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5 Easy Steps to Make Your Writing Stand Out

5 Easy Steps to Make Your Writing Stand Out

Writing is complicated. I mean, at first it doesn’t really seem that way since it’s just words on a page, but to really craft something meaningful and interesting take training, dedication, and a pinch of talent. I don’t purport to have that last thing, but I do try to keep my skills up to snuff. But enough about me. How can you improve your writing? In many ways, that’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. I was once a teaching assistant for a writing class, and often my colleagues and I would argue about how exactly we should go about helping students improve their writing. I don’t know if we ever came to a definitive answer, but I can give you some of the basics that will help your writing reach levels you’ve never dreamed of previously.

1. Don’t fret about your grammar.

Sure, it’s important that your writing flows well and is easy to read. But the mistake many make when first starting to write is that they focus far too much on the structure of their piece, and not on its substance. Do I want to read a well-written article about something uninteresting, or an intriguing article with a few mistakes here or there? The answer should be pretty obvious. Yes, your goal should be to combine great grammar and structure with an interesting topic, but that takes time and lots of practice. When you’re just starting out, you need to cut yourself some slack and concentrate on what you’re saying, not how you’re saying it. The style and grammar will come in time.

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2. Stay focused.

The key to any form of writing is to pick one topic or argument and stick with it. In academic writing, you’d be hard pressed to find a Ph.D. who strays too far from his or her initial thesis. Likewise, in an article that’s about improving your writing, I’m not going to start talking about basketball and video games.

One expert, Jeff Goins, describes this process as narrowing your audience. As a writer, you can’t be all things to all people. The best works are written with a specific focus in mind, and it is that focus that attracts a specific group of readers. Interestingly enough, sticking to one topic or argument also tends to attract people from outside of your target audience. For example, if I was writing a political article in favor of some part of the Republican Party’s agenda, not only would I get Republican readers who agree with me, but I would also attract Democrats who disagree with my contention. By narrowing your audience and preventing yourself from becoming too broad in your writing, you become more interesting (and controversial) to readers. This leads me to my next point…

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3. Make your points arguable.

Going back to Jeff Goins, he calls what I described in the last paragraph the “paradox of specific writing.” I disagree with him in terms of why that paradox exists, however. He postulates that if an article is popular amongst one group, they’ll be bound to share it with their friends, who often belong to other groups. That might be the case sometimes, but I also think the paradox exists because people like reading things they disagree with, if only because they are interested in hearing a new point of view, or are angered in some way by the author’s contentions. This phenomenon can be seen in the comments section of Goins’ article, where you can witness a smattering of people arguing against some of his points in a friendly manner.

Case in point, I was attracted to the paradox section of his article because, while I agreed with it for the most part, I had a bit of a different stance that I wished to share with you. You might have a different view than I, and may be compelled to comment on this article to give your side of the story. That’s the magic of writing though. It’s supposed to be arguable, flexible even. The best a writer can do is pick a stance, find evidence, sprinkle in some of their own experiences, and present it to the public. When doing that, you’ll always find people who don’t entirely agree, and that’s great because they’ll be nearly as interested in reading your work as those who do agree.

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4. Edit your work once, twice, maybe three times.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret I learned long ago and is reaffirmed in a great piece I read about writing marketable articles: “great writing never happens on the first draft.” In fact, if you read the first drafts of most professional writers you’d probably laugh and think you could do better. This ties into the point I made above about grammar. You should not care about how your writing sounds when you’re first putting it on the page. What matters is that you’re writing from your heart, that the words are flowing from your brain onto the page as easily as they flow from your mouth. First drafts are almost like semi-directed freewrites. I usually just let it rip on my first draft, and I’m one of the most picky people I know when it comes to correcting errors in my work as soon as I see them. Often, what separates a good article from a bad one is the amount of times it has been edited. One pass is usually good enough to catch spelling and punctuation errors. Two passes will see that your style is consistent, and that everything flows nicely. Three passes is good for catching all of the minor things that most will miss. For longer works, like 50-page theses or books, more passes are required to make sure everything fits together.

The key thing here is that your brain is smart enough to get what you want to say onto paper, if you give it the chance. Sure, it might not sound great, but look at it this way: once the basic content is on the page, the rest is just the simple act of proofreading and making stylistic adjustments where necessary. Easy peasy, right?

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5. Write an impactful conclusion.

Remember back in high school when your English teacher told you that a conclusion was basically a rehash of your introduction? Well, that’s kind of true. As you become more experienced though, you’ll start adding layers onto that general concept. The main thing you’ll want to hit upon at the end of an article is the significance of it all. Why was it important that you just read this? What does it all mean in the grand scheme of things? In the words of the experts, how did the readers “benefit from the information you provided?” As a history major, I spent a lot of time talking about the significance of the arguments I made in essays. It’s the sort of the thing that lets the reader know that the information they took in had some meaning, that it was more than a mindless collection of words and clever phrases.

Let’s put that theory to the test. What was the point of this article? Why should you remember it beyond the next few minutes? I think the answer is quite simple: everyone has to be a writer at some point or another, whether it be in e-mails, articles, essays, or a novel. Being a good writer isn’t easy, I admit that, but if you follow the basic tenets, it’s easy to improve. Everybody has the potential to write about something, to take one of their experiences and transform it into a fantastic article. Why not give it a try? With the knowledge you’ve gained with this article, you now have the tools you need to go out and start a blog of your own, or keep a personal diary, or write an essay on U.S. politics–whatever you wish! Your voice matters, and writing helps you get it out there in a way that everyone, even those who disagree with you, will appreciate.

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Featured photo credit: Writing Tools/Pete O’Shea via flickr.com

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Published on May 18, 2021

How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

We have two ears and one mouth for a reason—effective communication is dependent on using them in proportion, and this involves having good listening skills.

The workplace of the 21st century may not look the same as it did before COVID-19 spread throughout the world like wildfire, but that doesn’t mean you can relax your standards at work. If anything, Zoom meetings, conference calls, and the continuous time spent behind a screen have created a higher level of expectations for meeting etiquette and communication. And this goes further than simply muting your microphone during a meeting.

Effective workplace communication has been a topic of discussion for decades, yet, it is rarely addressed or implemented due to a lack of awareness and personal ownership by all parties.

Effective communication isn’t just about speaking clearly or finding the appropriate choice of words. It starts with intentional listening and being present. Here’s how to improve your listening skills for effective workplace communication.

Listen to Understand, Not to Speak

There are stark differences between listening and hearing. Listening involves intention, focused effort, and concentration, whereas hearing simply involves low-level awareness that someone else is speaking. Listening is a voluntary activity that allows one to be present and in the moment while hearing is passive and effortless.[1]

Which one would you prefer your colleagues to implement during your company-wide presentation? It’s a no-brainer.

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Listening can be one of the most powerful tools in your communication arsenal because one must listen to understand the message being told to them. As a result of this deeper understanding, communication can be streamlined because there is a higher level of comprehension that will facilitate practical follow-up questions, conversations, and problem-solving. And just because you heard something doesn’t mean you actually understood it.

We take this for granted daily, but that doesn’t mean we can use that as an excuse.

Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for threats, opportunities, and situations to advance your ability to promote your survival. And yet, while we are long past the days of worrying about being eaten by wildlife, the neurocircuitry responsible for these mechanisms is still hard-wired into our psychology and neural processing.

A classic example of this is the formation of memories. Case in point: where were you on June 3rd, 2014? For most of you reading this article, your mind will go completely blank, which isn’t necessarily bad.

The brain is far too efficient to retain every detail about every event that happens in your life, mainly because many events that occur aren’t always that important. The brain doesn’t—and shouldn’t—care what you ate for lunch three weeks ago or what color shirt you wore golfing last month. But for those of you who remember where you were on June 3rd, 2014, this date probably holds some sort of significance to you. Maybe it was a birthday or an anniversary. Perhaps it was the day your child was born. It could have even been a day where you lost someone special in your life.

Regardless of the circumstance, the brain is highly stimulated through emotion and engagement, which is why memories are usually stored in these situations. When the brain’s emotional centers become activated, the brain is far more likely to remember an event.[2] And this is also true when intention and focus are applied to listening to a conversation.

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Utilizing these hard-wired primitive pathways of survival to optimize your communication in the workplace is a no-brainer—literally and figuratively.

Intentional focus and concentrated efforts will pay off in the long run because you will retain more information and have an easier time recalling it down the road, making you look like a superstar in front of your colleagues and co-workers. Time to kiss those note-taking days away!

Effective Communication Isn’t Always Through Words

While we typically associate communication with words and verbal affirmations, communication can come in all shapes and forms. In the Zoom meeting era we live in, it has become far more challenging to utilize and understand these other forms of language. And this is because they are typically easier to see when we are sitting face to face with the person we speak to.[3]

Body language can play a significant role in how our words and communication are interpreted, especially when there is a disconnection involved.[4] When someone tells you one thing, yet their body language screams something completely different, it’s challenging to let that go. Our brain immediately starts to search for more information and inevitably prompts us to follow up with questions that will provide greater clarity to the situation at hand. And in all reality, not saying something might be just as important as actually saying something.

These commonly overlooked non-verbal communication choices can provide a plethora of information about the intentions, emotions, and motivations. We do this unconsciously, and it happens with every confrontation, conversation, and interaction we engage in. The magic lies in the utilization and active interpretation of these signals to improve your listening skills and your communication skills.

Our brains were designed for interpreting our world, which is why we are so good at recognizing subtle nuances and underlying disconnect within our casual encounters. So, when we begin to notice conflicting messages between verbal and non-verbal communication, our brain takes us down a path of troubleshooting.

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Which messages are consistent with this theme over time? Which statements aren’t aligning with what they’re really trying to tell me? How should I interpret their words and body language?

Suppose we want to break things down even further. In that case, one must understand that body language is usually a subconscious event, meaning that we rarely think about our body language. This happens because our brain’s primary focus is to string together words and phrases for verbal communication, which usually requires a higher level of processing. This doesn’t mean that body language will always tell the truth, but it does provide clues to help us weigh information, which can be pretty beneficial in the long run.

Actively interpreting body language can provide you with an edge in your communication skills. It can also be used as a tool to connect with the individual you are speaking to. This process is deeply ingrained into our human fabric and utilizes similar methods babies use while learning new skills from their parents’ traits during the early years of development.

Mirroring a person’s posture or stance can create a subtle bond, facilitating a sense of feeling like one another. This process is triggered via the activation of specific brain regions through the stimulation of specialized neurons called mirror neurons.[5] These particular neurons become activated while watching an individual engage in an activity or task, facilitating learning, queuing, and understanding. They also allow the person watching an action to become more efficient at physically executing the action, creating changes in the brain, and altering the overall structure of the brain to enhance output for that chosen activity.

Listening with intention can make you understand your colleague, and when paired together with mirroring body language, you can make your colleague feel like you two are alike. This simple trick can facilitate a greater bond of understanding and communication within all aspects of the conversation.

Eliminate All Distractions, Once and for All

As Jim Rohn says, “What is easy to do is also easy not to do.” And this is an underlying principle that will carry through in all aspects of communication. Distractions are a surefire way to ensure a lack of understanding or interpretation of a conversation, which in turn, will create inefficiencies and a poor foundation for communication.

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This should come as no surprise, especially in this day in age where people are constantly distracted by social media, text messaging, and endlessly checking their emails. We’re stuck in a cultural norm that has hijacked our love for the addictive dopamine rush and altered our ability to truly focus our efforts on the task at hand. And these distractions aren’t just distractions for the time they’re being used. They use up coveted brainpower and central processes that secondarily delay our ability to get back on track.

Gloria Mark, a researcher at UC Irvine, discovered that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for our brains to reach their peak state of focus after an interruption.[6] Yes, you read that correctly—distractions are costly, error-prone, and yield little to no benefit outside of a bump to the ego when receiving a new like on your social media profile.

Meetings should implement a no-phone policy, video conference calls should be set on their own browser with no other tabs open, and all updates, notifications, and email prompt should be immediately turned off, if possible, to eliminate all distractions during a meeting.

These are just a few examples of how we can optimize our environment to facilitate the highest levels of communication within the workplace.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Effective communication in the workplace doesn’t have to be challenging, but it does have to be intentional. Knowledge can only take us so far, but once again, knowing something is very different than putting it into action.

Just like riding a bike, the more often you do it, the easier it becomes. Master communicators are phenomenal listeners, which allows them to be effective communicators in the workplace and in life. If you genuinely want to own your communication, you must implement this information today and learn how to improve your listening skills.

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Choose your words carefully, listen intently, and most of all, be present in the moment—because that’s what master communicators do, and you can do it, too!

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Featured photo credit: Mailchimp via unsplash.com

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