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Make the Right Choice

This weekend my daughter was thrilled to have saved enough money to buy an iPod. Several times, when I was in the middle of something, she wanted to talk about iPod features, colors, and accessories. I had several choices:

  1. Ignore her.
  2. Ask her to leave me alone until I was finished with what I was doing.
  3. Stop what I was doing and talk.

I chose number 3. I stopped what I was doing and talked with her about the thrill of owning an iPod. The rationale for my choice involved seeing the big picture and looking beyond the moment:

  • Big picture: My relationship with my daughter is more important than the work I was doing (on the weekend!).
  • Beyond the moment: My daughter will soon be a teenager and will not be interested in talking with me.

What does this incident have to do with writing? As writers, we need to see the big picture and look beyond the moment.

Example: In classes, I love to share excerpts from two different flyers mailed out by Sunnyland Farms, an Albany, Georgia (USA) mail-order company that sells nuts and candy:

  • Excerpt from Flyer 1: We do not ship chocolates between Mother’s Day and October 1. They melt.
  • Excerpt from Flyer 2 (a later flyer): We do not ship chocolates in hot weather. Order now, freeze them, and enjoy all summer.

Number 1 thinks short term about the issue of customers trying to order chocolates in July, when the candy melts in mailboxes. The excerpt does not increase sales and profits–in fact, it does the opposite.

Number 2 thinks big picture and long term. It recognizes that Sunnyland Farms is in business to sell chocolates, and it encourages customers to buy.

This weekend someone wrote to me for advice about how to handle a message she had been CC’ed on. It was a complex question with issues about responding (must she?), forwarding (should she?), and potential bad feelings (what if?). I did not understand all the ramifications. So I gave general advice about looking at the big picture when making a writing decision:

  • Never behave in a way that will publicly embarrass others. (Such behavior has a boomerang effect.)
  • Never do anything just because it’s the right thing to do. Do it because it’s the right thing to do and you have the responsibility to do it.
  • Always give people the benefit of the doubt.
  • Always assume that there is a good possibility that you are wrong. (I am shocked at how often I am wrong.)
  • Always take the high road. Do not join others who are behaving “down and dirty.” In the long term, you will be pleased that you refrained.)

As a writer, go beyond the question “Why am I writing this message?” Ask “Why am I in business?” and “Why am I on the planet?” These big-picture, long-term questions will help you make the right choice as a writer and a human being.

ediquite, etiqueete, etiquitte, ediquitte

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.