Handshake is NOT a Verb

Turning nouns into verbs for business purposes is the Death Of A Thousand Cuts to writers and people who care about language. It kills us slowly, cut by cut. Blood drop by blood drop.

I recently heard someone say on a podcast, And when they’re really ready, we’ll handshake them to the investor community.

How do you handshake someone to someone else? What does that mean? Is that even a thing?

Yes, it means to introduce someone. They’re going to introduce people to the investor community.

So why don’t you just say “we’ll introduce them to the investor community?”

Uhh, this way sounds cooler?

No. It doesn’t. It sounds awkward. It sounds like someone tried to come up with some other name to mean the same thing they’re actually trying to say, only they want to say it differently.

I understand the sentiment. You want to introduce people to each other. When they are introduced, they will shake hands. So, you “handshake them” to someone else.

But there was nothing wrong with “introduce” in the first place. You’re taking something that was just fine, in perfect working order, and you improved it.

And by “improved it,” I mean “jumped up and down on it until it was a mangled heap, barely recognizable to even its own mother.”

The problem with business jargon is that people who use it just want to sound cool. They come up with some new term to mean something else.

People talk about “onboarding” when they mean “sign up.”

They “ideate” when they mean “come up with ideas,” or even “think.”

And they say “handshake to” when they mean “introduce.”

Hopefully you’ve never done this yourself. Hopefully you’ve never used “handshake” as a verb, at least when you’re introducing two people. (I understand it’s a term used to describe the way two computers communicate — they “handshake” with each other. But that’s the computer world.)

If you have, I won’t judge. I won’t cast aspersions on your character or demean your language abilities.

But I would ask you to stop it.

On a going forward basis.

An Open Letter To Young Writers Applying For Writing Jobs

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that young writers’ cover letters sound sterile and devoid of any emotion, hag-ridden with mediocrity, boredom, and apathy. If this is what you’re trying to show your potential employer, then I think you’re not going to work for anyone.

With apologies to Hunter S. Thompson (more on that in a minute), if you’re a young writer looking for writing jobs, you can’t write a regular cover letter to get an employer interested in you. (Ditto for experienced writers. You just ought to know better by now.).

You can’t follow the same formula your career services advisor gave you, or the advice you’ve read in other career articles. (See LifeHacker’s article on how not to write a bad cover letter.)

Hunter S. Thompson, Miami Bookfair International, 1988Your cover letter has to kick ass. It has to be moving. It has to be so amazing that the hiring manager leaps out of her chair, clutching your letter in her hand, shouting, “Eureka! I’ve found him!”

Think about it: the one thing you’re good at, the one thing you’ve trained for and worked toward over the last several years, and you already show you suck at it with your cover letter. How much confidence is that going to instill in anyone? As a writer, it’s your responsibility — nay, your duty — to knock this thing out of the park.

You can’t open with, “To Whom It May Concern: I am interested in applying for the junior copywriting position I saw on your website.” Of course you are. Why else would you write a letter with your résumé and press clippings?

Do what you learned in journalism or creative writing and make your opening lead as dramatic and attention grabbing as you can.

Try, as Hemingway once said, writing drunk, and editing sober. Be bold, be daring, be a little crazy. Inkslingers are not known for being completely stable, especially when showing off for other writers. And you’re sending your best work to other writers who will silently, but instantly, judge you for the quality of your cover letter. So show off.

A letter that a young Hunter S. Thompson wrote to the publisher of the Vancouver Sun asking for a job is still making the Internet rounds with people reveling in its audacity, wondering if they could pull something like that off.

Of course, at age 21 Thompson was, as the Gawker called, an arrogant little shit. But maybe there’s something to it.

You may not want to go insulting your potential new employer by calling his people dullards, bums, and hacks, at least not if you want to make friends there. But there’s something to be said for letting your voice shine through.

TO JACK SCOTT, VANCOUVER SUN

October 1, 1958 57 Perry Street New York City

Sir,

I got a hell of a kick reading the piece Time magazine did this week on The Sun. In addition to wishing you the best of luck, I’d also like to offer my services.

Since I haven’t seen a copy of the “new” Sun yet, I’ll have to make this a tentative offer. I stepped into a dung-hole the last time I took a job with a paper I didn’t know anything about (see enclosed clippings) and I’m not quite ready to go charging up another blind alley.

By the time you get this letter, I’ll have gotten hold of some of the recent issues of The Sun. Unless it looks totally worthless, I’ll let my offer stand. And don’t think that my arrogance is unintentional: it’s just that I’d rather offend you now than after I started working for you.

I didn’t make myself clear to the last man I worked for until after I took the job. It was as if the Marquis de Sade had suddenly found himself working for Billy Graham. The man despised me, of course, and I had nothing but contempt for him and everything he stood for. If you asked him, he’d tell you that I’m “not very likable, (that I) hate people, (that I) just want to be left alone, and (that I) feel too superior to mingle with the average person.” (That’s a direct quote from a memo he sent to the publisher.)

Nothing beats having good references.

Of course if you asked some of the other people I’ve worked for, you’d get a different set of answers.

If you’re interested enough to answer this letter, I’ll be glad to furnish you with a list of references — including the lad I work for now.

The enclosed clippings should give you a rough idea of who I am. It’s a year old, however, and I’ve changed a bit since it was written. I’ve taken some writing courses from Columbia in my spare time, learned a hell of a lot about the newspaper business, and developed a healthy contempt for journalism as a profession.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity. If this is what you’re trying to get The Sun away from, then I think I’d like to work for you.

Most of my experience has been in sports writing, but I can write everything from warmongering propaganda to learned book reviews.

I can work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don’t give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.

I would rather be on the dole than work for a paper I was ashamed of.

It’s a long way from here to British Columbia, but I think I’d enjoy the trip.

If you think you can use me, drop me a line.

If not, good luck anyway.

Sincerely, Hunter S. Thompson

Not surprisingly, Thompson didn’t get the job, but don’t let that stop you. You don’t have to be as over the top as Thompson was 45 years ago (and especially don’t be as over the top as he was 10 years ago), but try to incorporate some of his boldness in your next cover letter.

After all, the stuff you’ve been sending hasn’t been doing you any good, so what do you have to lose?

Photo credit: Wikipedia.org

Stop Using These Business Jargon Terms. You Sound Pretentious.

Some of the smartest people I know can be quite obtuse when it comes to language. Not because they use small words to express small ideas. No, rather they use really big, useless words to express small ideas.

“We create a frictionless user onboarding experience.”

Whenever you say “frictionless user onboarding,” a kitten dies.

GAAH! I just want to punch somebody in the neck when I see that. And I see it a lot.

(Update: Sean Molin pointed out that this particular gem was not created by 500px, but rather by Dan Leveille of Quora, who is not affiliated with 500 px.)

In fact, when I Googled the words “frictionless user onboarding process,” there were 112,000 results. In other words, 112,000 people thought this was a perfectly acceptable phrase to use.

As opposed to “Signing up is easy.”

Here are five other words you need to stop saying, because they make you sound like a pretentious snot.

  1. Leverage. It’s not a verb, it’s a noun. “Leverage” has become the 21st century’s “utilize,” with many of the same results: people hate it. Try an experiment the next time you want to say “leverage”: say “use” instead. “We are going to leverage use our customer database for a direct mail campaign.” Did it change the meaning? Of course not. So quit it.
  2. On a going forward basis. Seriously? The phrase “going forward” wasn’t bad enough? You had to go make it worse by adding three more words to it? Come on, man! The word you want is “later” or “from now on.” As in “we’ll start locking the door from now on.” Now, you’ve taken a two word turd of a phrase and added three more words, to mean exactly the same thing. But with more words.
  3. Brand. Yeah, yeah, I’m the personal branding guy. So why is this on the list? Because people are using it to mean “company.” They say “brand” instead of “company,” because apparently that’s what all the cool kids say. When did this happen? It used to be that “branding” referred to marketing collateral, logo, corporate colors, that kind of thing. It became, as Kyle Lacy and I mentioned in Branding Yourself “an emotional response people have to a company and logo, or a person and their reputation.” It should not be the company itself. It may be two more syllables, but go back to saying “company.” The other thing makes you sound vapid.
  4. Learner/Learnings. I was talking with a teacher one time, and she used the phrase “our learners.” “What are learners? I asked. She said “the students.” Then why don’t you call them students? I asked. “Because they’re learning and we’re educating. They’re learners and we’re educators.” Why can’t you call them students and teachers? “Well, it means the same thing.” If it means the same thing, then why can’t you just say the old thing? She didn’t have a good answer to that, and the conversation did not improve from there. Needless to say, I was not the first parent my daughter’s teacher wanted to talk to on Parent-Teacher night. And if I ever hear anyone use the word “learnings,” we are going to have a similar awkward conversation. It’s not “learnings,” it’s “lessons” or “material” or “information.” Learnings is not a noun.
  5. Frictionless. I already mentioned it, but I hate this word so much, I wanted to repeat it. (Hey, if any of this article hits home, you’re already used to people repeating things needlessly, so this won’t take up too much of your time.) Nothing is frictionless. Nothing, except the black Haggunenon ship from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And if you didn’t get that, then this joke wasn’t frictionless either. Say “easy,” “simple,” or “not that hard.”

The point of jargon is to make hard words easier to understand and say. But with the exception of substituting the three-syllable “company” with the single syllable “brand,” none of these jargony terms make life easier. If anything, they make it more difficult.

Although they give everyone else something to make fun of you for.

I think we’re supposed to call that “humorate” now.

The Two-Letter Word That Speaks With Authority: The Royal We

If you’re trying to achieve a sense of authority and credibility with you’re writing, there’s one little word you can use to convey that feeling, without ever actually stating it.

We.

Queen of England at William and Mary College

Queen of England at William and Mary College

This week’s Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) podcast, The Royal “We”, focuses on all the different usages of the first person plural of the word “we.”

There’s the:

  • Royal We, which the Queen uses;
  • Editorial We, which editorials will often employ to refer to a publication’s leadership;
  • Political We, which politicians use to refer to their campaign, and later their administration;
  • Urban We, which refers to Fogarty’s finding them in the Urban Dictionary; and,
  • Nanny Narrator, which a doctor might use (“how are we feeling today?”)

But there’s also the “We’re In It Together (WIIT) We,” which didn’t make Fogarty’s list, but I’m a big fan of.

Fogarty even uses it herself in the narrative:

Point of view signals the writer’s stance toward the information or events he or she is describing. We usually describe literary point of view as “the first-person” (the confessional I, the inclusive we, or the royal we), “the second-person” (the informal “you,” or the implied “you” in the bossy imperative mood) and “the third-person” (the objective he, she, it or they, the starchy “one”).

Did you see it? “We usually describe literary point of view…” Who is “we” here?

It’s the author and the reader. It’s you and me. The implication is that you and I agree. That right thinking people — that’s me, because I’m espousing this point of view, and you, because I want you to feel smart and special — believe this and do this regularly. Not like those people who are completely wrong-headed, nasty, and never call their mothers on their birthdays.

We, who are so knowledgeable about literary points of view, use these terms to describe them.

This WIIT We pulls the reader in and makes them feel like they’re on your side. It’s one thing to speak with that “Voice of God” tone, where the writer never uses “I” or “me,” but rather relay information as if it’s been handed down by God.

But it’s entirely another thing to put your arm around the reader’s shoulder and whisper in his or her ear, “I’ve got this cool idea, and I want to share it with you.” It’s almost empowering to the reader. It lets them know that if you’re right, then by definition, they’re right too, because they agree with you.

It’s a subtle, but powerful secret that can boost the level of your writing, without making any drastic changes, or even altering your regular writing voice.

If you want to add some authority and credibility to your writing, try sprinkling in the WIIT We a few times, and see if that makes a difference.

We believe one will be pleasantly surprised.

 

Photo credit: Physicist Erin (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Five Loathsome Phrases I Wish People Would Stop Using

I could scream sometimes.

There are certain words and phrases, whether they’re overused or misused, that just make me crazy.

For example, some people absolutely hate the phrase “it is what it is,” claiming it to be nonsensical pap. However, I find it to be a nice Zen summary of Freud’s “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” It means “this is the situation, and you’re not going to be able to change it.”

But there are other loathsome phrases that make me want to tear a dictionary in half.

Give Back

Big bag of money. Sure wish it was real.

Why don’t you give this back to me? The economy is troubled.

People say this to mean “do good for the community and other people.” But it doesn’t really count if you didn’t receive anything from that community. “Give back” implies you’re returning the favor. But too many people use it to mean they want to do something nice for someone else, somewhere else.

A rock star who wants to give back should donate money to his school’s music education program. A movie star who wants to give back should give money to her hometown’s theatre scene. A rock star or movie star giving money to disaster relief 2,000 miles away is not “giving back,” they’re “helping.”

Words to use instead: Give, donate, help, lend a hand, chip in, serve, support, contribute, bestow.

#YOLO

Stands for You Only Live Once. Said primarily by 20-somethings about their tattoos, their funny hats, their soy chai lattes, and their participation in charity-based fun runs. Rarely used for sky diving, base jumping, rock climbing, or other activities where the “once” can actually be realized.

Ervin McKiness, a 21-year-old aspiring rapper, once tweeted YOLO about driving drunk, and then died minutes later in a car accident. Irony, thou art a bitch.

The phrase needs to be reserved for people who are actually doing daring things that could result in their death. Not trying a new brand of vodka in their apple-tinis.

Words to use instead: I actually miss “No Fear” now.

An Historic

This is just wrong. The “an” is used incorrectly, and I want to Hulk-smash something whenever I hear it. There is no right usage, there is no version of this where “an” comes out on top. Just because you hear the newscasters on BBC World News say it doesn’t make it correct, it makes them wrong. Pompous and wrong.

There’s a simple rule we all learned in first grade: Any word that starts with a vowel sound is preceded by ‘an.’ Any word that starts with a consonant sound is preceded by ‘a.’ This means “an apple” and “an orange” are correct, as well as “a unicorn” and “an MBA” (because it’s “yew-ni-corn” and “emm bee ay,” not “oonicorn” and “mmmm-bah.”

So, unless you’re a 1950s Cockney chimney sweep, the word referring to things long ago is “h-h-historic,” not “‘iss-toric.” Since the word starts with the H sound, you precede it with an ‘a.’

Words to use instead: ‘A’

In This (Troubled) Economy

Everyone knows the economy has been in the toilet since 2008, unless you just woke up from a six year nap on your giant pile of money. We don’t need to be reminded that it’s troubled, sluggish, recovering, or a problem of any kind. We already know.

It needs to stop being an excuse, a reason we can’t/won’t do things, or included in every single article and press release that even hints at money. It has almost become its own word, inthistroubledeconomy.

I’m not saying you can’t talk about the economy, or that it’s not a valid reason for some things going the way they are. Just stop using that phrase. You make me want to throw pennies at you.

Words to use instead: None. Just see if you can write about why sales are down without alluding to the economy at all. Blame Jenkins from Accounts.

Lean In

What the hell does this even mean? I know it’s Sheryl Sandberg’s book about women and leadership, but the phrase itself is about as vague and generic as “it is what it is,” but much less helpful.

Times are difficult? Lean in.

Struggling in this troubled economy? Lean in.

Wind blowing in your face, threatening to knock you over?

What did Nutrition Hulk say when he was asked “Fat out?”

Maybe it’s because I don’t know what it means that makes me hate this phrase, but — nope, I just checked; I hate it regardless of whether I know what it means. It’s throwaway advice that’s too easy to spout and provides about as much support as a “Hang in there, Kitty. Friday’s coming!” poster.

Words to use instead: Any other nonspecific form of encouragement.

Six Writing Terms That Are Fun to Know

I listen to enough writing and language podcasts that I keep hearing certain writing terms bandied about like I’m supposed to know what they are. After hearing some of the same ones over and over, I decided to look them up. And then, because I constantly need to feed this beast, I decided to turn them into a blog post.

These are words that every writer should know, if nothing else, than to explain with a wild look in their sleep-deprived eyes why they do what they do, or at least, how they do it.Nude woman with the words "write or be written off" written across her front shoulders

At the very least, it just makes you sound smart at parties.

Hypergraphia

The manic need to write. This is more than just the weird obsession that most writers have. Wikipedia says “It is not itself a disorder, but can be associated with temporal lobe changes in epilepsy, and hypomania and mania in the context of bipolar disorder.” Don’t worry, if you feel like you need to write all the time, you probably don’t have hypergraphia. You’re just obsessed. True hypergraphia is the overwhelming desire to write, even to the point that you don’t eat, sleep, or visit the bathroom. (Ewwww!) But you can also tell people you have “mild hypergraphia” and watch them edge slowly toward the cheese dip.

Prescriptive versus Descriptive grammar

Prescriptivists are real bastards about grammar rules and the way language should be used. These are the ones who rend their garments, gnash their teeth, and wail whenever another sacred grammar cow is threatened. Scads of prescriptivists were truly upset when the Associated Press said you can start sentences with “Hopefully,” or when they learned you can end sentences with prepositions.

But Descriptivists — also called linguists — are more concerned with language as it’s actually used by speakers and writers. They’re the ones who shout “common usage!” like it’s a Get Out Of Jail Free card whenever a prescriptivist corrects them on something.

Metonymy

Replacing the name of one thing with the name of something else that’s closely associated with it. For example, referring to “Detroit” when you mean “auto makers;” “Washington” when you mean “politicians, Congress, or the President;” and, “Wall Street” when you mean “those thieving bastards who wrecked the economy.” Hat tip to @RyanBrock, owner of Metonymy Media, for teaching me this word.

Synedoche

A type of metonymy where a specific part of something that is used to refer to the whole. “The White House” when you mean “the President and his staff;” “graybeards” as “a group of old men;” or one that I’ve been talking about a lot lately, “Coke” when referring to “any carbonated beverage.”

Trope

A figure of speech where the words are used in a way to change their meaning. It comes from the Greek verb for “to turn” or “to alter.” I include it here, because metonymy and synedoche are both tropes, as are metaphors and irony (Completely useless trivia: These four figures of speech are considered the four master tropes)

Will these terms make you a better writer? Will they transform and uplift your words into the realm of the powerful and noble?

No. Not at all.

But are they fun to know because they make you feel smarter? Definitely. Trot one or two of them out at your next writers gathering, and use them in a sentence like it’s the most natural thing in the world. If nothing else, you’ll feel smarter than that smarmy, hatchet-faced Evelyn who’s always prattling on and on about her latest self-published “office romance” novel.

Photo credit: Djuliet (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Copywriters, Use the Words Other People Use, Not the Ones You Use

Do you know what audio theater is? Does it make you think of something to do with speakers at a movie theater? Or maybe it’s a subset of home theater equipment. Or maybe you’re supposed to go to a play and shut your eyes.

It’s none of those. It’s what we used to call radio theater. (Or radio theatre, if you’re Canadian or British. Or a snooty purist.)

Decoder Ring Theatre cast

Cast of Decoder Ring Theatre, an audio theatre company in Toronto.

You know what radio theater is, right? Remember when Ralph and Randy sat in front of the big giant radio and listened to Little Orphan Annie? We all know what that is, even the people who only hear about it from their grandparents.

But the people who actually do radio theater want to call it “audio theater” instead. Why? Because people don’t listen to the plays on the radio anymore, they listen to them on CD players, iPods, computers, car stereos, etc.

So in order to be more accurate, they changed the name of the art form to more accurately reflect what it is that they produce.

And lost out on a large portion of their potential audience.

There are still plenty of people who used to listen to radio theater with money to spend, but they don’t spend it on the entertainment form from their childhoods because they don’t know it’s called “audio theater” now. Companies like Decoder Ring Theatre have worked hard to overcome this hurdle by being one of the most progressive and dedicated audio theatre troupes I’ve ever seen, embracing social media and Internet marketing, as well as podcasting. (Full disclosure: Decoder Ring Theatre produced and aired six of my Slick Bracer radio plays this summer.) But a lot of other companies have only seen a fraction of this success, and I believe it’s primarily because of this language disconnect between what is “correct” and what is “best.”

How many times have companies harmed their marketing efforts by insisting people call a term by what they want to call it, not what the customers want to call it? How many times have government agencies lost the respect and credibility they worked for, because someone who knows nothing about public communication insisted the agency use the accurate term, not the best term? How many news programs get laughed at because they try to change the commonly accepted term to something that better suits their political biases?

  • An agricultural equipment company I know calls its products by the term they want to use, rather than the more common term their customer uses. This is evidenced by the 1,200 Google searches for their term, and the 20,000+ searches for the common term. While they may rank well for their chosen term, they don’t rank at all for the term their potential customers are using nearly 8 times more often.
  • When the H1N1 epidemic flu first started, the public was calling it “swine flu,” but the media managed — with a lot of work — to get people to start calling it H1N1, because it was harming the pork industry. But the government agencies wanted to call it the human flu, and flu pandemic. Regardless of what they wanted to call it, the media ignored them
  • Fox News’ insistence on calling suicide bombers “homicide bombers,” as per the Bush White House, made them a laughing stalk among journalists and news watchers.

If you’re not sure whether people are using your terms or theirs, go to Google’s Keyword Tool and put in your term and any industry terms you can think of. See which terms have the most global (worldwide) searches and the most local (US) searches. The ones that win are the ones most people are using, and the ones you should be focusing on.

Update: Deleted “Audio” from “Decoder Ring Audio Theatre” above, because despite being a loyal listener for 5 years, and now a contributor, I still can’t get their name right.