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Professionalism matters

I am surprised at how many people lack professional etiquette in the workforce. Too many unprofessional encounters have led me to believe it’s because people don’t quite understand what professionalism is. So, here goes:

1. Dress appropriately: There’s not much latitude when it comes to office attire in a regular cubicle environment. While niche offices (beauty salons, artist’s studio, etc.) might not have certain constraints, in most work-environments people are expected to dress professionally. So, no halter tops, no cleavage-showing, no micro mini skirts, no stockings with holes for women. No vests, no sweats, no clinging shirts, no bling for men. In short — you’re not there to party or express your personality. You’re there to work, so dress accordingly.

2. You are the organization: For an outsider you’re your organization’s ambassador. You’re the talking head. The representative. Keep that in mind when interacting with clients. What you say, do, or wear reflects on the organization you’re working for. If you don’t demonstrate pride in your work or respect for it, no one else will.

3. Accept critique: A lot of people take critique personally. Please don’t. If I were to cry every time  an editor told me I needed to write a second draft (Boo hoo! So, you’re saying the first draft wasn’t PERFECT!?!?!), I’d be drowning in a sea of my own tears. You’re there to learn, stretch your mind, expand upon your skills . Welcome critique with open arms. It’s only helping you grow — even if it isn’t helpful, it still teaches you patience! It doesn’t mean you suck; it’s just a way of telling you there is potential for something better. Embrace it.

4. Don’t socialize your day away: We spend more time at work than we do with our families any given weekday, so it’s natural to develop “friendships” in the workplace. But remember to keep social banter to a minimum. Your first priority is work and while everyone enjoys a bit of office gossip here and there, your water cooler conversations shouldn’t take over your day. Go for lunch or dinner with your office pals, grab a mug of beer or a cup of coffee outside office hours. Your office space wasn’t meant to be your personal living room. Also, remember that perception is reality — you may get all your deadlines met and be a top-notch worker, but if people know you for your rumor-milling or domestic-adventure stories more than your work ethic, there’s something wrong with that picture.

5. Beware of social media time sinks: Sure everyone’s on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Buzz and all those other time sinks, but if it isn’t part of your job profile, you really shouldn’t be using your work time to update your status or send tweets by the minute. I’ve had people make clients wait just so they could finish posting their latest photos to Facebook. Nothing tells a client that you’re not serious about your work as peering over your shoulder to see the Facebook logo staring back.

6. Don’t whine all the time: Nobody likes a whiner. Period. Everyone has loads of stuff to do. Everyone is spread thin. Everyone has zero budget. We get it. It’s ok to vent once in a while, but if you’re always complaining all you’re doing is bringing everyone’s morale down. It’s bad enough to begin with — no one needs it slapped in their faces all the time. Also, if you’re whining all the time, it won’t take long for people to mutter under their breaths: “If it’s so bad, why don’t you leave?”

7. Watch how you speak and how you write: Wassup?  See ya later dawg! Dude, hurry up! — not exactly office speak. You’re a white-collar worker in a professional work environment — act the part. Also, watch that slang in your professional communication. While emoticons and CUL8Rs may be alright when chatting with your buddies, office e-mail requires a certain amount of “seriousness.” Typing full words and coherent sentences makes a difference.

8. Don’t tie your emotions with your job: Some people take everything you tell them personally. Your job is not you. You are not your job. Stop getting your emotions in the mix. Don’t be detached, but don’t be so invested in your job that if roadblocks occur, you experience a nervous breakdown. Be civil even if you don’t get along with someone.

9. Respect other people’s time: Never leave people waiting. When you show up late you’re telling folks that you don’t really care. It’s insulting. It’s disrespectful. Just as you have a gazillion things to do, so do they. If you absolutely can’t make it on time, it’s professional courtesy to call ahead and let the other person know you’re running behind. When you say you’ll be there, mean it.

10. Don’t be cocky: Remember, everyone is dispensable. And you’re not above this rule. So, do your job well. But don’t forget that the machine will carry on just as well without you. You may be great at what you do, but you’re not the only one. Be proud of who you are and what you do, but don’t go rubbing it in people’s faces. With talent, comes humility.

This isn’t by any means a comprehensive list. Just the “top 10” compilation, if you will, from my personal experiences with those snooty, self-absorbed nincompoops….eh…no need to be uncivil — let’s just say “those unprofessional people.”

Have more tips? Do share.

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Visual storytelling: learning the ropes

When I was doing my master’s in journalism (magazine track), we were taught to build a story — have a hook to pull people in at the outset, sprinkle interesting details throughout, show and not tell, have a surprise element close to the end, round it out with a conclusion that triggered an emotion: contentment, shock, awe, thought, despair, hope, laughter, tears…you get the drift. Not once during those two years had I envisioned taking those narrative skills, scrunching them up, and using them to produce two-minute stories for the Web!

Well, okay, once. When I interned for NBC11…but my “dream” to become a news broadcaster shriveled and died a young death within a week.

In-depth coverage in a two-minute segment is a myth

I realized that the medium didn’t allow me to explore the story…all we did was uncover the facts, include a snippet about what, how, when, and where but never really got a chance to get into the why. It irked me. But I figured while I’m here, might as well make the most of this experience. I learned how to interview for camera (ask the same question five different ways to get that 12-second sound byte just right), log tapes, write a script for the anchor (“Cut to the chase. This is not long form journalism, Mansi,” I would hear Marianne say), and watch an entire day’s shoot fizzle away on the 6 p.m. news in two, maybe three, minutes. Where was the time to build a story and substantiate it with details?

Switching gears — from print to online

For five years after the internship experience, I stayed true to narrative journalism but then last July I decided to switch gears. Not so much in job titles (from being a writer at San José State University to becoming the university writer/editor at Santa Clara University) as in job description. The Web had grown really fast and I wanted my piece of the action. As much as I enjoyed being the primary writer for the alumni magazine, I wanted to expand my skill sets and master the art of 21st century storytelling. I had written articles on being wired 24/7 and about the news industry being in transition, so I knew full well that the audience’s shrinking attention spans would make my journey ahead “virtually” exciting.

A month into my new job I was asked to project manage a visual story about the Northern California Innocence Project based at SCU. I was very comfortable researching the topic, identifying potential interviewees (“but make sure they look good on camera!”), scheduling interviews, and drafting a storyline. But it surprised me that when it came to the nuts and bolts: drafting storyboards, picking out stills, and talking about SOTs, what should have been gobbledygook, actually made sense! The NBC11 experience was coming in handy.

Creating a video story

We (the videographer, his assistant, and I) had two half-day shoots: one with the program director and the student and another with the exonerated victim. The interviews were nothing like my interviews for print pieces — they were much shorter, the questions elicited more bigger-picture-view answers than intricate details, and I found myself paying attention to stuttering and excessive ummms. Thing is, I already knew what I wanted these folks to say even before I met them.

But when you have just two minutes to whet someone’s appetite while also giving them enough information that they walk away from the story feeling “enlightened,” knowing what you want at the outset, helps. A lot.

After the shoots were done, I selected some photos and then in came the transcripts. Now I could put together what we would in narrative journalism call “the bare bones structure of the story.” Except, in this case, it was the story.

Once I’d put the best quotes in sequence, I sent them over to the videographer who combined the video shots and the stills to create our visual masterpiece. Well, the first draft of it, really. I realized that “writing” a video and seeing a video are two different things…let me explain. What may look like a good order of events on paper may not necessarily make sense when you hear the voice intonations, look at the visuals accompanying the voice overs, and see parts that would “look” better together. The story thread notwithstanding.

So, began a second round, this time I was asking the videographer to move the visuals around, add captions that helped move the story forward, and improve the sound quality. Once we were all satisfied with the structure, the visuals, and the sound bytes, next came the packaging: selecting the one still from the video that would invoke interest, drafting a title that summarized what the video was about, and creating a credits slide. Our web marketing guy put all the elements together in a flash file, compressed the video to less than 10MB, and hit the publish button. It went live this morning.

To see the video in context of the university website, with the title and credits slide, visit the SCU homepage and click on the Jesuit philosophy tab in the media player window. It’s called “Promoting Social Justice.”

Takeaways

Couple of things I learned during this process:

  • Skills you’ve acquired in the past never go “waste.”
  • Visual storytelling is so much more difficult than narrative writing despite (and especially because of) the visual aids.
  • You can’t compare visual storytelling to long-form journalism; it’s like comparing apples to oranges.
  • You can’t tell the whole story in two minutes, but the visual piece can be a good lead-in for the more detailed written piece.

It’s tough and I have new-found appreciation for those who produce bite-sized stories for mass consumption. Although narrative journalism will always have a special place in my heart, I can see myself warming up to its short-form high-def cousin.

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Interview tip: you’re a CEO

Perhaps, you’ve never thought of your name as a brand before and yourself as a company — but indulge me for a minute here.

When you go for an interview, what are you really doing? Selling yourself.

In a stipulated amount of time you present a brief synopsis of your achievements, you gloat over your accomplishments, you showcase your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses, you put your best foot forward and convince people who’ve never met you before to invest in your talents.

This scenario is very similar to a CEO of a startup meeting with VPs to secure funding for his next big idea. He brings to the table a strategic vision and a stable business plan — much like you, the interviewee.

When you look at the job description, check off things you have done and can do, while circling those you don’t have an expertise in but want to learn. You also think five years out (at least three, if not five — stability is important). Where will this job take you? What can you add to it beyond the essential duties? Think about how the company can help you grow…chart a career path for yourself but never forget how you will add value to the company. What do they not have that you bring? Passion is great, but also show them ambition.

When you walk into that room, think of yourself as a CEO, not an interviewee. What makes a good CEO is what’s going to help you get the job.

  • Leadership matters — don’t expect to be babysat. Employers appreciate employees who take initiative.
  • Teamwork is critical — be a team player and a team builder. Respect others’ expertise and inspire trust.
  • Experience is key — internships help and so do part-time jobs.

Good CEOs also:

  • Think outside the box — be open to new ideas. Everyone follows the beaten path because it’s easy. Challenge yourself
  • Believe — in yourself! There’s only ONE of you. Leverage your uniqueness. (How do you do that? Specialize, but remember not to box yourself in).
  • Always look to improve — you may think you’re perfect, but you’re not. Acknowledge your weaknesses and work on them.

Illuminate the room with your personality, ideas and talent. Walk in believing no one can do this job better. Walk out knowing you did your best.

You are your best ambassador. Go get ’em!

(Thanks to Juan Escobar for planting this idea in my head 🙂)


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The writing process

Often, my interviewees find themselves wondering what goes behind writing an article for a magazine…so, how do you collect story ideas? What happens next? Do you ever get the writer’s block? Is good writing just a compilation of facts and quotes? I figured I’d put together a list that explains the process a bit as well as gives some handy tips.

Here it is: my take on the writing process a.k.a. how to engage your readers and keep ’em!

So, you have an idea, what’s next?

  • Research it.
  • Read recent articles from diverse sources on the topic.
  • Identify your interviewees.

Once you’ve done some basic research and know whom you’re going to interview:

  • Make a list of intelligent questions and also compile the ones that might make you feel you’re dumb.
  • Will your mom get it? And what about your grandma? Don’t ask questions that “dumbify” the responses, but ask them so you get clear, lucid details.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions “off the list.”
  • Formulate questions based on who you’re talking to – are you talking to them to get an opinion, to collect facts from, to get justification, to get clarification or is it a combination of some or all of the above?

During the interview:

  • Note the intonation, the color of their eyes, their hair, their hand movements, the shoes, the posture…make a quick note and/or take a picture.
  • Don’t make the interview a conversation – you’re there to listen, not talk about your allergies.
  • Ask your questions as many times and in as many ways as you need to until you get the answer you want. Why? For example? Can you show me? So what?
  • Go for coffee, but bring a tent.
  • Listen for what is not being said.

When you’re transcribing (assuming you’ve used a digital recorder facilitating you to make eye contact with your interviewee):

  • Highlight the information/quotes you know you will absolutely use.
  • Do not transcribe everything verbatim; paraphrase the things you won’t use, but which could be useful to have when building character.
  • Transcribe in order of “meatiness.”

The thinking period:

  • Read all your transcripts and write a head (and subheads if you’re so inclined) – if you can say what the point of your story is in one to four sentences, you’re already halfway there.
  • Create an inverse pyramid, spiral or vectors (whatever works best for you) to synthesize your material.
  • Let everything churn for a day or two…visualize the flow of your story. Do you see your reader riding with you? Are they enjoying the ride?
  • Plan your beginning and end.

Just write it!

  • Start with something evocative: an incident, an emotion, a description, a visualization – anything that will grab the reader and make them want to know more.
  • If you’re writing a (donor) profile, don’t talk about the successful businessman in an Armani suit – your readers already know of him in that avatar. Write about the little imp who broke windows playing baseball or the tattooed teenager who wanted to be a drummer.
  • Bring drama to the middle of your story – if there’s conflict, anguish, struggle, excitement, hope – this is the place for it.
  • Enhance the body of your article with the minor details.
  • End with a punch.

Last words:

  • The writing process begins way before you actually start writing a story: research, interview and plan before you write.
  • Give your readers facts and opinions, but make sure they know which is which.
  • Keep your voice out of a reporting piece, but own it nevertheless.
  • Know your story – if you don’t know the issues and the characters intimately you won’t be able to write authoritatively. Good writing is authoritative.
  • Understand the mental and environmental makeup of your audience.
  • Collect more facts, information and viewpoints than you want to…certainly more than you will ever use.
  • Go out in the field and observe.
  • Analyze articles that you like reading.
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Respect your audience.


Do you have any tips to share?

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