Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My number one email peeve: Incomplete reply

If you know me you know that I love email. Maybe a little too much, but it’s just so efficient when used properly.

Unfortunately, there are people who also love to use email, but fail to use it well.

Beyond not responding at all, the most frustrating, time-wasting, and annoying email abuse is failing to respond to each of the items in an originating email or bringing up a divergent topic. In other words, failing to reply to all of the issues in the original email.

Have you ever sent an email to someone listing 2-3 items or questions you have, and they respond to only one, or none, and then go “dark”? They may even reply bringing up an entirely new topic that has nothing to do with your original email!

For example, I sent an email the other day like this:

Dear Jack, Johnny, and Jim,

I want to confirm our next meeting. Please reply addressing each of the following items:
1. What day would you like to meet?
2. What time would work best for you?
3. Where would be convenient for you?
Thanks for your prompt response.
-- Stephen

Jack responded only to item two with, “7:00 PM is fine with me.”

Johnny missed all three replying with, “Did you hear the news about ….?”

And Jim came back with, “Any day this week after 4PM works for me. How about Starbucks on 14th & Adams?”

Only Jim got it right.

Send it simple

Whenever I send an email that needs a response to multiple queries, I try to make it as easy as possible for the reader to (1) see that there are 2-3 questions and, (2) to respond to them.

Did you see what I just did in the paragraph above as well as my example email? I numbered the items. That’s exactly how I often structure an email, numbering or bulleting each item that needs a response.

I’ll also indicate at the beginning of the email that there are X-number of questions/items below that require responses.

Reply point-by-point

If you get an email that clearly outlines multiple questions/items, respond to each item!

Not responding completely means time has to be invested in following up to get the answers to the rest of the questions, or to get the rest of the information requested.

Answering all emails with complete responses the first time ultimately saves everyone a ton of time.

A very good way to respond to an email with multiple questions is to put your response to each right after the questions in your reply.

Simply hit reply, delete any extraneous header/footer text, and put your answers below each question. You may want to indent or use a special character that sets off your answers, or put them in a different color.

Reply to the point

Receiving an email from someone may trigger a reminder of a different topic you wanted to take up with them.

Do NOT reply to the email you’ve just received to address a new topic.
Reply to the specifics of their email, then create a new email with a new subject line to address your new and separate topic.

Be e-courteous

When you receive an email, respond to the point(s), respond point-by-point, and respond in a timely manner. It’s the e-courteous thing to do.


Friday, October 29, 2010

How to avoid news release hell with righteous writing

If you are “in the biz,” as they say, then you’ve heard how pointless it is to issue a news release. In this glittering age of social media, twitterati, and digitized content, news releases are viewed like cavemen at a cocktail party – clumsy and out of place.

After all, nobody reads news releases anymore. Right?

Okay, maybe they aren’t read, but they are at least glanced at. And that glance could turn into a bit of publicity gold as opposed to a wad of paper in a game of trashcan swish.

How do you give your news release a snowball’s chance in quick-glance hell? Simple. You start with good, righteous writing.

Right now someone is already head-arguing with me that a good news release needs a lot more than good writing. Quiet your inner spat-man for a minute and bear with me.

Now, think: what are the elements of good writing? Hint: they’re the same elements that make a good news release.

Good writing, in a nutshell, is clear, concise, complete, and – this is important – clever. Good writing gets your message delivered. Period.

The most important element is to be clear. Being clear means very simply BEING CLEAR! Did you get that?

Being clear means avoiding jargon, tech-speak, corporatese, and anything else that makes your news release read like it was written by a robot.

The following paragraph was in a news release that recently landed in my inbox. The only reason I read the whole release was because it was so horrendously awful, especially this graf. I’ve eliminated specific company names to protect the clueless. The bracketed comment is mine:
“Due to rapidly churning communication technology and seismic shifts in the book market distribution landscape – from the Internet to eReaders and the iPad to individual book print-on-demand capability – publishers expect authors to take more responsibility for the development, promotion, and sales of their books. [Deep breath!] COMPANY will help publishers, agents, ministry partners, and Christian authors adapt to these changes with dexterity. It combines the experience and vision of COMPANY publishing executives with the integrated marketing and technology expertise of BUSINESS GROUP digital natives. COMPANY will provide authors with brand counseling, editorial direction, research capabilities, marketing strategy, Internet and social media presence, and a comprehensive portfolio of publishing assistance.”

The writing, in general, sucks. Worse, I’m not really sure what this organization is trying to accomplish. The word “dexterity” was a major tripping point, but “digital natives” is a total cliff over which all meaning is lost. And then there are those long gobbledygook sentences. It’s 107 words and only four sentences.

There’s nothing clear about this graf or, sadly, the entire release. Forget concise, too. As far as being complete, I can’t really say because I have no clear idea what this release is talking about, so I don’t know if anything is completely covered or not. My gut sense is not even close.

Now, as for clever, there were some lame attempts. For example, the release listed key personnel of this new venture. One person is tagged a “Social Media Marketing/WOM/Publicity Evangelist.” I’m assuming WOM means “word of mouth." And “evangelist?" Really? Didn’t these kinds of cutesy titles get tossed a decade ago? If I were meeting with this guy, I’d have a hard time taking him seriously once I glanced at his business card.

Jargon is sprinkled generously throughout the release, all in a bid toward cleverdom. However, clever that isn’t clear is just crap. And jargon is never clever. Remember that.

The website of this new venture is also an attempt to be clever by being minimalistic. Fail! It only succeeds in being pointless and annoying.

But I digress.

Now I guess it’s time for me to offer some helpful tips for making your news release successful. Okay, here goes:
  • Hire a writer! A good writer! A writer who knows how to write!
Sorry, that was a little self-serving. I’m a freelance writer always on the prowl for new business. Email me.

Let me try again. Here are some tips:
  • Make your news release interesting and useful to the audience you’re trying to reach. Give specific examples of what you’re talking about, especially how you can help them accomplish their goals.

  • Connect on a personal level with your readers. If possible, tell a story. Instead of writing the typical boring release, write it like an interview or how-to article. Make it engaging.

  • Avoid breathless hyperbole. For example, the headline of this awful news release stated. “Upheavals in Book Publishing Lead Industry Execs to Launch COMPANY.” Then phrases such as “revolutionary change,” “shifting landscape,” “seismic shifts,” are used, and they describe their team as having “more than 125 years of collective experience.” The release drips with overstatement that feels like exaggeration. It makes me want to throw water in the writer’s face and tell him to calm down and get a grip! Hyperbole damages believability.

  • Use understandable, familiar terms or offer definitions. If you’re going to throw out a phrase such as “playground of possibilities,” offer relevant context and explain what that means to your audience with a couple of concrete, meaningful examples. Don’t leave us stuck on the merry-go-round of murkiness.

  • Take the development of your news release seriously! It deserves just as much thought and care as the effort you put into a glossy brochure or your business plan. A news release that’s hastily dashed off will be tossed out unread.

  • Write it and then leave it alone for awhile. In the case of the release I’ve been referencing, I can just imagine the guys all sitting around a table at a restaurant, wild with excitement over forming a new venture, and gang-writing the release while in this state of new venture ecstasy. When doing your release, write it and walk away from it overnight so you can re-approach it with fresh, reality-grounded eyes.

And speaking of reality, the truth is that news releases are not dead or useless. At least not when they’re carefully crafted and well written. Done right, a news release can be effective in communicating your critical messages to your constituency. Create yours thoughtfully and engagingly.

Okay, now I can insert the blatant appeal for business:

Need help crafting a clever release that’s clear, concise, and complete? Contact me at CleverSmith Writing™.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Battle at Kruger: A parable of spiritual warfare?

This is a really cool video that hit the Internet years ago. I think it's a good illustration of how Christians need to come to the rescue of other believer's under attack. One of my favorite parts of the video is the moment the baby enters the herd and the buffalo nearest it nudges her in with her head as if to say, "You're safe now." Enjoy!


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Blood & Mud: Learning grace the hard way

(The following is a "testimony" given on Sunday,
February 14, 2010 at MetroAlliance Church.
It feels a little risky sharing it here;
but the Holy Spirit has been nagging me,
so here goes...)

Hello, my name is Stephen. I’m a sin-aholic and it’s been….not all that long since I’ve last sinned.


I’ve often thought it would be interesting if church were a little more like Alcoholics Anonymous. But, that’s not why I’m up here today, so I’ll move along.


My name is Stephen Clark, and I moved to Cleveland in the fall of 2008 from Fishers, Indiana, which is near Indianapolis, to work at a small local University that was undergoing a change of ownership. MetroAlliance Church is the first church I tried here.

After recovering from the initial shock of my first visit to MetroAlliance, the Lord drew me back, somewhat against my will, and made it clear to me that this was my new church home, for better or for worse, at least for the time being.

This experience has further confirmed what I already knew to be true about God; He’s smarter than I am and always knows best. I don’t always acknowledge that, but I do know it’s true.

So, the pastor asked if I would share a bit about my testimony. I’ll do my best to stick to my script, keep it short, and zero in on just a few highlights.


My hometown is New Castle, Indiana. I grew up in a small Assemblies of God church that was founded by my maternal grandfather. This doesn’t make me more spiritual or holy; it’s just an interesting fact.

Another interesting tidbit – at least interesting to me – is that God chose to have me, an introvert, who was also terribly shy as a kid – grow up in a Pentecostal church.

Pentecostals are generally noisy and kind of in your face. I wasn’t. From this I’ve decided God has a slightly twisted sense of humor. I’m still a Pentecostal, more or less; just really toned down.

I accepted Christ into my heart early and often. By that I mean that every Sunday in children’s church they always gave “the call,” and every Sunday, pretty much all of us raised our hands. Man, what tiny incorrigible heathens me and my cousins and friends at 5, 6, 7 years old must have been!

Actually, I think our response was largely due to the fact that many of the Sunday school and other lessons and sermons we were bombarded with always seemed to have an element of that, you-may-have-sinned-this-week-and-lost-your-salvation-without-knowing-it-and-hell-is-a-really-awful-place-and-Jesus-could-come-back-right-now-and-you-WILL-be-left-behind-if-there-is-even-a-smidge-of-sin-in-your-little-heart!

I mean, come on! The situation was stacked against us. We were kids! Of course we had done something wrong during the week! That’s what we did. And hell was not where we wanted to end up. So, it was pretty simple to figure out that it was better to be safe than sorry, raise our hands every week, and “return to the fold” over and over and over.

But, over time, this perpetual backslider mentality didn’t do much for our spiritual maturity. The formal label for it is “legalism;” a way of life that I do not recommend.


Okay, that’s a little context around my early years. Obviously I grew up, left home, and proceeded to go out into the world and screw up many, many, many times.

There’s a metaphor that crops up in the Bible a few times, like in Jeremiah 18 which you can look at later, that images us as clay and God as the potter. You know, we’re on this cute little wheel-thing gently being formed into the vessel that He wants us to be, under the Master’s hands, etc., etc.; a very lovely image. Right?

Frankly, I think it’s a pretty messy one. Clay is mud; wet and slick and staining everything. The potter grabs a handful of us, smacks us around, and then slaps us down on this spinning wheel. It’s no wonder that spiritual growth can make us feel dizzy from time to time!

Isaiah 29:16, using this potter metaphor, states, “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘You did not make me?’ Can the pot say of the potter, ‘You know nothing?’”

Okay, I know this is the wrong answer, but, well, sure! Of course we “clay people” can talk back to God, and I know I’ve done it a few – maybe many – times; both in things I’ve said and done. Just as with legalism, I don’t recommend this way of life, either.

You could say that I’ve been stubborn clay.


Part of my screwing up has involved a long struggle with pornography, something I still have to be on guard against; being divorced – more than once; committing adultery and fornication; lying, a lot, usually to cover up the things I’ve just mentioned; and I could go on. But I think you get the idea.

This has required large doses of God’s grace applied to my life, over and over and over again.

Basically, it meant that the potter grabbed my muddy life, applied the blood of Jesus, smacked me around some more, and then slapped me back onto His wheel to prod, bend, squeeze, and work my life toward the SHAPE He always had in mind.

I grew up thinking that salvation, redemption, sanctification, and all these elements of spiritual growth, were like events. Once and done! You confess and voila, you’re a Christian, and that’s that. Everything is supposed to be hunky dory from then on.

This way of thinking basically turns you into a spiritual crash test dummy that keeps ramming into this thing called reality. Really, really hard.

Again, speaking from experience, not a way of life I recommend.

What has taken me most of my almost several years to finally figure out is that it is all a process. It’s a process of mud and blood; the blood being applied to the mud being shaped, lovingly, but with some pain, by an incredibly merciful, relentless, and patient God.

I cannot begin to express how both grateful and amazed I am that He has never given up on me. It’s overwhelmingly humbling.


Another very important truth I’ve learned is how desperately I need to be in fellowship with and loved by godly men. Guys, listen to me; we cannot walk out our faith alone – we deeply need each other.

Those times in my life where I’ve made my most painful and most stupid mistakes were at times when I was not connected to godly guys. I was trying to do it my way, on my own, and that left me exposed and helpless on the battlefield.


So, to bring this home and begin to wrap it up; God knew MetroAlliance was the place for me at this time, because here I have found a great bunch of godly men. While I’m still getting to know you and you’re still getting to know me, the love, encouragement, and acceptance I have already experienced is just what I need.

On this Valentine’s Day Sunday, I unashamedly declare to all the men here, I am falling in love with you the more I get to know you.

The godly love that we are called to as Christian men is a gritty, no-nonsense (well, maybe some nonsense), teeth-bared, all out, I’ve-got-your-back-on-the-battlefield, mud and blood love.

It’s hard for us as guys to ask for what we need, or to even say what we need. But we need God and we need each other.

I need you guys, in my life, for accountability, for your wisdom, for your strength when I’m weak, and more.

And I need all of you because you are my family here in Cleveland. I’m truly glad that God knows better than me, and that He brought me to MetroAlliance at such a time as this.

How about you? Has your faith walk been easy? Can you relate to my struggles? Or are you shaking your head, wondering how this guy can claim to be a Christian and still mess up so bad? Share your honest thoughts and opinions in the comments!

FYI: I no longer attend MetroAlliance Church (a great little church!) as God has transitioned my wife and I to a new church for a new adventure. In fact, we moved away from Cleveland to the Philly area. Plus, MetroAlliance moved down the street to a new location and is now known as West Side Alliance.