Take the ‘Cut it in Half’ Challenge and Improve Your Writing

…and your verbal communication, and time management, and thinking.

Good writing styles may be as unique as people but when it comes to bad writing there’s one nearly universal mistake.

Too many words.

Everyone begins their writing endeavors (whether emails or books) using too many words, too long sentences, and too bulky paragraphs.  It’s hard to economize on words.  The better your language skills and vocabulary, the harder it is.  You want to flex those wordiness muscles!

But good writing is clear and to the point.  Removing needless words makes what’s left more, not less important.  Words are too precious to be drowned in a sea of superfluity.

Here’s a challenge to quickly and dramatically improve your writing:

Cut everything you write in half.

I suggest doing this for at least two weeks.  It will hurt.  It will take a lot of time at first.  But compare results after the experiment.  You will be better.

Every Facebook post, email, essay, blog post, or memo (heck, you can try it with texts and tweets too, but that might be tough) should be halved.  After you write what you want to say, just before you click “send”,  “publish”, “post”, or “save”, go back and cut it in half.  Count words, divide by two and edit down.

I’ve done this and found almost no paragraph I write gets worse as a result.

Give it a shot and see for yourself.

Public Speaking Workshop is Live

*This workshop is not primarily about tips and techniques (though they are offered).  It’s about you giving a speech and getting individualized feedback and ways to improve.

We’ve been doing a public speaking workshop for Praxis participants for a few years, and now for the first time I’m opening it up to the public.  It’s a process I learned from an amazing public speaking coach years ago when I was running a summer fellowship program at IHS.

I’ll only be accepting 10 people in this course since it demands individual time and attention for each participant to watch your speeches and provide feedback.

Check out the course here.

The course is $149, as cheap as I could get it considering the time required.

The layout is pretty straightforward.  There are a series of ten short videos with tips and best practices for your preparation, props, eyes, mouth, hands, feet, and a few final odds and ends.

After watching the videos you’ll record yourself giving a 3-minute speech in front of at least one other person, submit it between May 1-3, I’ll respond with feedback within 24 hours, and you’ll do a second take and submit between May 4-6, and again I’ll deliver final feedback within 24 hours.

The course videos can be watched anytime, as many times as you like, but submissions will only be taken and feedback provided between May 1-7.

This is a pretty awesome workshop I’ve been through myself, and I think you’ll find it valuable.  This open online version is new, and I’m excited to see how it goes!

You can sign up here.

Public Speaking Tips and a Workshop!

Two snippets from posts about public speaking:

How to be an Awesome Public Speaker

A great public speaker is not one who has tons of side-splitting jokes, or makes you cry, or delivers amazing ideas, or beautiful turns of phrase, or follows all those rules about signposting and structure from debate or forensics club.  None of those things really matter in the end.  Neither does your personality, voice, physical appearance, or whether you use your hands, a podium, or slides.

A great speaker is one whose ideas and heart are transmitted directly and clearly to the audience.  A great speaker is a genuine person whose unique perspective and personality isn’t obscured by nerves or ticks or anything else.

To be a great public speaker is to allow who you really are to come through.

What Public Speaking Can Teach You About Work

He asked me what are the most helpful things for me when it comes to reducing nerves and getting in the zone as a speaker.  I told him the two most important things for me are:

  • Lots of Practice
  • Unique Content

Practice is obvious.  Public speaking, like digital skills, social skills, bike riding, creativity, or confidence, is not one of those things you can become great at by studying.  You have to do it.  A lot.  There simply is no substitute for doing it when it comes to gaining comfort and skill.

The second point is not actually about the content in any objective sense.  I don’t think there are right and wrong content decisions, topics, formats, tones, or structures that will consistently lead to success and enjoyment as a speaker.  When I say content matters, I really mean crafting a talk that is unique to you.

Over the last decade or so I’ve had the pleasure of running public speaking workshops for hundreds of people of all ages.  Praxis participants go through them, and I’ve even done them for some seasoned CEO’s as a last minute prep for a pitch or big presentation.

I’m just putting the finishing touches on a digitized version of the workshop, thanks to the help of Mitchell Earl and Derek Magill.  It includes not just the content of the workshop in terms of tips and techniques, but actually allows participants to give their own speech and submit it for feedback, then do a second take and walk away with some concrete tips unique to them.

We’ll be using it for Praxis participants across the country, but I’m going to open it up for 10 people outside of Praxis to go through it as well, as a kind of test.  If you’re interested, enter your info in the form below and you’ll be notified when it’s open!

[ninja_forms id=9]

How the Internet is Like Language

The power went out, and with it the WiFi, for four hours the other day while a pole was being replaced and again for an hour today while the A/C was being fixed.  It was almost overwhelming how lonely and isolating it felt.

Before you think me too dramatic let me say that we’re currently in a rental house in Ecuador, in a neighborhood that still consists primarily of empty lots or newly constructed but not yet occupied houses and we’re 45 minutes from the nearest city and without a car at the moment.  None of these things feel isolating when the internet is working.  (As an aside, the WiFi here is better than the best I can get back in South Carolina.)

It’s not that I spend all day on the web.  The bulk of my work requires internet and I do use it heavily, but there are many hours every day where I’m reading, exercising, playing with my kids, eating, preparing food, sleeping, or just relaxing when I do not use the internet.  One would think a few hours without WiFi would simply let me switch to one of these activities with no mental stress.  But it didn’t work that way.

The minute it went down I felt trapped in a desolate place, separated from the world.  Not because I wanted to do something specifically requiring the internet at that moment, but because I didn’t have the option.

WiFi provides a kind of invisible psychological ether that connects me to all of humanity.  Just knowing it’s there, at the tip of my fingers through my smartphone, gives me a profound spiritual sense of connection to all mankind and to great ideas and facts and images and more.  It is the subtle substrate that makes me always a part of a network or community, even when I’m quietly reading or sleeping.

In Ecuador we’ve had experiences where we were nearly incapable of communication with the other humans around us due to my deficiency in Spanish and some Ecuadorians rapid speech.  In our current neighborhood there are many French Canadian expats who speak not a word of anything but French.  At times a feeling of fear and disconnection can sweep over you when you realize you cannot share ideas with any of the people around you.  What if you need something?  What if you just want to chat and aren’t up to the exhausting task of sign-language and hackneyed Spenchglish?  You’re stuck on a (metaphorical) island, surrounded by people but without any connective tissue.

The parallels between these experiences are striking.  Geographic proximity and physical presence do not connect us with our world.  Information and a means of exchanging it do.  That is the task language performs.  The internet performs it even better.  It can instantly translate between languages, among its other wonders.  The web is like a performance enhancing drug for language.  It exponentially increases the idea sharing power of words.

This silly idea that the internet and social media have somehow severed human connections or weakened community is an absurdity espoused by those blind to the world around them.  It’s no less ridiculous than claiming, “People used to really connect before language was invented.  Now all they do is constantly stream ideas back and forth with sound waves.”

It’s not even the speaking or web browsing.  It’s knowing you can.  What a powerful connective web for the human race.

How to Offer to Help Someone

If you’ve ever been moved to help someone, whether by sympathy for their hardship or excitement for their success, you probably did what most of us do.  Made a well-meaning general offer.

“Hey, I’m so sorry for what you’re going through.  Let me know what I can do to help.”


“I love what you’re doing!  I’m here to help in any way.”

These are not bad offers.  They successfully signal comradery and provide a little bump in mood to the recipient.  But they don’t deliver the kind of help that sticks.  If you really want to do more than signal your sympathy (you are not obligated to do more, so only do if you really want to) you’ve got to get specific.

My nephew passed away two years ago.  Our entire family was in shock and mourning.  Sympathy cards and thoughts flowed in to my sister and her husband.  It was overwhelming to see the support, and it did them good.  Many offered to help and meant it, but it’s just too hard while grieving to think of something a friend or neighbor or stranger can do for you, and it feels weird to ask.  The greatest help came from those who didn’t ask what they could do.  They just noticed something and did it.  They bought dinner.  They took the kids out to get new shoes.  They cleaned the house.

It’s the same for support with exciting projects.  I get a lot of emails from people saying they’re excited about Praxis and want to help.  I love these emails.  It’s great to know people share my excitement for our vision and progress.  There are a rare few who do more than signal.  They don’t ask, they offer or do something specific.  I’ll never forget just after launch when Zak Slayback contacted me and said, “I want to help.  Let me manage your social media pages.”  He had a good reputation and I needed help so I let him.  Then he started doing other things like setting up email newsletters, improving the website, writing blog posts, going to events, and creating marketing material.  Pretty soon we couldn’t live without him and he was hired.  Others help without asking how by making an email introduction to a business partner or potential participant.

It’s perfectly fine and in many cases preferable to let people know you care.  But for those times when you’re really moved to provide support or help a project move forward challenge yourself to not give any open-ended offers.  Before saying, “I’m with you and here to help”, think long and hard about what needs to be done and what you are able to do.  The more specific the better, even if it’s a rather mundane task.  You might have to get creative, but if you learn to offer help in practical solutions instead of generic words you will change people’s lives forever.  They won’t forget.

A lot of what we do in life is signaling.  That’s OK so far as it goes, but it often muddies our ability to identify cause and effect.  Pretty soon we start to believe bumper stickers and ribbons equal change or progress.  It’s the same on the individual level and society at large.  If you push yourself to figure out what will really help, instead of what will signal your desire to help, you’ll begin to see the world anew.


When Your Kids Call You Out

I walked into the kitchen this morning to grab a snack while working on my phone.  My five year old daughter called to me from the other room.

“Daddy, can you draw a face on this for me?”

I was in the middle of work, trying to get a quick bit of nutrients and return to my office.  I was distracted.  I didn’t feel like scrawling a face on a piece of packaging plastic with a mashed up pink marker.  I responded,

“I’m not good at drawing faces honey.”

I lied.

It is true that I’m not good at drawing faces, at least relative to an average person over the age of eight.  But my daughter already knows that.  She knows I’m not the best artist in the family.  She knows my son and my wife can both draw a better face than I can.  But she also knows I can do one better than her.  She asked knowing full well the extent and limits of my abilities.  So she called me out.

“Just do your best.  Just like I do my best.”


“Just do your best” is one of those phrases I use all the time as a parent, and it usually feels good.  It’s not condemning or harsh or full of phony, undeserved praise.  When your kid says, “But I’m not good at X!” parents can calmly say, “Just do your best!”  We wouldn’t want them to let fear of imperfection stop them, right?

In this case, I wasn’t getting called out for fear of failure.  I wasn’t avoiding face-drawing because I was afraid the face wouldn’t look good.  I’m way past that point.  I was getting called out for lying.  I was trying to pull a fast one on my daughter instead of just using direct, clear, honest communication.  Kids aren’t that easy to fool.

I really had two choices.  Draw the face or don’t draw the face.  Either one would have been morally and practically acceptable.  If I chose not to draw the face, the best thing would have been to give an honest reason.  “I’m sorry honey, I’m in the middle of some other things.  I’ll do it later if you still want me to.” or simply, “Hon I’m not going to draw a face right now.”

Those may sound harsh, at least compared to drawing the face.  But they’re less harsh than the lie I tried to get away with.  My daughter knows my lack of artistic skill is not the reason I didn’t want to draw a face in that moment.  So deflecting with that not only indicated I didn’t want to draw, but also that I didn’t respect her enough to just say so.

She got distracted drawing and went about her business, as I did mine.  I don’t think any major damage was done.  Still, not my finest moment in parenting.

It was a good reminder of how often and how easily we slip into dishonest forms of communication.  If it goes far enough, it can lead to self-deception, where we actually start to believe our false reasons for action or inaction.

If only I could bring my kids with me 24/7 to call me on my BS.

Weak Communication Habits You Should Shed

There are small ways that good people can damage their reputation and social capital with their communication.  The obvious culprits of bad grammar, typos, spelling errors, or too much text are of course important to avoid.  But there are a few other communication habits that can hurt just as much but get little attention.

All of these habits share in common a lack of clarity, resolve, and what Napoleon Hill would call definiteness of purpose.  They signal doubt, weakness, a divided mind, and leave the recipient with ambiguity.

Avoid them!

The “I’m not sure if I’m serious” sentence ending

I’ve been seeing a lot of “haha” and “lol” these days creeping into everything from Facebook comments to professional email exchanges.  I’m not a language purist nor do I espouse formal writing over a laid back and conversational approach.  The problem with ending sentences with “lolz” or some other silly word is not that it’s too conversational, it’s that it’s bad conversation.

I’ve had several email or text exchanges like this.

Me: How did the interview go?

Young person: Went really well I think, though I think I struggled a little on the first question. haha.

If this were a verbal conversation the “haha” would be equally uncomfortable.  I imagine someone looking down at their shoes with a muffled laugh.  What does it mean?  Did you struggle or not?  Why hedge your clearly stated opinion with a “haha”?  Someone who gives a sheepish chuckle after everything they say comes across as lacking confidence and doubting their own words.  Say what you want to say.  It can be serious, or controversial, or funny, but just say it and don’t back away from it with a vague textual giggle.

The indecisive meeting time

Person wanting a phone call or meeting: Hey, I’d love to talk for 20 minutes about my project with you.  Would you be up for it?

Me: Sure. I’m flexible anytime after 11 AM on Weds and Thurs next week.  Pick a time and send me an invite.

Person: Cool.  I’m around both of those times and free all day.  Give me a call.

This one makes me damn near apoplectic.  Email exchanges aren’t free.  Neither is calendar carving and scheduling.  I clearly gave two windows of time and specifically asked for one 20 minute slot to be chosen.  Why didn’t you just send me a specific time (preferably as a calendar invite)?  And what does it mean, “I’m free all day for a call”?  Really?  You will literally pick up and answer no matter when I call?  You won’t be in the bathroom at all that day, or on the phone with anyone else?  I know you won’t actually be free every minute, and if I call and you don’t pick up, now we’ve got to start the scheduling process all over again.

Pick a time.  Give it to me.  Stick to it.

The response to immaterial items while ignoring the main question

A good rule of thumb is to not make more than one “ask” in a single communication or what you really want could get overlooked.  It seems even an email with  single ask can fail to communicate the main point if you’re sending it to a vague communicator.  I’ve learned to eliminate as much small talk or bits of detail from emails as possible.  Not just because it saves me time, but because some people will respond to things that demand no response and seemingly forget about the important part.

Me: Sorry for the late response, I was out of the country for my anniversary.  I agree with your assessment of the article and I would just add that it needs a tighter opening.  What do you think is the main point you’re trying to drive home?

Discombobulated communicator: Oh wow, that sounds really cool!  Where did you travel?  Hope it was warmer than the weather we’ve been having here lol!

No!  I am not emailing you about my travels or the weather.  I’m email about the article you’re working on.  Was this a quick, social response while you think things over to give me a more in depth response to my actual question later?  If so, why didn’t you tell me that?  Am I supposed to remove this email from my inbox and move on, or do I need to respond to your non-response and re-ask the question?

Find the core reason for my communication and respond to that before thinking about anything else.

The failure to switch methods

Sometimes I get messages via Facebook or LinkedIn.  Typically, my first response includes my email address with an explicit ask that we move the conversation to email.  This ask alone ends many conversations.  I’m not sure why, but a lot of people’s desire to get their question answered is so weak that they won’t even endure the cost of switching to email.  Why ask it in the first place?

Worse still is the person who responds “OK” or doesn’t respond at all, then proceeds to lay out the entire discussion on the platform I just asked to move away from.  I’ve asked three times in some threads and still had the request ignored.  Some people even go so far as to call me unannounced and unscheduled (telephone is my absolute least favorite form of communication) even after I’ve told them explicitly in past conversations that I always prefer email unless absolutely necessary, and if a call is warranted I’d rather schedule it.

Respect the medium, or if it’s not important enough to switch, don’t start the conversation in the first place.

The earlier-in-the-thread amnesia

If a long email chain has lain dormant for six months, it’s acceptable to ask for a quick recap on some past points.  But in the span of a few days when a multi-email thread has been going back and forth it sends a bizarre signal when you ask a question already answered or make a point that completely ignores earlier portions of the discussion.

Refresh yourself on the thread before each response.  If wording is unclear, ask, don’t assume.

The solution: be definite

None of these bad habits are about writing ability or subject matter mastery.  They seem to me to reflect a lack of confidence, or a lack of focus, or a lack of respect for other people’s time and mental energy, or a lack of respect for your own time, or an avoidance of accountability to your own words, or just laziness.  I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that they make the person you’re communicating with tired, which will make them think twice before texting you about an opportunity because they know the conversational cost is high and it might end with a lack of clarity about next steps.

Decide what you want to say.  Say it.  Mean it.  Respond to the core question first.  Respond in the manner requested.  Respond promptly and consistent with prior communications.  Don’t start a conversation you’re not willing to drive to the finish.