Useful tips for managers and others

Atherton Training Consultants Ltd

Useful tips for managers and others


Tips on Business Writing, reports, etc.

Tips on Negotiating and negotiation skills

Tips on Time Management

Tips on General Topics

Writing Tips

Executive Summaries
Give me a quick overview
If more than a page or two long every report should have a summary right at the front. Whether you call it an 'Executive Summary' or 'Management Summary' or just a 'Summary' matters far less than what goes into it. So what is it for?

Its purpose is simple: To give a clear and concise summary of the main points, conclusions and recommendations, and to grab the reader's attention. Think of the blurb on the back cover of a novel. That outline of the story, together with the author's name and the title, helps you to decide whether to read the book or not. The Executive Summary does the same thing for readers of reports.

The Executive Summary should cover who asked for the work to be done and why, the work and its scope, and the main conclusions and recommendations. All this should be covered as briefly as possible and make up just a few percent of the total report. If you have many recommendations just mention the main ones and say there are others in the report. There you are: summaries summed up!

Write Short Sentences
Make life easier for your readers
Do you do a lot of writing at work? Do you have time to edit it all as carefully as you would like so that others can read it quickly and easily. Probably not, so is there just one thing you can do that will make a difference? Actually there is. Tip - Keep your sentences relatively short!

Long sentences are definitely harder to read and understand than short ones. But how short is short? Varying sentence length is good but aim for an average length of around 15-22 words, some will be shorter and some will be longer. That should do it and your readers will appreciate it.

The MS Word Grammar Checker
Not as bad as some make out
OK, so it's not the best-loved piece of software in daily use, but it is more useful than many think. True it often tells you rubbish, confuses their, they're and there, and seems to hate the word which. But it is good at some things.

It is usually right when it says as sentence has a Passive Voice, such as in, Four sites were visited by the auditors, and it will suggest changing to the active version, which is usually shorter and better - The auditors visited four sites. Even if it messes up the conversion the idea is good and, if it is worth converting, you can convert it yourself.

Similarly, the warning Subject-Verb Agreement is usually correct. It simply means that you have muddled singulars and plurals, such as in, The committee have decided... And the grammar checker is often right, if a bit pedantic, to suggest changing which to that. Which is usually used to start a descriptive phrase (one merely incidental to the meaning). Such a phrase should be between two commas as in The lawn mower, which was old, was stolen in the evening

In your writing, do clichés stick out like sore thumbs
One of the most popular suggestions directed at those wanting to improve their writing skills is to avoid clichés. Clichés are seen as tired and worn out phrases, suffering under the dead weight of their own long-term popularity. Like a television presenter who has been on the box too often, clichés can be boring.

Yet, all clichés started life as perceptive phrases that captured the essence of the meaning. No one ever believed that 'to leave no stone unturned' was meant literally, but it captures the dedication involved. Is it really boring? Well, it is when used in the company of too many of its bedfellows. Clichés can enliven business writing if used sparingly, like adding salt to food - a few grains bring out the flavour, but too many bring ruin.

So, to cut a long story short, if in the nick of time I can spare your blushes then it will have been time well spent; don't gild the lily with clichés but don't avoid them like the plague either. Or, maybe you should take the bull by the horns, tough it out, throw caution to the wind and pepper your writing with clichés. Your choice!

The Errant Tadpole
The poor old apostrophe
Reviled by some, the apostrophe is probably the most misused and least understood of our punctuation marks. For example, on writing courses I usually find several people who are confused about its and it's.

It's with an apostrophe is a shortened form of it is. Arguably, in business writing it is better not to use the shortened form at all (except in informal writing such as emails). Its without an apostrophe is the possessive for something belonging to it. Here lies the confusion, because we all know that possessives take an apostrophe, as in Paul's car. However, none of the possessive pronouns take an apostrophe: mine, his, hers, its, ours, yours or theirs. OK - so you all knew that, but what about time? Time takes an apostrophe as in: one week's time (singular), two weeks' time (plural), four years' time, two seconds' time and so on.

In her book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss lists eight uses of the apostrophe! And would you believe that someone cares enough to run an Apostrophe Protection Society? They do and you can find them via a search engine. At the time of writing their web site was:

Sexist Language
Avoiding inadvertent sexist language in business writing
I guess you wouldn't dream of deliberately being sexist in your business writing; unlike a London Underground advert in the 1950s which (so I am told) sought to persuade male commuters to buy a dishwasher for the little lady in the kitchen. (Is this story really true?)

There are two sources for accidental sexism in business writing and, as some organisations are very sensitive about these things, it is well to be aware of them so as not to risk offending a client.

The first lies in the fact that English does not have a neutral third-person singular pronoun that we can use for people - we can't use it for people. So we are led to statements like, A secretary must prioritise her day, or An engineer has a lot to learn during his education, both of which would be seen as sexist. Using his or her is cumbersome if used frequently. They is a plural, although often used as a singular pronoun to solve this problem. The simple solution is to write everything in the plural - Secretaries must prioritise their day. Problem solved!

The second problem lies, for some people, in masculine sounding words like Chairman and foreman. Try to use a neutral alternative such as Chair and supervisor if you think the reader may be sensitive. After all, in business we are concerned about manners and customer service, even if we say we do not worry about political correctness. Aren't we?

Are You Sure That's What You Mean?
Think before writing
No guarantee that these are genuine, although they are claimed to be! Most of them come from that goldmine of a business site: Lavatory humour: These reportedly came from letters written to Islington Council:

  • The lavatory seat is cracked, where do I stand?
  • The toilet is blocked and we cannot bath the children until it is cleared.
  • This is to let you know that our lavatory seat is broken and we can't get BBC2.

Aircraft maintenance engineers alleged replies (in italics) to fault reports left by pilots (first statement):

  • Something loose in cockpit. Something tightened in cockpit.
  • Mouse in cockpit. Cat installed.
  • Target radar hums. Reprogrammed target radar with lyrics.
  • Test flight okay except Auto-Land very rough. Auto-Land not fitted to this aircraft!
  • Three cockroaches in cabin. One killed, one wounded, one got away.
  • Friction locks cause throttle levers to stick. That's what they are for.

Tight Writing
Sorry this letter is so long, I didn't have time to write a shorter one
That statement is normally attributed to Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw. Apologising for writing a long letter because of shortage of time sounds crazy. But it's true, it is harder and more time consuming to write well than to write poorly. Too often, time pressures mean that we do not check our written documents carefully or edit them properly.

Editing is essentially good customer service. It should have three objectives: 1. making things clear - often by using simpler words; 2. making things concise - by removing unnecessary words; and 3. making things correct - by getting the grammar, spelling and punctuation right.

Think of all those reports and proposals you've read which have bored you to death. A little time spent shortening and polishing your writing will help to turn rough diamonds into sparkling gems.

Count the number of times the letter 'F' occurs in the following sentence


So, how many F's did you count? Most good readers see only three, whereas there are actually six. They miss the three of's. Why? The answer seems to lie in the fact that as good readers we skim read much of the time. We take short words like of for granted whereas we give a little more attention to longer, less common words.

There is a clear lesson here about the need for proofreading our documents. Editing is not proofreading. Editing is mainly about improving and shortening the writing - making sure the meaning is clear. Proofreading is more about checking the typing, layout, fonts, etc. Most writers ignore proofreading, sometimes to their cost.

Acknowledgement: Reading example from - Why Don't Penguins Feet Freeze? New Scientist, Profile Books, 2006.

Please Bare with Me
Poor English in emails
Hello, how are you toady? What do u think. Does it realy matter if your speling, punctation and grammer is poor if e--mails? i no u asked me that but please bare with me n i'll get back 2 you.

Does that sort of writing make you cringe, or do you see it as just about okay in an email and perfectly normal in a text message? A common reaction in business circles to such poor English in emails is that if writers can't be bothered to get it right, can I trust them to give the necessary attention to detail when doing the job? It's not necessarily a logical reaction but it is a common one.

And the person who thought he had been addressed as 'toady' (misspelt 'today') was very annoyed.

Writing Numbers
Nine and ten, and 10 and 11
I was running a course on report writing when several delegates questioned their own organisation's guidelines on how to write numbers. There are many points in written English over which people can quite legitimately disagree and how to write numbers is one of them.

Most corporate style guides suggest normally writing the numbers one to nine (some choose ten) as words and writing numbers 11, 12 and upwards as figures. If you have two or more of each type close together, then most style guides suggest writing both as figures. So I would write, the children were aged 4 and 14, rather then, four and 14. It just looks better.

Other common exceptions include using words for any number that starts a sentence - Forty-four illegal immigrants were found... and using figures for any page numbers, references, percentages, money and so on: page 3, Ref 5, 8% and £3.50. Common sense prevails.

Me and Myself
Reflexive pronouns
The very term 'reflexive pronoun' is a turn off, isn't it? It's got a sort of scholarly, almost exam-like, ring to it. Yet, misusing reflexive pronouns in business writing can be very noticeable, even if you can't say what they are. Misuse can irritate some people. Thankfully, we don't need a lot of grammar to get them right.

Ordinary pronouns are used to replace nouns. They save repetition; I can say he instead of Peter, or it instead of the report. A reflexive pronoun is one that refers back to someone or something already mentioned, such as I did it myself, He said it himself. They are often used for emphasis.

Misused they lead to silly, but unfortunately quite common, mistakes. Please return completed forms to myself was one I saw recently. The writer was asking others to return the forms to him, he was not returning them to himself. So it should have been Please return completed forms to me. On the other hand, myself would have been correct if he was collecting the forms, I will collect the forms myself. Reflexive pronouns include: myself, yourself, himself, herself, etc.

Split Infinitives
To boldly go...
Are there grammatical terms that you have heard about but are not quite sure what they mean, let alone if they matter in this day and age?

In English, the infinitive (the basic part of a verb) always consists of two words: to and the rest of the verb - to go, to walk, to ride, etc. English is unusual in this respect. For example, in French to go is aller, one word. Splitting the infinitive is simply putting another word between the two, such as in Star Trek's to boldly go.

At one time, many people regarded this as bad grammar, a sign of illiteracy and the end of civilisation. Today in business writing we stress that the purpose is to get the correct meaning across to the reader as quickly as possible without worrying much about split infinitives and the like. General advice is to avoid them if you notice them but not at the expense of having a convoluted sentence.

Starting a Sentence with And
And so it came to pass...
This is a hoary old chestnut. Can you start a sentence with the word And?

The simple answer is 'Yes!' There is nothing in English grammar to prevent you from starting a sentence with the word And. And it has been used in that way in English literature for many centuries. And if you look carefully at what you read in books, magazines and newspapers you will see it is used that way today by professional writers. So what is the fuss?

The fuss, I guess, lies in two issues. First, it is used too often in a sloppy way when there is no need for it, and second, many of us were taught at school not to do so - probably to try to prevent sloppy writing. Its main use should be to show that this sentence emphasises or extends what went before. Personally, I would normally avoid it in business writing. Why? Because (there's another word people argue about) it's usually unnecessary and many readers might wince when they see it.

Clichés in Business Writing (Again)
Hackneyed phrases
Clichés are hackneyed phrases that are commonly used with little thought and often inappropriately, such as conspicuous by its absence, grind to a halt, at this moment in time and so on. Used well, clichés add interest and vitality to writing, but far too often they are a boring substitute for real thought. There are rather a lot of them in business writing, especially in letters and emails. Consider some of the following - and others - and ask yourself if you overuse them.

A can of worms, agree to disagree, active consideration, acid test, all things considered, as a matter of fact, at a loss for words, attached hereto, back to the drawing board, bite the bullet, bottom line, confirming our conversation, do not hesitate to ask, enclosed herewith, exception that proves the rule, eyeball to eyeball, feedback loop, fine tune our plans, give the green light to, in the nick of time, in the same boat, irreducible minimum, last but not least, leave no stone unturned, left up in the air, matter of life and death, method in his madness, more than meets the eye, open secret, own worst enemy, part and parcel, pie in the sky, play it by ear, play hardball, sadder but wiser, please find enclosed, selling like hot cakes, shot in the arm, stick to your guns, thanking you in advance, tough it out, tower of strength.

There are many more! Clichés can add interest to writing if used carefully and in moderation. Try not to use them indiscriminately.

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Negotiation Skills Tips

Walking Away
Having an alternative - a negotiating tactic
Is there any single factor in negotiations that could be described as the most important one of all? If any has such universal importance then it is the ability to walk away from the deal. As a buyer, if I can easily get this product or service elsewhere then I am in a strong position. But, as a seller, if my product or service is unique then you have nowhere else to go and I am in charge. Look at the opposite case: if I must have this deal then I have an inherent weakness that may take some hiding. Of course, not many services or products are truly unique. There is nearly always competition. Nevertheless, sellers will usually try to show uniqueness whereas buyers will insist that they can buy elsewhere, even if they don't want to.

To establish uniqueness, sellers often need to bring things other than the product into the equation; things like their relationship with you, their company's reputation, service and so on. Occasionally a product becomes iconic. Why is the Apple iPod such a success story whilst similar products are not? You can think of several reasons and its apparent 'uniqueness' will be one of them.

Making Offers Conditional
If you will... then I will...
This tip is included in all my negotiation courses. All of us find ourselves in positions where we are trying to influence others, haggle or negotiate with them. Often this is very informal during conversations or at meetings, or the setting may be a more formal negotiation. The Tip - something that is not used as often as it could be: Make your offers conditional.

In other words, if someone wants you to do something for them - stop and think to see if there is something (however large or small) you might ask for in return. Naturally, you will not want to do this on every occasion but there will be many times in meetings or in negotiations when perhaps you should. Worth thinking about? If you will do this for me then I will do that for you!

Making Proposals
In the Dragons’ Den
If you have watched the BBC programme Dragons' Den you will have noticed the very different ways in which the average Bidder and the Dragons make their proposals. Every day we make offers at work, usually we call them suggestions or ideas but many are proposals nevertheless.

So what's the secret of making a good proposal, whether it is simply an idea put to a colleague or a formal proposal made in a big negotiation?
1. Lay the groundwork first, explain then propose.
2. Be very clear, in your own mind, what you are proposing.
3. State the proposal clearly without stumbling, hesitating or waffling.
4. Avoid justifying or explaining it - you did that in the groundwork.
5. Wait for the response; silence can push the other person into a response that you can then deal with.

A lot more can be said on this vital negotiating skill - but watch how the Dragons do it and take from them the tips you like - and discard the ones you don't!

The Either-Or Tactic
A useful negotiating tactic
This is a negotiating tactic that tries to reduce the other party's options by restricting them to a choice: either this or that. On a negative note, it might be used against you to prevent you exploring other possibilities. On a positive note, it can open up a discussion when negotiations are getting a bit stuck. Offering a choice at least gives you both something to discuss. If they are not keen on either of your options you can ask which is better and why, what they like and not like about them, so gaining information. That can lead to a changed offer that meets both their needs and yours better.

It’s even used in the High Street. Buy two, get one free simply means either buy one at list price or buy three and get a big discount. In commercial negotiations, just as in the High Street, it can be used to try to restrict your chance to bargain: either buy now and get a discount or buy later at full price (typical double-glazing sales) – our offer is so good you should bite our hand off.

Parents have used it for generations: Either behave or go to bed! With different wording (preferably), line managers use it with staff: Would you prefer to work late tonight or tomorrow?

Bear it in mind next time any negotiation does not seem to be going anywhere. Restrict their options and see where it leads.

The Russian Front
A variation on the Either-Or negotiating technique
We have described the common negotiating tactic known as Either-Or in which one party tries to restrict the other party to a straight choice – either this or that. It can also be a useful tactic to open up discussion along the lines of, "Which would you prefer and why?" This can lead to a solution that’s better for both parties.

The Russian Front is a strong-arm variation of that tactic that you may need to recognise and deal with. In the Russian Front, one of the choices is deliberately chosen to be so unattractive that you feel forced to choose the other. No choice at all, really. It is named after the choice of postings that some German soldiers faced in WW2.

Defend against it by finding other options. Perhaps explore and modify the other choice until it is more to your liking, or make your own counter-offer. Whatever you do, don’t be bullied into grabbing their alternative to the Russian Front.

Negotiating in Teams
The power of two!
Most business negotiations are conducted by individuals working alone: sellers, buyers, etc. However, there are advantages if you can operate as a team of two. Obviously, even bigger teams are needed for large-scale negotiations.

When operating as a team of two the basic roles are the leader and supporter. The leader conducts the negotiation, makes and answers proposals and counter-proposals, answers questions and, if necessary, asks for adjournments. So what is left for the supporter to do?

Supporters can perform a number of roles. First, they should keep track of all the toing and froing that can happen in a negotiation. Sometimes this can be quite complex. Second, they should provide occasional neutral summaries of 'where we are now' to help both parties. These objective summaries - avoid point scoring - can be invaluable. And third, they can occasionally take some pressure off the leader when he or she needs some breathing space, some time to think, perhaps by asking pre-arranged questions or by volunteering a summary. All in all, it's a valuable role that can help you gain a little more from your negotiations.

The Iran Hostage Crisis
A model negotiation?
What did you make of the negotiating during the crisis when 15 British naval and marine personnel were held hostage by Iran? I'm sure many people have been tasked with analysing all that happened and identifying the lessons to be learned. At the risk of rushing in where angels fear to tread - on the basis that we don't know the full story - here are my thoughts, looking at it from a negotiating viewpoint.
  • Don't put yourself into vulnerable positions without a 'Best Alternative' - another course of action you can take, especially when the other side is already feeling antagonistic.
  • Be very clear about everything you want. Hostages released safely = success, but what else did Britain want?
  • Be as clear as you can be about what they want. Consular access to their people held by the Americans since January = success? A propaganda coup in the eyes of others in the Middle East = success?
  • Be clear about what your alternatives are. Solve this by diplomacy (negotiation) or face our "increasingly tougher position" (as Tony Blair said in public). Did anyone, especially the Iranians, know what that "increasingly tougher position" would be?
  • Negotiating in public tends to lead to a more aggressive stance than negotiating in private. Did the diplomats spell out in private what that tougher position would be?
  • Finally, if you have a good rulebook, stick to it. It will stop you getting into hot water by making instant decisions that are not thought through. If staff are not allowed to sell their stories to the press then - end of story!
After watching this drama unfold over many days I felt only too pleased that I have never been involved in political negotiations!

Agreement when Negotiating
Agreeing what has been agreed
Never mind business negotiating, how many times have you agreed something with someone and then one of you has got a bit muddled about it. Did we say we'd meet outside M&S or was it Next? Did we say three o'clock or four? I got a kindly phone call from my optician earlier today to remind me of an appointment tomorrow at 3.15pm. Except I have their appointment slip - printed directly from their computer - which says it is at 3.05pm. No big deal, but it would be very important in a business agreement if one of us thought the deal was for £305,000 and the other thought it was for £315,000. One of us just might start to wonder if the other had made a genuine mistake or was trying to pull a fast one. Trust is easily lost. A simple solution: make sure that you agree what it is you have agreed!

Finding the Variables
Worth searching for
One of the Golden Rules about negotiating is to find the variables. What are the items in this negotiation that we can change to help make the deal better? In some ways, the more the merrier. You can trade anything you lose on one variable to gain something on another. Good negotiators are always looking for more variables, not just the obvious ones of price, discount, delivery, etc. What other variables are there in your negotiations, even family negotiations?

Suppose one of your children wants to borrow the car. What are the variables? They could include things like the timing - when they have to be back, distance, not driving in the dark, who can be a passenger and so on. But you could become more adventurous: if they wash it, pick you up from the pub tonight, tidy their room, do the shopping and so on - you could have quite a list. There are always more variables. What are yours?

Noah's Ark
One of the oldest tactics still in use
If you watch the TV programme, The Apprentice, you will have been privileged to see a classic example of one of the oldest and most successful negotiating tactics around. It is usually known as "You'll have to do better than that," but has also been called the "Noah's Ark" because it is as old as that, if not older.

In The Apprentice, a group of three people were trying to sell a service to make, deliver and hand out canapés at an evening event for an international law firm in the City of London. The group leader, who was not present, had done some market research and had instructed his team to get not less than £60 per head. Although they, themselves, believed that to be far too high, they opened at £65. The response was a classic Noah's Ark: "I think you seriously need to rethink that," they were told. And they did. Offering to be more realistic (in other words, yes, we both know I was being silly and just trying it on, it's my team leader's fault really) the seller dropped from his opening £65 right down to £35 per head in one go.

However, the buyer had now learned that if he pushed even gently he would be rewarded with success. He was merely tempted to stonewall again. He shook his head. "No?" asked the seller. "Not in the least," said the buyer.

The price fell to £17.50 but "I'm still unimpressed," said the buyer. They settled on £15 per head, 77% below the original asking price.

What would you think? Have you just won a great deal? Or are you dealing with a shark who should not be trusted an inch? In negotiating, this tactic is popular because it is simple, needs little skill and it tends to work. What should the seller have done: held his ground better, asked what specifically the buyer did not like about the offer, or remodelled his product to suit the new price? Or a combination of all three?

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Time Management Tips

Time is Money
The cost of your time
Have you ever tried to work out the cost of your time to your employer? It's more than just what they pay you.

Let's take a round figure, a salary of £10,000 per annum. That £10,000 covers 365 or 366 days, but far fewer work days. You have to take off 104 days for weekends, 8 public holidays and, let's say 26 days annual leave, and that leaves something like 228 working days. That's £43.86 a day or £6.27 per hour assuming an eight-hour day less a one-hour lunch break. That's your pay. Overheads now need to be added and, depending on the nature of the business, they can easily take the total to about £10 per hour.

So you cost your organisation about £10 an hour for every £10,000 of gross salary. Mmm... Better stop reading this and get working!

Make Prime Time
Get time to do the important things
We tend to lead very busy lives at work. The whole week can be tied up doing things for others so that we hardly get time to do the really important things we are supposedly here for. The solution - a simple concept called Prime Time.

Prime Time is a period of an hour or so that you deliberately schedule for doing the things that are truly important. Set aside an hour or so every day, every other day if that seems impossible. Tell others that you are not to be disturbed, divert the phone to a colleague (or answering machine if you must), ignore the emails, lock yourself away and make progress at something approaching twice the speed that you would otherwise achieve.

It can be done and you may find it makes a big difference!

The Pareto or 80/20 Rule
80% of results come from just 20% of causes
Ever felt that life is unfair? It is and Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), an Italian economist, figured it out over 100 years ago (1897 to be precise). Pareto's rule is a truism - things are very lopsided.

Some examples: Probably something like 80% of your turnover comes from around 20% of your customers; 20% of staff cause most of the personnel issues; 80% of crime is committed by a few hard-core criminals. 80/20, 90/20, 80/30 - all are lopsided!

Lessons? Make use of this natural lopsidedness by focussing on the minority of causes that have mega impact. Using the 80/20 is an important part of good personal time management. So, what can you focus on today that will bring unusually big rewards?

The 'C' Drawer
A useful time management technique
We all have lots of 'C tasks' to do, things we 'could do' if we had the time. Some are hardly worth doing and should be ignored; some need doing but can wait.

Unfortunately, they usually wait in your email inbox or on your desk - and both are places you look at many times a day. So they bug you. Possibly they bug you into doing them at the expense of something much more important. So what can we do about them?

One simple and effective answer is to hide them away and take a look at the whole job lot of them every now and again, say once a week such as late on a Friday when you're already thinking of the weekend. Just click and drag email C's to a new folder, your C folder, and put paper C's into a convenient drawer or box - out of sight, out of mind. They won't get lost, they will wait till Friday - and they won't bug you anymore.

Ivy Lee and Charles Schwab
The most profitable lesson I ever learned
If you don't know this story, it's worth reading it because it's a good one.

Sometime in the 1930s, Charles Schwab, then president of Bethlehem Steel in the USA, called in management consultant, Ivy Lee. "Show me a way in which management can get more done in a day," he said. Lee gave him one piece of advice and extracted a promise that everyone would use the advice for some weeks. The fee? "Send me a cheque for what you think it's been worth." A month or so later he got a cheque for $25,000, a very big sum in those days. So what was Lee's advice? (There is a web site that sells this advice today - and asks for a cheque for whatever you think it's been worth after a month! Here you get it for free!)

Each morning, Lee said, write down the most important things you want to do that day. Number them in order of their real importance. Then start work on the first one - and stick with it until it's done. Then do number 2, and then number 3, and so on. Don't worry if you can't do them all in one day, you probably wouldn't even get this far with any other system. (Other things have to fit in wherever they can.)

Over the next 5 years, Schwab built Bethlehem Steel into a hugely successful steel producer and, reportedly, make himself a fortune into the bargain. Later he described the advice as the most profitable lesson he had ever learned. Many have called this the start of the To Do List - and most of us can still learn from this simple bit of advice. Bet you wouldn't grumble if you made $25,000 in a few minutes, would you?

Whilst this true story is now part of management folklore, the earliest account I have seen is in R Alec Mackenzie's book, The Time Trap, published in 1972.

The Tyranny of the Urgent
R Alex Mackenzie, The Time Trap, McGraw Hill, 1972
Do you ever feel rushed off your feet at work? The following is a quote from a classic book on time management published many years ago. It's still good advice.

Urgency engulfs the manager; yet the most urgent task is not always the most important. The tyranny of the urgent lies in its distortion of priorities - its subtle cloaking of minor projects with major status, often under the guise of "crisis." One of the measures of a manager is his ability to distinguish the important from the urgent, to refuse to be tyrannized by the urgent, to refuse to manage by crisis. Strangely, one of the major reasons for the failure to plan is that putting out today's fires is given priority over planning for tomorrow, thus ensuring an ample supply of kindling to be consumed in future fires.

To Do Lists
Best thing since sliced bread
Someone once said, 'A short pencil beats a long memory.' In a way, that captures the essence of a well-planned To Do List or task list, possibly the easiest way there is to improve personal productivity. Like many good ideas it is both simple and effective. But, how can you make this simple idea even more effective. Here's how!
  • It's today's list! Not a stale history lesson.
  • Write it fresh each day in a decent-sized diary, say A5.
  • Don't make it too long; highlight the top 3 to 6 items. The rest can wait till time permits.
  • Add new tasks as they arise and prioritise against what is already there.
  • Use your list for defence when others ask for too much, I've already got...
  • Carry forward uncompleted tasks to tomorrow, or to a later date as seems best to you, or scrap them.

Hardly anyone completes everything on their list; that's not the point. They help you to prioritise and they stop you forgetting things. Only carry forward things that matter.

The Day Book
The other half of the To Do List
Many people use a 'Daybook'. A slightly fancy name for a notebook in which you write all your daily jottings whilst at work (or elsewhere for that matter). It can be any size although, if you're getting serious, A5 or even A4 may be best - whatever is convenient to carry with your diary.

A Daybook gets rid of all those scraps of paper, backs of envelopes and sticky notes that so often pass for being organised. Sticky notes should mainly be used for notes to give to other people; any that you receive could go into your Daybook. Use the book for any jottings you make during the day, except for things that obviously go elsewhere.

To get the best from your Daybook you need to be able to find any note when you need it. To help with this, simply date all the entries and use a simple cross-reference system. For example, let's say that I've taken notes today (14 Nov) of a telephone conversation with Bill Smith and we've scheduled a meeting for, say, 17 January. So, I record the appointment in my diary for 17 Jan with a note such as: Meeting - Bill Smith, see 14/11. The cross-reference tells me where my notes are that I took during our phone conversation. Easy!

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General Tips

The Betaris Box
Links your attitude and your behaviour
You may not have heard of it but it describes something we experience every day - the interaction between attitude and behaviour.

Usually shown as a box diagram it simply asserts: my attitude affects my behaviour - my behaviour then affects your attitude - your attitude affects your behaviour - and, coming full circle, your behaviour then affects my attitude.

Not sure of that? Have you ever seen two people 'wind each other up'? Do you remember the sending off in the World Cup Final - Marco Materazzi and Zinedine Zidane! Lesson? To change someone else's attitude and behaviour - look first at changing your own and kick off a pacifying circular process! It's not easy, but it can be worthwhile.

Active Listening
Do we really miss 70% of what is said to us?
A strange term, active listening. I remember a training video years ago in which Robert Lindsay got exasperated with John Cleese telling him about active listening. "What's that mean," he barked, "wiggle my ears?" Active listening takes your listening skills up a notch or two, mainly by focussing you on trying to listen closely to the other person rather than doing what we tend to do much of the time, which is working out what we will say next rather than listening to what they are saying now. It's an active approach and it is hard work. The skills include:

- paying close attention to the other person and trying to understand them
- holding back from making your own points
- listening far, far more than speaking
- speaking mainly to encourage them or verify your understanding
- showing attention by giving verbal and non-verbal encouragers: "Mmm...," "Yes," eye contact, nods, head shakes, etc.
- paraphrasing and summarising what they have said - accurately.

If you can do all of that, then you are really listening. And once you understand them, then you can make your own points. See how long you can listen to someone without interrupting to make your own points - can you manage 5 minutes of listening whilst hardly saying a word, and keep them interested?

SWOT Analysis
Finding your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats
I guess most of us have come across the SWOT analysis which is used to focus us on identifying our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats when facing a problem. Perhaps we see it as a simplistic tool when, in fact, it can be very useful.

One common mistake when using SWOT is to tackle too general or too big an issue - for example, your career. It is better to make separate analyses on precise aspects of your career - such as your suitability for a specific new post. Start with the strengths and weaknesses that others outside the situation can see as they look in, how would they see you for this vacancy? Then ask what other strengths and weaknesses you know of? How can you make those hidden strengths visible to others, and keep the hidden weaknesses hidden? Which weaknesses are worth strengthening? How?

Next, look at the opportunities and threats you can see as you look out from your perspective. What can others see? There might be new experiences, learning, colleagues; it may even open up further promotion, etc. Threats - what could stop you, or go wrong? How much would it matter?

Open and Closed Questions
Is the difference as simple as it is made out?
I wonder how many times you have been told that open questions (such as, "Tell me about what happened,") produce long answers and closed questions (such as, "Is that right?") produce one-word answers such as "Yes" or "No". Whilst there's more than a mere grain of truth in this, it's also a bit simplistic.

Research some years ago by Nick Rackham of Huthwaite Inc found that around 10% of open questions get one-word answers and about 60% of closed questions get long answers. You might like to check it out for yourself in a conversation - if you've nothing better to do - or take his word for it! At least, don't start worrying when you mistakenly ask a closed question next time you are quizzing someone in an interview or sales pitch. Closed questions are not always the disasters that some people make them out to be.

The need to summarise
Aren't meetings wonderful? No? Ah! I wonder what you would say if asked to give just one tip to improve meetings. No doubt it would depend on the meetings you go to and the most common problems you encounter: boredom, confusion, people talking all at once, weak chairing, people coming and going, and so on.

I would go for the importance of regular summaries. Summaries keep everyone awake and on track. They are a great control tool and the minute taker will love you. Who summarises may not matter much, as long as it is done well. Generally, the Chair is the obvious person but the topic expert could be an appropriate alternative.

Whoever does it, summarising helps everyone. There should always be a summary at the end of a topic before moving on to the next item on the agenda. But with long topics everyone can benefit if there are several summaries as the discussion progresses.

The GROW model
Don't you find it amusing when people take something that is plain common sense and turn it into a 'model'? And no model is complete until it has become an acronym. The main problem, of course, is that plain common sense (PCS?) isn't as plain or as common as we might wish - and so these little models are in fact quite useful as reminders of what should be obvious.

The GROW model is a guide to common-sense coaching - the one-to-one guiding of someone to explore and find their own solution to their problems.

First, you ask them to spell out their Goal (or aim or objective, whatever you want to call it). Push them into providing a thorough description - not waffle. Then ask about the Reality of the current situation. What is and is not going well and how do they know - again chop out the woolly thinking and waffle. Once you have clarity, move on to ask them what they see as the Options available to them. What could they do: the pros and cons, the risks and benefits? Finally, get them to Wrap up, give you a summary. Will they actually do any of these things? What is the next step and when? Like many of the good models, it is essentially common sense - expressed in a way that even clever managers can remember!

Six Honest Serving Men
With thanks to Rudyard Kipling
I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew. Their names are what and why and when, and how and where and who?

So starts a very useful poem by the great Rudyard Kipling. As a simple reminder of the basic questions to ask yourself - or others - in almost any situation it is hard to beat. Nice open questions beginning with those six words: what, why, when, who where and how? And, if you like you can add another - which?

It could prove useful the next time you are interviewing, or conducting an appraisal, or simply trying to discover what happened in a situation.

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Negotiating Nuggets: Last updated 1 Mar 2013