Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Paris Attacks: Lessons Learned from the Media

The attacks in Paris last week were horrific, and they graphically showed a dark side that remains on our earth. At the same time, there was an outpouring of solidarity for the victims, city of Paris, and country of France. My sympathies go out to the victims’ families and other people who were affected by this event. As did millions of others across the world, I watched in horror as the aftermath became increasingly clear.

Fortunately, the media were there almost instantaneously reporting on the events, and journalists from dozens of countries were on the ground within hours. Viewers were dependent on professional reporting to present accurate and up-to-date information on what was known about all things related to the attacks.

What got my attention in the hours and days after November 13 were the facts, speculation, and revised statements about what happened. News reports after a major catastrophe are, in my view, always a developing story. We learn a little bit at the beginning, increasingly more as the hours and days go on, and if we’re lucky, one day we get the truth about what really happened. That is just the way it goes with big and complicated events such as the attacks.

I noticed three media trends develop over the past week, and I want to mention them today and show how they relate to us in our daily lives. The lessons learned thus far from the Paris news coverage are directly applicable to us at work and elsewhere.

1. Initial accounts are seldom true or complete; facts change.

There was simply too much going on in the hours and first day or so after the events to know exactly what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and who did it. This may seem obvious, and that is why I am pointing it out today. It is noted that the media is not privy to all the information that law enforcement and intelligence agencies know at any particular moment, so it would make sense that the French authorities would withhold some of their information for fear of compromising their investigation.

In the attacks, I noticed that it took about a half-day before we began to get solid and credible information. Some of this differed substantially from the initial reports on the night of the attacks. Was it one group that attacked all locations, or were there multiple teams that had different missions? In what order did the attacks occur? Were all the assailants dead as was initially reported, or, as we later found out, did one escape into the night? Again, this is just the way it is: Not all information is known at the beginning.

That is why we who work in or with organizations must be relentlessly proactive at the beginning of an assignment or project, regardless of the scope. For us to get all the information we need to make decisions or adjust course, this information gathering is heavy at the beginning while it remains constant and intense throughout the project. Information gathering never ends, nor should it. In the macro and micro environments in which we operate, change is inevitable and the facts and assumptions change frequently. Communication to, from, and throughout all levels of our organizations is key to successful outcomes.

If we are to make the right decisions along the way, we have to act just like French law enforcement and the international community are acting right now. They are relentless in their attempt to get fresh and correct information each day, because each day gives them the opportunity to get closer to the end of their most immediate problem, or project. The media are doing the same thing by being open to this truth, accepting the constant change, doing their job by validating their sources, and reporting what we should know. So for us, the lesson learned is to work hard on a project, but be open to changes in our facts, assumptions, and environments so that we too can succeed at what we’re doing.

2. If someone says something is true, that is not necessarily so.

During the Paris coverage over the past week, we heard from witnesses and news commentators who gave their opinions on what had happened and why. The first-hand witness statements tended to be accurate, though in a several instances I noticed that some people extended their testimony by making some questionable statements about what they saw happen. In addition, some witness statements directly contradicted the accounts of others. I will not judge them on this; they went through an intense and tragic situation that will haunt them for many years. 

As for the media, they reported what they knew: raw information and solid facts once verified. Yet again, there were numerous instances where a television journalist would make a statement, and the next day this would be proved false. Is it the fault of the journalists? In most cases the answer is no because that is the nature of their job; that is, report what is known, verify when necessary, and update later as facts become clear.

As a notable example, we heard at various times with authority that the weapons used in the music hall were shotguns, automatic weapons, and explosiveslots of each. As of today, we do not know exactly which weapons were used because the final report is not complete, but it would not surprise me if the mix of weapons changes, given that there are only so many types of weapons that a team of terrorists can carry without detection before an attack.

In our lives at work and elsewhere, people give us advice, answers to questions, their opinion, first-hand accounts, and what they perceive as facts. Our job is to assess this trove of information and determine which is valid, factual, and useful. What I am mentioning should not be new to you, but it bears repeating that just because someone says something is true, that does not make it true. I can give you several unbelievable personal examples of this, but I will let you explore this truism on your own. While at work, make it a personal commitment to be more discerning of the vast amount of information and so-called facts that fall into your lap.

3. If you say you’re going to do something, do it.

I observed, in general, that the television media did not overstate what they knew or what they could tell us about the attacks on Paris. News reports seemed to be refreshingly frank with the viewers. This balanced approach to their job appealed to me, and I commend it. However, I did notice three glaring missteps by two different television networks; I would be remiss if I did not mention the incidents, which all referred to one victim’s stunning tale of survival.

A Parisian was in harm’s way, and it looked like she was going to get severely injured. My issue with the television reporting is that the reporters promised to the viewer that the incredible story of the lady would soon be told to us in a few minutes. In all three cases, about 20-30 seconds were used in the story’s promotional teaser, which also told us to stay tuned to hear “all of the details.” Well, I stayed tuned, and I did not hear the details.

It turns out in all three instances, the same video footage of the lady’s ordeal was shown along with some commentary, but the networks never delivered on their promise to me, the viewer. After waiting for the networks to give me the entire story, they eventually spent around 15 seconds showing and describing 80% of the lady’s ordeal, and then her story was over with not a clue as to how it ended; then it was on to the next story. More time was spent on the buildup to the story than on the story itself. In the end, I was left hanging and begging for more information on the lady’s condition, which was never revealed. Fortunately a couple of days later, I discovered on television that the lady survived her terror and was doing well.

The lessons are not to overpromise and underdeliver; don’t renege on your promise; and don’t insult someone’s intelligence. These truths are self-evident, and we can see their use in all aspects of our daily life. When we promise to do something and don’t do it, we lose credibility and stature to those with whom we interact. Avoid it.

Next month, we’ll get back on track with some easy fixes for daily writing. Thank you for your time today, and please bookmark my blog.

Randall Ponder, Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA       @randallponder 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Easy Fixes for Daily Writing

Most people write every day. Whether you’re in school, at work, or in retirement, there are reports to be written, memos to be drafted, and emails and text messages to send. We write for our internal audiences such as co-workers, and we write externally to our customers, potential customers, and others. Most of us don’t give our writing a second thought; we just do it.

Therein is a potential problem: If we write without any reviewing or editing afterwards, we send stuff that is sloppy, has errors, or doesn’t communicate what we want it to say. How do you feel when you read some online news that has misspellings, incomplete facts, or faulty conclusions? What about company policy number 37 that is confusing, chock full of errors, and dated eight years ago? There may be a sinking feeling in your stomach at this moment, and if so, that’s ok because it might mean that your preference is to read, see, and send communications that are pristine, logical, and precise. Even if you’re not all knotted up when envisioning such haphazard writing, you might find it useful to have some quick pointers on improving what you have written. Writing well leaves a good impression, and it reflects on your professionalism, your concern for the recipients of your document, your ability to communicate well, and, of course, you.

In keeping with my prior promise to you, I am only mentioning practical, relevant, and easy-to-use tips and fixes. Today’s post will offer you five ways to clean up your communication so that your recipients have better feelings when they read or see what you have written. In another post later this month, I will offer some more ways to ensure that your written products look sharp. Today’s post is not a review of how to write; it is useful guidance on what to do after you have finished writing something.

1. Spell-Check. Always use the spelling and grammar checker (aka spell-check) on your word processing software to catch misspelled words in your documents. If you’re writing an email and don’t have access to spell-check (although there is a review tab in most email software), then write the email and copy/paste it into a blank document; then spell-check this new document and correct the email as necessary. Spell-check will also alert you to any grammar issues that you can correct as well. If you have the money and believe you are in need of some serious double-checking of your writing, there are dozens of software packages or online companies from which to choose.

A caveat to spell-check is that it’s not always correct. And so with every suggestion it gives you, think about it and decide whether to accept or decline the suggested alternative spelling or grammar improvement. As an example, if you write the following sentence and then spell-check it, Microsoft Word will consider it a correct sentence; however, it is not correct.

“He was on a mission to sleigh or trap the animal, since it was violently killing his outdoor pets.”

So because of instances like this, never completely rely on spell-check.

2. Read What You Write. After spell-checking your document, read it a minimum of two times. Read once on the computer screen, and then print the document and read it again. I promise you that after reviewing the printed document, you will find an error, an improvement, or a logic issue that you would have never seen just by reading from the computer screen.

Why is that? By printing the document, you are, in essence, reformatting it to your eyes and mind, thus allowing you to take a fresh look at your document because you’ve become too familiar with it. This slightly time-consuming task will pay off for you when you see things that you had not seen before. As a copy editor, unless I am editing something online in real time, I rarely go final on a document until I print it and review the written words as they appear on paper.  

3. The Buddy System. Some experts advocate reading your document backwards before you go final. This may catch some errors, and if you have the time, go for it. I find it tedious to read a document this way, and the only real benefit is to catch punctuation errors; it doesn’t help you find errors in sentence structure, logic, or style. Instead, spend your coveted time with your buddy. That is, find someone in your workplace or family who can read your document for themselves so that they can tell you what they think and possibly catch errors that you’ve missed. Just give them your document and ask them for any comments on the areas we are discussing today. Your buddy might catch some sentences that don’t make sense, a paragraph that is all over the place, and of course, misspellings. In turn, pay back the favor and volunteer to review your buddy’s documents as needed. You both will benefit as a result, and all of your documents will see improvement.

4. Wait. It’s quite amazing that after you write a document and put it away and out of mind for a while, it will then be much easier to edit and review. The idea is that you give your mind and eyes a break from the constant exposure to your words. When you wait a while for another review, you will be refreshed and in a better position to tackle the final review. If you have the time, take an overnight break from the document; when you look at it the next day, it will be almost as if you’re looking at it for the first time. No kidding.

5. One Space Not Two. In upcoming posts, I’ll offer some quick fixes that deal with the issues of format and style, but I will put those aside for the moment—except for one thing. One space, that is. Please commit this to memory by repeating three times while tapping your feet: “There is only one space after a period.” There. You’ve done it, and you are now in the 99th percentile on this grammar topic.

If you randomly look at others’ documents, such as memos, résumés, or anything, you will still find that some people believe that it’s ok to insert two spaces after a period, question mark, or exclamation point, which are usually called the three end marks. That’s ok, and the people don’t mean to do anything wrong. They are simply perpetuating a once-correct way of doing something during the age of the typewriter; it is no longer correct. Right now, check any magazine, newsletter, book, or newspaper, and you’ll likely find that they too have only one space after the end marks. Unfortunately, there are many self-published books, electronic books, websites, and online articles that are still using the two-space rule; this is usually because these items were not edited properly. If you’re using a typewriter, you could probably get away with the double spaces, but ever since the dawn of computers and multiple fonts, space adjustment after an end mark is properly accounted for with just one space.

Next time, we’ll continue the discussion and expand it to other areas that you encounter while writing each day. Once again, thank you for your time, please bookmark my blog, and check back with me in a couple of weeks.

Randall Ponder, Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA      @randallponder