Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Writing: the ultimate communications skill

Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you reading this blog want to become a published author at some point?

Of all the forms of communication that we use, I personally feel that the written word is one of the more important ones. In particular, writing allows you to mold, shape, and edit your thoughts. As a result, the person on the page can be a lot more worldly, interesting, and articulate than even we ourselves are in the present moment.

I also love writing because good books change lives. I can look back on several as turning points in my professional or personal life, and my own love of writing popular business and communications skills books dates back to an even greater love of reading and learning from them. When you become a writer yourself, I feel that you join a very important dialogue in society.

Today, I am no slouch as a non-fiction book author: eight nationally-published books released or coming soon, four book club selections, two books with peak Amazon.com sales ranks in the 2000s, and gross sales of about half a million dollars and counting. As a result of this, I am increasingly finding myself coaching and mentoring other budding writers nowadays.

So what are your chances of getting a nonfiction book published? Probably better than you think.

If you check out resources like Writers Market, you will find some truly daunting statistics – for example, many agents and publishers accept less than 5% of the authors who approach them.

Now, here is the good news. Probably half of the queries and proposals that get sent to publishers are truly awful. They are poorly written, do not fit the publisher’s list, or cannot thoughtfully explain why a few thousand people or more would actually buy their book. Still more are good proposals in areas where there is simply no market.

So if you have a good idea, aimed at the right publishing houses, that is well-written and fits the style and genre of other books in the field, double this 5% and then consider how many agents and publishers might want to see it. If you do the math, I would put your chances at a solid 50-50 or better.

Which brings me to my next point. Becoming a published author is a learned, procedural skill. Do you study the style and format of good books – and lousy ones – to help you develop your own voice? Do you do a competitive analysis of what books are similar to your own ideas, and why yours would be better? Do you think like an editor and consider how large a target audience your project could attract? Do you talk with other authors and study how the profession works? If you do these things, move to the head of the class!

Stay tuned in the near future for an exciting new website and resource center I am planning for people who want to become better – and publishable – non-fiction writers. In the meantime, keep learning and keep writing!

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Neutral Opening

I’m in New York City today for the opening session of the American Management Association’s new Communication Boot Camp, an intensive three day workshop on communications skills, along with a packed house of attendees.

I am really glad to be here for a number of reasons. First, I served as AMA’s subject matter expert for this program, and helped develop the course material along with consultant (and fantastic trainer) Julie Kowalski. Second, the program is selling out all over the USA, which is very impressive for a brand new course, even for a top-flight organization like AMA. Third, this humble blog is one of the course resources, so I want to offer a warm welcome to any first-time readers.

But perhaps the thing I most enjoy about being here is seeing a large group of people learn new, procedural ways to communicate effectively in even the most difficult situations – such as what to say when people are rude and demanding, or how to have influence when you are presenting an idea. Today, everyone learned something that I feel is the most important communications skill of all: the neutral opening.

Let’s say that you are trying to ask someone to dress better at work. Or want someone to stop yelling at her employees all the time. Julie used some great examples to show how criticism never works, no matter how “right” it is, because the other person almost always pushes back. So far, so good. But now, what *do* you say – particularly for those critical first few seconds that make or break the conversation?

What quote-unquote nice people usually try to do is make small talk, beat around the bush, or compliment the other person first – all of which the other person normally sees through, even in role-play. Today, they learned that the most powerful opening is one that is totally non-threatening, yet gets you head-on into productive dialogue with the other person about the issue at hand. In other words, a neutral opening.

Here’s an example of what you might say to person who should dress better: “I see you like to be comfortable at work.” For someone who is falling behind at work: “It sounds like you’ve been really busy lately.” And for the person who yells at her staff, there is what I call the perfect neutral opening, because it is all but guaranteed to open a dialogue: “What frustrates you about people on your team?”

Once you engage someone with your opening statement, you have opened the door for a productive dialogue that can benefit both of you. But first, you have to get over the speed bump of starting the discussion. That is why neutral openings, which can be learned and practiced, are far and away the most important part of interacting with another person.

This AMA course is chock full of examples on how to structure a neutral opening, and I am all but beating this issue to death with a stick in my forthcoming book for AMACOM, tentatively entitled How to Tell Anyone Anything. But if you can’t wait for the course or the book, here’s the quick summary: find out where the other person’s interests lie, and always start your discussions there.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

You're still a young man

Many of my good friends know that Tower of Power has always been my favorite band. Last night I saw them in concert for the umpteenth time in Elmira, NY, just down the road from where I live. (That’s me with TOP’s lead singer Larry Braggs after the concert.)

There are some pretty obvious reasons why I like TOP so much. They have the tightest horn section and rhythm section on the planet. They practically wrote the book on creating funk music with great melodies. Their music has been the soundtrack to my life, from the 1970s all the way through their latest albums in the 21st century.

There is also a less obvious reason I like them, which made this concert very special. Their signature song “You’re Still a Young Man” deals with a guy trying to convince an older woman that he isn’t too young for her. When that song came out in 1972, it was practically my theme song: I was 18 years old at the time, and starting to woo someone who was several years older than me.

Well, guess what – it worked, and this month we are celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary. I love you, Colleen.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

On Facebook, no one can hear you scream

I finally took the leap and joined Facebook last night. I had to. I am doing a research project on social networking for a client and wanted to look at a Facebook group page, which are locked up tighter than Ft. Knox unless you join.

So now I have my first social dilemma already. When you first join Facebook, it reads your e-mail address book, suggests a kabillion people you know who already have Facebook pages, and prompts you to invite them as friends. I left most of them checked and clicked OK. Or so I thought.

Now, here it is a day later, and none of them have answered. But two people I invited directly accepted almost immediately. Hmmm ... should I shave more often? Or did these friend requests never go through?

Which brings me to a fundamental point about applications like Facebook. The good news is that it is free. The bad news is that you get what you pay for. There appears to be no way to determine if you have any outstanding friend requests, the FAQ file is mute about this, and the support e-mail I sent remains unanswered for two days and counting.

So, do I risk bothering these kabillion people a second time, becoming the cyber-equivalent of the boor at the party? Or do I assume the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) and wait to see what if anything happens? Stay tuned!

P.S. If you want to be my friend on Facebook, here I am: http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1213233664

*Update 4/3/08: It looks like everyone I invite individually seems to be responding. So hopefully I'm not such a bad guy after all. As for the fate of the mass invite, Facebook respondeth not.