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Angels

Posted by on 12:20 am in Blog | 0 comments

I am surrounded by angels. Some of them took care of our home and our cats when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the eastern seaboard of the United States. We were far away – across the Atlantic on a long-planned vacation in Sicily. It was surreal to be so far away from home when that terrible storm hit. Anxiety about Sandy’s impact on the New York area intermingled with the suspicion that family and friends were trying to protect our vacation state of mind even as their basements filled with water and their electrical power went out.

As Hurricane Sandy made its turn toward Staten Island’s shores, our cat sitters were prepared for the worst. They reached out to two of our friends in the neighborhood to make sure there was back-up if they couldn’t get back to the house after the storm. One of them brought heavy bowls from her own home to make sure our feral cats would have access to food and water even if the wind gusts were strong.

In the hours before the hurricane made landfall, one of our friends stopped by to patrol the exterior of our house and tuck away anything that could become a projectile. Small patio table? Put that in the garage. Flag? Better take that down.

After Sandy knocked out power, one of our cat sitters navigated the darkened streets (60{10058f2385f70e38f97c9f6fa0bcd7521a9610310e2b24a83a1073d40b598246} of Staten Island was without power for several days, including many street lights) to take care of our cats. She texted us that she was using a flashlight to get around our house and to feed our resident cats, Emmett and Koda. We texted our neighbors to take anything they wanted from our refrigerator and freezer. The timing was excellent. One of our friends, who lives just three houses away, had provided refuge to residents of New Dorp Beach and Midland Beach, two of the hardest hit areas of Staten Island. Our food helped her feed them until the fallen trees were removed from her street and she could get to the grocery store.

Meanwhile, angels were at work all over the island. As the flood waters receded, people flocked to the beach, providing food, clothing and muscle to help the recovery effort. Empty storefronts and parking lots became staging areas for rescue organizations. Boxes of food poured out of the doors of Staten Island bakeries, delis and restaurants. Electrical workers came from all over the United States to help restore power. A group of Baptists, who had worked with the residents of New Orleans after Katrina, came to advise residents on how to safely clean and rebuild their flood-damaged homes.

At the same time, animal rescue groups were looking for pets and feral animals dislocated by the storm. An acquaintance of mine made the rounds of her feral cat colonies. One of them was near the beaches and it had flooded, but she had stacked bales of straw and put shelters on top of them. Because of this very special angel, every one of the cats had survived the storm.

Taormina

Posted by on 2:27 pm in Blog | 0 comments

Photograph by Eve B. Rose.
Taormina, on the east coast of Sicily.

Daydream Believer

Posted by on 2:54 pm in Blog | 0 comments

daydreamingAs a writer, I am intimately familiar with the appeal of daydreaming. When I catch myself doing it, a part of me wonders, is this: “Laziness?” “Inefficiency?” Procrastination?” So I was delighted to learn that daydreaming could boost “working memory capacity.”

In a recent study, researchers asked a group of volunteers to perform one of two simple tasks, neither of which would use all of their attention. The results were published in the journal Psychological Science by Daniel Levinson and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jonathan Smallwood at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science.

Study participants were asked either to press a button in response to a letter appearing on a screen or to tap in time with their own breath. From time to time, researchers checked in to find out if participants were paying attention. Afterwards, they measured each participant’s working memory capacity by asking them to recall a string of letters interspersed with some easy math questions. What they discovered was that people with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during the tasks.

Another study, led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara, asked 145 undergraduate students to list as many uses as possible for ordinary items such as clothes hangers and toothpicks. Afterwards, they took a 12-minute break in which they rested in a quiet room, performed a challenging memory task or did something boring that might induce daydreaming. The students who were given the boring task came up with 41{10058f2385f70e38f97c9f6fa0bcd7521a9610310e2b24a83a1073d40b598246} more possibilities than the other students.

“We always assume that you get more done when you’re consciously paying attention to a problem,” says Schooler. “That’s what it means, after all, to be ‘working on something.’ But this is often a mistake. If you’re trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself.”*

Which may explain why I find so many ideas outside my windows. When I am struggling with a paragraph that just won’t jell, I find that a little bit of daydreaming – looking at the leaves fluttering in the breeze, for example – can help me pull it all together. Similarly, a task unrelated to writing can lead to precious insight. Sometimes the right words appear fully formed in my mind when I am standing in front of the coffee machine, which inevitably sends me back to my computer at a run.

So whether you write for a living or you write dozens of emails a day, give your mind some room to wander. It might just give you a few more of those “ah-ha” moments. And oh my – don’t they taste sweet? They have truly made me a daydream believer.

*Lehrer, Jonah, “The Virtues of Daydreaming, The New Yorker, June 5, 2012.

A Refreshing Dip in the Cool Waters of Compliance

Posted by on 4:09 pm in Blog, Featured | 1 comment

I have been grateful over the years to vigilant compliance officers. They have caught typos, questioned awkward prose, and yes – stamped out hyperbole. I have relied on their diligence to help me rein in overly enthusiastic financial advisors and in some cases, to eliminate corporate bloviation. But compliance review can be an onerous process and I am often unhappy with the clunky constructions that result. To find out if there is a way to improve the way compliance officers and communications professionals work together, I asked Lindsey Simon, Founder and Principal of Simon Compliance, about her views.

Q. How would you describe the role of a compliance officer?
A. A compliance officer is a voice of authority within an organization, as well as (hopefully) a voice of reason. She needs to understand the rules and regulations well, but should also understand the company and how its business fits within the rules. The compliance officer is not often the most popular person in an organization – from compliance, the answer is sometimes “no” – but she has to able to say what she needs to say and has to be sure that people actually listen to her.

Q. What are your pet peeves with communications materials?
A. My biggest pet peeve with communications materials is their lack of focus or specifics. When I read marketing pieces and pitch books, I often can’t tell what the firm specializes in or is trying to sell. Each firm needs to make their point distinctly and clearly. More troubling, many pitch decks contain clearly exaggerated and unsubstantiated returns. Part of my job is to verify the numbers. I will want to see how you got them. Then I will try to replicate them without any explanation from you. If I can’t do that, someone will have to redo them.

Q. How can communications professionals help you do your job better?
A. My job is easier when marketing materials are clear, precisely tailored, and contain proper disclosures. I also recommend that communications professionals create “substantiation binders” or computer-based “substantiation folders.” Anytime you cite data or rely on a published article as a source, make a copy of it and save it. Like me, most compliance officers don’t want to have to worry about tracking down the information when a retail shareholder asks a question, an institutional investor is doing due diligence or the SEC asks for backup. It just takes five minutes to do it when you are working on a project. After the fact, it can take hours.

Q. In my experience, attorneys and compliance officers – not communications professionals – have ultimate control over communications materials. What is your view?
A. For the final draft, yes, I think it’s necessary. Lawyers/compliance professionals must make sure the materials adequately disclaim risk and adequately address performance returns. We must also make sure the SEC’s advertising requirements are followed, which means among other things that we evaluate any forward-looking statements. That said, I think some compliance officers are overly concerned with word choice and semantics. I consider myself an advisor, not an editor. However, I have always believed that investors should be able to understand financial documents and will do my utmost to make sure that language is accessible to all.

Q. What do you suggest for communicators who want to have a larger voice in the final decisions?
A. They should get to know their compliance officer. What is her level of experience? How well does she know the regulations and the English language? Ask her about the pressures she faces. Help her learn about your work and your challenges. Encourage her to stop by without prior notice to visit with you and your colleagues. Remember, you are both on the same team. You want to do the right thing for the organization.

 

Lindsey Simon is Founder and Principal of Simon Compliance. She specializes in private equity registration, hedge fund registration, mock SEC audits and ongoing compliance management for investment advisors. Ms. Simon was previously a Senior Attorney with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement. She was also General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer at Carpe Diem Capital Management, a Chicago based hedge fund. She received her B.A., cum laude, from Emory University, and her J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law, where she was Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

Brainstorming? Think Again.

Posted by on 4:09 pm in Blog | 0 comments

As you probably know, brainstorming is a group activity in which everyone generates as many ideas as possible without criticism or negative feedback. The approach was made famous by Alex Osborn, a partner at the advertising agency B.B.D.O., in his 1948 book Your Creative Power. As he describes it, a group of people use “the brain to storm a creative problem” and thereby solve it.

My experiences with brainstorming have been quite different. As a writer, I’ve worked with many marketing and advertising professionals who used brainstorming to spark creative thinking. However, it didn’t seem to work. Most of us weren’t very good at it; we couldn’t seem to stop expressing our opinions. Sometimes, the effort to restrain ourselves was a full-time job, leaving us with little room for idea generation. I began to notice that the most productive sessions were those in which we tossed ideas back and forth, refining them through give and take. If we came to meetings already armed with ideas, the group often made dramatic progress.

As it turns out, scientists were already debunking brainstorming. “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas,” says Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University.1 Some studies have also demonstrated that debate – not a criticism-free environment – fuels idea generation. In a 2003 study,2 participants were divided into three groups. No instructions were given to the first group. The second group was told to use standard brainstorming rules. Members of the third group were instructed to use brainstorming techniques, but were also given permission to critique each other. The researchers reported that the group of critiquers generated more ideas.

Meanwhile, other studies have shown that brainstorming results in a kind of “groupthink.” In 2010,3 researchers concluded that group brainstorming exercises reduced the number of ideas that were suggested. They also said that brainstormers tended to become fixated on other people’s ideas, which eventually led to conformity. Furthermore, when participants took a break, giving them time to think for awhile, they came up with more ideas.

“Evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” says organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham.4 Yet, brainstorming continues to live on in corporate America. In my opinion, we’d all be better served by a deliberative process – one in which we come together, armed with ideas, eager to share our opinions, and ready for a robust debate. I hope that one day the accumulated evidence will convince brainstorming advocates to think again.

 

1Lehrer, Jonah, “Groupthink,” The New Yorker, January 30, 2012.

2Nemeth, Charlan J., Bernard Personnaz, Marie Personnaz, and Jack A. Goncalo, “The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries,” European Journal of Social Psychology, 2004.

3Kohn, Nicholas W. and Steven M. Smith, “Collaborative Fixation: Effects of Others’ Ideas on Brainstorming,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2010.

4Cain, Susan, “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” The New York Times, January 13, 2012.

 

Word Peeves

Posted by on 2:20 pm in Blog | 0 comments

(the first in an occasional series)

Whatever happened to “use?”

This handy little word (sometimes a verb, sometimes a noun) does yeoman’s work without pretension. And yet, it has been increasingly marginalized by “utilize” and “usage.” Not that I object to those words. They can be, forgive me, extremely useful. When “use” appears too often in my own writing, I look for synonyms – such as “employ” or even “utilize” – to minimize repetition. But I am peeved when I see people abandoning “use” entirely in favor of “utilize” or “usage.”

I saw this trend first in the 1980s when a portfolio manager would not … could not … bring himself to use the word “use.” It had to be “utilize,” because – and I quote – “it sounds better than ‘use.’” At the time, “utilize” was rarely used in conversation, so its appearance in a quarterly commentary seemed like affectation. “Utilize” didn’t make this fellow sound smarter, just self-important. It broke my heart because as his ghostwriter, I wanted him to look as good as possible.

In the years since, “utilize” has entered the popular lexicon and is widely used even in everyday speech. Maybe that’s why those who want to “sound better” are embracing “usage.” Like so: “The usage of alternative asset classes can help diversify a portfolio.” It is my profound hope that this clunky construction does not gain traction! “Use” would have worked just fine here. “The use of alternative asset classes can help diversify a portfolio.” Or, even better: Alternative asset classes can be used to help diversify a portfolio.

So let’s put “use” back to work. Simple and straightforward, it’s a powerful little word that can get the job done.

Word Watch
“Productionalization.” As in putting something into production. This word has moved out of the technology sector and into business PowerPoint presentations. Though inelegant, it fills a void and may endure. I’m not sure how I feel about that…

Embracing Punctuation

Posted by on 4:02 pm in Blog | 3 comments

I admit it. I love punctuation. Commas, hyphens, dashes, and semi-colons… I appreciate them all. And I’m sorry to see them vanishing from newspapers, magazines, corporate publications, and websites. The evidence of their disappearance, according to scholar Henry Hitchings, includes “editorial austerity with commas, the newsroom preference for the period over all other marks, and the taste for visual crispness.”*

Some say these trends are evidence of social decline. Not I. The English language is vibrant and constantly evolving:  new words are invented, others change their meanings, and some fall into disuse. Punctuation also has its fads and fashions. As punctuation grows scarce, however, written compositions seem to lose potency and can sometimes be misunderstood. With punctuation marks, writers can express themselves more effectively, communicate with clarity, and capture just the right tone. 

Let’s consider the hyphen, which is seriously endangered. Sometimes its disappearance makes sense as it did in the 1990s when “on-line” gave way to “online.” But dehyphenation can have unintended consequences. Although “co-operate” and “co-operative” can easily lose their hyphens, it does not necessarily follow that “cooperative apartment” should be shortened to “coop.” During the 1980s and 1990s, New York City apartment buildings were festooned with signs proclaiming: “COOPS FOR SALE.” I was not the only one who giggled. In recent years, the hyphen has blessedly reappeared and many new signs read “CO-OPS FOR SALE.” 

Well-placed hyphens can reduce ambiguity. For this reason, I prefer “investment-grade high-yield bonds” over “investment grade high yield bonds.” I also believe that in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, the general public might have appreciated the universal adoption of “credit-default swap,” instead of the widely used “credit default swap.” When “credit” and “default” are made into a compound adjective, readers can easily discern that “swap” is the noun. The Wall Street Journal, to its credit, uses just such a construction.

The semi-colon, one of my favorite punctuation marks, seems to be almost completely out of fashion. In my experience, a semi-colon can pack a lot of punch. It also reduces monotony. Paraphrasing Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, a semi-colon “suggests a close relationship” between two phrases, which is not inherent in a two-sentence structure, and it can be “more forcible” than the use of a conjunction. “Indeed, this simple method of indicating relationship between statements is one of the most useful devices of composition.”**

Then there are serial commas. I have a strong affinity for serial commas, but they are generally considered optional. In fact, two of my clients – both large investment firms – differ on the subject. One uses serial commas; the other does not. When asked for my opinion, I usually recommend the selection of a style guide, such as the AP Style Manual or the Chicago Manual of Style, to help encourage consistency across the organization.

What of parentheses? A colleague contends that if you want to say something, you should just come right out and say it. Still, parentheses have their place. I think they efficiently signal that certain information (such as a definition) is connected with, but not essential to, a specific sentence. Plus, they can be used to slip in a witty aside.

So I will keep up the good fight for punctuation – even if, as Henry Hitchings suggests, it is being renounced. I’ll even advocate for a few more punctuation marks. I’ve recently become acquainted with the “point d’ironie,” which was first proposed at the end of the 19th century. Sometimes called a “snark,” this irony mark would flag a statement as rhetorical or sarcastic. It would help make clear one’s intent – to tell a joke, not to offend – especially in this age of electronic communication. What do you think? Whatever your opinion (and I’d certainly love to hear from you), I think we can all agree that sometimes punctuation is just plain fun.

* “Is This the Future of Punctuation” by Henry Hitchings, The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2011.

** The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, Third Edition, p. 6.

Advocating for “Plain Language”

Posted by on 8:24 am in Blog | 0 comments

My husband, a bona fide rocket scientist, recently threw down a trade confirmation in complete disgust. Now I’ve seen that man read technical manuals from cover to cover, but he couldn’t get through that confirmation. He doesn’t care much for many other financial disclosure documents.

And this is despite the “plain English” mandates laid down by the SEC since the 1990s. In early 2011, the SEC further expanded its plain-English requirements to cover investment philosophies, fee schedules and conflicts of interest in Form ADV Part 2. (The SEC’s plain English requirements are itemized on the first page of the general instructions for Part 2 of Form ADV.) By April, many investors saw the results in new Form ADV “brochures” and in the fee disclosures on their trade confirmations.

I sincerely hope financial communicators get a stronger say in how these materials are written and designed because many of them still look and read like legal documents.

According to SEC chairman Arthur Levitt: “For years, I have pressed for “plain English” in financial documents that go to the investing public, but with only mixed success. The problem, it appears, is that such efforts get tugged into the ditch by the irresistible pull of legal jargon.” (“A Word to Wall Street: ‘Plain English’ Please,” The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2011).

While financial documents have less jargon than they did in the past, they still contain long, complex sentences with multiple clauses. The avalanche of words exhibits the irresistible pull of the legal department.

I’ve been writing for financial firms for a long time so I understand that lawyers are a critical member of the communications team. However, the SEC mandate says that “[t]he items in Part 2 of Form ADV are designed to promote effective communication between you and your clients.” Their italics, not mine. This is the province of professional writers and editors.

Communication is, after all, about making connections. That’s why I think the financial industry should focus on “plain language.” Language is more than word choice. It should give readers information – in the words of the Center for Plain Language – information they can “find, understand and use.” The center’s Plain Language Checklist goes beyond the words to advocate for design, structure and hierarchy. Design reinforces meaning and makes it easier for the audience to see, process and use the information. The structure is well-marked so the audience can find the information it needs. Hierarchy helps the audience distinguish between critical and less important information.

Which brings me back to that trade confirmation my husband tossed aside. The document included two pages of disclaimers about fees printed in entirely in capital letters and without a single subhead or bullet point. It would have benefited from the experience of someone who understands the importance of design, structure, and hierarchy—in other words, a financial communicator. We can help.

This is my voice

Posted by on 12:24 pm in Blog | 3 comments

This is my voice.

Most of the time, I speak for my financial clients.  I ghostwrite white papers, marketing collateral, articles, portfolio commentary and websites for them.  My job is to articulate what they want to say and as much as possible, to express it in their voices.

In this blog, I plan to speak for myself – to discuss issues that interest me and that are close to my professional heart.  Most will be related to the financial industry and they will all be connected with communication.  The way I see it, communication is connection.

I also plan to bring you voices other than mine, respected experts to talk about what they do and the role of communication in their work.

In the meantime, I invite you to explore my re-designed website and learn more about me.

Look for my next blogpost on April 3!