Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Three Tips for Responding to Angry Emails

One of the most common sources of workplace stress is dealing with angry emails from customers, colleagues or even managers. These messages can be extremely annoying but there are some tricks for dealing with them effectively and painlessly. Sometimes you can even turn the situation around 180 degrees, turning an infuriated adversary into an ally. There are many proven methods you could use, but here are the three most important.

1. WAIT TILL YOU CALM DOWN. It's a natural human instinct to get steamed up when you receive a provocative message. If you reply immediately you are likely to send an equally angry response that is unproductive and escalates the situation. Wait a few hours and your perspective will change. Wait a day and the anger will often be gone completely. By this time your neo-cortex will be able to assert it's authority over the amygdala regions of the brain that are useful in an emergency when time is short, but sometimes provoke emotional responses that are inappropriate in civilized society.

2. MAKE SURE YOU READ IT CORRECTLY. Some messages are plainly as rude and offensive as a YouTube comment. Others are perhaps just misinterpreted. This is especially common when the other person is from another cultural background. What seems to you rude and provocative might actually be normal in their context. Even when sender and receiver speak the same language and have the same cultural background there can be misunderstandings. Someone once sent me an email that began "I resent the last message..."  At first I read this as resent in the sense of feeling indignation. After a puzzling exchange I finally understood that it was meant to be "re-sent" as in sent again. Another time I was annoyed by the tone of an email and almost drafted an equally vicious reply but luckily I realized at the last minute that it was not even addressed to me, I was just in copy.

3. ANSWER THE SUBSTANCE NOT THE TONE. After you have calmed down and after you have made sure you understood everything go back through the message and try to find out what the person actually wants, ignoring all the sarcasm, insults, innuendo or ridicule. Rephrase the same question or request politely in your own mind and answer that, politely and respectfully. This avoids escalation, it looks good if the thread is ever seen by management and sometimes it will make the person who sent the original angry message regret that they sent it.   

This last point is perhaps the one that is least obvious but believe me it works.  In one job I was asked to deal with an angry email from a furious customer. Reading between the lines I found that what he wanted was software drivers for another version of Windows. The rest was abuse, mostly in capitals, aimed at the company, its management and their families. I sent a very simple reply saying thank you for the request and here is a link to the driver download page.  The next day I received a very polite response apologizing for the rant and expressing admiration for the professional attitude of the company. De-escalation not only avoids aggravating a conflict it can even turn an adversary into a friend, or at least someone who doesn't hate you anymore.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

For lectures, workshops, coaching and writing on this and other aspects of communication you can contact me through my website, email at or by phone at 0033 6 79 61 42 81 in France and 0046 730 894 475 in Sweden.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How to Find More Ideas for Company Blog Posts

When you are given the task of writing a company blog there will probably be times when you run out of ideas to write about. You can draw inspiration from the company's news releases or scheduled events, but there are bound to be days when there are neither. What do you do in these cases?

Luckily there are dozens of ways to find ideas for interesting and original posts that will be relevant to your customers and other stakeholders. Here are just five to get you started:

BUILD ON CUSTOMER QUESTIONS. Go through all the questions people ask the company by mail, phone or social media. For every person that asks a question there are a thousand others who have the same problem so pre-empt these questions with answers on the blog. That will give you content that both appeals to customers and at the same time maybe reduces the number of mails and calls you get.

SEE WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING ABOUT YOU. Search also through social media for posts made by users about your products or products like yours. Read reviews on Amazon and search for articles in media. Look for the concerns and issues customers and potential customers have and use these to inspire you. Perhaps someone has found an interesting use for your product, or maybe it has an unexpected advantage.

BRING MORE PEOPLE INTO THE PROCESS. You should also be bringing more people into the creative process. Invite everyone in the company to suggest topics. One writer can easily run dry after a few years so bring in some fresh ideas like they do on comedy shows.

RECYCLE OLD BUT USEFUL CONTENT. Don't be afraid to take a popular post from a few years ago, update it and repost it. People aren't going to read your archives looking for old posts. If you wrote it more than a year ago nobody remembers it and nobody will go searching for it.

FIND INSPIRATION ON QUORA. Finally, check out also the high-end social Question and Answer site Quora, which has inspired many of my own blog posts, including this one, which is based on my answer to a Quora question How do you come up with ideas for posts to a company blog?

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

For lectures, workshops, coaching and writing on this and other communication topics you can contact me through, by email at or by phone on 0033 6 79 61 42 81 in France and 0046 730 894 475 in Sweden.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Why Banning GoogleGlass Won’t Work and Why We Need a Better Idea

Even before Google’s “GoogleGlass” smartglasses are available to the general public people already talk of banning them in bars, hotels, workplaces and schools. The problem is that they include a camera and it is not always obvious when the wearer is taking pictures or recording video.

People have been able to take pictures for more than a century, but until about ten years ago most of these pictures ended up in shoeboxes, ignored and forgotten. Today pictures can be shared instantly through social media to a global audience so people have become more sensitive about unwanted photography.

When someone takes out a camera or a smartphone to take a picture everyone can see that they are doing it and take action if needed. Wearables like GoogleGlass are different because you can be wearing the device all the time and it is not obvious exactly when you are using the camera.

GoogleGlass isn’t the only eyeglass-style wearable device. Rivals have different features but one thing they have in common is the camera. Vergence Labs' Epiphany Eyewear, for example, looks more or less like an ordinary pair of glasses or sunglasses but conceals a video camera in the frame. You can even share images directly to your Facebook page. They are much less likely to be noticed than Google’s cyberpunk style device.

Banning camera-equipped smartglasses will begin to be more difficult when they start to incorporate prescription lenses and have a dual role. Even if you do ban them it doesn't solve the problem because you can also buy camera-equipped smartwatches like the Samsung Galaxy Gear. Other more discrete wearables like smart rings, necklaces, bracelets and tags are already in the pipeline and we can expect many more to emerge thanks to tiny SIM-card-sized computers like the Intel Edison.

Some of these wearable devices even capture images automatically without any action from the wearer, like the NarrativeClip, a tiny plastic tag you can clip to your clothes that takes a picture every 30s to create a log of your day’s activities.This is great for the owner but not so wonderful for the people around them who probably did not choose to have their lives logged at the same time.

In sensitive locations it is more than likely that you will be asked to leave all devices capable of recording at the entrance, but for bars, hotels and restaurants this is not likely to be practical. The only way to reconcile the needs of the wearer and the other customers’ rights to privacy is to post clear rules about how they can be used. For this we will need some sort of new sign to indicate when recording or live feeds are not permitted. 

At the same time, though, the industry should be working on a social solution – creating a strong taboo against invasive recording. Google’s admonition “Don’t be a Glasshole” is a step in the right direction and if the industry doesn't do this effectively they will have to deal with stricter regulation.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching & Writing

For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing on this and other communication topics you can contact me through my website, by email at or by phone on 0046 730 894 475 in Sweden and 0033 6 79 61 42 81 in France.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Why More Color Contrast Means Less Clarity

People sometimes send me spreadsheets and tables where cells have been highlighted in different colors. I can see the logic behind this and I am sure that the colors are intended to increase the clarity by drawing attention to certain areas, but quite often this has the opposite effect, making the table virtually unreadable.

This problem can be avoided very simply by avoiding very strong color contrast between adjacent regions. You might think that a greater color contrast would increase clarity when it actually has the opposite effect. There are two reasons for this. First of all, most people leave the default black ink for writing so when they choose a saturated background color for a cell this makes the writing harder to read. This would happen even if all the cells were the same color. Secondly, when two adjacent cells have different saturated colors your eye is distracted from the content and instead struggles to focus on both at the same time.

This effect was noted by Edward Tufte in his classic book Envisioning Information, an essential guide to the presentation of information. One of the points that Tufte makes is the counter-intuitive fact that more color contrast actually reduces readability, and he illustrates this with a comparison between two maps: one a traditional contour map where adjacent areas are only slightly different and the other the same map with an exaggerated color scale.
Detail from comparison of two maps in Edward Tufte's "Envisioning Information". The upper half shows a real contour map with low color contrast between adjacent areas. The lower half shows the same image recolored with higher contrast, making it unreadable.
 Tufte's comparison is very compelling and has convinced many information designers to be careful with color contrast, but sometimes people raise the objection that nobody would really make a map like that. I used to think the same but recently I found an example of a high-contrast map in the wild, and it is as unreadable as you would expect.
This map actually found in the wild uses a less exaggerated color contrast than the example from Envisioning Information but the readability is severely impacted.
In practical terms you can make your visuals easier to read just by just limiting the saturation of the colors, avoiding the use of too many colors and -- above all -- limiting the color contrast between adjacent areas. Try it sometime and you might be amazed how much your graphics are improved by following this simple rule.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing on this and other communication topics you can contact me through, email or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81 in France or 0046 730 894 475 in Sweden.