It’s okay to be human – the power of tone

A few years ago my son, Owen, failed a hearing test. He was 3 years old at the time, and when I picked him up from daycare, his teacher handed me a sheet of paper with two line graphs showing that he had passed in his right ear but borderline failed in his left ear.

Borderline failed?

I was surprised. This was a kid as healthy as a horse with no signs of a speech impediment or hearing loss except when I was telling him it was time to turn off Thomas and Friends and take a bath. The teacher assured me that it could just be ear wax or congestion from a cold. It was nothing to worry about, right?

That line graph led to a round of visits to the pediatrician, who prescribed ear drops to dissolve ear wax build up. After bath time, I would hold Owen down on our bed while my husband put drops in his ear and Owen squirmed and tried to push his hand away. He had to lie on his side for 10 minutes while the drops dissolved, not an easy task for an active toddler.

Six months later Owen failed the hearing test again. Borderline failed. In his left ear. We took him to a specialist – a pediatric otolaryngologist (try saying that three times fast).

Using an otoscope longer than I had ever seen, the ear specialist found the culprit: fluid in Owen’s left ear. He grilled me on Owen’s health. Did he have allergies? Earaches? Did he get a lot of colds? Had I noticed any issues with his speech? Did he sometimes seem not to hear me?

“Only when I tell him it’s time for bed,” I said. “When I say the words ‘ice cream,’ he comes running right away.”

The ear specialist prescribed a steroid, one that I’d have to spray in front of Owen’s nose and have him sniff into his nasal passage. Yeah, right. Have you ever tried to teach a 3-year-old how to inhale through his nose?  It’s a messy, confusing proposition. (“Breathe in, not out!”)

Back at the doctor’s office a few weeks later, the ear specialist looked in Owen’s ear again. The fluid was still there. He sat back in his chair and listed our options:

  1. leave it and the fluid could drain on its own
  2. implant ear tubes

I knew about ear tube surgery from friends whose kids had had chronic colds and earaches. It was a minor surgery, one of the quickest you could have, but it did require putting the child under anesthesia and signing all of those papers saying you understood the risk of death.

This was an unusual case, the ear specialist said. Usually kids with fluid in their ears display symptoms. Owen didn’t have any besides barely failing a hearing test in one ear. Twice.

“It could go either way,” the doctor said. “You could leave it and see what happens or go ahead and get the surgery. It’s entirely up to you.”

He paused.

“If it were my kid, I’d probably do the ear tubes.”

Those were the magic words.

I looked at the doctor, sizing him up. He was 40ish with an earnest, clean-shaven face. He had two children a few years older than Owen. He wasn’t just a doctor, he was a dad. He talked to me parent-to-parent and gave me actual advice rather than throwing a lot of technical ear terms at me and listing the pros and cons.

If it were my kid…

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about writing client alerts and how important it is for lawyers to not only analyze a legal development, but also tell clients what they should do about it. In that post I gave this advice: Get to the point, use plain language, and provide useful action steps.

After reflecting on my experience with Owen’s ear specialist, I have some additional advice: Just be a person. Write your client alert, memo or any communication from the place of, This is what I know about this legal or business issue, and if I were you, here’s what I’d do.

Answering the question, What would I do if I were in this situation? will enable you to give better advice. You’ll no longer stand high above the issue stroking your chin and trying to sound smart. You will be standing in the shoes of a general counsel, employment lawyer or tax director at a multinational company facing the same time and budget constraints as they do. You will start to understand what clients mean when they say things like this in our post-matter reviews:

I sometimes felt I was being given too much detail that I was not able to understand. All I really needed to know was if there was going to be a cash flow impact or whether there were major risks to the project.

You will stop yourself from writing long reports that say, “On the one hand this, but on the other hand that.” Instead, you might say something like, “In an ideal world you would do X, but I think if you do Y, you’ll be okay.” You will start giving clients what they want: commercial advice.

Being human also means being conversational. In the writing world, we call this “tone.” This does not mean casual. It does not mean starting emails to clients with “Hey guys!” and ending with “C U later.” It means you sound like a human being, not a robot, when you write. You use common language and choose shorter, simpler words like “get” instead of “obtain” and “use” instead of “utilize.”

One of our banking and financing partners explained his approach to writing for clients like this:

I try to picture the general counsel on a four-hour flight. What they really want to do is watch the in-flight movie, but they know they’ve got my memo in their bag. When they take it out and start to review it, do I want them to get engaged in the material or give up and watch the movie? That’s why I write memos like I’m talking to them on the page.

It’s a scary proposition to use plain language and offer a clear opinion about what a client should do. What if you sound like a simpleton? What if you turn out to be wrong?

That’s a tough one.  As experts, no matter our specialty, we do the best we can given the information and knowledge we have at the time. If we’re wrong we can admit it, learn from it and move on. In my experience, those who are willing to make mistakes and learn from them often provide the most valuable advice. And clients tend to appreciate those willing to put their necks out and take a firm stance. I mean really. How refreshing to hear a clear “yes” or “no.”

Providing clear advice and standing behind that advice has become so important to clients that they are increasingly requesting risk-sharing pricing models with outside counsel. These models provide fee reductions if a transaction falls through and incentives like success fees if we achieve the desired outcome.

If it were my kid…

At a recent practice group retreat, I was listening to partners Ben Allgrove and Theo Ling talk about our new global innovation program. As they described how our lawyers would work with clients, IT specialists and other business, government and academic experts to find solutions for clients that go beyond providing legal advice, a message emerged: If our firm is going to pursue innovation, we also have to embrace failure.

That’s not an easy proposition for a risk-averse bunch.

But in my experience, the fear of failure, like most fears, is often unfounded. It is simply head chatter that tries to protect us from taking risks but has no real bearing on the actual outcome. Think about some of the things you’ve worried about recently. How many of those worries came true?

When we do fail, I find it helpful to take an objective view of the situation and evaluate what worked and what didn’t and adjust accordingly. You win some, you lose some. No big deal. Because guess what? You’re a human being. So you might as well let yourself sound like one.

Besides that, it fosters connection. We simply don’t feel connected to those who write paragraphs we have to read five times before understanding what they’re trying to say. We don’t feel connected to experts who give us an opinion that lacks the sense they know what it’s like to be in the situation we’re in.

So try it. Try writing a client alert or memo like you were talking to your mom. Try drafting an email to partners that simply says what you want to say. Try having a clear point of view on a client issue that shows you’re not simply restating what the law says, but also have their best interests in mind.

If it were my kid…

As for Owen, the surgery was a success. A few months after they implanted ear tubes the size of the smallest macaroni noodles you could imagine, the fluid drained and he passed his hearing test. In both ears. He’s healthy and happy and asking me questions like, “Mommy, do monsters go potty?”

Somehow, however, he still doesn’t hear me when I tell him it’s time for bed.

Meet your new best friend

Two women taking picture of themselves with a digital camera

One of my goals in life is to help anyone who writes realize that verbs are their best friend. Not nouns, adjectives, adverbs or prepositions. Not alliteration, similes or metaphors.

Verbs!

Verbs are your best friend for three reasons:

1. They give sentences power.
2. They make you sound confident.
3. They keep sentences simple.

And yet we often do the same thing to verbs that we do to our family and friends — try to make them something they’re not. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to change someone else. (You can’t see me, but I’m raising my hand.) Raise your hand if it worked. (Both hands remain by my side.)

Sigh.

How do we try to change verbs? By turning them into nouns. We write things like, “We provide advice on tax structuring” instead of “We advise on tax structuring.” We say we “act in consultation with local firms” rather than we “consult with local firms.” And we “assist with the preparation of distribution agreements” instead of “preparing distribution agreements.”

Double sigh.

When I was editing more than 100 office and practice group descriptions for the launch of our Firm’s new website, I lost track of the number of times I turned noun phrases back into their original verb form. That’s how pervasive this problem is. The good news is it’s easy to fix once you’re aware of it.

Many words start life as strong, healthy verbs. Words like advise, consult, determine, develop, identify, implement, integrate, notify, prepare, provide and separate. Yet over time we have converted them into nouns, particularly in legal and business writing, creating wordy, overly formal phrases like this:

we determine → we aid in the determination of
we develop → we assist with the development of
we identify → we assist with the identification of
we implement → we aid in the implementation of
we integrate → we help with the integration of
we notify → we aid in the notification of
we provide → we aid in the provision of
we separate → we assist with the separation of

I should note that turning verbs into noun phrases is grammatically correct. And in some cases, it’s perfectly appropriate to use the noun form of a verb, such as in phrases like “the separation of church and state.” But in the context I’m talking about, it’s just not strong writing to use a noun when you could tap into the power of a verb instead.

It’s like when you talk a friend into changing some aspect of their behavior you don’t like, and even when they do, you get the sense they’re only doing it for your benefit. The modification is not coming from their own desire to change, but from their desire to avoid further disapproval. They become stilted, watered-down versions of themselves. The same thing happens to verbs.

“Verbs are the most important part of any sentence,” writing consultant Paddy O’Connor explains in a proposal-writing guide he developed for Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. “The more verbs you use (especially active verbs), the more persuasive your writing and the more confident you sound. When your writing is packed with heavy noun phrases based on a verb, any power your writing might have had is trapped beneath these smothered verbs.”

When you take this passive approach to writing, you are not only smothering verbs, but also making your sentences longer than they need to be. Doing this once or twice may be fine, but paragraph after paragraph of long-winded sentences makes for arduous reading and you run the risk that readers will stop reading.

“Abstract nouns don’t just suck the life out of your writing, they are also the main reason your sentences are so long,” O’Connor writes. “Every time you turn a simple verb into a noun phrase you need to find another verb to support it.”

What he means is that when you turn the verb “prepare” into the noun phrase, “the preparation of” you have to add another verb to the sentence because “prepare” is no longer a verb.

For example, it’s grammatically correct to say, “we prepare employee visas.” But if you change “prepare” to a noun, you can’t say, “we the preparation of employee visas.” You must add another verb so the sentence makes sense, such as, “we assist with the preparation of employee visas.” Now your sentence is eight words instead of four.

Why use more words than you need to?

My guess is that people think it sounds more professional or respectful to use formal phrases like “with the preparation of.” Yet when you think about it, what’s unprofessional or disrespectful about saying, “We prepare employee visas”?

It’s a simple, clear, direct sentence. My hunch is that clients would welcome sentences like this because they are quicker to read and easier to understand.

So here’s the rule: if the root of a noun is a verb, stick with the verb. You do not provide guidance, you guide. You do not aid in the development of corporate compliance programs, you develop corporate compliance programs. You do not assist in the notification of government agencies, you notify them.

Let’s practice with the following sentence:

We would be delighted to assist you with the integration of the acquired entity.

Which verb got turned into a noun?

Answer: integrate. As in, “We would be delighted assist you with the integration of the acquired entity.

How do we change this back into the original verb?

We would be delighted to help you integrate the acquired entity.

Did you lose any sense of decorum? No, you sound like one human being talking to another using proper English.

Let’s try another one:

Addressing people issues is critical to the successful implementation of any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, post-transaction integration or restructuring.

Which verb got turned into a noun?

Answer: implement. As in, “Addressing people issues is critical to the successful implementation of any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, post-transaction integration or restructuring.”

How do we change this back to the verb form?

Addressing people issues is critical to successfully implementing any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, posttransaction integration or restructuring.

Now your sentence has momentum. Someone is doing something instead of someone being engaged in the doing of something. Much better.

I realize it may take a while to get the hang of this, and it may feel uncomfortable to use simple, direct language. Rest assured that after writing this way for awhile, it will feel like second nature. Before you know it, you and verbs will have become best friends.

Let me give you an example

man and woman holding frame in open land

Lately I’ve been listening to an audiobook called, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting. As the parent of a 2-year-old who’s been perfecting the art of tantrums and a 4-year-old who never wants to go to bed, I can use all the help I can get. The book is read by the author, Brené Brown, a psychology researcher who rose to fame with this Ted Talk about the power of vulnerability, which has been viewed 30 million times.

What I particularly like about the audiobook is that every time Brown makes a sweeping statement like how important it is to be empathetic with your children so they feel safe to express their feelings, she follows it by saying, “Let me give you an example.”

Then she recounts a recent interaction with her children, such as when her daughter came home from school in tears because the kids at school picked her last for their soccer team. Rather than tell her daughter it was no big deal or threaten to call the kids’ parents, Brown sat with her daughter and told her, “I know what it feels like to be left out.”

Whether you subscribe to this touchy-feely parenting approach or not, what’s helpful is that by telling this story, Brown helps her listeners understand what she means by being an empathetic parent. By providing an example, she gives parents a much greater chance of being able to support their kids in feeling sad and vulnerable than if she had made a grand statement about the power of empathy and left it at that.

For the same reason, it’s important to use examples in our writing. We humans learn through storytelling, which is why the Bible is full of parables and business school students work on case studies. Without the details of an actual situation, a concept is just a theory, not something you can easily believe or practice.

Recently I’ve been reviewing our Firm’s practice group descriptions for our new website. As I read them, I am struck by how often we make grand statements about our capabilities without backing them up with evidence. For example, we’ll make statements like:

“Our banking and finance lawyers help clients simplify complexity wherever they execute transactions.”

“For decades, our energy, mining and infrastructure lawyers have advised clients on some of the largest, most significant projects in the world.”

“Our transaction lawyers won ‘M&A Deal of the Year’ at the 2015 Asian Lawyer Awards.”

The problem is, that’s where we stop. We don’t go on to provide an example of how our banking and finance lawyers simplify complexity or what some of those world’s largest energy projects were. We don’t even recount the details of the deal that led to the impressive M&A award.

That’s a lost opportunity because as consumers, we’re all bombarded by marketing claims like “world’s greatest coffee,” “most fuel-efficient car,” and skin care products “guaranteed to take years off your life.” Out of sheer necessity we respond to these messages with skepticism, as in, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” Our clients, reading our practice group descriptions or anything else we write are likely to respond the same way. Unless, of course, we provide examples, like this:

Before: We are widely recognized for our work on multijurisdictional, pioneering transactions.

After: We are widely recognized for our work on multijurisdictional, pioneering transactions, such as developing a structure to enable the first domestic securitization of consumer loans in Russia.

Before: The quality of our work is reflected in the awards we have won for our work on major transactions, including “M&A Deal of the Year.”

After: The quality of our work is reflected in the awards we have won, including “M&A Deal of the Year” for advising The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi on its US$12.5 billion loan facility to Suntory Holdings for the buyout of Beam Inc.— the largest foreign acquisition by a Japanese company in recent years.

A $12.5-billion loan facility? The largest foreign acquisition by a Japanese company? Now you have my attention.

If you’re thinking you’re off the hook because you don’t do any marketing or promotional writing, think again. Whenever you’re trying to convince anyone of anything or educate someone on a particular topic, examples will work faster than anything to make your case or help your audience understand.

Whenever I am interviewing one of our partners on a particular legal issue for a thought leadership report, one of the questions I ask most frequently is “Can you give me an example?” That’s so that when I’m writing the report on a topic like corporate compliance issues in Latin America for our clients, I have the information I need to back up general statements with specific examples, like this:

Prosecutors in Latin America have become stricter about what they expect companies to do to avoid, uncover, and respond to misconduct. In Brazil, for example, the Clean Company Act requires companies to have specific procedures for employees who interact with government officials during public tenders. 

When I’m providing tips for clients in these reports, I go beyond general advice such as “tailor your gift-giving and hospitality policies to the local market” by explaining exactly how to do that, like this:

Tip: Create a gift-giving and hospitality policy tailored to your major markets. Many Latin American countries have local laws or guidelines that can help companies establish appropriate monetary thresholds for corporate gift giving to public officials. In Colombia, for example, the government publishes a chart showing the per diems it approves for government staff and officers on business trips. Those caps, which vary depending on the official’s seniority and destination, would be good limits for you to impose when funding business travel for Colombian officials.

The more you can back up your statements with examples, the stronger your writing will be. The stronger your writing is, the more people are likely to listen and take action, including hiring your practice group. How beautiful is that?

Insert clever headline here

When I was an editor at Crain’s Chicago Business, I sat next to one of the best headline writers in the business. He could sit at his desk all day and spit them out like a gumball machine, the ideas popping into his head, running down his arms, through his fingers and onto the keyboard. Chewy deliciousness in every one.

“How do you do it?” I would ask him.

“Just relax your brain,” he would say. “It’s easy.”

Right.

We can’t all be the King of Puns. But if you want to try, you can start by picking up The Economist, which consistently comes up with some of the best headlines I’ve ever read. Like a great conversationalist, its headlines are witty and informative. They catch your attention and make you want to move in closer to hear more. Why are they so good? Because they often include a play on words. Here are some examples.

Article topic:  The cost of making cell phone calls overseas
Headline: When in roam

Article topic: The merger of two big meat producers
Headline: A steak in the market

Headlines are a crucial part of any article, whether you’re writing them for a client alert, newsletter, presentation, or thought leadership report. Often they determine whether someone will read the rest of your article. Sometimes it’s the only thing they read. That’s why it’s so important to get them right. Or at least make them interesting. Here are four tips for improving your chances of writing attention-grabbing headlines.

1. Make them active.

One of the biggest problems I’ve noticed with our Firm’s headlines is they are often general statements of the topic, such as “Cross-border M&A trends” or “Recent developments in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s antidumping procedures.”

Yawn.

When it comes to writing headlines, strong verbs are your best friend. They provide a sense of action and specificity that topical statements lack. Here are my revisions of those headlines with the help of our new best friend.

Before: Cross-border M&A trends
After: Cross-border M&A rises 20%

Before: Recent developments in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s antidumping procedures
After: U.S. Commerce Department increases dumping liability for exporters

As you can see from these examples, using a verb not only makes a headline more interesting, but it also forces you to pinpoint what your article is about. A headline stating what the cross-border M&A actually trend is — that transactions have risen 20% — is more effective because it causes your reader to think, “20%? Really? I wonder why,” and then read on to find out.  

In the second example, telling your audience the U.S. Commerce Department is going to increase dumping liability for exporters is much more likely to get the attention of those exporters than a vague reference to “recent developments.”

2. Speak directly to your audience.

Another common problem with our headlines is they don’t highlight why the article should matter to our clients. Headlines such as “New arbitration law in France” or “Race discrimination ordinance on employment now fully operational” speak to no one in particular. It’s unclear who the audience is. Here’s how to change that:

Before: New arbitration law in France
After: France’s new arbitration law streamlines process for international parties

Before: Race discrimination ordinance on employment now fully operational
After: Race discrimination law creates new liability for Hong Kong employers

None of these headlines are particularly Economist-worthy, but at least in the “after” versions we know who the new laws will impact and how. To make sure my headlines address the concerns of my audience, here are some phrases I commonly use:

“How to…”
“What you need to know about…”
“Top 5 things you should know about…”
“Tips for…”

When put into practice on particular topics, the headlines become:

How to navigate Brazil’s new anti-corruption law
What foreign employers need to know about Russian labor law
Top 5 things U.S. companies should know about merger control in China
Tips for reducing compliance risk in M&A transactions

See how much better it sounds when you talk to your audience?

3. Keep them short.

One of the best ways to make your headlines memorable is to keep them short. Shorter is always easier to remember, so do whatever you can to get your headline down to the fewest number of words possible while also conveying what the article is about. My rule of thumb is no longer than seven words. To achieve greater brevity, look for long phrases that could be replaced with short phrases or a single word, like this:

Before: U.S. Commerce Department increases dumping liability for exporters
After: New rule increases dumping liability for exporters

Keep in mind when writing headlines that you don’t have to explain everything all at once. Headlines are meant to pique interest, not tell the whole story in one sentence. Is it really critical that your audience knows it’s the U.S. Commerce Department that increased liability? Or can you shorten it to “new rule,” then state in the first sentence of your article that it’s a U.S. Commerce Department rule? These are the types of questions to ask yourself as you edit.

4. Be clever, but not too clever.

One of my favorite headlines I’ve ever written is, “What does it mean to be sisters?” It was for a story about whether Chicago’s relationships with its sister cities around the world really generated business for Chicago companies. Under the headline was a photo of two little girls with their arms around each other.

The reason this headline worked was that it had a double meaning. When you saw the headline and looked at the photo, you might have thought it was a story about siblings. When you began reading the article, you discovered it was about the business concept of “sisters.”

Many of the best headlines take clichés and common phrases and turn them on their heads. For example, it’s not particularly clever to write a headline like, “Look before you leap” because it’s a cliché. But if you take that cliché and tweak it to something like “Look before you sleep,” for a story about bed bugs, you’re moving in the direction of originality and wit.

However, make sure you’re not being too clever or using so obscure a reference that no one will understand what the article is about. Using verbs, addressing your audience and keeping headlines short are the most important steps. Being clever is for those who want to earn bonus points. With a little practice in the art of puns, you too can become a headline gumball machine.