I judge grammar. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. It’s a “development area.” But, a couple of years ago I feared I was getting rusty, so when attending a conference for my job, I was delighted to learn the presenter was “a grammar guru.” My colleagues appeared less enthusiastic about the topic and struck poses resembling Simon Cowell. I fancied myself more Paula Abdul. When the speaker took the stage and promptly exhibited well-honed presentation skills and an impressive ability to engage the crowd — plus delivered content which knocked our socks off — I silently chalked one up for “syntacticians.” The information we soaked up at that session was not only packed with grammar tidbits but also provided some amazing do’s and don’ts with regard to business communication. One tip so changed my approach to email, I often pay it forward. For this blog, however, that just wasn’t enough. I reached out and was so grateful and surprised when that master presenter, Mandi Stanley, CSP, agreed to be this week’s Professional in the Spotlight.
Mandi Stanley has been a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) since 2003 and has been speaking full time since 1995. She works primarily with business leaders who want to boost their professional image by becoming better speakers and writers. Stanley has traveled throughout North America entertaining and educating more than 75,000 seminar participants. She is a summa cum laude graduate with concentrations in English, communication, and management, and served as a faculty member of the American Management Association for five years. Stanley is the author of The No-Panic Plan for Presenters, which was named a Finalist in the Career category at the Independent Book Publishers Awards in New York.
MEG GARAVAGLIA: Mandi, thank you so much for accepting my invitation to speak with me and be Woven Legal’s featured guest for our blog. Your schedule must be pretty packed even during these COVID times. Is that the case?
MANDI STANLEY: Thank you, Meg. I normally would be traveling to present several times a month, but this year I have been limiting myself to four events per month. It’s hard to say no to work, but right now, I don’t want to miss a moment of being home with my family. My son is a senior this year. We’re in our final nine weeks. I have a limited speaking schedule between now and the end of May because I don’t want to miss prom and other senior-year events. So I’m fortunate that I can control my calendar in that way. But it does limit growth and limit earning potential when you say, “I’m going to accept four and no more.” The beauty of virtual presentations is that I can accept more of them because I’m not getting on a plane and flying somewhere. It doesn’t take three days to get to and from an event, where I may be speaking for an hour or so and then flying back. I can stay in my office. I have a little bit of a different setup for keynotes (pointing to the organized space behind her complete with white board) behind me for virtual presentations. So I’ve been able to add more of those to my calendar and stay in town.
MG: I can certainly relate and remember feeling that way when our boys were still in high school. When you meet somebody on the street and they ask, “What do you do?” how do you answer?
MS: I have been a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) since 2003. Primarily, I work with business leaders who want to enhance their executive presence by becoming better speakers and writers on the job.
MG: I noticed that you are with the NSA–the National Speakers Association–not the NSA, National Security Agency, correct?!
MS: Yes, we’re talking about two NSAs! But, the National Security Agency did hire me to teach proofreading workshops. (Laughing) It doesn’t matter who you are or where you work. It is a critical skill.
MG: I know I’m not alone in my struggle with overusing “umms,” or “okays,” when speaking. What tips could you share to eliminate filler words?
MS: The good news is there really is one sure-fire way to eliminate the vocal fillers from speaking, whether it’s a formal presentation or an informal setting such as a work meeting. In a session I offer called No-Panic Presentation Skills, we discuss the big-three components of any workplace presentation. The first is the message. This is why you’ve been invited to speak at a meeting, for example. It’s your content, your subject matter, your expertise. We look at how you open your message and how you close it, and how you make sure you don’t lose people in what we laughingly refer to as the “magic middle” of a presentation. From my perspective, the best speakers are often the best storytellers because people remember stories. And if we can remember a story, we can remember the point the story supports. The story aids our retention. So we look at how we can incorporate more stories even into technical presentations: a client story, a testimonial, or a personal story that drives a point home.
Filler words fall under the component of delivery, and delivery comprises two facets. The first (facet) will appeal to those people who have experienced what we would call the “excruciatingly slow and painful death by PowerPoint.” We talk about why people complain about PowerPoint. People continue to make the same mistakes with PowerPoint. We review the good, the bad, and the ugly of PowerPoint, Keynote, or whatever visual aid people may choose to use with their presentations. The other facet is the vocal garbage you just asked about. The third component is our nonverbal know-how. In live presentations, (nonverbal know-how) pertains to your eye contact, gestures, and speaker stance. In the virtual world, non-verbals also pertain to our backdrop or what’s happening behind us such as lighting, audio quality, and the height of our computer, all of which factor into our nonverbal know-how during a virtual presentation.
To answer your question, I worked with a gentleman about 16 years ago who was running for a senate seat in my state and was preparing his five-minute stump speech. It was a presentation he would make to community groups and local organizations. I recorded his presentation. He had 138 “and uhs” in the first three minutes of that five-minute presentation. I stopped counting. I gave him this advice, and it’s the advice I share with everyone: the only cure for getting rid of vocal fillers is to hear them for yourself. You could hire me to come and work with you to get ready for a big meeting, and I could tell you that you said “uh” 47 times, and the next time you give the presentation, you’ll say it 48 times. Just having someone point it out doesn’t do you a bit of good. So I gave him the video. He watched it and followed a few instructions. We reconvened the next week, and he went from 138 in the first three minutes to zero in the entire five-minute presentation. Even I marveled at his dramatic turnaround. He said, “If I hadn’t heard it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed I was that bad. My family and close friends would tell me I stutter too much through my presentations, but I didn’t really believe them because I think I’m a good speaker. But when I watched that video, it made me physically nauseous because I heard how I sounded to other people.” It wasn’t until he heard it himself that he realized all of those “ums” and “uhs” were diminishing the power behind the ideas he was espousing as part of his campaign. So the best cure for getting rid of vocal fillers is to record a presentation at least 48 hours before you’re going to present it. Even if it’s an informal meeting, there is no reason we can’t get on Zoom 48 hours ahead of time, press record, save it to the cloud. Watch it later, and make a note of opportunities for improvement. You’re going to be a better presenter when you do that, and you’ll get rid of those filler words. This also works for the funny sounds we make with our mouths when we’re talking such as smacking our lips and nervous throat-clearing. I still record myself twice a year. I cannot stand it. It is my least favorite self-improvement method, but I do it because it works and I’ll correct something. We’re all works in progress.
MG: That is so helpful. My best friend, a veteran in medical sales, told me I had a weird throat-clearing thing. I was so grateful because I didn’t recognize it. I loved that she cared enough to TELL me! It cured me. Can you share what problems ensue with unsuccessful business communication skills?
MS: People notice. As a young speaker, I was presenting a workshop in Portland, Maine. I probably had 150 people in the seminar audience. A gentleman approached me at the first break and said, “Ms. Stanley, do you realize you’ve said the word ‘particular’ seven times already this morning. The word ‘particular’ is what we consider to be a wasted word in the English language. It adds no value or meaning to what you’re saying.” I didn’t know how to respond, so I thanked him for sharing. Later, when I had a chance to consider what he shared, I realized he was correct. I would say, “Now, on this particular slide…,” “This particular exercise…,” and “On this particular page of your workbook….” I said it entirely too frequently and didn’t even realize it. But other people did.
MG: Can you share the repercussions you’ve seen resulting from unsuccessful communication skills on the job?
MS: One of my clients asked me to work with one of her (employees). This professional was fine when speaking informally with clients. But, when it was time for an actual presentation, he was very anxious, would get pulled off topic, or would fall into the habit of using excessive filler words. (My client) said, “It’s one thing if we notice, but now some of his clients are reporting it to us. We want him to be a better representative of our firm.” So we set up a series of coaching calls, and in one of them, I explained, “You’re going to pretend I’m the client and present your findings to me.” He was getting ready for another presentation, so we worked on that. He made the presentation and afterward, I had him watch his recording. On the day of his actual presentation, he emailed me afterward and said, “Mandi, I just got a text from my boss saying I killed it during the presentation.” Not only that, but the client texted his immediate supervisor and said he did a great job. He concluded, “I’m going to feel much more prepared going forward.” Hearing this made my day! I think that’s the benefit: that we all feel more prepared and confident going forward. We’re able to correct something that isn’t working for us, or may even be working against us, as communicators in the workplace.
MG: When clients work with you to overcome communication challenges, for example, how do you encourage them to stick with better practices and not backslide?
MS: This may sound overly simple, but I call and check up on them. When I work with someone, I form a relationship with them. Even if the contract is finished and we have accomplished their goals, I’m going to follow up with them in three months, six months, and nine months, and talk with them about it. I don’t expect everything to stick. If you go to a six-hour workshop on Grammar for Grownups, you are not going to remember everything. You may remember one or two points that stick with you for years down the road, but you’re not going to remember everything. I would be fooling myself if I thought people are going to remember every word I say to them. We are all works in progress, so you want to reinforce what you’ve learned through coaches, mentors, or even good resources on the job.
MG: Do you struggle with correcting people when they say things like, “For all intensive purposes”?
MS: So you’ve been looking at my blog. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered I hadn’t been saying a word correctly for decades: the word S-H-E-R-B-E-T. I have always said, “Sherbert.” Well, there is no second R in it. It’s sherbet. I was mortified when I found that I’ve gone my entire life and not known this. I blogged about it because it was such a revelation to me, and people came out of the woodwork to talk about all these other phrases they found out they’d been saying the wrong way. A big one was what you just mentioned: all intensive purposes. It’s not “all intensive purposes”; it’s “ for all intents and purposes.”
And, no, I don’t struggle with correcting anyone. A guy came up to me before the pandemic, when I was still traveling, and said, “I bet your husband can’t stand being married to you because you’re always correcting his grammar.” I said, “Listen, we would not have been married for 29 years if I was a constant grammar corrector in our house. I am wise enough to know I don’t need to be correcting my husband’s grammar.” If you would like, I can give you a sneak peek into what the blog post is for next week.
MG: I would love that, yes! Your blog posts are really enjoyable and helpful, Mandi.
MS: Thank you, Meg. Our focus next week is another phrase. People say, “Well, I could care less.” But that implies, well, you do care. The correct saying is, “I couldn’t care less.”
MG: Do you enjoy the study of language as a whole? Where phrases come from, colloquialisms, etc.
MS: I do. I researched “I couldn’t care less.” It’s a British expression, and it’s fairly new. I believe you can even date it back to when it made its way across the pond to America. It was in the 1960s, and very shortly thereafter in America, we shortened it to “I could care less.”
MG: My mom used to tell us to speak The King’s English. That made me laugh because who thinks of it as The King’s English? I don’t think I necessarily speak that formally. But she was adamant we learn to speak well so we could write effectively. And my poor kids, I correct them to this day when their tenses don’t match, for example.
MS: Now is the time to do that. I want to be sure we are rearing a generation of strong writers. I wonder sometimes if we’re going to have a generation who can’t spell because we’re taking all these texting shortcuts. As a writing consultant, I’m seeing more and more examples of people taking texting shortcuts in their work emails. If I were to say, “I need for you to take this to Meg,” would you believe people are using the number 2 in place of the preposition “to.” Instead of spelling out Y-O-U, they use a lowercase u, or use a 4 in place of for. I believe those shortcuts can make our work groups and organizations appear unprofessional.
MG: That’s unfortunate because one element to honing our personal brand is through the way we present ourselves in the written word. Another one is “irregardless.”
MS: (Laughing) That one has been around for a long time! The main culprit was John Madden for years. He must have said “irregardless” 25 times during a football broadcast. I always wondered, with his high profile, shouldn’t someone have just whispered to Coach Madden, “It’s not irregardless. It’s regardless.” Again, the dictionary now has it listed as an acceptable expression, but it will never be an acceptable term in my book.
MG: One last one is “ink pen.” My mother hated “ink pen.”
MS: Oh, that’s a good one.
MG: She would ask, “What other kind of pen do you have unless it’s a pig pen?” My mom was a tough teacher (for us kids)! I loved it, though, because there are six of us, and we are all pretty proficient writers.
MS: She probably would have gotten onto me for something I used to say: “Oh, look, it’s starting to rain outside.” I said it for years, and then I thought about it. Well, it’s not raining inside. Of course, it’s raining outside.
MG: (Laughing) Oh, wow, I know I’ve said that, too. Now, would you sing your grammar song? Mandi, I need the grammar song.
MS: I knew you were going to ask me about that. In all fairness, the grammar song is not actually much of a song. It’s just something I made up to remember the wasted words. It goes like this: Really, rather, quite, very, pretty, just, and that. Those are the seven words you want to clean out of your writing. If we say them a lot, we need to start cleaning them out of our spoken word as well. Very is a common example. You’ll hear people say phrases like, “That’s a very unique situation.” Unique is unique. You don’t have to modify it with very. It’s unique enough in and of itself. The word that is another one. We’ll write sentences with three instances of that in one sentence, and not a single one of them is necessary because it’s understood. We would put “really” in a high school paper because we were trying to get to a thousand words in that paper, but there’s no need to use it in our professional writing. They’re wasted words in the same sense as the word particular.
MG: THAT was helpful. I want to say, “That was REALLY helpful,” but I’m trying not to. What about the omission of L-Y? Have you not seen this a lot lately?
MS: I haven’t picked up on it as much as you have, but I may start hearing it now that you’ve mentioned it to me. On a similar note, there are certain verbs you modify with adjectives that you would not use L-Y at the end. Those are our sensory verbs. Sensory verbs require adjectives, such as feel or sound. The one I hear the most is, “I feel badly that happened to you.” But that’s incorrect grammar. It’s “I feel bad.” If it’s a sensory verb, you use an adjective with it, but any other time, you add L-Y. So you would say something such as, “She’s typing slowly,” or “You responded so quickly to my email.”
MG: Do you teach grammar courses that people can sign up for as refreshers?
MS: Yes, it’s called Grammar for Grownups. It’s a quick course in grammar.
MG: How does that work?
MS: An organization or a corporation would hire me to come in, and I would prepare by studying writing samples they submit to me a month ahead of time. Grammar could be an entire semester course, but most people want a more compact three-hour workshop or a 90-minute virtual session. So I study those, and then I break the class down into confusing word pairs, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, or adjectives and adverbs. It’s different for every client because people struggle with different aspects of grammar depending on what they’re writing. I customize the courses. And every single one of those begins with a 12-question pop quiz. It is so much fun. Then we use the pop quiz as a basis for covering the guidelines and the rules they need to have refreshed.
MG: What a great approach. I would have to believe you developed this format (using attendees’ writing samples and addressing any issues you find in them) after doing these workshops for a while. It has to be so (much more) effective and valuable to your clients rather than a general review of grammar, yes?
MS: I’m glad to hear that. Yes, I don’t want it to be a cookie-cutter grammar class. Everyone can teach comma rules, but not everyone needs every comma rule. For example, people often ask me about the Oxford comma, or there may be one person not using commas correctly. And I can help with those questions. But, using (attendees’) own writing samples to point out where a comma is needed and why that comma is needed in their sentence seems to have more impact.
MG: I imagine it is more likely to resonate and elicit change — when the lesson is specific and tailored just to them. In business communication, what would you say is the biggest faux pas? In fact, can you answer for two categories: most common and most cringeworthy?
MS: Let’s use email for this example. And rather than most common, I’ll share one that’s most surprising to people. It involves how to write a professional email subject line. Here’s what I have found. When I was in college, we didn’t have email. Email composition was not taught. No one ever schooled me on how to write an email subject line. But, (because of the volume of emails we all receive) gone are the days of the one-word subject lines. A subject line such as, “Hey,” or “What’s up?” or just one word like “meeting” or “call” or “update” does not serve our readers. People are surprised to know there is a helpful formula for writing email subject lines that will be meaningful for the person receiving it. And the formula is: reason plus subject. Reason plus subject. So, crafting a strong email subject line entails stating the reason you’re writing plus the subject about which you’re writing. It would be something along the lines of, “Update to Meeting Agenda for Monday, March 29,” or “Request for Two Copies of Signed Agreement,” etc. When you use that formula for an email subject line, the recipient knows what to do with it. They’ll know if it’s an action-oriented email or perhaps a message they can file away to reference later. It allows for an efficient means of deciding what to do with the emails we receive.
Again in email, the most cringeworthy (faux pas) is forgetting an attachment. This is a true proofreading error. Many email platforms will now alert us, which is nice, if we mention an attachment in the body of email but forget to include it before clicking “SEND.” But, there’s an order in which we should compose emails, and it’s the opposite of what we’ve learned. I teach that the first component to complete when writing an email is adding the attachment. The attachment is often the reason you are sending the email because you may need to send a contract, for example, or a renewal agreement, or your resume. You don’t want to forget it, so you attach it first. It’s a habit.
The first step is to attach the necessary document or file. The second step is writing the subject line. The third is completing the body copy. And, the fourth step is filling in the recipient’s name, including the CC or the BCC. People often ask why adding the recipient’s email address is the last step, and there are two good reasons. One is so you don’t send it prematurely. There are those times we’re typing and our thumb will slip and hit return accidentally. We weren’t even finished with the email. I know it has happened to me before. But, if there’s no address typed in yet, it’s not going to go anywhere. There’s no risk of sending it before you’re ready. Think of it as a safety measure. The second reason is so you don’t accidentally send it to the wrong person. Sometimes, because we are discussing someone or thinking about them when writing the email, we could end up accidentally sending the message to them mistakenly. And that can be a breeding ground for a lot of drama and controversy. You want to make sure you’re sending it to the correct person. And that’s why you fill the recipient’s email address in last. I made this my New Year’s resolution a few years ago.
MG: This tip was the single most impactful thing I heard you say when you presented to our group a couple of years ago. Forgetting attachments is cringeworthy, and I’m so grateful to rarely make that mistake now. Huge.
Another change I made after attending your presentation was to temper my usage of exclamation points. It has not been easy, Mandi. In fact, when I picture Heaven, I envision baskets and baskets of exclamation points and even emojis that I can snatch up and toss out as I meander through crowds like a flower girl at a wedding. Everyone is getting one and I’m NOT holding back! While I’m still here (on earth), particularly in the business world, I keep to one exclamation point per email. Is one exclamation point also your limit?
MS: It is, and you’ll notice I still like a well-placed exclamation point. I may have even used one in an email with you. What I tell people jokingly in my classes is that I will allow them one exclamation point … a year.
MG: A year?! One exclamation point a YEAR? Oh, I don’t know…exclamation point rationing…
Is there anything else, any tools or books to reference which you suggest to your clients to continue on the path to improving business communications?
MS: Yes, I recommend the Franklin Covey Style Guide for Business and Technical Communication. I believe any writer in the workplace needs to have a reliable style guide. I have four on my bookshelf. Franklin Covey is the one I use most for business communication because it’s not as academic in nature. There are some great academic writing style guides, but Franklin Covey truly does target business communication. The back pages contain skeleton formats of almost any type of business document you could be called upon to compose. It provides sample copies of sales letters and resumes, cover letters, solicitations for information, complaint letters written tactfully, etc. It’s an excellent guide. For example, the page I use the most is the capitalization page to double-check when to capitalize job titles or not capitalize job titles. That’s a topic I review every once in a while to be sure.
MG: I recently had an attorney admit struggling with transitioning between styles of writing. He said his office staff told him he sounds stiff, too formal or even curt when writing emails to his team. But, because he is often focused on drafting contracts or reading Rules of Civil Procedure, the formal tone seems to bleed over into general office communication. Do you have any advice to share in this instance?
MS: It may be interesting for people to be aware of the Plain Language Initiative or PLI. The PLI began about 20 years ago as a state governmental agency handbook (it’s also a website now) because people were complaining about the legaleze and formal writing style of state agencies and their documentation. As a layperson, I don’t know that I would understand some of those legalistic terms and guidelines written with heavy contractual language as opposed to everyday language. The state of Florida (in 2007) adopted PLI guidelines and published a handbook. The governor of Florida at the time said the way we communicate with the people we serve goes a long way toward doing our job well for our citizens. And that includes the way we communicate with them. The handbook has many before-and-after examples. When we talk about people writing too formally, some of the writers in their examples used 50 words to explain something when 10 would get the job accomplished. When working with attorneys or people in the legal profession, I have seen the use of frequent run-on clauses with heavy reliance on semicolons. One sentence can consist of eight lines connected by numerous semicolons. PLI heightens awareness for writers to use language that is more easily understood. It has become so popular that President Obama adopted something similar on the federal level. I mean, I will still receive contracts that are six pages long, and I read them and I think this is a lot of boilerplate (language). But it’s a hard habit to break until you become aware of that tendency.
MG: That is helpful. I know readers will appreciate that info and reference. I have one final question. Is it grammatically correct to close emails or letters with, “Best of luck,” or “Have a great weekend,” for example? I forget the rule and get concerned because they are fragments of sentences.
MS: Yes. The “you” is implied as the subject of the sentence, so it’s correct. (Laughing) Just don’t use five exclamation points after it and you’ll be in good shape!