How do you feel about that?

The most innocuous-seeming topics have sparked incredibly heated debates. Marmite: love it or loathe it? Toilet roll facing front or facing back? [Front obviously – Ed.] Daddy or chips?

Well, we’re about to start another one: whether or not to cut ‘that’ from sentences.

Now, don’t panic. This is not some kind of totalitarian coup – we are in no way advocating the complete abolition of ‘that’ from the English language. It is, after all, very useful.

How else would we be able to declare: ‘I want that one’?

No other word comes near it for its ability to define and specify, as in:

Have you seen the watch that my father gave me?

Incidentally, in this way it is not to be confused with ‘which’, since the latter often presents optional information (which could be omitted from the sentence):

My watch, which my father gave me, has gone missing.

However, anyone who knows Emphasis knows that we favour clarity, brevity, and generally getting on with it. To that end, sometimes the ‘that’s are redundant and just get in the way. Observe:

Are you still talking about the watch that your father gave you?

easily becomes:

Are you still talking about the watch your father gave you?

The meaning is just as clear, the sentence is less clumsy, and you have that little bit longer left to look for the watch.

But don’t let us hog the microphone. Join the debate: redundant place-filler or vital for rhythm and sense? Are there instances where excluding it would only lead to madness? Just how do you feel about ‘that’?

Tactical mistake

We’ve all done it: accidentally substituted a similar-sounding but actually entirely different word for the one we meant to write.

And while no-one wants to be the person who does it (it could seriously undermine your credibility), for humour’s sake, we’re probably all secretly glad it happens occasionally.

Take one of the features of a 9 LED Eurohike aluminium torch (offered at an unmissable price with a recent purchase at Millets). Listed between ‘heavy duty aluminium construction’ and ‘3 x AAA batteries included’ we find ‘tactical on/off switch’.

Now that sounds fancy, doesn’t it? But really, whenever any of us make that strategic reach for the on/off switch, with the cunning plan of being able to see where we are going, aren’t we all tacticians in our own right?

Or could this simple, moulded, soft-rubber switch actually be better described as … tactile?

But then, this is a dangerous game to start.

Ban the bull: tenancy agreement

After the resounding success of our gobbledygook amnesty, we realise there are obviously many concerned citizens out there who share the desire to eliminate overblown double-speak wherever it is found.

So the quest continues: to seek out, capture and rehabilitate any specimen of bull loose in the (writing) world.

This month, the offending sample is taken from a tenancy agreement: an animal often found lurking in this particular stable. The fact you’re reading such a document generally means you are about to fork over large quantities of money, but you’re more likely to feel that you should be the one paid  – to decipher it. Yet it is precisely in this kind of text where the meaning should be utterly clear to the reader – before you sign your name to it.

A member of staff at Emphasis had the misfortune of wrestling with this one recently.

Repairs and cleaning during tenancy

(The Tenant agrees…)

To take all reasonable precautions (including keeping the heating system running during the winter and/or periods of cold weather or draining if appropriate) to prevent any damage to the water or heating systems by freezing or other natural phenomenon and in the event of such damage caused by failure by the Tenant to take such reasonable precautions the Tenant shall forthwith and at the Tenant’s own expense effect all such repair and replacement as may be necessary to reinstate the system in good working order and also to repair and make good any consequent damage that may have been caused to the Property or the decorations thereof.

Let’s look at the charges here:

  • Unpunctuated block of text

You may well have spotted that this example, weighing in at a hefty 107 words, contains just one full stop. If potential tenants were required to read their agreements aloud before signing the lease, letting agents would be responsible for numerous casualties. This stream-of-consciousness style also makes the full meaning difficult to grasp in one reading.

At a minimum this should be split into numerous sentences, under the rule ‘one sentence, one idea’. Better yet, bullet points should be used to highlight points.

Here, separating the ‘what’ (the responsibility of the tenant) from the ‘how’ (the ways they might fulfil this responsibility) would be useful. Only then should you get to the next part, covering what is only a potential eventuality – what to do in the event of damage to the property.

  • Convoluted and elaborate language

‘Forthwith’? ‘Thereof’? ‘Effect all such repair’? ‘Make good any consequent damage’? Are we in a Victorian parlour? Choices like these almost seem designed to alienate most readers, and make for a dense, confusing and overly wordy finish. Everyday alternatives, like ‘immediately’ for ‘forthwith’, are much more accessible.

  • Unnecessary repetition

Is anyone actually prepared to explain the distinction between ‘repairing’ and ‘making good’ any damage to the property? No, because they essentially mean the same thing. If a point is important, make it clearly; don’t make it twice.

The final sentence(s): our rewrite

To take all reasonable precautions to prevent any damage to the property’s water and/or heating systems from adverse weather conditions. These include:

  • keeping the heating system running in winter and/or periods of extreme cold
  • draining these systems if necessary.

If any damage should occur where the tenant did not take such precautions, it will be the tenant’s responsibility to arrange for the adequate repair or replacement of any damaged part of the property or decor at their own expense.

There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

On this mission, any and all help in tracking down the guilty will be much appreciated. So, if you ever crash headlong into an impenetrable wall of waffle – be it at work or at home – please do your patriotic duty and send the sample to us. Every sender will receive a copy of The Write Stuff (our 60-page guide to good writing), so be sure to leave us your contact details.

Better writing for nurse managers

When most people think of Leonardo da Vinci, they think of him as the artist who painted The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. But da Vinci was also an inventor, an architect, a musician and an engineer. To be successful as a nurse manager, you need to adopt da Vinci’s Renaissance approach. Aside from your main leadership role, you also need to be a resource allocator, go-between, disturbance handler and innovator.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive manual for managing these roles. And being in charge of people, policy and paperwork can sometimes be a case of trial and error. But honing your written communication skills can go a surprisingly long way to making things run more smoothly.   For example, it can help you persuade people to see your point of view, clarify complex issues, or simply write instructions that people actually read and follow.

Here are seven ways to turn writing into a powerful health-management tool.

One

Listen carefully to your team to ensure you fully understand their problems and issues. Then brainstorm your response – using the headings who?, what?, where?, when?, and why? – before you write it. This will help you clarify your main message so that your writing is clear and concise. Be sure to look at all your options and don’t just choose the first one that comes to mind.

Two

If you foresee that an issue will be challenged or you’ll be questioned for more information, prepare a detailed explanation. Use the Four Ps technique, which stands for: position (where they are now), problem (why they can’t stay there), possibilities (where they could go) and proposal (where they should go).

Three

Avoid playing ‘office’ politics and don’t mislead the reader in any way. Use jargon only if you’re certain your readers will understand it. And use the active voice to make your writing more specific. For instance: ‘we are implementing a new shift system’ is more effective than ‘a new shift system will be implemented.’

Four

Widen the reader audience when necessary, to make sure you address all problems and everyone understands the context. Email is often a good vehicle for this. But beware of copying too many people in on mass emails. And avoid heresay or writing as if you’re chatting on the phone: email is a permanent medium covered by the law of libel, so you should write only what you don’t mind being broadcast on the 10 o’clock news.

Five

Enlist the help of other departmental services (such as legal and human resources) to review your writing when appropriate. Make sure you write only things you believe in, and that you’re willing to be accountable for.

Six

Ensure facts and figures are as accurate as possible. Even it takes 24 hours to obtain figures you don’t have, it’s worth spending the extra time to ensure you build a reputation for accuracy. (Don’t let waiting for the fact hold up the writing process though: just put ‘[To come]’ in the text and come back to that bit once you have the details.)

Seven

Finally, coach your staff to become better writers, so that your time as a manager is spent effectively. There’s a host of free online writing resources at www.writing-skills.com to help you. If you decide to traing your staff, see our courses for individuals or our courses for groups. Alternatively, send us a message or call one of our friendly advisors on +44 (0)1273 961 810

Good writing may not always come easily at first. But with practice, it can become second nature. And once it does, it may well be the glue that holds your ‘da Vinci’ set of roles together.

is the Chief Executive of Emphasis.

Recovery-watch update

As the seasons turn and the nights draw in, we continue to track how often the terms ‘recovery’ and ‘green shoots’ appear in the broadsheets. And we ask: can we look to the newspapers for renewed hope, or mere cold comfort?

With only the most intermittent exception, it is the latter. This pessimism has dominated since the news on 23 October that we still haven’t pulled out of the recession.

Our research shows a huge drop-off in references to ‘green shoots’: at a feeble 41 (compared with 94 last month, and 167 in August), it is at its lowest number since 2008. This term has been becoming increasingly unpopular, not to mention mocked, as the situation drags on.

The amount of articles featuring the word ‘recovery’ has fallen to 1316 (from 1685 in September), which puts it about level with the June figures: a month when the Government came under attack for their role in the crisis.

There’s little gentle solace here. The language of attack, war and brutality is prevalent in October’s articles: emotive words like ‘decimated’, ‘pummelled’, ‘crashing’ and ‘shattering’ abound. Our ‘hopes’ are mourned; the ‘tyranny of numbers’ is feared; and we stand in the debris of ‘shopping streets [...] like bombsites.’

The purpose of such prose, besides sheer frustration by the authors, is unclear. Are we to rally in the face of this (we shall fight in BHS; we shall fight in Somerfield’s and on the High Street …) or hang our heads in defeat?

Be sensitive; get the details right

It’s always important to check over and authenticate the key details in anything you write before you send it out. But if there’s ever a time when it’s absolutely vital, it’s when addressing sensitive matters.

Gordon Brown knows this now better than anyone. At a time of year when everyone is particularly conscious of the lives and lot of soldiers, it is especially mortifying that he apparently sent out a handwritten condolence note with misspellings, including of the late young man’s name.

Whether it’s your unfortunate duty to be penning a letter denying a loan, rejecting a proposal or giving someone their notice, you must remember that the recipient will probably already be on the defensive. Any typos or unchecked errors will just seem like insult piled on top of injury.

So, be it in the spirit of not burning bridges, of good press, or merely the milk of human kindness – get the details right.

How to write facilities management tenders

There’s usually one guest at a party with a perennial case of ‘it’s all me, me, me.’ This is the type of male or female who will wedge you in a corner, and wax lyrical about their latest business success, holiday or views on America’s political landscape. It’s difficult to get a word in edgeways and you feel as though you’re being assaulted with unwanted information.

Most of us would flinch at the thought of being such a social bore. But in business we often make the same mistake of bombarding potential clients with too much information about how great we are. In fact, we should be focusing on their needs and interests.

There’s no doubt that facilities managers are great at dealing with people and offering integrated workplace solutions. But translating these skills into a written proposal in order to sell your services is not an easy task. Unless your bid or tender proposal is carefully structured to be reader-focused rather than company-focused, it can have the same effect as the unwanted party guest.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re responding to a warm or a cold lead, showing understanding is more important than trying to dazzle. Your company facts and testimonials should just confirm that you know what you’re talking about.

Here are seven tips that will help you write bids and tenders that shine the spotlight back onto your prospects – and help to win you new business in the process.

Grab a pencil and paper

It’s important to separate the thinking process from the writing process. So get away from your computer screen and ask yourself what core issues you want to address in your proposal. Better still, bounce ideas off a colleague. Decide which ideas are important, essential, desirable and unessential and aim to only include those that are in the first two categories.

Put the reader first

Always put the prospect first, by starting with their situation and the problems they need to solve. Use the Four Ps technique, which stands for: position (where they are now), problem (why they can’t stay there), possibilities (where they could go) and proposal (where they should go). Resist the temptation to write down everything you think will win the contract. Instead, focus on the possible solutions before backing up your recommendations with information about your capabilities. Remember, it doesn’t matter whether you are an in-house department; specialist contractor or a large multi-service company, the reader always comes first. And always highlight the benefits of the services in terms of cost reductions for the client, health and safety or other key measurements.

Be inclusive

It’s likely that a variety of decision-makers will read your proposal. Consider the varying needs of the head of finance compared to a business development executive, for instance. And add in facts and figures that will keep everyone happy. But use appendices for detail, rather than stuffing the body text with too many facts that only one person will be interested in.

You’re in it to win it

Don’t forget that you still need to sell the solutions you’re proposing. Use persuasive language that will connect with the reader. For example, it’s useful to use the terms ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘us’ to help the prospect visualise you working together. And use the active voice where possible.

Check your facts

Simple mistakes can seriously undermine what you’re offering. Always check the spelling of product and place names and get a colleague to proofread your work carefully. It’s easier for a fresh pair of eyes to spot any mistakes. Typos and other errors can still go unnoticed though, so proof-read extra slowly by stopping a pencil at each word to check that it’s accurate.

Jargon is not the bogeyman

Ask yourself how much the prospect knows about facilities management. And remember, it’s very easy to over-estimate this.   Don’t be afraid to use jargon though, as long as you’re certain that your reader will understand it.

Keep it short and sweet

Many people think that tenders need to be long in order to show the client that you’ve made an effort. In fact, the opposite is true. It takes more effort to keep a tender clear and concise. Go through and cut out meaningless phrases and unessential information. And keep your sentences short, with each one no more than 15-20 words.

A tender process may be your first foot in the door, with what you write determining whether or not you’re invited to a face-to-face meeting. But don’t be tempted to use flowery language. Instead, write to ‘express’ rather than ‘impress’ and you’ll keep your prospects interested and wanting to find out more.

Want to win more business with your tenders? See our tender writing-courses for individuals and our tender-writing course for groups.

is the Chief Executive of Emphasis.

From LO to LOL

It is 40 years ago, almost to the day, that the internet made its first connection. On 29 October 1969, a computer in the University of California connected with one several hundred miles away in the Stanford Research Institute, just long enough to receive the message ‘LO’. (It was meant to be ‘LOGIN’, but the system crashed before the ‘G’ could be typed.)

The rate at which the internet and related technologies have developed since that fateful day is positively dizzying: from science fiction to something tentatively toyed with by a very few, to a ubiquitous part of life for the vast majority in a few decades. Increasingly frequently this is our chosen method of communication  – in work and out – to the point where the future of a national institution like the postal service is threatened.

But could our relationship with language be threatened too? The question does keep rearing its worried head over the possibilities of the future: illiterate children? Txt spk @ work? Robot computers marking exam papers?

What’s certain is that there will be an effect of some kind. After all, use of the word ‘hello’ as the greeting we unthinkingly use originated when Thomas Edison declared it the clearest way of answering the telephone.   Interestingly, in 2003 it was reported that traditional greetings like ‘hello’ would soon become obsolete, replaced (as they often are in texts and email) with ‘globespeak’ alternatives, such as ‘hey’, ‘howdy’ and ‘g’day’. This, if true, would effectively bring the life of ‘hello’ full circle: both created for and destroyed by the rise of a new technology. Although we probably needn’t sound its death knell quite yet.

Then, of course, there’s Microsoft: it may rule the world, but to what extent does it rule our words? We are all guilty of relying more and more heavily on Word’s varicoloured squiggly lines and AutoCorrect function to correct our mistakes, but we are all also probably aware that the program is far from infallible. For example, certain errors – such as unnecessary initial capital letters or accidental use of homonyms – may not be flagged, while words that are actually spelled accurately can be.

Changes both in language and in technology are inevitable and move at a great pace, but they’re not always in step with each other. While newer words like ‘podcast’ and ‘texting’ have found their way into dictionaries, older versions of Word still mark them as wrong. The limitations of spellcheckers have been such that the phenomenon of them wreaking havoc with documents now has its own name: the Cupertino effect.

It’s so-called because ‘Cupertino’ (the Californian city home to Apple Inc.) used to be the first offering to replace ‘cooperation’, back when spellcheckers only recognised the hyphenated version of the word. This meant that anyone breezily pressing ‘accept all changes’ was left with such nonsensical phrases as ‘the Cupertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful’. (This is taken from an official NATO document from 2003.)

Proper nouns and foreign words can also cause problems, as news service Reuters discovered when it inadvertently ended up referring to Pakistan’s Muttahida Quami Movement as the Muttonhead Quail Movement.

Naturally, updates are being made all the time to prevent these particular blunders – Microsoft Office 2010 offers a contextual speller in order to make correction suggestions more accurate. Nevertheless, other problems are quite likely to pop up and, however ingenious the algorithm behind the latest features, the ultimate responsibility is with us to check what we actually end up saying.

It is also unavoidable that around periods of great change there’ll be those who fret over the potential consequences. The massive rise in texting has led to concern that this abbreviation-filled medium is going to destroy children’s literacy and have them including such terms as ‘LOL’ (laugh out loud) and ‘gr8’ (great) in their schoolwork.

Tales of such inclusions abound, but many are mere fabrication; in fact, several studies have found that the majority of children scornfully denounce the idea that they’d do such a thing. Indeed, a positive aspect could be that kids are taught the importance of writing appropriately for different contexts.

We won’t be able to stop the dual juggernauts of technology and language change, but we needn’t necessarily fear them. The best approach is probably to stop worrying about a future filled with texted essays and automatons in charge of education, and make sure to keep a responsible eye on what we are each actually producing. After all, the future of writing – if not the future of technology – is largely in our hands.