Make your meetings and presentations more efficient by avoiding jargon and acronyms

TLAs.001My communications classes always include a slide like the one above because it’s advice that every writer, presenter, or meeting participant can stand to hear.

And because it’s always good for a joke.

As I talk about how jargon, technical terms, and obscure acronyms that are intended to save time actually lead to confusion and waste it, I can always depend on someone in the audience to raise their hand to ask what a TLA is.

“Oh, sorry,” I say. “It’s a three letter acronym for Three Letter Acronym.” Cue the laughter.

I recently came across a blog post from Adobe’s General Counsel, Mike Dillon, who says that the overuse of acronyms in his workplace is out of control:

At Adobe we take it to an entirely new level. Acronym usage is so rampant here that an internal market has developed with employees trading lists of company acronyms like they are some sort of corporate Rosetta Stone.

As an example, I recently attended a meeting where we reviewed the performance of a number of our businesses. During one ten minute period, I jotted down the following acronyms that were used during a presentation: “VIP”, “ARR”, “CLP”,” TLP”, “GTM”, “CCM”, “SMB”, “ETLA”, “POSA”, “STE”, “CS6”, “CC”, “EOL”, “STL”,” DPS”, “COGS”, “OEM”, “ROW”, “MD&P”,  “CAGR” and “CCE”. One of the presenters even achieved the linguistic equivalent of running the four-minute mile by using an impressive seven acronyms in a single sentence!

But he realizes after the meeting that he’s been so busy trying to figure out the speakers’ acronyms that he hasn’t really heard their presentations:

And for presenters, that’s a real problem. You put countless hours developing a presentation so that you can inform or influence your audience. That work is wasted if your audience doesn’t understand your message.

So, here’s a novel idea. How about considering the audience you are addressing? Are you certain that everyone in the room understands the acronyms you are using? If not, use the full words or phrase at the beginning of your presentation before you begin using the acronym.

Your future audiences will thank you and your presentations will be far more effective.

Of course he’s right. As presenters, writers, and everyday communicators of information, it’s critical that we are as clear as possible. If there’s any possible doubt that your audience might not understand an acronym or a technical term, make sure to spell it out for them. Saving a few syllables isn’t worth it if there’s a chance that your audience is going to mistake the ASTD (American Society for Training and Development) for an STD.

But audiences also need to take some responsibility here. If you find yourself in meetings that rely on a lot of jargon and acronyms that could be confusing, ask people to clarify what they’re talking about. Speaking up to admit that you don’t understand can be difficult, but working together to eliminate the mysterious letter stew used within your organization can help make the whole team more efficient.

Mike Dillon: IMHO

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Confidence Makes You More Persuasive (Even When You’re Totally Wrong)

One of the most important strategies for all presenters (especially those who are nervous about public speaking) is to make sure they are an expert on their topic. When you know your subject matter backwards and forwards you’re much less likely to freeze or lose your place in your talk, you’ll be able to answer questions from the audience easily, and you’ll be able to ad lib when unexpected things happen.

But becoming an expert can also help accomplish something that may be more important than just giving you command over facts and information. It can give you confidence. And being confident, it turns out, may be even more important than being right when it comes to persuading people. Studies show that confident people are seen as more competent, more persuasive, and even more attractive than less confident individuals–even when their confidence is totally misplaced. Here’s a quick summary of one experiment from an article in Slate:

In 2009, Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at the University of California–Berkeley Haas School of Business, decided to run an experiment on his students. He gave them a “list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick off the ones they knew.” But he also stacked the deck with fakes: Made-up figures he called “Queen Shaddock” and “Galileo Lovano,” and a fictitious event called “Murphy’s Last Ride.” Anderson found that the students who ticked off the most fake names showed signs of excessive confidence, if not competence. At the end of the semester, he surveyed the students about one another and found that those who held the most “respect, prominence, and influence” in the classroom were the same ones who claimed they totally knew who “Queen Shaddock” was. Anderson concluded that it’s confidence, not ability, skill, or accomplishment, that ends up swaying other people. “Whether they are good or not,” he said, “is kind of irrelevant.”

I’m not encouraging anyone to be a blowhard or pretend they are an expert on the reign of Queen Shaddock. There are few things more obnoxious than someone who exhibits confidence they clearly haven’t earned, and audiences will quickly turn on a presenter as soon as it becomes clear that their confidence is misplaced. Few people like a fraud once they’ve been exposed.

But there are all kinds of things you can do to boost your confidence without being a phony. Study your material. Rehearse your talk. Get to know the room you’re speaking in and make yourself comfortable. And try to interact with the audience in a natural way so it feels more like a conversation than a big scary performance. All of these strategies will help calm your nerves and make you feel more confident. Perhaps even more importantly, they’ll make you seem more confident to your audience.

What you don’t want to do is undermine yourself by seeming unsure, announcing the things you don’t know, or seeming noncommittal or disinterested in your topic. Remember that you’re there to persuade your audience and that, if you want them to believe in your ideas, you have to believe in them yourself.

Asking yourself whether you can serve as an expert on your topic is also a really great test of whether you should be presenting at all. If you find yourself in over your head, if you don’t have time to prepare, or if you’re just the wrong person for the subject matter, it’s a good idea to ask for help or just politely decline the assignment. I’m speaking from experience here–the worst talks I’ve given have all happened because I was the wrong presenter from the beginning. It’s not always possible to say no, but it can save both you and your audience a lot of pain and wasted time.

Latest Publishing Trend: Books That Teach Women to Be Overconfident Blowhards, Just Like Men

They Have You At “Hello”: Be Aware Of Your Public Speaking Voice

Here’s one more thing for presenters to worry about; research shows that listeners will judge a speaker based on listening to their voice after just half a second. Perhaps even more astonishingly, different listeners consistently come to the same conclusions about whether someone is intelligent, honest, nervous, attractive, etc, after nothing more than hearing them say “hello.”

As someone who has coached speakers and managed teams of trainers, I can tell you that there are few things more important in any presentation than the speaker’s voice. When I ask for audience feedback on a presenter, the most withering criticism is often leveled at how they sound. The lowest-rated speakers are usually those who are described as speaking in a monotone, sounding bored, tired, insincere, condescending, or sarcastic. (Accents can also be an issue). At the opposite end of the spectrum, the presenters who receive overwhelmingly positive reviews are often described as enthusiastic, engaged, funny, energetic, or compassionate. While audience members don’t single out a presenter’s voice as a positive element as often as they notice it as a negative one, these are all qualities that are conveyed primarily by how a speaker sounds, whether the listeners realize it or not.

Whenever you’re speaking to an audience, you should make persuading them to adopt your ideas the main goal of your talk. But that’s almost impossible if the sound of your voice makes them think you don’t care or, worse, that you don’t believe what you’re saying. Chances are they’ll just stop listening and you’ll wind up wasting everyone’s time–including your own.

So always keep in mind how you sound, particularly at the beginning of a talk when you’ll be making that all-important first impression. Imagine the tone you want to use for your talk in advance and try to match it, even if your nerves threaten to make your voice crack and rise an octave. And if you have never heard yourself give a presentation, consider recording yourself. You may be surprised (for good or bad) to hear what you sound like to an audience that isn’t inside your own head.

They Have You At Hello

 

Sherlock’s Toughest Case: How To Write An Unforgettable Best Man Speech

sherlockIt turns out Sherlock Holmes is human after all. The proof? Public speaking torments him as much as it does the rest of us.

Holmes has been unmasking murderers, saving the Crown Jewels, and exposing nefarious secret societies since 1887. He’s traveled to the 22nd Century and battled his nemesis Moriarty on the holodeck of the starship Enterprise (well, Data did in a Sherlock Holmes costume). But his biggest challenge? Writing a speech for John Watson’s wedding.

The recent BBC episode The Sign of Three opens with Sherlock calling Detective Inspector Lestrade away from a crime in progress for help with an emergency. Lestrade arrives at Baker Street to find Homes staring at his laptop screen in anguish.

“This is hard,” Sherlock says. “Really hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” Then he holds up a pamphlet he’s been studying called How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. “Do you know any funny stories about John?” he implores Lestrade. “I need anecdotes.”

Sherlock believes he is especially tormented by having to write his speech because of his self-diagnosis as a “high-functioning sociopath” and because he’s not good with people and their emotions. But his experience creating this speech is pretty consistent with what the rest of us go through in a similar situation. We agonize about these important moments because we want to do a good job for the people we love and not embarrass ourselves in front of an audience.

Faced with a challenge that feels insurmountable, Holmes approaches it the same way he would any other case: with research. And apparently How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech is full of good advice because (and I hope this isn’t a spoiler), Sherlock does an outstanding job. He even manages to solve another murder in the process.

Once you take out all the flashbacks and murder-solving distractions, it turns out that his wedding speech is pretty conventional. Of course, every wedding is different and every speaker has to write a talk that suits the specific event, their abilities as a speaker, and their relationships with the couple getting married. But many of the tactics Sherlock adopts would be useful any time you find yourself in the nerve-wracking position of having to prepare a wedding speech.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the text of How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. But, based on Sherlock’s performance, we can make some pretty good guesses about the advice it offers. My own powers of deduction tell me that the pamphlet’s suggestions look something like this:

Control Your Nerves

Public speaking makes almost everyone nervous. Even, it turns out, Sherlock Holmes. For most people the worst symptoms of their fear come right at the beginning, so it can be hard to get started and find a comfortable rhythm. But taking a few deep breaths, trying to speak slowly, and realizing that the worst will soon be over can help make your fear manageable. One of the great things about speaking at a wedding is that chances are pretty good you know a lot of people in the audience, so it should be easy to pick out some friendly faces in the audience and speak to them.

In Sherlock’s case, his nerves seem apparent as he struggles to write the speech and as he fumbles around a bit at the beginning of his performance, opening with “Ladies and gentlemen. Family and friends. And others….” But this turns out to be part of his plan. More on that in a bit….

(For other suggestions on dealing with fear of public speaking you can look here, or elsewhere on this blog).

Acknowledge Tradition

Are you speaking at a wedding with a Catholic mass or one being held on the beach in Santa Cruz? Both have rules and expectations that need to be followed, but those involved in either one would probably be wildly out of place at the other. Being aware of what everyone (especially the bride) expects from a wedding speech is critical. Are there rituals that need to be performed? How are you supposed to be dressed? What kind of humor is appropriate (if humor is appropriate at all)? Getting it right is incredibly important. The wedding speeches that go most horribly awry are usually the ones where the speakers simply don’t understand the context in which they are being given.

Aside from his formal wedding suit, the main gesture Sherlock makes to tradition in his best man’s speech is his attempt to read the “telegrams,” which he points out aren’t really telegrams at all but notes from loved ones who can’t be there.

“Big squishy cuddles. Oodles of love and heaps of good wishes,” he reads before quickly flipping through the note cards and then tossing them aside in discomfort. “Love, love, love. You get the general gist. People are basically just fond,” he finally summarizes. It may not be the most traditional performance, but at least people in the audience can think Holmes has made an effort.

Personalize Your Speech

When you’ve been asked to give a wedding speech, it should be because you have a close relationship with the bride, the groom, or both. At least one (and hopefully both) of them feel you have personal insight into them and their relationship. If that’s not the case and you find yourself asked to speak at the wedding of someone you don’t know very well, find an excuse to be out of town that day. Quick! Move overseas if you have to.

Every presentation needs an objective, and the objective of any wedding speech is to say something that will please the new couple and that they will remember for years to come. Even more specifically, your goal should always be to say something that makes the bride happy. In the end, she’s really the only one who matters.The danger here is in falling into the trap of talking about yourself too much, or focusing on just the bride or groom. Remember, the whole point of the wedding is bringing them together. You need to show some insight into them as a couple, something that you’ve personally observed.

Here’s where the Watson wedding gets really interesting. After Sherlock has made an effort with the traditional “telegrams,” he starts to personalize his speech. But he goes about it in an unexpected and circuitous way. Instead of talking about what great people John and Mary are and how happy they are going to be, Holmes plays to the audience’s expectations of him. It suddenly looks like he’s bombing the speech as he insults the bridesmaids, the vicar, and says this about the institution of marriage itself:

All emotions–in particular, love–stand opposed to the pure, cold reason I hold above all things. A wedding is, in my considered opinion, nothing short of a celebration of all that is false and specious and irrational and sentimental in this ailing morally compromised world.

Then he follows up with a barb at Watson:

If I burden myself with a little helpmate during my adventures, this is not out of sentiment of caprice. It is that he has many fine qualities of his own that he has overlooked in his obsession with me. Indeed, any reputation I have for mental acuity and sharpness comes, in truth, from the extraordinary contrast John so selflessly provides.

But not even Holmes is insensitive enough to say this at the wedding of a friend and mean it. He’s just playing on the audience’s expectations of him in order to create a genuinely memorable and dramatic speech and….

Do Something Unexpected

Of course, you could just stand up to make a speech, say a couple of nice things about the couple and be done. People make these kinds of speeches all the time. But it wouldn’t last very long, and it wouldn’t be very memorable. If you want to make a really great speech, you need to do something unexpected or tell a story that the audience doesn’t know. This is true of any presentation, really. Your talk has to stand out from all the other presentations people have to sit through if you want it to be truly memorable, and the element of surprise is a highly effective way of getting people to pay attention.

(A caution here. This doesn’t mean that you need to aim to create a speech that could go viral on YouTube. Remember that you’re there to celebrate the bride, not steal the spotlight from her).

Sherlock Holmes certainly excels at providing an unexpected twist with his speech. After seeming to trash the institution of marriage and insult much of the audience, he reveals that he’s been playing the role of “Sherlock Holmes the Sociopath” all along and that he completely understands what he needs to do in order to make a great speech.

“The point I’m trying to make,” he says:

is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant, and all-around obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet. I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful, and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be the best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend, and certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. John, I am a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship.

Sherlock, it turns out, has played up his own deficiencies in order to contrast them with John’s virtues. You can see the light bulbs come on in the faces of the wedding guests as they start to understand that they’ve been tricked. But it’s not something they’re going to be angry or annoyed about. They actually get a great deal of pleasure from figuring out what’s going on. Sherlock’s not so cold after all.

(Letting an audience figure out something on their own is one of the best ways to make any presentation memorable. People like to feel clever, that they’ve accomplished something, and it makes them feel much more invested in any talk.)

Create An Emotional Connection

The final, mandatory, element of any successful wedding speech is to make an emotional connection between the audience and the happy couple. There are lots of things you could do that would be “unforgettable” but still wouldn’t be good ideas for a wedding. Getting falling-down drunk before your speech. Stripping off your clothes as you talk. Making out with the maid of honor at the head table. These things are all overdone, anyway.

But making a wedding speech memorable in a good way requires you to say something that prompts a positive emotional response from the guests. How you do this will be different in every situation because every wedding and every relationship are unique, but it’s critical that you find appropriate emotional content. Otherwise you’re just saying nice things that no one is likely to remember.

Here’s how Sherlock creator Steven Moffat, who actually wrote the wedding episode, imagines Holmes’ thought process in planning the speech and the importance it has for him:

I thought what Sherlock would do is he’d sit there and think, ‘Everyone’s gonna think I’m gonna make a right c***-up of this. Everyone thinks I’m going to screw it up. So I’m going to make them think that, and then of course I’m going to say something lovely.’ And I always thought he’d do it well because he’s a genius and he cares about his mate–he wouldn’t let his mate down.

So what does Sherlock actually say? He makes a direct appeal to the bride and talks about how they share their love for John:

Mary, when I say you deserve this man, it is the highest compliment of which I am capable. John, you have endured war, and injury, and tragic loss—so sorry again about that last one. So know this: Today, you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved. In short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that. Now, on to some funny stories about John….

After his initial ruse of being completely insensitive to the feelings of others, the emotional impact Sherlock makes in the end is so strong (and I admit I may have had a tear or two in my eyes) that the audience has to stop him from proceeding with his speech so they can enjoy the sentiment as he tries to rush ahead and tell the funny anecdotes he’s collected.

Make Them Laugh (Optional)

When people start thinking about giving a wedding speech, often the first thing they worry about is being funny. And Sherlock does too. His initial response was to call in Lestrade and beg for funny anecdotes. But, while some of the best wedding speeches certainly make people laugh, humor should be entirely optional. It is sincerity that is required for a great wedding speech.

Remember that a wedding is not an open mic night or your chance to practice a standup routine. The spotlight on this stage should stay fixed on the bride and groom. If you have funny stories to tell, great, as long as they help the guests get to know the bride and groom better. If you have to search hard for funny anecdotes, however, it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t depend on humor. And don’t try to be funny if it doesn’t come naturally to you or you have a hard time remembering a punchline. Much better just to be genuine and tell a good story.

Unfortunately, we may never know what, if any, anecdotes Sherlock came up with since the wedding party doesn’t give him a chance to tell them. I suspect, though, that he may have been trying to generate some during the disastrous two-man bachelor party he tried to orchestrate for Watson.

Solve The Murder (Sherlock Only)

Chances are pretty good that you will not be called on to solve a murder, so there’s really no need to over-prepare for this situation. Probably best to leave the sleuthing to the professionals anyway and spend your time coming up with the right stories for your wedding speech. Now that you know How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech, it should be easy.

Presentation Tips: Dealing With Fear Of Public Speaking

Stage fright and fear of public speaking aren’t exactly the same thing, but they are so closely  related that suggestions for coping with one are often helpful for dealing with the other. This short and entertaining TED Talk by Joe Kowan is great because it shows the specific tactics he uses to lessen his fear of being on stage: things like writing a song about his fear (which he performs here) and planning for the fact that his nerves will make his singing voice higher than usual.

While Kowan’s strategies may not apply directly to your own fear of public speaking (few of us get the chance to write songs for our presentations), I like the model he provides for coming up with a personal plan to deal with anxiety. Almost everyone experiences fear of public speaking to some degree, and few presenters completely overcome it. (In this sense I think the title of the talk is slightly misleading–I don’t think Kowan has “beat” his fear, he’s just found some ways to cope).

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m always a little nervous about speaking to an audience. So I’ve adopted several strategies of my own to help lessen my anxiety. Here are a few of the tactics I use:

Being Prepared: I don’t want worries that my talk isn’t finished, that my computer won’t work, or that I’m not going to get there on time to make my nerves any worse than they already are. So I make sure that I’m never writing a presentation at the last minute, I double-check my computer to make sure I have all the files and AV connectors I need, and I plan so I have enough time to arrive early. If you’re not great at managing these kinds of details, a checklist can be very helpful.

Getting Comfortable: One side benefit of arriving early is that you can use the time to familiarize yourself with the room and get comfortable. One of the most terrifying moments for most speakers is when they suddenly have to stand up, walk over to the lectern, and start talking. But arriving early gives you a chance to make sure everything is ready, to chat with people as they come in, and start to feel like the room is yours instead of an alien environment. If you’ve already been talking to people as the room fills you can often just ease into your presentation in a conversational way and avoid that feeling of having the curtain going up, leaving you alone on the stage.

Thinking of the Audience as Individuals: It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of an audience as a homogeneous group like a mob. If a speaker sees one person in the audience who looks unhappy, they often start to assume that everyone hates them. But it’s important to remember that any audience is made up of individuals with different ideas and experiences. Don’t let one person ruin the whole thing. Also, focusing on someone you know in the audience, someone who seems to be nodding in agreement, or just a friendly face, can go a long way toward calming your nerves and helping you forget about the rest of the crowd.

Staying Hydrated: Nerves often give speakers a dry mouth, so have water handy in case you get thirsty or find yourself with a scratchy throat. Taking a sip of water is also a good way to pause for a moment to collect your thoughts without looking as if you’ve frozen like a deer in headlights. But a couple words of caution. Try to put your glass or bottle out of the way so it’s unlikely to get knocked over. And try to avoid ice in your water: condensation dripping on your outfit can make an embarrassing impression. Finally, try not to look too desperate for a drink.

These are just some of the things that I find work for me. Before your next presentation, take a few minutes to sit down and think about some strategies that might help you minimize (if not “beat”) your fear. Coming up with a few ideas can make your fear seem less overwhelming and more manageable.

Joe Kowan: How I beat stage fright

Jerry Seinfeld On Hecklers: Kill Them With Kindness

Most presenters won’t ever have to deal with a real heckler, the truly obnoxious jerk who feels entitled to interrupt and openly question your material or your value as a human being. (I suspect this is partly due to the fact that most presentations, unlike comedy clubs, don’t require a two drink minimum.) But that doesn’t mean that you won’t have to deal with disruptive audience members. You will. Give enough presentations (or just sit in the audience) and you’ll start to recognize certain types:

  • The fidgeter
  • The person who is too important to stop typing on their phone
  • The pair who thinks you can’t hear them whispering to each other
  • The eye-roller

These are just a few of the people who can throw a presenter off track and make it difficult for the rest of the audience to focus on the topic at hand. Deciding what to do when someone is disrupting your presentation is never easy because you always run the risk of making the situation worse by addressing it. But I think there’s something we can all learn from Jerry Seinfeld’s strategy for dealing with hecklers at his shows. He described his philosophy in a recent Q&A on Reddit:

Very early on in my career, I hit upon this idea of being the Heckle Therapist. When people would say something nasty, I would immediately become very sympathetic to them and try to help them with their problem and try to work out what was upsetting them, and try to be very understanding with their anger.

Challenging a heckler usually only makes the situation worse, puts them in control of the situation, and turns what was a distraction into the main event. But Seinfeld’s “heckler therapy” is aimed at ending the disruption by solving whatever is bothering them. If anything, this strategy should be even more effective in a regular presentation than it would be at a comedy show because the difficult people at presentations aren’t as openly antagonistic.

So if someone is fidgeting a lot, ask them if everything is okay. If they keep typing away on their phone, ask them if they have something they need to deal with. If they’re whispering in the back of the room, ask them if they have something they want to add to what you’ve said. The trick here is to make sure that you sound sincere. Chances are that your disruptors will say that everything is fine and stop causing trouble so they don’t attract any more attention to themselves.

What you don’t want to do is sound sarcastic or defensive. In another post about dealing with hecklers I talked about how important it is for presenters to remember that, in the vast majority of these situations, the audience is on their side and has very little patience with troublemakers. But that can all change very quickly if they think you’re being cruel and trying to embarrass someone.

Take Seinfeld’s advice and try to help them instead.

Jerry Seinfeld’s Reddit Q&A

Comedians’ Advice For Dealing With Hecklers

Tips For Writing More Effective Email: SEAR

SEARThese days it seems that everything needs an acronym. But while acronyms and initialisms used to exist to make complex terms and phrases (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) into words that sound less terrifying and are easier to remember (SCUBA), sometimes it seems that they exist today just to bewilder and embarrass us. Maybe it’s because more and more technical terms are leaking into our everyday language. Maybe it’s because so many acronyms and initialisms (HTML, SQL, GIF) don’t look like words and give us no cues as to how to pronounce them. Or maybe it’s because our clever and secretive children seem to write in a new language that consists of little more than a series of unrelated letters strung together with smiley faces. IMHO, a combination of all these factors has done a lot of damage when it comes to making everyday writing easy to understand.

Just the same, I’m going to go out on a limb and introduce an acronym of my own in the hope of making it easier to remember the elements that I think are most important when it comes to writing clear and effective email. I hope that mine is more reminiscent of the days of helpful acronyms (CARE) than the muddled-sounding efforts (UNIFEM – which sounds like an evil supercomputer with a female voice but actually stands for United Nations Development Fund for Women) people are resorting to lately. I wanted to come up with a real acronym, something you could recognize as a word and didn’t have to struggle to pronounce. Above all, I wanted something that you could remember and would help you recall the four points I want to emphasize as key to successfully writing business email.

What I came up with is SEAR, which is, I think, pretty good. Not only is it a real word, but it’s a verb, an active, forceful word. It’s a command, for crying out loud! This is an acronym with a lot going for it! Creative writing teachers will always tell you that, in order for your language to be memorable, you should engage as many of your reader’s senses as possible. Marketers do the same thing: why do you think hotels have “signature scents” and Starbucks has an official soundtrack? They want to take advantage of all your senses to help make you remember their brands and keep you coming back for more.

SEAR is just the kind of suggestive word to do that. It evokes the bright heat of a flame; you can practically hear the sizzle of the fire in its long, sibilant “S.” To make it even more memorable, take the mental picture a step further and imagine that it’s a nice steak you’re searing. You can practically smell it, can’t you, your mouth watering as you almost taste that first bite?

“Alright, enough of the acronym!” you say. “We remember it already. You’re making us hungry! But what does it mean? How are those four letters going to help me with my writing, and why are they arranged in that order? Why is it SEAR and not EARS?”

So here we go. Here are the four things you need to think about when you sit down to write at work, in the order you should generally think about them:

Strategy–Basically the idea here is to do a little planning before you start to write. Take the time to think about whether email is really the right format for your message. Have you clearly worked out what it is that you have to say, or are you still struggling with it? Have you given yourself enough time to write and to write well? Is there something in your email that could get you in trouble down the road? Best to consider these ideas before you even start typing a new message.

Emotion plays a crucial role in the overall strategy of your writing, but it’s something that’s often ignored. Poorly-handled emotional content can probably cause you more severe problems than any of the other pitfalls of writing email. And most of the time emotions get stirred up unintentionally because we are simply better at communicating in person than we are in writing. Email is notorious for lacking the cues to tone and meaning that we share in our everyday person-to-person conversations. Because of this, it’s often hard to tell if someone is kidding or if they’re really angry with us. Are they just being brief, or are they upset? And the truth is that we don’t always take the time to be good readers, either, which makes it even harder to communicate clearly.

But we all need to take a little more responsibility for our writing to make sure that it isn’t going to stir up emotions unnecessarily. Is the message you need to convey something that’s loaded with emotional content? If so, maybe you would be better off considering another, more personal, format. Do you have a history of conflict with the person you intend to write? Are they likely to react badly to this particular topic? If so, you might want to reconsider using email and pick up the phone instead. Better yet, walk down the hall and see them in person if you can. I know, many of us would rather avoid conflict at all cost. But sending an email that upsets someone isn’t going to help.

Audience–This idea really builds on the topic of emotion. It’s critical that you always think about who you are writing to. How are they going to react to your message? Do they even know who you are? If not, you’ll need to introduce yourself. How are you going to get their attention when they get hundreds of emails every day? What are they interested in and what information do you have that they are going to care about? It’s important to make sure that your message is modulated for this particular audience. Are you using the right tone? If you’re writing to the president of your company in the same tone that you write to your best friend, you should probably reconsider unless you’re also a VIP. Is the person you’re writing to a stickler for spelling and grammar? If so, you’d better run that spellcheck and proofread one more time.

Rules have to be followed to make sure that all of your other hard work isn’t wasted. So far I’ve played down the importance of correct grammar and punctuation, which is why I’ve made this the last of my four topics. But the fact is that you can do everything else well and still lose all your credibility if your readers are put off by typos and missing punctuation. There are still lots of people out there who will judge your intelligence and ability based on the mechanics of your writing–whether or not that is fair. Know who those sticklers are and do your best to weed out the mistakes in your messages to them.

But really, why not do your best in all the emails you send? The rules of grammar and punctuation only exist to make language clear and easy to read. When you write poorly you increase the chances that your message will be misunderstood or not read in the first place. After all, if you can’t take the time to write clearly, why should your reader struggle to make sense out of what you have to say?

Those are the headlines, the big ideas from what follows. Follow this blog for more specifics.