The Art of Asking for Help: Part Two of Three

Welcome to Part II of the three part series on the Art of Asking for Help! If you missed Part I, you can check it out here.

Part II: Who to Ask for Help

Picking up from where we left off, you have done some brainstorming and decided that you need some help. The next thing to consider is who you are going to approach. Many people rely on one or two ‘work friends’ for help, regardless of their problem. This might keep us well within our comfort zone, but can become problematic for a couple of reasons.

Although work friendships built on trust are a vital part of a healthy work life, relying on the same individual for help time and again can eventually turn into a situation where you are simply complaining to a co-worker on a regular basis - especially if this person has the same problem! It seems counter-intuitive that we would choose someone to help us who we know cannot help us, but it’s fairly common. This is because we have a need to feel understood and to vent.

Lady coworkers_AdobeStock_85122535.jpeg


When we do this, however, we are wasting both our time and the other person’s time. We are also not making any progress in finding a solution - instead, we are becoming mutually frustrated and increasingly isolated from what might be a simple answer, suggestion, solution, or helpful bit of advice. There is a better way!

Who to ask

If you are going to find a true solution to your problem, you need to think professionally, not personally. Feeling secure that you have brainstormed potential solutions and still come up short, think about what you need help with and why while thinking of the following:

  • It sounds a bit obvious, but did you Google your problem? Take what you read on the internet with a grain of salt, but also remember that there are thousands of great resources out there online. In other words - do your research!

  • Knowing when to go to your boss is sometimes tricky. Hopefully you have the type of relationship with your boss where you feel confident going to him or her for assistance. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. If you don’t feel like you can go to your boss, make a list of others you could ask which would not make it seem like you were going over your boss’ head.

  • If you need help with a technical problem, you might need a subject matter expert. This may be an opportunity to expand your network within your company and build relationships outside of your every day circle.

  • There may be someone on your team that can help. Talking to them (without falling into the complaint trap) might provide answers or suggestions on who to seek out for help.

  • If you have an issue with another coworker which you are unable to solve safely and effectively, should you go to your boss and Human Resources at the same time? Should you not burden one without starting with the other? Think about the relationship you have with your boss and make a judgement call based on this partnership and the culture of your workplace. (Note, an issue with a coworker is a situation that is negatively affecting your ability or other’s abilities to get work done in a safe, professional environment. Simply not liking someone does not qualify as an issue you should likely address.)

  • If you work for yourself, you might feel especially conflicted about who to reach out to for assistance. Do you have a mentor who has been in the same position in their career? Do you belong to a network of other professionals who can refer you to someone? Do you have a friend in another industry who might be able to provide an outside perspective? Think broadly and narrow it down from there. Sometimes the most unexpected routes yield the most desired outcomes.

  • Is there someone in your office or within your company who used to have your position or a similar role? They may have encountered the same issue and be able to provide excellent insight.

  • The person you want to ask may be in a situation where they are unable to help - especially if you see that they are a facing a deadline or focused on an important task. Here’s a helpful rule of thumb: Unless it’s a true emergency, wait for an appropriate time. You never want to take another person’s time for granted. Ask them politely if you can have a few minutes of their time, and do so on their schedule, professionally and respectfully.

Feel Confident in Your Choice

It doesn’t matter if someone is starting their first day of work as an intern or if they are the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company - people who ask questions are the wisest people. They find well-rounded solutions and demonstrate independence. They are seen as people who can, in turn, help others. They contribute to community building, idea sharing, and new ways of seeing old problems. They are an asset, not only to themselves, but to their employer, clients, and coworkers.

Once you have chosen who you will reach out to, don’t second guess yourself! If you vetted your situation, tried to solve it on your own, and put thought into who would be the best resource, you did your homework! You may not have landed on the perfect guru who can provide you with an easy answer, but you are showing initiative and taking control of your own ability to grow and solve problems. And that’s brilliant!

Your next step is figuring out the best way to ask for help. And surprise - there’s more than one!

Sign up for our Tips & Tricks on the Anthology Writing & Communications homepage to make sure you have access to part three of this series, Who to Ask for Help, which will be published soon!

The Art of Asking for Help: Part One of Three

AdobeStock_119452893.jpeg

Part I: When to Ask for Help

One of the most important ways humans communicate is by asking for help. In fact, asking for guidance is probably one of the main reasons our ancestors crossed oceans, overcame language barriers, and figured out how to launch our species into space. You would think that, by now, we would be pretty good at asking for help. You would think.

If we have been asking and giving assistance to one another for millennia, why does it often feel uncomfortable? As a culture, we need to address why so many people would rather expend twice as much energy fumbling through a problem rather than just knocking on someone’s door and asking for help.

A ‘Go it Alone’ Society

At the root of communication lies questions. In fact, there cannot be any real communication without questions. They are the foundation on which the structure of verbal interaction is built. Communication is often a balanced dance of questions and statements, and the status quo is that we receive equally as we give.

When we need help in the workplace, we subconsciously believe that we are upending this tried and true routine, this acceptable give and take approach. The status quo is the boat, and most people don’t rock the boat. Asking for help at work means approaching someone and asking them to give us their time and their knowledge. Doing this scares many people so much that they choose to sit in the boat and row in silence. This is truly a shame - because they are doing themselves and their colleagues a disservice by maintaining a system that pits people against one another out of fear. This is the boat that will eventually sink.

Society will tell you that to get ahead, you have to grit your teeth and bear it alone. That asking for help is weak. In reality, self-reliance is built on accepting your own vulnerability sometimes - we have to be okay with revealing that we don’t know everything if we want to know more tomorrow than we do today.

The trick is knowing when to ask questions, who to go to for assistance, and how to ask for help. In this first part of our three-part series, we’re going to focus on knowing when it’s time to phone a friend.

When to Ask for Help

Brainstorming solutions is a must!

Brainstorming solutions is a must!

When faced with a formidable problem at work that you cannot seem to solve, you probably need to ask for help.

First, take a few moments to brainstorm all the ways in which you could potentially solve this problem on your own. Although it’s likely you have already tried a few things, brainstorming with good old pen and paper is a fantastic way to open up the blocked channels of your mind. This is a critical step, as asking for help without first trying to help yourself may reflect poorly on your ability to problem-solve. You have to take the reasonable options of solving the dilemma on your own.

Note the word reasonable: No one expects nor wants you to waste time spinning your wheels unnecessarily (see boat analogy above). Examples of reasonable approaches vary on the urgency and nature of the problem, but in most circumstances a reasonable approach is one that doesn’t take a considerable amount of time to research, doesn’t have a negative effect on the quality or output of your work, doesn’t cause you or others distress or harm, and doesn’t effect your coworker’s ability to perform their roles as usual. Again, the minutia can change, making the brainstorming a critical part of this process - especially because we are often capable of more than we give ourselves credit for.

Once you are confident that you need help, you may be tempted to walk down the hall to your boss or send an email to HR. You’re not quite there, yet. The next thing you need to do is figure out the best person to ask - and it’s not always who you might assume.

Sign up for our Tips & Tricks on the Anthology Writing & Communication homepage to make sure you have access to part two of this series, Who to Ask for Help, which will be published soon!

Communication by Design

Communication.jpg

Whether your organization is made up of three people or relies on the talents of three-thousand, it undoubtedly has a communication style that is woven into all interactions. Whether internal or external, your unique “current” of communication is arguably one of your strongest identifiers. The manner and style with which you communicate is felt and shared by every person on the team, replicating itself until it has permeated nearly every aspect of your business.

In fact, your organization’s communication patterns are like fingerprints; they’re the invisible identity your business carries with it into every interaction.

Communication Patterns

If you think about some of the relationships in your life, such as with friends, co-workers, or family, you’ll realize that you communicate in a slightly different way with each. Businesses work this way, as well, except the workplace is a complicated relationship made up of multiple people. Over time, the manner and style in which information is shared starts to “set,” eventually establishing the tone for everything from meetings to Friday happy hours.

From the work I’ve done with a wide variety of businesses, I’ve come to believe that these communication patterns are immensely critical to both employee and customer satisfaction. Break-downs or ambiguity in communication protocols can completely disrupt a business’s ability to evolve. On a personal level, poor communication patterns can cause internal negativity and high turn-over rates. Externally, they can cause the loss of clients and the degradation of reputation.

The good news, however, is that it’s never to late to work on reshaping your communication patterns. Below, we’ll discuss a high-level approach to getting started.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall……

First and foremost, you’ll need to take a good, long look at your department, team, or organization as a whole – depending on your role or where you decide to begin. I suggest making note of all the great communication traits you have as the first exercise, only moving into what needs improvement after you’ve covered everything that’s working well.

Communication is a BIG topic – certainly larger than can be completely covered in a blog post. To address communication patterns at a large organization can be an involved undertaking and will likely require multiple champions or third-party assistance. However, from a high-level starting point, there are six main areas of your business to consider – and I bet at least a couple of them will seem a bit odd at first! You’ll want to look at each twice, however, once from an internal perspective and once from an external lens.

The six areas are as follows, along with a few questions to be addressed for each:

  1. Meetings: Internally, how often are meetings held and why? Are the meetings more to benefit management or team members? Are agendas clearly communicated beforehand? Are discussions followed up with action items or outcomes? Does everyone feel equally permitted to contribute, and do they want to? Are meetings consistent or unpredictable? Is there a formal process in place for annual reviews, and could it be improved upon?

  2. Content and Intellectual Property: Is company documentation static or interactive? Has it evolved alongside of the company? Are content and ideas saved, organized, and communicated by design, or by default?

  3. Marketing: How often and why is messaging developed? Does it communicate your unique value? In larger companies with marketing departments, do they practice internal marketing or just external marketing? In smaller companies, has marketing become an after-thought?

  4. Social Events: Are social events planned for fun and relationship building? Is it hard for new people to acclimate? How often do employees get together? Do you make time to form relationships with clients? Do you communicate social situations so they are inclusive?

  5. Business Celebrations: Do you celebrate and encourage one another? Do you acknowledge successes and milestones with clients? Do you celebrate personal events among employees, such as birthdays?

  6. Feedback Forums: Is communication a one-way street, or do employees have forums to share or spearhead new ideas? Does the company conduct exit interviews? Are new positions filled internally before advertised externally? Do clients have the opportunity to provide feedback?

The example questions above – some internal and some external – are just a few of the questions that might come up. Brainstorming may take a day or a year depending on the size and type of organization; the key is to get a thorough picture of all the communication patterns at play so you can understand how to eventually build upon what is working.

Communication By Design

Communication 2.jpg

Addressing each one of these areas first internally, then externally, will help you gauge the communication patterns influencing your business relationships. As mentioned, – and this is important – focus on the positive first! These are the traits that you will use as examples for other areas of your organization that might need some help. Take what makes you unique, weave it into your communication patterns, and build in consistency. Once brainstorming is complete and it’s time to start making changes, start small – maybe with just one meeting – and develop new patterns over time. Serve as an example of the patterns you are trying to establish, and truly incorporate feedback into your plans.

Hopefully, by thinking about how communication patterns effect every aspect of your business, and then spending time to analyze their effects in the major areas of your operation, you can begin to build a communication plan by design.

Emotional Markers in Business Writing

Checkpoint.PNG

Think about a recent article you read, show you watched, or story you heard. Whether or not you realized it, you were carried along that journey through a progression of what I like to call emotional markers, or milestones that elicit feeling and offer an engaging bridge to the next level.

Using too few emotional markers in your content runs the risk of losing the audience’s attention. You’ve undoubtedly read this type of document before, where one thing runs into the next and nothing seems to stick. On the flip side, using too many emotional markers makes the reader feel like you’re trying too hard and detracts from your major points of impact.

There are certain moments that leave an emotional footprint on a reader – even in the driest of documents – and it’s worthwhile to map them out before you start writing. Placing the right markers in the appropriate places can make an incredible improvement to your documents, especially in a world where so many things are simultaneously competing for our reader’s attention.

Once you are able to identify emotional markers, it’s an easy transition to using them in your own work.  Luckily, they often have certain characteristics, such as the following:

  • They may be written with a slightly different sentence structure or tone than the rest of the document.

  • They bring out important information or data that you want your reader to remember.

  • They remind your reader what they are reading and why.

  • They either provide answers or summaries of what you have already stated, or hooks to draw your reader into what comes next.

  • They drive home a point quickly and with great impact.

A Shout Out to Cartographers

Map makers have been using this technique for thousands of years. Larger cities and roads are obviously larger or titled more clearly. This is because they are emotional markers – they give the viewer a sense of where they are (relativity) and why it matters (correlation). If the map showed everything in an area in the same way, it would be overwhelming and counter-productive.

When you create a document in the business world, it’s obviously not the same as when you sit down to write a short story or novel. Yes, you are bound to rules that can hinder creativity in the business world, but that is precisely why you need to find ways to sneak in the magic where you can if you want your readers to be emotionally invested….if our work was already doing that, we’d see folks lined up at Barnes & Noble to buy stacks of proposals and white papers!

A great way for you to channel the creativity is to think of yourself as a cartographer. Your mission is to provide a map to the reader that will tell them where to go, how to get there, and why they want to be there. More importantly, they should think they found their way all on their own.

Let’s look at a couple examples:

  • Proposals: Requests for Proposals usually provide a distinct order in which the reviewer wants information to be provided. It often includes submitter information, qualifications, similar experience, and experience of the proposed team. This information is the template they almost always go by because it’s clear – it takes them from high-level to specifics. It’s up to the submitter to emotionally charge each of these areas so the reviewers mentally earmark differentiators about the proposal as they move onto the next submission. They need to feel as they read rather than read about how you feel.

  • Case Studies: We’ve all read a boring case study, and they make me so sad! The whole purpose of a case study is to tell an awesome ‘before and after’ story – this is your time to shine! Make sure to use emotional checkpoints between sections so the reader can really feelthe change you brought about. Discussing how bad a situation was before you stepped in? Leave a hook at the end of the section so the reader thinks, “that’s not good! How did they ever fix that?”

Avoid Copying the Copycats

Adobe Stock Copycat_Anthology Use Only.jpg

Think for a moment about the people, places, books, movies, film, or art that have impacted you. There was something about that person or thing that stood out among the ringing cell phones and small talk of the world and left a change in you. I bet that there was something different that you saw or felt that gave you a bit of a jolt – maybe not everyone felt it, but youdid.

The something different – the ‘je ne sais quoi’ – doesn’t come from trying to be like the herd. There is something exceptional  in what you do, and it will be lost if you try to capitalize on what worked for someone else.

Now I’m not saying that you should be unprofessional or pretentious; rather, I’m encouraging you to choose new words, re-envision your stories, and create authentic emotional checkpoints that represent what you and your company truly have to offer. By all means, you need to familiarize yourself with what else is out there to keep your edge, but using that information in the right way is what can empower you to blaze your own trail.

Bring it Home

I wholeheartedly believe that the more you read, the better you write. I find it helpful to occasionally spend a few minutes flipping through passages from books or online articles, trying to find the emotional markers embedded within. Anything that draws you in, that makes you nod in agreement or epiphany, or enhances the way you engage with rest of the piece is an emotional marker.

I’ll leave you with some of my favorite quotes about writing with purpose and genuine intent….I guess in a way, a good quote is an emotional marker that is so on point, it stands alone.

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
― Mark Twain

“We owe it to each other to tell stories.”
― Neil Gaiman

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
― Robert Frost

 

Until next time, happy communicating!

Sarah

Proposal Show Versus Tell: Play to Win

Idea Laptop_AdobeStock_121176313.jpeg

Writing proposals is an art form; there is infinite potential to improve, even if you consider yourself to be an expert. The challenge involved is one of the things I love about the process.

My experience writing proposals – whether for technology consulting, non-profit grant submittals, or multi-million dollar infrastructure projects – has taught me one massively important lesson:

You cannot “tell” your way into a win.

You might be the world’s most convincing writer. Or maybe you know beyond a doubt that your team can solve your client’s issue in a way that no other team can. Maybe these are both true AND you have the lowest price. None of it will truly translate to the reviewers if you tell them these things.

For example, have you ever written or read any of these phrases?

“Our team brings innovative solutions to the most complex problems.”

“Project Manager Joe Smith has experience on projects of similar size and scope.”

“Our solutions are developed outside of the box.” (more on this one later)

If you have, you’re not alone. The fact is that we all have. Work is busy, proposals are time consuming, and someone on the team always seems to throw these phrases into the mix. The problem with these phrases, and so many like them, is that you are telling your reader what to believe. After reading proposal after proposal, I bet reviewers get pretty tired of being told the same thing by every team.

I also bet that they don’t believe it.

Let the reviewer draw their own conclusion

Let’s say you visit a phenomenal new restaurant and have the best meal of your life. Are you going to recommend that restaurant to a friend because they told you how delicious their steak tartare is? Of course not! You concluded that the dish was delectable all on your own when you ate it. It means more to you because it is your thought.

The same can be said about your services. Let the reviewer experience a little of what you have to offer by allowing them to decide – on their own – that you are the one to beat.

For example:

Instead of: Our team brings innovative solutions to the most complex problems.
Try: On a recent residential, two-lane project with similar stormwater issues, our team developed a multi-phased drainage plan which allowed us to finish the project ahead of schedule and reduce costs by avoiding flooding.

If I’m the reader and stormwater runoff is one of my concerns, I’m going to appreciate that this firm has creatively dealt with the same problem, in the same area, on the same type of property as mine. Every detail that is put into a sentence should pertain specifically to that client, for that project. Every detail.

Instead of: Project Manager Joe Smith has experience on projects of similar size and scope.
Try: Joe Smith’s experience in customized firewalls was critical in protecting the data of over 150,000 of WidgetStore’s customers during the retail hacker epidemic of 2016.

Practice makes (nearly) perfect when it comes to showing versus telling. An easy way to get started is to make a few simple switches at a time –  consider the following:

  • Stories are good; Stories with metrics are better.

  • Words are like money – spend them wisely and get the most bang for your buck.

  • Call out boxes are billboards – a couple are impactful, too many are clutter.

  • Avoid the “out of the box” oxymoron like the plague.

  • Believe in your services! You are going after this contract because you know you can fulfill it. There are certainly ways in which you offer unique advantages to your clients, so give them something fresh to review! Even if you are not awarded the contract, you will have made a fantastic impression!

It won’t happen overnight

ItGetsEasier_AdobeStock_76057883_Anthology Use Only.jpeg

There will always be a bit of content in a proposal which you won’t have time to “prove.” Every time you work on a response, however, you can build upon changes you made the last time around. It’s tough to think that you company’s content will never be completely done, however that is actually a good thing! It’s an ongoing process of refining and improving your message, because when we are learning and changing, we are on the right track.

To ensure that you don’t lose the important advances you make, organize your content using a content management system –  don’t have one? No need to worry, it will be the topic of our next Hints & Tips post.

 

Happy communicating,

Sarah