-slappers in photo captions.)

Being a professional proofreader is being a consistent proofreader. If you allow a comma after the last item in a series one time, then you don’t allow it farther down the page, you’re not a professional proofreader.

Oh, yes, there are some cases where, in order to preserve the meaning of a phrase or sentence, you might use a comma before the final item in a list (Like “Christmas trees, decorations, plum pudding, and a chance to wheedle Santa for useless gifts”). But in most cases, modern usage says, “Don’t.”

One thing that buffaloes many writers is the proper usage of the hyphen, the en-dash and the em-dash.

A hyphen is used for a lot of adjectival word combos before nouns, as in “cost-effective approach,” “after-tax dollars,” and “post-haircut depression.” It’s also used for other wordbreaks, like “pooh-pooh” and “T-Rex.”

An en-dash is hardly ever used. Poor thing; it has an identity crisis. It can’t decide whether to be a hyphen or its longer, more popular cousin, the em-dash. The em-dash is widely used to indicate emphasis or a sudden shift of thought. As in “She went to the door—but was the dog in or out?—and turned the knob.” It should have no spaces before or after.

You may have noticed I’m avoiding talking about the en-dash, because it’s kind of silly. Also, it’s hard to make one on a Mac. But okay, it’s used in very specialized ways: between periods of time when you might otherwise use to, as in “The years 2001–2003.” Or between game scores, as in “The Eagles whupped the Chiefs 31–0 yesterday.”

In case you’re wondering where the names “em-dash” and “en-dash” came from, they came from the arcane world of typography. As you might expect, an em-dash is the width of an “m,” and an en-dash is the width of an “n.”

If you’re not a very good proofreader—or even if you think you are—get another good proofreader to check your writing before it appears anywhere. It’s easy to miss your own mistakes, because you just don’t see them.

Professional proofreading is one of the most cost-effective things you can buy to make yourself look smart and professional. In fact, it’s cheap, considering the damage to your image an error-ridden message can do. So give me a call. I’ll be glad to give you a ballpark estimate on making you look like the smartest person in any room.