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Crafting a Helpful Out of Office Message

email auto-responder

by Jody Bruner

Holiday season is about to begin, and we will all soon be enjoying some vacation time. But with the exception of statutory holidays, business carries on, and your business associates need to know if and when you’re available. In our Email Essentials workshop, we teach you how to use your out of office notification effectively to communicate your absence any time you’re away. This helps you manage expectations and helps your clients and colleagues avoid the frustration of expecting a quick response while you’re away. If your autoresponder is clear, complete, and gives your readers the information they need, they will be grateful.

What information should you include in your out of office email? This depends on your role in the company and the industry you’re in. Consider these ideas when you think about what your network needs to know:

  • The dates of your absence, and especially the date of your return. I always appreciate it if the writer spells out the dates (I’ll return Tuesday, January 3rd instead of 01/03/17). Be precise—avoid saying you’ll be gone for two weeks or returning next Monday. Instead, say you’ll return on January 3rd.
  • Who to contact for an urgent matter. An out of office message might offer contact information for someone who can handle an emergency in your absence. This gives a sender with an urgent issue the ability to move forward. If you work in a large company and have a few staff members on your team handling different areas, include a list of relevant names, email addresses and phone numbers.
  • If you’ll be checking your inbox. Let people know if and how frequently you’ll be checking email (once a week, once a day, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, etc.) and when they can expect a response to urgent requests. Of course, this means you have to follow through as promised.
  • The reason for your absence. This isn’t always necessary, but it might be a good idea to let people know if you’re on vacation or on a business trip. If you’re at a conference or taking a course to improve yourself by building skills or knowledge, explaining this in your out of office message only builds your credibility.
  • Make sure your message is complete, concise and correct. Use white space and bullets if needed. I always appreciate being able to quickly scan a message to find the information I’m looking for.

Here are some examples:

Example 1

Vacation Alert!

I will be away until Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017.

I’ll be checking email occasionally and will have limited ability to respond. If this is an urgent matter, please contact Jane Smith at jane.smith@company.com (222 333-4445)

Have a wonderful holiday season.

Sandra Johnson

Example 2

Thanks for your note.

I’m away at a plain language conference from Monday, November 28th to Friday, December 2nd. I will respond to your email when I’m back on Monday, December 5th.

If you’d like to speak to someone right away, please contact Francine Melody at 222 333-4444.

While we’re on the topic of vacation alerts, our office is gearing up to slow down for the holidays. Wavelength offices will be closing on Tuesday, December 27th and opening again on Tuesday, January 3rd.

Have a great holiday season and a happy New Year!

5 Things to Know About Your Non-Technical Audience

presentation to non-technical audience

by Jody Bruner

Technical writers often find themselves needing to make important recommendations to clients or business readers who have little or no technical knowledge. Being able to get through to a non-technical audience is crucial because you need them to quickly make the right decisions for the right reasons. Missing the mark can derail important projects, hinder progress and erode your credibility.

The secret to communicating with your non-technical audience is having a deep understanding of their needs and prior knowledge, and using this knowledge to plan your message strategically. Knowing your audience helps you satisfy their needs without compromising the integrity of your message.

The following questions come from our Writing Technical Reports workshop’s Situational Analysis. It’s a tool for analyzing your purpose, audience and context as you create your message.

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10 Tips for New Grads: How to Succeed at Your First Job

communicating first job

by Jody Bruner

Last post we discussed how high impact writing can help land your dream job. Here, we are going to focus in on newly graduated millennials. While an astonishing 87% of new graduates see themselves as prepared to enter the workforce with the skills they gained from their education, hiring managers don’t agree.

A recently released study from PayScale (an on-demand compensation data and software company) and Future Workplace (an executive development firm) shows that 44% of managers feel writing proficiency is the hard skill most lacking among college graduates, and 39% feel presentation skills is the second most lacking.

Communicating on the job is different from the communicating you did at school. You’re not writing or speaking to show your understanding or that you can argue a position in the same way you did while you were in school. Still, once you are working, you’ll find your day is full of communicating: writing emails, having conversations and thinking critically to move projects forward. Mastering these skills is what we teach.

Here’s some advice to pass on to any new grads you know.

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High Impact Writing and Your Job Search

high impact writing job search

by Alan De Back

Over many years as a career coach, I’ve discovered that the most qualified person does not always land the job. You may have great credentials, but your lack of high impact writing skills could eliminate you from consideration.

How you present yourself in writing is critical to making the first cut. Whether writing a resume or editing your LinkedIn profile, a high impact writing style sends a message of energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism.

What are the most important elements of a high impact writing style?

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When Concise PowerPoint Slides Aren’t Enough

by Nancy Lefneskipowerpoint slides tips

In our presentation skills workshops, we ask participants what they find most frustrating about other people’s presentations. They invariably say, “PowerPoint slides that have way too much information on them.” Yet when we suggest that presenters design concise slides using the 6 x 6 rule (keeping slides to a maximum of six points and six words per point), we sometimes hear that won’t work for them because:

  • they have to send the deck as a pre-read
  • they have to leave it as a takeaway
  • they can only have three slides total
  • they have to send it to people who won’t be at the meeting and who need a full briefing

If you are faced with similar challenges, consider the following strategies:

Give your audience time to absorb your slide

If you have busy slides, give your audience enough time to read them before you start talking. Try reading the slide to yourself twice. That should give your audience enough time to read and process the content.

As much as we like to think we can multi-task, audiences can not effectively listen to a speaker and read slides at the same time. If the presenter is talking while the audience is reading the slides, the audience actually absorbs less information than if they tried to do either task alone.

Create two slide decks

Create one deck of concise slides to project during your presentation and create a second slide deck for a pre-read or takeaway. This second slide deck can have busier slides that include the additional information you intend to add verbally in your presentation.

It might be easiest to create the full version first, then edit it down to key words for the presentation version.

Use the Speaker’s Notes feature

Create one deck of concise slides to project during your presentation and add details the reader needs to know in the notes section. Print your slides as “Notes Pages” for the pre-read or takeaway. To add notes, select “Notes” on the task bar at the bottom of the slide window.
If you are forced to use a busy deck that contains detailed charts and graphs, we recommend you summarize the key message from each slide in the speaker notes section. If you don’t and you leave it up to the reader to analyze the data, table or graph, they may come up with a different conclusion than you intended.

Focus your audience’s attention

If you are forced to project a chart or graph with a lot of information during your presentation, help your audience get the key message quickly. Before you show them the slide, tell them what they are going to see and what the key message is. For example, BEFORE you show them the slide, say something like, “Now that we’ve looked at the sales targets, let’s look at our sales results. We are above target in all areas except X and Y.” THEN show them the slide and tell them what column they will find X and Y in. Your audience’s attention will go directly to where you need it to go.

Remember, when you are designing slides, every choice has a consequence. Choose the strategy that is most likely to help your audience and help you reach your presentation objective.

How to Stay Limber While You Write

Business woman do stretch with laptop in front isolated over white background.by Lesley Nevills

If you find your muscles are tight and sore when you spend hours sitting and writing, try these tips for staying limber and releasing unwanted tension. You’ll be more creative and have an easier time writing when you can relax.

1. Breathe deeply

When we are tense and stressed we often hold our breath or breathe very shallowly. Remember to periodically take a slow deep breath and exhale fully. If I could only share one piece of advice learned from years of teaching and doing yoga, it would be to practice deep breathing.

2. Stand up and move 

Remember to move around at least once every hour. Even if you stand and roll your shoulders a few times, you will help release stress and any built up tension. You can set a reminder on your phone or computer to help you get into the habit.

3. Learn to recognize where you hold your stress

Take a moment to notice any part of your body that may be tense right now. Check your jaw, feet, neck, eyes, forehead, shoulders, back, hips, legs and stomach. Move that part slowly and notice what you feel. Then just let it relax and let that tension go. Keep it relaxed while taking several deep breaths in and out, slowly.

4. Do simple seated stretches

A quick and easy stretch can be very effective to ease muscle tension periodically. You can do a number of great stretches without leaving your desk. You will feel energized and invigorated so you can continue writing.

5. Let your mouth relax

We don’t realize how much tension we hold in our jaw and neck until we consciously relax this area. By softening your mouth, tongue and jaw, you can relieve unconscious tension. Part your lips slightly, swallow and relax your tongue.

6. Release shoulder tension

Here is a technique to try: Take a deep breath in and while you do raise your shoulders up towards your ears. As you exhale rapidly, drop your shoulders down. If you want even more release, make some noise while you do this exercise. Sigh, humph or say ah!

Do you know any other strategies? Please share if you do.

Four Tips for a Successful Sales Meeting

by Leigh Geraghty

If you ever have to sell a product or service to internal or external prospects, you will find yourself at sales meetings or having to give presentations. I’ve learned that to be successful at selling, you need to “shut up and listen.” An effective sales meeting or presentation should be a dialogue or conversation, and in the spirit of dialogue, you should talk less than half of the time. You need to get your prospects talking, listen to what they have to say, and then respond in a way that shows you were listening.

Here are four strategies that have served me well in my career selling to both internal and external prospects:

1. Ask questions

Prepare key questions in advance. Salespeople often launch into a presentation without making sure they understand what their prospect cares about. Instead, open by asking questions to learn about your prospect and their needs. For example:

  • What happened that led to this situation?
  • What specific examples can you share that demonstrate your concerns?
  • What must we consider in the solution we provide?

Then, continue to ask questions throughout your presentation to confirm your assumptions, check for understanding and assess how your prospect feels about your product or service.

2. Pause frequently

Encourage your prospect to ask questions throughout. Their questions will tell you a lot about their interests.

Welcome interruptions. Pay attention to your prospect’s body language. If they appear to have something to say, pause and give them a chance to speak.

3. Listen more than you talk

Pay attention to what your prospect is saying, and jot down key words and phrases. Incorporate their language. Tailor your talk to focus on their needs, concerns and interests. For example, talk about how your product or service will solve their specific challenges.

By listening more than talking, you will follow the 80-20 rule and ensure that 20% of your presentation is about you, and 80% is about your prospect, their situation and their needs.

4. Keep it brief and focused

Don’t ramble. Deliver each key point briefly and succinctly. Then give your prospect a chance to comment and ask questions. Respond to questions and check for understanding. Once you are confident that they understand a point, move on.

Become comfortable listening more and speaking less, and you’ll feel more confident that you are proposing the best solutions. Your prospects will reward you with more trust, more sales and greater success.

Still Using Paper Evaluations?

by Jody Bruner

Like many learning & development shops, we used paper evaluations without question since the beginning. But this year, we reevaluated, made the switch to electronic evaluations, and are thrilled that we did. Here are some of the benefits we’re enjoying:

For head office: In 2015, we delivered over 350 workshops. Our training coordinator, Sarah, spent 30 admin hours each week transcribing written evaluations into client reports. Imagine! Using electronic evaluations frees her up from this drudgery without compromising value, and lets us make better use of her talents. In addition, using digital technology takes us one small step toward being paperless.

For our learners: Electronic evaluations are easy and convenient. Participants like time to think about their responses. And they’re used to giving and getting feedback online—after all, it’s the norm everywhere but in the classroom.

For our trainers and instructional designers: This audience cares mainly about the success of the program and being able to use feedback to improve it. This study from the University of Saskatchewan dispels many of the perceived disadvantages of using electronic evaluations and reinforces the benefits we’re experiencing:

  • Although the response rate is lower, the results still reliably represent the entire population.
  • You can expect more comments. (63% of online respondents provide comments vs 10% of paper-based respondents.)
  • You receive better quality comments because learners have time to reflect before responding. We found no evidence to support concerns that participants who take the time to comment are the ones who have something negative to say.
  • You buy back precious class time.

For relationship managers: The report yields information they can use to improve our workshops AND sell more of them. It also demonstrates our currency and willingness to innovate.

For our clients (training managers):

  • Better quality reports – They see a visual snapshot per course and long term aggregated results.
  • Faster reporting – Clients receive summary reports about 7 days after the workshop.
  • Current best practices – They can demonstrate to their stakeholders that they are working with vendors who stay current and employ best practices.

Our experience

  • We are getting a minimum of 75% participant response rate (usually between 80-100).
  • Participants provide many more qualitative comments.
  • Admin time has greatly decreased.

Key learnings

Most people would rather have a root canal than change the way they’ve always done things. And change can only be effective with a LOT of communication.

  • Communication with stakeholders is critical, you can’t communicate enough!
  • General communications about evaluation methodology and specific communication about processes are both critical.
  • Two-way communication is extremely important to allow people to learn and assimilate change and ask questions.

If you haven’t made the move to electronic evaluations yet, we can recommend it. If you’d like to learn about our experience, just give us a call.

How to Keep Your Voice in Shape

Young Businessman Delivering Presentation At Conference

You’ll have a difficult time presenting without your voice, so take good care of it! If you find your voice is weak, or gets sore when you facilitate or present, use these tips to manage it:

  1. Warm up your voice before presenting. These exercises will do the trick nicely. Try doing them before and after presenting. You’ll look and sound pretty weird, so try to find privacy in a stairwell if you need to soothe your voice during a break in a full day of presenting.
  2. Drink a lot! Try water without ice and herbal tea. Ice will restrict your vocal muscles so stick to cool or warm drinks. Keeping a drink handy is especially important if you get dry mouth from nerves.
  3. Limit your caffeine and alcohol intake before and during your presentation. These drinks are diuretics and will dehydrate you—all of you, including your vocal cords!
  4. If you feel nervous before your talk, relax your body with deep breathing exercises. When you’re tense, especially in the neck and shoulders, you use rapid, shallow breathing. A voice unsupported by deeper abdominal breathing cannot project and will tire quickly.
  5. Give your voice a break when you can. If you are hoarse from overuse, a rest from talking will help you recover. That means avoiding long, chatty phone calls and conversations that can wait until your voice is rested.
  6. When you’re speaking to large groups use a microphone. Without one, you’ll need to yell, which strains your vocal cords and ruins your voice quality.

Do you know any other strategies? Please share if you do.

How to Close Your Email Messages

by Jody Bruner

Back in the day of the letter, we were much more formal in our closings. Typically we signed off with Yours truly in formal situations, and Sincerely yours or even Cordially in less formal situations. In business today, while emails sometimes serve the same purpose as a letter, they are less formal and the traditional closes feel too dated and formal.

The close does more than mark the end of your message. It also helps reinforce your purpose in writing and defines the personality of your message—is it a thank you or an apology? Is it casual or formal? Is it personal or business?

You may be tempted to save time by making your complimentary close part of your signature block, but it won’t always match your message and can make you sound insincere. Present a more professional image by thoughtfully matching your close to the message you are writing.

Here are some popular options—the good, the bad and the ugly. Choose the close that suits your situation and your personal style:

Best: Totally safe to use.

Best wishes, Best regards: More formal, but still acceptable.

Regards: A bit bland, but totally acceptable.

Sincerely: Way too formal for an email. Maybe it would work for a cover email for a job application.

Take care: A bit bland but acceptable.

Thanks (or Many thanks): This is also common, and acceptable. Make sure you are actually thanking your reader for something specific.

Thanks in advance: Presumptuous. Avoid this if it is a command masquerading as premature gratitude.

Talk soon: Again, use it if you are going to be talking soon.

Warm regards: Formal and friendly at the same time.

Warmly: Nice. It’s great for emails to someone you’re close to but aren’t in regular touch with.

Your initial: This is very informal. Only use it with people who know you very well.

Your name: This feels cold and abrupt. The initial is warmer, even without the complimentary close.

Do you have a favourite complimentary close that’s not on this list? Please share!

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