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Magic Words

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Chapter 1: Drowning in a Sea of Words

Let's face it. We're drowning in a sea of words. Too many ways to communicate, too much pressure to respond NOW, too many mistakes being made with what, quite honestly, may be our most important asset: the ability to effectively communicate what matters most when we really need to get it right.

One day I was sitting in the CNBC commissary in New Jersey, having coffee with my good friend and contact there. We were discussing how tough her job was as the books' contact for the station, when suddenly she offered this apology, "Hey, Dennis, if you ever don't hear from me, please do not be offended. I get 800 emails a day. I try to organize them and answer the most important ones, but sometimes I fail. So, if you don't hear from me one day, ping me again the next day, and I promise I'll answer you."

Eight hundred emails a day! More evidence that many of us (perhaps most of us, actually) are overwhelmed these days. Words are easier than ever to create and there is an overabundance of them, all vying for our attention.

One study says the average teenager sends more than 3,000 texts a month. That's more than 100 a day! Media contacts are getting hundreds of emails every day. Your targets and friends and associates are awash in email and electronic messages of one kind or another. Oh, and just to complicate things a little more, they get old-fashioned phone calls and snail mail, too.
So, obviously, creating words is not a problem for us now. No need to chisel our messages into stone canvasses. No quills and feathers and ink wells are necessary. We don't even need cartridges and white-out to pen and erase a moment's thought or missive.

Just think about it. There was a time when writing a simple letter was a huge undertaking that required a lot of forethought and planning and attention to detail. Yes, as strange as it may seem, people used to actually write drafts of letters and put them away for a period of time so that they could go back to them and revisit what they had written to be absolutely certain that every single word was appropriate for the reader for whom it was intended.

Now, words just miraculously appear under our effortless fingers and they are erased and altered with a single backstroke or by holding down the delete key. Entire thoughts can disappear in a millisecond and it's almost as if they never existed at all.

But, OMG, here's a bulletin that is as true today as it was a hundred or a thousand years ago: Words matter, they can do magic, and they can make people care about what we care about -- they can make us fall in love; they can soothe our aching hearts; they can make people buy our products or join our mission; they can build up a friend or tear down an enemy; and yes, they can change the world.

But, it's become too easy to communicate -- so easy, in fact, that we barely pay attention when we write a note or send a text. In a way, we've simultaneously devalued words at a time when they are more important than ever. It's delusional to think that we can fire off a quick email without taking the time to truly know our audience and assume that the impact will not matter too much one way or the other because it just so happens to be one of 500 text messages or emails we have sent this week.

The technology makes it easy to stay busy these days, and the system is set up so that the exercise of communication feels really good. Send out some email blasts with all of the info you think people should care about and it means that you are not just sitting around waiting on something to happen. You're doing something!

But, make no mistake, truly effective communication still requires the human touch, whether we do it in person, on our phones, or in Outlook. If we do it right, we're not just doing something, we're doing something that matters and gets results.

And yes, as hard as it is to believe, there are other very effective ways of communicating that work. For some truly successful communicators, handwritten notes, phone calls, and a visit across a desk or a table at Starbucks are all tools they are using to change the world a little.

Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell's Soup, built one of the world's most engaged workforces by doing three simple but very consistent things: he put on a pedometer and walked the Campbell's complex in Camden, N.J., every day and had simple but powerful conversations with all of the people there, and listened to their needs and ideas and then followed through on them. Doug also sent out over 30,000 handwritten notecards over a decade as CEO. I have one in my office that he sent me during the publicity campaign we did on his best-selling book Touchpoints that he co-authored with his friend Mette Norgaard.

As business leaders we are encouraged by experts to use EVERY mode of communication at our disposal. We're implored to Facebook and Tweet strategically. But, in my conversations with businesspeople across the land, I am learning that it's all a bit overwhelming for people who have a business to run, and a life to live away from the technology trap.

So, over the next few weeks I'll cover some of the principles I've learned about how to be the best we can be at what I also will admit is a difficult task. I'll share a few success stories about how choosing just the right words at the right time moved mountains that I was pretty sure would never move. We'll talk about technology, and how to make it work for us, rather than it being a bane and a distraction.

Hopefully, you'll find encouragement here, and a few tips that will help you communicate smarter with better results. I hope you'll stay with me through the series, and that at the end of it all, you'll see your role as "Communicator in Chief" for your big idea or book or product or company in a different way, and that you will be encouraged to move mountains of your own.