Wednesday, July 28, 2010

One Word: Writing!

This has been the summer of the most lavishly successful internship program that Polycom has ever conducted.  Some very talented students have shared their skills and ideas with our people, and have learned from them, in what has turned out to be a really invigorating few months.  
Before the interns started to splinter off and return back to school, I agreed to host a lunch with them.  I came in expecting six or seven ragged summer hires, seven or eight over-mayonnaised sandwiches, and some lukewarm coffee.  The food was better than that, but the interns were better still: interesting, engaged, sparking the discussion.  They  totaled about 35 in five sites, brought together by Polycom telepresence.  
The lunch went pretty well, if you don't judge its success by the small amount of food I was allowed to eat.  Finally, amid the crumpling of sandwich wrappers and zipping of laptop bags, someone asked if I had any last words.  I don’t recall exactly what I said, but it was something lame, right up there with "be good to your mother and don’t drive on the sidewalk." 
You know those times when you think of the perfect riposte only after the other guy has left?  You’re left with a Homer Simpson “D’oh!” moment, all by yourself?   Well, it was only after the thing was over that I had one of those.  Too late, I remembered what I had wanted to say.  
So for those of you who were at that lunch, please edit the media stream in your mind to append this next bit.  Touch the date code, improvise inflections.  
I've got three last words: work on writing.  
The reason is simple.  Whatever you do, people can’t see it until it has passed through the filter of writing: an introduction, a note, a whole letter, an article.  There's always writing that precedes and surrounds it.  This is true whether you’re an engineer, a financier, a marketeer, even an artist.  And because your words frame your work, those words add a lot of leverage, for better or worse.   Simple errors like misspellings, faulty word choices, or flawed grammar affect the reader’s perception of the work itself.  
Simple error’s like mispelings, messed up words and/or whether you used the right tense etc make u look like I better take another look at you're work.  Even if its genius its now pushing against a head-wind.  Get it?
Writing will be an important part of your work, whatever field you go into.  You can give yourself a real boost by learning to write well, and then to write better.  Here are some of the most important suggestions I can make.
1.  The best single guide to writing I have found is a classic, “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It’s short, readable, interesting, and stuffed with useful tips.  Get on top of that, and you're already leading the pack.
2.  Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and mean different things (homonyms are similar in concept, but are spelled the same as well as meaning the same - check out www.cooper.com/alan/homonym.html for a great list).  Picking the wrong one is a quick way to crack your veneer of competence.  When I see someone who's confused "your" and "you're," or "discrete" and "discreet," I sigh.  You see this a lot in blogs, so keep your sights set high.
3.  Is there a better word?  I always keep a thesaurus nearby.  
4.  Are you unsure of the spelling?  Check it.  Sending a note with a wrong spelling is like speaking with spinach in your teeth.
5.  Finally:  re-read, review, revise.  The last couple of minutes can make or break the whole message.
Since I'm away from the web often, I've made friends with some apps on the iPhone:  OAWT (Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus), Advanced English Dictionary, and (if you dabble in songwriting like me) "Rhymer."  You'll find other tools, too.  
To all the interns, thanks for sharing your summer with Polycom.  I once had this experience as a summer hire with some of the most gifted engineers in the world at Hughes Aircraft Company, and the experience still shines in my memory.  Be well, go forth and succeed!

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