Take the time to reflect

The nights have drawn in, the clocks have gone back, the late October storm has, well, stormed through really and we can all agree that autumn has definitely arrived.

I always find this time of year quite strange. autumn_trees_streamI really enjoy the autumn colours, the sight of a fire burning in the grate is comforting, the winter duvet is so cosy; but I always find myself reflecting on what has happened so far this year, what might have happened and trying to gauge what might happen next.

Rather than using this as just a personal introspective, I try and focus on work related matters as well, thinking about the “if only” and “what if” and most definitely celebrating the successes. Why do I do this?

It’s not because I’m a masochist or like to dwell on the negatives in life and I’m frequently told that self praise is no praise by members of my family (I beg to differ). It’s much more about looking for validation and a route forward; what can I take from activities I’ve taken part in that I can use for the future and what should I try differently next time?

How often in business do we take time to undertake this kind of review? Some may say that most organisations do attempt a reflective as part of their annual business planning and for annual reports for shareholders. Many projects and programmes review activity on a monthly basis but I’ve always found that to be very tactical or operational.

In my profession of bid and proposal management and coaching we always advocate setting up lessons learned and bid debrief sessions at the end of the bid and when the result is known. But do we give ourselves sufficient time to do this? Do we really take the lessons from reflection and bring them into new activities? And do we ever ask ourselves the question “what do you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning of the year/project/bid?”

I can honestly say I do reflect and try to learn. Do I always take that into my next bid or proposal? Well at least the reflection will influence my future behaviours even if it’s not appropriate to introduce all my learning in one fell swoop.

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can we drop the TLAs please?

Don’t know what a TLA is? I rest my case.

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Oh you’d like me to say more? Well this is a subject that I have been known to get on a soapbox about.

A TLA is the acronym for a Three Letter Acronym, closely followed by the FoFLA which is the Four or Five Letter Acronym. The worst I’ve found was a grouping of 4 Four Letter Acronyms (making 16 initial letters if my arithmetic is correct). I’ve had friends and colleagues mentioning even worse cases. And no, I can’t remember the acronym or what it stood for because the true meaning was lost in translation.

TLAs and their ilk have been used extensively in the military for many years and have proliferated into the business world. Often TLAs are used by different people to refer to a number of situations – sometimes in the same organisation. Take QMS, I know of three different explanations of that without even thinking about it too hard. You really have to remember that just because you have a meaning for your TLA and you use it to suit your needs, it doesn’t mean that your reader has the same translation.

TLAs are being introduced in ever increasing numbers by the world of texting and it can get quite confusing if you don’t keep up with their usage. Sadly textspeak is mushrooming out into other arenas, even to the extent of inclusion in the OED. Yes, I did that deliberately. For those who are thinking hard it’s the Oxford English Dictionary. I still have to stop and think when I see “LOL” because “lots of love” is not an appropriate translation with most LOLs. I even saw someone on Facebook this week making LOL a verb “I really loled at that one”!

I’ve been looking through quotations recently that express various thoughts and sentiments on the need for brevity in writing. I suppose you could say that using TLAs is making an attempt to keep things brief, however brief is only good if you don’t have to stop to work out what is being said as you’re reading.

Brevity in writing is all about being concise and to the point, not about the number of words or letters you can miss out, another reason I don’t like txtspk.

My favourite quotation on this comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge “Words in prose ought to express the intended meaning: if they attract attention to themselves, it is a fault; in the very best styles you read page after page without noticing the medium.” Couldn’t have put it better myself Mr Coleridge.

TTFN!

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do you need to be stationary to buy stationery?

blog word cloud#10001

No-one has ever been able to convince me that the English language is straightforward. Many have said it must be easy if three-year olds can speak it. And yes they can, to a point, as do we all. But the challenge always arises when we start to put pen to paper, or rather fingers to keyboard.

I watched an excellent TED talk recently (www.ted.com/talks) where the speaker talked about how if the evolution of humankind so far was put into a day, that the written word would emerge at around 23.55. I wish I’d remembered to keep the link to the talk and could remember the name of the speaker so I could share it with you but it really did make me think.

Why does the development of our language make our lives so difficult? Every language has its own idiosyncracies, traps and confusions. Look at the title to this post. Yes, I checked the dictionary to make sure I’d got them in the correct order – and even in this sentence, should I use correct or right? They both mean the same, don’t they? What about less or fewer? The incorrect usage of these terms I know infuriates many people. And then to add confusion we have the homophones, for example there, their and they’re.

I’ll share with you some fabulous sentences that I found through a Facebook link to an entertainment site (I know but it’s still research).

The bandage was wound around the wound.
The farm was used to produce produce.
The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse
We must polish the Polish furniture.
He could lead if he would get the lead out.
The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
I did not object to the object.
The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
They were too close to the door to close it.
The buck does funny things when the does are present.
A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Horrifying isn’t it!

cartoon librarianGreat philosophical treatises will explain how our language has a great history of adoption, adaption and evolution and has a rich heritage of which we should be proud. You’ve only got to look at Beowulf, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, the works of Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde, amongst others, to see the changes that have occurred over the centuries.

So with all these changes, and those that are still occurring today, why do we expect everyone to be able to write well? We employ staff for their financial, scientific, technical or engineering skills which have been honed over many years – and then expect them to write fluidly, engagingly and authoritatively. And when they aren’t able to, we criticise them and by association criticise their knowledge as well. Why? Most people applaud those who can speak and write in multiple languages, but do we praise and celebrate excellent writers of the English language? Well, yes, but they are generally dead when we get round to it. We may talk about a great story that we’ve read in a book, but unless studying English at school or university how often do we talk about the choice of words, the thrust of the argument, the thought process that the writer has gone through to be able to put across their message?

Writing isn’t easy but it can be a complete joy for both the writer and the reader. Writing can engage or alienate the reader, something that should always be considered when one puts pen to paper. Good writing can have a huge impact on success whether personal or corporate. It can make the difference to a company winning a multi-million pound order from their most important client or keeping them away from litigation.

blog word cloud#10002

So please, applaud those of us who choose to use the written word to make our living. We have chosen to do so because we love how language works and know how it can affect people and so we can plan accordingly. We know most people don’t, so why not take some stress out your lives by engaging a writer to work with you on your most important bids, proposals and projects. Who knows we may be able to help you love words more.

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recalcitrant teenager or knowing a good thing when you see it?

I like seagulls, or rather gulls as they should be called. Don’t get me wrong, I know that they are loud, they dive bomb you for no apparent reason, they love to return a lovingly cleaned car to its previous state in one fell swoop and they nick your chips. But I still like them. Well generally I do.

We live in a terrace. We’ve had gulls nesting amongst our chimney posts for about the last 6 years. Myrtle and Mr Myrtle (sorry, yes we’ve named them) have brought along their friends and there’s been a second pair nesting across the way from us (Sybil and Mr Sybil) for about 4 years. The normal routine is for the chicks to hatch early June and for them all to fledge around the 13th July and then they and all their friends fly off for their summer holidays and we see them back mid September in time for them to set up their winter quarters, we think in the industrial estate near here. Myrtle’s chicks normally do their stuff about a week before Sybil’s but they do seem to have a good plan for all this. MP900262747

But this year things haven’t gone so well.

It all started when one of Myrtle’s chicks jumped off the chimney and had a wander around the roofs when it was far too small. Myrtle and her mate went crazy. I’ve never encountered dive bombing that low before and the amount of car washing that had to be done was, well, irritating to be honest. Whether they managed to get the chick back, it flew off or the inevitable happened I’m not sure, but the dive bombing stopped after a couple of days and we just had to put up with the shouting. I’m sorry, I know this is anthropomorphising gulls but they really do shout.

Two weeks later, a little before they ought to be ready to fly off, Sybil’s two chicks both jumped off the chimney and with great skill, having fluttered around and stretched their wings somewhat, managed to fall off the roof and land in a neighbour’s garden.

Needless to say the behaviour we had previously experienced with Myrtle was as nothing to that we then went through with Sybil, because Sybil called in the cavalry and a number of other gulls were also engaged in protecting the babies. And the chicks, as I must remember to call them rather than babies, started a cacophony of noise. It’s probably impossible to describe the various calls that chicks use to attract their parent’s attention. It’s REALLY impossible to describe the noise the parent gulls make in these circumstances! The only thing I can say is that sales of ear plugs increased considerably around here so that we could all sleep at night, or rather from dawn which was at around 4.00/4.30am .

The neighbours, into whose garden the chicks had fallen, were really considerate. Boxes were provided as was food – but the parents were providing food as well. We discovered after a few days of the incessant calling by the chicks – or rather teenagers as we were by now calling them – that rather than being trapped in the garden, the chicks could in fact fly and were, when the parents arrived and landed on the edge of the roof, flying up, getting fed and then going back to their nice comfy boxes and having a bit of a sleep until the next feed. Now you know why I’m calling them teenagers.

There was great rejoicing in the street when one of the chicks/teenagers finally got up some gumption and flew off with some of the other adults. This is it we thought, peace and quiet will return until next year once the other chick gets the message and goes off as well.

This was three weeks ago.

The second teenager hasn’t gone yet.

He (sorry, yes I know you can’t sex a bird from a distance, but his mum is still feeding him and he doesn’t want to leave home) flies everyday, shouting loudly to tell everyone where he is because he’s so clever at finally doing what ought to come naturally to a bird.

Every, yes every, day he comes back to the nest – yes the one he jumped out of about 5 weeks ago – and he’s so proud of himself. He even pops down into the garden and pecks on the window to get the neighbours to feed him.

His mum is still feeding him – I’ve seen her today. She’s mad. He’s grown up enough now to find his own food isn’t he? And he’s still shouting all the time. He’s got three different calls – baby chick, nearly fledged chick and nearly adult gull. They are all loud and incredibly annoying. They all drill into your head. We sometimes imagine it’s stopped and then disappointment comes over us as we realise he was just taking a breath.

But as I said in the title of this blog. Is “he” just being a recalcitrant teenager? Or has he developed a lovely cushy number for himself?

If you could get fed from numerous sources with very little effort, do a bit of flying around to see what’s going on in the world but then return to the comfort of a home where your Mum will look after you – wouldn’t you?

Personally, I’m not sure I would because I liked the idea of standing on my own two feet and going around with my mates. But maybe that’s the problem with anthropomorphism. Maybe I shouldn’t transfer my feelings and human emotions on a bird.

But please, could someone tell this gull to leave home and give us some peace and quiet.

Please.

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how often do you answer the wrong question?

When getting feedback from clients on bid or proposal documents a frequent comment made is that the decision makers and evaluators didn’t really understand the solution or service as described or even, in some circumstances, that they didn’t feel that the answers given really answered the question posed. And it’s a criticism or critique given to teams regularly when I’ve been asked to review documents before they are submitted.

There are generally two schools of thought as to why this might be the case. The first is “the client asked the wrong question so we gave them the answer to the question they really should have asked”; the second, “we thought we had answered the question they asked”. Neither response will be satisfactory to your client; both suggest that the proposal or bid team probably need to talk to each other and the client to make sure that everyone is thinking along the same lines.

Answering the wrong question can happen so easily. It happened to me recently when I asked a friend what their plan was in relation to a family situation. The response I got was a list of all the activities that they would be doing over the next six months, what I wanted was dates and a timeframe because that is what I meant and what would affect our ability to do other things. Did I ask the wrong question or did we forget about the context of the response needed? This situation can be easily remedied between friends because we talk to each other and explain when the response isn’t correct, but it can be more difficult when the situation arises between proposal or bid team and the client as you generally only get one chance to offer the correct answer.

How often when you are replying to your client in a bid, proposal or tender do you actually check either what they mean by the question they asked or even better why they asked the question? The answer to both of these questions can make a huge difference to the way in which you respond in your document and solution and satisfy the client’s needs. I’d suggest we never forget that the bid or proposal document we create isn’t for us. Everything should be written to help the client recognise themselves, their business drivers and their specified requirements. To be compliant and client-centric you must always answer the questions as asked (or clarified) by your client and if you have an alternative solution or approach, put that forward as an additional response.

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has perpetual motion arrived?

A few years ago a couple of friends and I spent some time reading about the perpetual motion engine that was apparently invented by the 17th Century Bohemian Johann Ernst Elias Bessler. We talked about what a magnificent contribution it could have for the world today if someone could work out how the engine could really work from Bessler’s writing and diagrams – all of which appear to have a certain missing something. We also agreed that we would follow Bessler’s edict that no-one should make money from this phenomenon directly as no doubt we could pick a good deal on spin-offs. We were so enthused that one of my friends even bought a whole load of Meccano on eBay so he could build a working model – yes it’s still all in his garage.

According to Google, one of the definitions of perpetual motion is “a state in which movement or action is or appears to be continuous and unceasing”. This got me thinking about whether we’d got any closer to achieving this in the last couple of centuries. My first example was the Mexican Wave, but I quickly dismissed that because the wave generally only lasts about 3 circuits after which the participants become self-conscious or just want whatever sporting event they’re attending to just start again. Then I considered the introduction of the chain letter which promises great wealth, health or luck as long as you keep them going. But they don’t succeed because the “non-believers” just don’t keep it going. And then I realised the technological age has developed a phenomenon that could be described as perpetual motion – viral videos!

Viral videos really do seem to have a life of their own and their spread is really ubiquitous. I’m sure there are some that are still doing the rounds after a couple of years. Maybe this isn’t what Bessler had intended but it’s probably the best we can come up with the moment and to be honest I’m not sure the perpetual motion engine actually is possible but it’s fascinating reading.

Oh and in case you’re interested, this is my favourite viral video of the moment.

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to plan or not to plan that is the question

As I was watching the tail end of a programme about Agatha Christie over the weekend, I heard some words that really echoed with a truism that is so often quoted in the world of proposal and bid creation.

David Suchet, the actor who plays Hercule Poirot so expertly, and a Christie super-fan, who owns some of her original notebooks, were discussing why her stories are so compelling and easy to follow. They both agreed that the reason for this was that she planned out her stories so completely, getting to know her characters and dismissing those that were superfluous to the important messages that she wanted to get across.

Those of us who work in the field of bid and proposal documents all know that best practice says you should plan what you want to write, using storyboards or outlines. And many of us do carry out these planning activities as we all know how much it can help to define the “story” of the service or solution we are describing to our potential client.

So why do so many people then ignore these well thought out plans when it comes to writing their documents? It’s almost as if panic sets in and the goal is to complete the response rather than write a good/winning response that describes how you will meet the client’s business needs and objectives.

So often I hear the words “ok we’re running out of time now we just need to get on and write” and then those same people are really disappointed when reviewers (or the client) says that they can’t see how your solution/service will meet their needs.

Good writers of all persuasions plan what they are going to say to help their readers stay with the story; they know how all the components fit together; they know how the story ends – and in bid and proposal development we hope that the story ends with the client buying from us.

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