Writer & Teacher.

Passionate about Communication.

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I can teach you how to write and speak well.

I’m a writer who teaches writing and public speaking skills. I want to help you communicate clearly and effectively, so I filled this site with tutorials, practical tips and articles about Writing, Public Speaking, and Communication. I hope you find it useful.

You can ask questions or share comments @LucindaAtwood.

 

If Your Boss Is Reading This, I’ve Got Bad News For You: Giving useful negative feedback

Handled skillfully, negative feedback can generate positive outcomes. If you need to give negative feedback, try to make it useful, actionable and helpful.

Before you start, take a minute.

Review the situation, evaluate your response and decide what you want.

1. Focus on facts—the kind you can observe and measure. Know what you want and don’t want. Describe those things without resorting to namecalling or useless generalities.

2. Avoid accusations and slander. No one listens when feeling defensive.

3. Focus on Actions. Namecalling labels people. Avoid namecalling by talking about the person’s actions and their relationship to the problem.

3. Try to assume the best of people. We don’t know what loads other people carry or what else is going on in their lives. It’s best to start from a place of empathy.

4. Collaborate to solve the problem. Focus on the actions that need to change, how to change them, and how you will recognize and measure success.

Do

  1. Describe the problem and how the listener’s actions relate to it. Be precise.
  2. Describe the outcome you want.
  3. Ask for analysis, feedback, suggestions, solutions.
  4. Listen. Listen. Keep listening.
  5. Collaborate to solve the problem.
  6. Evaluate the success of your actions.
  7. Review & refine.
  8. Repeat as necessary.

 

No Offense: Taking Criticism

It’s easy to offend people—look at social media. Even if you’re not a puppy-kicking troll, chances are good that you will offend someone at least once in your life. 

Perhaps you purposely or accidentally did something wrong, or maybe it’s just a case of different values. In either situation you might receive negative feedback.

Receiving criticism and negative feedback can be upsetting—it’s common to feel defensive. But negative feedback can be informative and useful once you know how to accept it.

Try to listen openly, with a willingness to learn. Listening isn’t prevarication—it’s a chance to learn how your words and actions affect other people, which is always useful feedback

People tend to get angry when offended.  They’re offended and they’re mad that they’re offended. Depending on the person’s age and maturity, you might hear strong emotions.

Listen, trying not to absorb the other person’s anger. (Nothing good happens when everyone’s upset.) Ignore their emotions and focus on their words: what did they experience? 

Take care of yourself. Step back, give yourself time to think. If appropriate thank them for the feedback.

  • If you need time to think about what they said, say so.
  • If you’re sorry for your actions, say so.
  • If you’d like to find a solution, say so.
  • If you need more information, ask for it.
  • If you can’t think of a single thing to say or do, just say oh. Unless you’re in court, there’s no law that you have to respond. And if the person is very angry, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to listen rationally.

Later, reflect on what happened. What did you learn? Find the positive, useful information from the experience. Even if it’s only that you’ll never do that again, you have learned, and thus turned a bad experience into life experience.

Receiving Negative Feedback: 3 Tips

  1. Try to stay calm. Breathe in through your nose and relax your body.
  2. Look at the speaker. Direct eye contact is risky because it might seem aggressive, so soften your focus and try to see their whole face.
  3. Try to just listen; don’t formulate a response or get caught up in your emotions.

 

Layout Basics: Lines & Tables & Boxes (Oh My)

Effective tables, lists and boxes make documents easier to read and use. You don’t have to be a visual designer—just think about what makes your words and ideas easier to understand.

1. Write and edit your content. Add headings and other text treatments (bold, italics, etc) to guide your reader. Then review your document, looking for places where lists, block quotes, or tables can increase usability. Add those items, then edit again.

2. Test your Document. Ask 1-5 people who are like your readers to read all or part of your document. Ask them:

  • What was perfectly clear; what was confusing?
  • Did they want to read it/expect it to be usable?
  • Was it useful/informative/interesting?

3. Review & Refine. What can you add, remove or change to make your document even more approachable and useful?

8 Tips For Better Tables, Boxes & Lines

  1. Use the fewest lines and boxes possible—can you use lists and/or text treatments instead?
  2. Lighter, thinner lines and borders are usually better. Let your content be what readers see first; not lines.
  3. Organize rows and columns in a logical progression.
  4. Group related columns as appropriate.
  5. Make row and column titles brief, informative and clear.
  6. Row and column titles should be bigger and/or bold. Treat them like minor headings.
  7. Cell content should be brief. (A too-big table is unusable.) You can place extra information at the back or in a separate document, as appropriate.
  8. Don’t depend on boxes, lines, or arrows to fix unclear writing.

 

Attractive, Easy & Quick: Infographics done well

Infographics are an excellent response to limited reading times and shortened attention spans. Done well, they communicate even complex ideas efficiently. Using less time and space than type, informational graphics save your reader time and energy.  But beware; done wrong, they can frustrate, confuse and alienate your readers. Ideally they’re created by professionals, but if you want to try for yourself and don’t have the time to read Envisioning Information, keep these tips in mind.

3 Traits of Successful Infographics

  1. They’re visually appealing.
  2. They are easy to understand.
  3. They provide more insight than text alone.

5-Second Cheatsheet: Promising Useful Content

No one reads anymore. We scan—glance at a website or document, and decide in about 5 seconds if it merits more attention.

You can help your reader quickly understand if your content is useful to them. Physical clues such as formatting, colors and layout tell readers if your content is what they want and need. Helping your reader to make quick, accurate evaluations supports their productivity and shows respect for their time and energy. Those who stick around will already be engaged with your content, which means less work for you.

 

5-Second Test Questions

  1. The shape of the content: Is it a massive block of text or approachable, with lots of white space?
  2. Overall appearance: Does it look like readers expect it to? (ie professional, fun, informative, trustworthy)
  3. Colors: Are they useful, appropriate and readable?
  4. Hierarchy: Do headings and organization help readers easily find what they want and need?
  5. Words that stand out: Are titles, captions and headings informative? Are important words and ideas bolded, italicized, or surrounded by white space? Do first-seen words reflect readers’ interests and needs?

Catchy Headings & Dipping Sauce

Good headings describe the contents of your presentation or document; they can also entice your audience. I recently read a post entitled “Human Trafficking and Taco Bell Sauce” solely because of the discordant title.

An intrigued audience is already engaging with your content—voluntarily. Your fascinating content and presentation style will keep them engaged.

6 Hints for Better Headings

  1. Keep them short, especially for mobile.
  2. Use common words—audiences ignore what we don’t understand.
  3. Active words and phrases suggest useful, practical content.
  4. Aim for catchy and descriptive (Human Trafficking and Taco Bell Sauce really was about those topics)
  5. Try to include WIIFM (what’s in it for me): why would your audience want to read/view/attend this? (I wanted to call this post Human Trafficking and Taco Bell Sauce, but apart from stealing someone else’s creativity, it wouldn’t tell writers and presenters why they’d want to read it.)
  6. Match the tone to your content. Use humor if you’re funny (or think you are), slang if you’re informal, and long academic-style titles if you want to sound intellectual.
  7. Free bonus tip: as always, think from your audience’s point of view. What do they want, like and need? What attracts them?

The Problem with Problem Words

I retweeted @MariaSpinola’s link to an excellent article (Does Your Website Pass The 5 Second Test?). In my opinion all documents could—and should—be put to the 5 second test. I wanted to add a tip to my retweet; that formatting and good headings help any document pass that test. I worried later, though, that the word “any” could be read as dismissive or sarcastic; a sort of “any fool knows that” intonation. Luckily Maria didn’t read it that way. But it got me to thinking.

How does your audience—reader, listener, viewer—interpret your words? We all have filters of knowledge, prejudice and experience through which other peoples’ words pass. How can your well-intentioned words be misinterpreted?

  • If you compliment someone on an improvement, do they hear it as criticism of the way things were?
  • If you say someone did something smart, do they hear it as surprise that someone ‘as dumb as them’ could have done that?
  • Can your words be understood as sarcastic? (Pro tip: never use sarcasm)
  • Will international audiences take the correct meaning of an idiom, or the literal translation? (See left-handed toons To Kick the Bucket)
  • Will the kidz understand you? Oldies like me reference Clark Gable, radio buttons, and getting rid of static; be sure your content is age-appropriate, especially if it’s a jokey insult like “Jane, you ignorant s—.” (Pro tip: be overly cautious with humour)

Respect for Your Audience = Clear, Efficient Communication

Respect improves many things, including speaking and writing. When you respect your audience—reader, viewer or listener—your words naturally become more clear. You think from their point of view about what they already know, need to know and want to know. You treasure their time and use it respectfully. You use words, ideas and images they can easily understand. You make it about them and not you; your goal is service rather than self-glorification.

5 Questions that will Improve Your Speaking & Writing

  1. Who is your audience: what do they want and need to know?
  2. How much time do they have?
  3. What else is going on in their lives?
  4. What’s most important to them?
  5. Are you humbly and honestly trying to serve  your audience, or working to impress them?

 

4 Traits of Successful Public (and private) Speakers

I was recently at a speech contest. Despite a variety of styles and personalities, the best speakers shared four traits:

1. Honesty
The best speakers were themselves. They didn’t try to project false confidence, unfelt humility or fake personas. They started where they were, in terms of confidence and experience, and moved forward. The winning speaker even joked about being nervous.

Tips: Speak from the heart and trust your audience. Let yourself be nervous—listeners want to like you and will support you as you gain confidence moving through the speech. (But be careful of seeming pathetic; audiences don’t want to pity a speaker.)
• Ground yourself literally. Balance your weight so you are standing with equal pressure on each foot. Feel the support come up through your entire feet—heels, sides, soles and toes—then rise through relaxed knees and into a balanced pelvis. Engage the core, straighten your spine a little, lift your shoulders and raise your chin. (Practice in a mirror before doing this in public!)

2. Calm
The best speakers allowed short silences to let a point sink in or land a joke. Pauses create emphasis and effect, underscoring what was just said. They also vary the pace of your speech, preventing monotony.

A long pause recaptures the audience’s interest (because, let’s face it, our attention span is about 7 seconds these days) as we wonder if the speaker has lost their train of thought or if something’s gone wrong. Sad but true: we perk up at the possibility of a train wreck.

Calm allows everyone to calm down. It’s natural to speak too fast when you’re nervous—adrenaline’s coursing about, and you know that the faster you speak the sooner you’ll be done and able to sit down and stop worrying about the stupid speech. But speedy speakers turn people off: audiences want to be passengers on a relaxing and well-crafted journey.

Calm speaking provides emotional space for the audience. Some speakers try to elicit a stronger response than their words evoke—the difference between telling a funny story and telling an unfunny one followed by “it was hilarious!”—which makes their audience uncomfortable. (It’s because they’re asking listeners to be dishonest; think of the over-eager novice comedian—you laugh too hard and feel slightly embarrassed.) Calm tells the audience that you have confidence in your content.

Calm also lends credibility. While it’s important to believe in what you’re saying, calm gives your listeners space to draw their own conclusions. You’ve probably experienced an overly-enthusiastic speaker or pushy salesman. How did you feel? Like they were trying to force you to agree with them? And how did you react; by resisting the person and their message? When we speak calmly we present ourselves as so secure and truthful that we don’t need tricks or coercion.

Calm does not mean boring. Raise your voice, get animated, show your passion. Just be sure it’s honest.

Tips: Breathe. In through your nose-2-3-4-5, and down to your lungs. This will calm you and make you look confident.
• When you practice your speech, time it. Record it. Can you add more pauses? Try again with seemingly unnaturally long pauses—how does that look in playback?

3. Movement
One of the best speakers that night left the podium as he spoke, walking up the aisles of the auditorium and forcing his audience out of our lazy passivity. It worked well, but be careful: too much movement distracts and exhausts the audience.

But don’t just stand there in penalty-kick position. Move your arms, hands, feet and head. Turn your shoulders, take a few steps. You don’t have to go overboard and look like an opera diva; just make small gestures to drive a point home or underscore ideas. Moving about a bit gives the audience something to watch—visual stimulus.

Tips: If you don’t naturally move your hands when speaking, practice doing so. Over time it will become more natural.
• Avoid pointing because it can seem aggressive and rude, especially in some cultures. Instead, try a palm-up open hand, which is more of an inclusive, positive gesture.
• Keep those hands away from your face! Also out of your hair, jewelry, pockets…

4. Eye Contact
The best speakers looked around. Whether or not they made actual eye contact, they appeared to. They connected, turning broadcast into dialogue.

Tip: Sometimes actual eye contact distracts both you and the listener. Occasionally a speaker locks onto one person and forgets to sweep their gaze to include everyone. If you’re speaking to a group you may prefer the method of looking at the spot between people’s eyebrows. It feels like connection but won’t distract you, or your audience, and you’re less likely to get locked in.

Master Tip: The 4 traits listed above will make you a better speaker in both group and one-on-one situations. Watch speakers (live or on Ted talks), paying attention to their hands, feet, heads, voices and respiration. Learn what works and doesn’t, then practice practice practice (in a mirror or on video) until your delivery supports your wonderful content.

 

Public Speaking: instant tips and long-term skillbuilding

Maybe you have to speak in a meeting, lead a workshop, or present to a crowd; whatever the reason, here are lifesaving last-minute tips, and advice for long-term results.

7 Quick Tips

(The Event’s in 5 Minutes—I Need Help NOW!)

1. Think about your audience: Who are you talking to?
Imagine your speech from your listeners’ point of view: what do they want to hear, see, learn? How much of their (life)time are you asking? What else are they thinking or worrying about?

2. Stand your ground.
Most new speakers back up as they speak. This makes you seem unsure. Plant your feet, stand balanced and strong. Walk around a little if appropriate, but don’t pace or wander off. Be aware of what your hands are doing; keep them out of your pockets and off your face. Holding a pen gives them something to do. Small gestures are good.

3. Slow down.
Relax. Your audience wants you to succeed. Pause, gather your thoughts, stay conscious. Breathe in slowly through your nose. When you make an important point, pause to let it sink in.

4. Use your voice to keep listeners interested.
You have a range from soft to strong, quiet to loud(er), serious to lighthearted. Use it.

5. Give.
We get nervous when our ego says it’s all about us, so focus on giving rather than receiving. Think of your words as gifts—how can you help your audience realize their goals?

6. Accept that you’re nervous.
Of course you’re nervous. It’s normal and part of being human. Just remember that your audience wants you to succeed; they want those gifts.

7. Practice, practice, practice.
Out loud, in a mirror, while recording yourself, or silently in your head. If you have time, run through the whole speech ten times. If you have 30 seconds, pause, gather your thoughts, and decide on your main points.

I Want to Build My Skills

(aka Long-Term Improvements)

Join Toastmasters. It’s a wonderful place to learn and practice speaking and presenting. I had no idea how much I would learn, what great people I would meet, or how positively it would influence my life. Check it out: most clubs let you visit with no obligation. You can find club listings at toastmasters.org.

 

The Power of our Words

My heart broke as I watched a young dad yelling at his crying two-year-old. I wanted to swoop in, rescue the kid, and teach the dad how big and scary he was. The dad was obviously frustrated beyond belief, but yelling wasn’t a great choice.

I too have felt that level of frustration, in my roles as boss, parent and teacher. But we have to remember how big and scary we are—whether literally, to children, or figuratively, to adult learners.

It’s easy to forget that employees and adult learners are not peers. As bosses and teachers our words carry weight. Our opinion and attention is valued; even small remarks can make a difference.

Parents, bosses and teachers must constantly be aware of the power we wield. We can make a difference in someone’s sense of self, intelligence, and capability. Without knowing it, we can open a door or slam it shut.

Pro Tips

Be careful of your comments, even to adults. Adults carry crazy amounts of emotional baggage. Always remember you don’t know their personal stories; you don’t know what else is going on for them. In the case of adult learners, you don’t know their previous learning experiences.

Avoid teasing. No matter how innocuous or well-intentioned, teasing can be embarrassing or cruel. It’s somewhat passive-aggressive too; no one can object to being teased without looking like a jerk.

Avoid labels. I once watched a teacher single out a student as the “only ginger in the classroom.” I know the instructor was trying to be lighthearted, but it made me uncomfortable for her and the student.

Avoid over-praise. This can alienate the rest of the team or embarrass the recipient. In a learning situation, students may not appreciate being seen as much smarter than their peers.

Encourage curiosity, experimentation and failure. Being a student—of life or in school—requires a willingness to fail publicly. If an answer totally misses the mark say something like “I understand how you got there; your thinking makes sense. Thanks for speaking up.” Draw attention to what’s right.

In summary, you don’t know what’s going on in peoples’ heads: keep your words and attitude positive and professional. You are in a position of respect and power. Remember that your words carry weight. Be the encourager, not the reason they quit.

 

Public Speaking: Tips for Teachers

I was the wittiest teacher in town, until that fateful day when, literally mid-joke, I realised why my for-credit students were laughing. (Responding well to She Who Gives Grades is never a bad strategy.) Damn. I shut my mouth and got serious about my job.

Which isn’t to say I’m solemn when I teach. I believe that keeping things lighthearted helps learners. But now I put the spotlight less on me and more on them.

Pro Tips

Don’t confuse attention with adoration. It’s easy to confuse students’ attention with adulation. Most courses are structured so that the teacher is the center of attention; don’t be seduced by that. Injecting a sense of yourself into your course is good—it helps humanize you and shows students your inclinations and biases—but oversharing becomes tedious. Your job is less star and more server; you exist to deliver, coach and facilitate. It’s not about you or your witty stories.

Share with caution. Be careful of what you share: injecting a little bit of performance into your presentation is useful to maintain interest, but becoming a clown is not. You have to maintain the teacher-learner covenant, which is that you are a professional who will facilitate their learning. If they lose respect for you, learners are less likely to learn from you—it’s hard to learn from someone you don’t respect.

Keep it minimal. Learning is hard work; including extra information, such as anecdotes and jokes, may add too much bulk to the content. Humans love stories, and can learn from them, but for every story you tell, there are those who will want to pile on with their own anecdotes. Valuable class time can easily disappear, and some learners will resent that.

Keep it pertinent. If your anecdote illustrates the point, include it.

You don’t know your learners’ personal stories. Stories about the cute thing your kid said may build community, but may alienate or distract some participants.

Think about it from your audience’s point of view. How you would feel if your teacher included a similar story—would it help your learning experience? I am both a student and teacher, which sure keeps me grounded in the realities of both. I’ve experienced angry resentment when a teacher wasted time nattering about something completely off-topic. Although smiling at your cute story, your captive audience may be thinking “I paid a shwack of money, studied diligently, and got up early for this?”

As teachers we need to remember that our learners have made compromises. Time, money, sleep—these are things they give up to attend our programs; it’s our duty to honour those sacrifices.

 

Complaining: Committed & Uncommitted

Committed complaining: have you heard of it? I was introduced to the concept in a communication course. The idea is that we complain in one of two ways: committed or uncommitted to fixing the problem.

Sometimes we complain with commitment: “I am cold. I want to change that, so I’ll get a sweater.” Sometimes we’re just grousing: “I’m cold, my office is cold, I hate working here, my boss is a nightmare…”

Uncommitted complaining begins and ends with the complaint. You don’t like something but are not going to change anything; all you’re looking for is a little stress release. Uncommitted complaining is often done at someone.

Committed complaining, on the other hand, is active, positive and creative. It’s working to understand an issue, planning and implementing strategies, evaluating outcomes, and iterating to create elegant solutions. 

Clear Writing for Teachers: Assignment Briefs

Good for you. You started your course or program by telling everyone what they need to know about the course, and where to find that information when they need it.

Now we’re going to talk about assignments, specifically assignment briefs. Assignment briefs are the information you give when assigning the work. Except in special cases, briefs should be written and available in a permanent location. (Ephemeral briefs will cause problems. Give your students resources they can refer to later.)

A brief should be a complete, concise and clear description of what you want, why, and when. Incoherent or incomplete briefs lead to confusion and possibly unfair representations of student abilities. (They also lead to you getting a headache from answering twenty thousand questions, or worse, the same question twenty thousand times.)

A brief is an action document: students should clearly understand what to do. Remember, you are intimately familiar with the course—you may have designed it, and possibly have delivered it previously. You know what you want. But your students don’t; they need all the details.

Don’t play games or be obscure. If you prefer to give minimal information, tell your learners what you’re doing and why: “I’m leaving this brief vague to encourage your investigative skills” or “The final deliverable is your choice: essay, animation or interpretive dance.” 

When it comes to marking, you have certain criteria in mind; students need to know them. I usually include a marking sheet that describes the criteria and their weighting. I’ve posted a sample here.

Assignment Briefs—what to include:

  1. Course Name (yours may not be the only course they’re taking)
  2. Assignment Name
  3. Due Date (and time if applicable)
  4. Milestone Due Dates (if appropriate)
  5. Assignment Overview—topics, methods, background (keep it short and simple)
  6. Rationale—what purpose does this assignment serve? (shows respect for students and helps them understand the assignment)
  7. Deliverables—what artifacts do you want/expect?
  8. Submission or Presentation Instructions—for example: essays need a cover page; videos must be posted to this location; presentations must be 10-15 minutes long
  9. Grading Matrix—a breakdown of the total mark (sample here)
  10. Procedure for those with questions

Let bullet points be your friend.

Check your assignment brief:

  • Does it clearly state what is to be delivered and when? (Clarity is especially important for international and lower-literacy students.)
  • Have you included enough and not too much information?
  • Could anyone understand exactly what you want? Test it—ask someone unfamiliar with the course what they would do in response to this brief.

Iteration Tip: Document the questions most commonly asked about this assignment and include their answers next time you use this brief.

Pro Tip: So much information comes at us that we no longer remember things; we remember where to find answers when we have a question. So all that info you gave at the start of the course will be forgotten. (For example, I won’t remember anything you said about the grading matrix until I have an assignment due.) Be sure learners know the permanent location of all course info, including assignment briefs.

Clear Writing for Teachers: 7 Items to Include in Course Descriptions

The basis of good teaching is clear communication. Clear communication is telling your audience what they need and want to know in a way that they can easily understand.

Teachers often forget to clearly communication their course’s structure. Give yourself and your adult learners a gift: give them all the details. Then place those details in a permanent spot that’s easy to access.

Don’t just distribute the information—review it to ensure everyone understands. It does take time away from course content, but it’s still part of teaching. Making the course structure clear allows participants to relax and focus on learning.

The first step in any course or workshop is teaching your learners how you’ve structured things. Describe the learning structure in three ways:

  1. In writing before the course starts (usually done through email; if you make an introductory video, include access to a transcript); and
  2. Orally and in writing on Day 1; and
  3. In writing that is posted in a permanent location. (You may choose to give handouts as well, but when students lose those they can refer to the website.)

Include this kind of information:

1. The course name
2. Your name and contact information
3. Course calendar:

  • Number of lessons
  • Start and end dates; holidays or dates that class is cancelled or in a different place (field trips, lab days)
  • Due dates of assignments and other deliverables (divide large assignments into milestones) Depending on the program, you may choose to do this later, as discussion about due dates usually begets premature discussion about the assignments.

4. Permanent location of:

  • Course outline
  • Learning outcomes
  • Grading matrix
  • Course calendar
  • Instructor contact info
  • Assignment briefs
  • Assignment submission processes
  • Readings and resources
  • Course components (discussion forums, collaboration tools)
  • Institutional information (graduation requirements, course withdrawal or challenge information, school policies)

5. Class or Session Schedule:

  • Start and stop times
  • Break times (at least every 90 minutes) and length

6. Class structure if applicable:

  • Class location(s)
  • Do you always discuss the homework first; do you want students online 15 minutes before class starts? (Think what information will help them be ready to learn and collaborate.)

7. Where the bathrooms are.

 

Great-great-niece* of renowned Canadian authors Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, Lucinda Atwood teaches people how to communicate successfully in writing and speech. She shares her views on spirit and wisdom at Esperanza Spiritulata.

(*Number of greats may not be scientifically accurate.)