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Great Tips From the Oxford Word Barber

June 2016

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One word, two words or hyphenated (for IT)?

Naming in IT is like the frontiers of the wild west. They're making it up as they go along. I know, I've been there.

Sometimes you're not sure if that new term is one word, two words or a hyphenated concatenation (yes, I did just use a long word to show off). Well, this is how the Oxford English Dictionary sees it:

  • a login / to log in
  • email.
  • a set-up / to set up
  • a sign up (not signup or sign-up. Go figure).
  • Wi-Fi (although many people use WiFi)
  • port forwarding
  • firewall
  • laptop
  • boot up
  • reboot
  • username
  • uninstall
  • bookmarkable
  • superuser
  • retry
  • a workaround
  • re-run
  • bug fixes.

So sometimes there's a system, sometimes it's just how it's been adopted.

October 2010

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The Principles of Persuasive Speaking

If you thought Ethos, Pathos and Logos were The Three Musketeers, think again.

In James Borg’s book Persuasion, “…communicating in a way that produces favourable outcomes…”, we find these are Aristotle’s three proofs used by persuasive speakers.

You can translate them as Sincerity, Empathy and Reason.

While Aristotle claimed that reason was the primary element, Borg cites sincerity and empathy as more important in modern society.

This is backed up by the statistic that when we’re speaking only 7% of spoken communication is the words being said. The rest is how you come across - empathy and sincerity are powerful factors in communication.

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Whiteboard Disaster?

I was presenting recently using a whiteboard – one of those you have to use dry wipe pens on. Somebody before me had used red permanent marker, and left it on the board.

White spirit, special chemicals, nothing would even smudge it.

Until I was handed a bottle of Southern Comfort!

It took some proper elbow grease as well, but it did work.

No doubt there’s a proper cleaner you can use, and I've heard that you can also use regular dry wipe marker (the type you can smell) to remove it, but if you’re desperate, pop down to the off license.

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Create a Word Cloud

With written communication being such a one-dimensional medium, how can you get a feel for the impression you create with a long string of words?

Try making a word cloud using Wordle. You paste in some text and it creates a fiesta of words in a blob, with the ones you’ve used most looking biggest. Instant impact.

If you’re producing a speech or a sales item, this is the kind of tool you might use to snapshot the big ideas and buzz words – and the notable omissions.

See the word cloud for this newsletter here.

June 2010

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Excellent English

If people notice your poor grammar when you write, what will they think of the rest of what you do?

Here are some thoughts on apostrophes, some of which may surprise you.

You'll already know about the apostrophe's two main uses:

  • to indicate that letters have been removed
  • to show that something belongs or relates to something.

It's / its is an exception to this second use. We wouldn't use an apostrophe for “will have its own dedicated manager”, for example. “It's” only means “it is”.

Of course, you don't use apostrophes for plurals , like “three day's to go”.

Although, astonishingly, my current Compact Oxford English Dictionary does suggest it's OK to use a grocer's apostrophe (as it's called) for short name plurals like “all the 7's” or “more no's than yeses”. I can scarcely believe it.


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Minimising costs on big documents

There is some useful information on the web site of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators.

They advise the following to keep the costs of writing to a minimum:

  • Allocate time to each part of the document. Word limits from the start can save editing time.
  • Plan your first draft to work. Don't make significant changes at the second draft stage.
  • Have a realistic awareness of the full costs of preparing a document. Experts aren't usually efficient writers; is it really cheaper to ask Jim to do it himself?
  • Consider print costs before you plan how your document will apear. Similarly, consider download constraints before planning online documents.
  • Make sure source information is readily available.

Read more here.


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Put a label on your messages

Let's say there's a tin can in your larder without a label.

It's probably neglected and gathering dust, isn't it?

If you don't know what's in it from the outside, you probably won't open it to find out.

For everything you write, put a decent label on it; make sure the headline or subject line attracts the attention of the person you want to read it.

They may choose not to read it, but you can be sure…

… if there's no label on it, your message will gather dust.

April 2010

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Going up! Your elevator pitch.

Everyone should have an elevator pitch. It's a summary of what you do, short enough to be recited during an elevator ride.

Preparing one is invaluable, ready for a networking meeting or any brief chance with a client.

A good pitch should contain an opening line that engages interest, a clear explanation of what you do, the benefits or advantages you offer, and a reminder of who you are.

Vitally, it must be short. Thirty seconds is all that's necessary. A 10 second version is also handy.

If you'd like to read my elevator pitch (on my updated web site), click here .


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Killing the Office Assistant

On your PC it might be a paperclip with eyebrows. On my Mac it's a monitor on legs.

Every time I turned on the spelling and grammar tool in Word, there was the Office Assistant: hooting, waving, getting in the way.

I clicked to hide him, and at the very next query he was back with a whirr.

So I visited the Help menu to find out how to get rid of him… and there it was: ‘Use the Office Assistant' with a tick next to it.

I unchecked it. He went away. He hasn't come back.

Let joy be unconfined!


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When to allow your reader to pull

Realising there was a difference between ‘push' information and ‘pull' information was a revelation to me. I'd like to share it with you.

“Bed sale ends today!” is push information. It shoves its way into your awareness without a by-your-leave. Its job is to attract or even demand your attention.

However, some information is willingly requested by the reader, who patiently pulls it from the page. Brochure specs and contact details don't need to be shouty. They just need to make the right information easy to find.

Of course, they may need to be coupled with some push information to let you know they're there.

Different tools for different jobs.

March 2010

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Writing? Think first

Writing is much easier if you know what you're going to say first.

If you have to tell people about your new service, or about an award your company's won, get your story straight before you sit at a blank screen. Understand it. Get the measure of it.

This knocks the spots off getting half an idea, writing about it, and going back to rummage for more material.

A bit like painting a picture, you need the whole scene to keep each part in perspective.


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Tricks of the trade

If you use MS Word, you can make life much easier if you know what all those menus do. Here are some tricks of the trade from the Preferences menu.

The WYSIWYG font list , for example, lets you see all the fonts available to you in all of their quirky glory.

The editing submenu, meanwhile, offers the drag-and-drop editing option, and lets you turn off 'automatically select entire word', which allows much more precision when editing.

Have a play for yourself.

Of course, Word is often too clever for its own good – call me if you're stuck.


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Write yourself better

There's a book you may have heard about. It's called “:59 seconds - think a little, change a lot”. It's full of interesting ideas backed up with real findings.

It suggests that if you talk about something that's bothering you, like a trouble shared, you'll only see a modest long-term effect.

However, if you write it down the benefit is far more profound.

The English we use for writing is different from the jabber we use for speaking. The lack of formality found in conversation just isn't right when you're composing a sentence. Writing it down means you have to think about it properly, and to organise your thoughts.

There's a quotation to back this up from the world of NLP, which says “The key to self improvement is writing down your progress”.

So, write yourself better.


December 2009

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The funny thing about Powerpoint...

The rules for PowerPoint presentations are the same as the rules for all communication - keep it short and simple.

Comedian Don McMillan agrees.

You'll need sound for his You Tube presentation on how NOT to use PowerPoint, but it is educational as well as amusing.


And I don't think there's bad language in it.

Don McMillan on You Tube - 4m 24s


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Try a word quiz

If you're not rushed off your feet in the run up to Christmas, you're probably kicking your heels and watching the clock.

Or persuading yourself to start winding down and to do something light during your coffee break.

Test yourself with these word quizzes from the Capital Community College in The States.

The Notorious Confusables are fun, the Spelling Quizes are tricky of course, and the quiz on parallel structures is just excellent.


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Happy New Decade!

It doesn't feel much like the end of a decade, but that was The Noughties.

Ten years ago we were worried about the Millennium Bug, unaware of Osama Bin Laden, and assuming that Microsoft would produce something less ropey than Windows 98.

Oh, the wisdom of hindsight.

This next decade provides an opportunity to build something excellent for all of us.

So here's wishing you a contented, fulfilling festive season, and all the luck you deserve with your activities in 2010.

And perhaps a little more…


November 2009

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Say what you write - aloud

A great trick for making something easy to read is to say it out loud.

When I write scripts for radio ads or presentations I always read them aloud to check they flow easily.

However, for anything you’re writing, you can spot the words that trip over themselves by speaking them. If you can’t say them fluently, chop a few out or simplify them.

Speaking your writing is more embarrassing when you share an open plan office. But go for it anyway.


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Make your message do one job

Anything you write should be a tool - a device to affect or help someone.

And as a good tool it should have just one function (unlike a Swiss Army penknife).

So, that web page, flyer or email you’re writing. What’s it trying to do? To inform? To motivate? To amuse?

Pick one job for your communication; and for each part of it.

The headline - what’s the function of that? To attract? To be easy to find?

Then there’s the subheads. They should do one job too, as should each paragraph and each sentence.

Someone’s going to read your message, so keep it simple. Make it affect them in one way.


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Take CTRL of Word

When you’re using Word, you can make lots of regular tasks easier using the CTRL key.

Just hold down CTRL and hit a letter key at the same time (for Macs use ‘cmd’ or Apple).

When you get used to them they’re so quick, especially with one one hand. I wouldn’t go back to clicking menus.

CTRL + Z I use every time I say ‘oops’ - it’s the ‘undo’ key stroke. CTRL + Y is redo, or do it again; useful for repeating an action.

CTRL + S is save. I use this one every minute or so. CTRL + P is print - it should bring up the print menu.

CTRL + X, CTRL + C and CTRL + V are cut, copy and paste. X is like scissors, C is for cut, and V is next door on the keyboard. I’m using CTRL + V here to write ‘CTRL +' lots of times.

CTRL + B makes selected text bold. However, I suggest you don’t use CTRL + I or U for italic or underline; they rarely look good.

CTRL + Q quits.

These key strokes work on many other packages, including the Pages application I’m using to write this.

Find them, and more, listed in the drop-down menus.


October 2009

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Would my headlines get you into bed?

What makes an attractive headline?

It’s not about honey dripped words; it’s about saying something that gets the reader interacting with you.

In general the function of the headline is to turn a cursory glance into understanding and engagement.

I’ve seen too many letters and features that start from the perspective of the writer. Not enough thought goes into the motivation of the reader. It’s the equivalent of playing with yourself.

Far more productive is to say what someone finds interesting or relevant. It depends on the message, but teaser headlines (like the one here) and nice-clear-proposal headlines are the most common types.

Your headline should be a chat up line.

So, next time you want someone to read what you have to say, throw out an engaging reason to find out more about it.


I could say more - call and chat about headlines with me.

Mail me your thoughts.


September 2009

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Copy a great example

If you want to do something well, copy an expert.

Self-improvement guru Tony Robbins says exactly this – to get good at something find a great example and copy it . This holds true for your business communications: tone, grammar, medium and so on.

However, the principle has the fastest and greatest effect when it comes to presentation. As they say of Japanese food, the first bite is taken with the eye.

Instead of hanging onto the old way you've always typed up a report, written your CV or made a poster, find one that looks the business and use their format .

For my coursework at university I looked through a dozen genuine scientific papers until I saw one that looked so smart and clear it begged to be read, and I copied its presentation almost wholesale. It made my words sing.

Once you've made your work look more professional you're ready to develop it - but already you're standing on the shoulders of giants.

 Mail me your thoughts.


August 2009

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Standardised spelling?

Let's play a little true or false:

organise' is the correct English spelling of the word ‘organise', and ‘organize' is the correct American spelling.

True or false?

Care to bet 50p?

The answer is… false! OK, false-ish.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the ‘-ize' ending for words like ‘standardize' and ‘epitomize' is the preferred English spelling, as well as the American spelling.

The ‘-ise' ending is listed as an acceptable alternative only.

I've even phoned up the dictionaries department at OUP, and they consider ‘-ize' to be the correct form, as it comes from Greek ‘-izo'.

Have a look at the Ask Oxford web site.

While they concede that every other dictionary goes with ‘-ise', as well as the BBC and The Times, they have no plans to change.

(By the way, ‘realize' has recently been spotted in The Times online, in the same feature as ‘recognised').

Anyway, as the Oxford Word Barber, I plan to continue using ‘-ise' as everyone expects it.

However, the next time you kick yourself for using ‘-ize', you can rest assured that the OED says you're correct.


July 2009

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Making JFK as easy as ABC

There are lots of bad ways to get your point across, but only a few great techniques that have stood the test of time.

So what ideas could you use, to engage, to enlighten and to persuade, becoming a beacon of clarity in a confused world?

Great orators like John F Kennedy use contrast, rules of three and imagery.

So if your skills are thin on the ground, then tuck into a feast of good ideas in this recent BBC article.

Then you can write good like what I do.


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Writing without unnecessary clutter in order to utilise language with added effectiveness

(or, 'Writing simply and clearly')

Have you ever read something like:

"The lever must be retracted fully in order to utilise the unit effectively"?

You just don't need all that baggage.

First, we'll dump the pointless adverb at the end:

"The lever must be retracted fully in order to utilise the unit".

Next we'll change 'utilise' to use, and chop out 'in order' - these are two common tricks for improving your writing: 

"The lever must be retracted fully to use the unit". 

Better… but... about we just say what we wanted to say? 

"Push the lever all the way back".


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Mixxed Doubles

I've read that it takes 2 years to learn to spell in Italian, but a whole 12 years for English.

Double letters, for example, catch everyone out. There's no firm rule, but here's one guideline courtesy of the Aries project.

If you add 'ing' to a word, you double the last letter only if the emphasis is on the last syllable. For example, ‘refer' becomes ‘referring', but ‘focus' is just ‘focusing'.

So get used to benefiting, gossiping and hammering, and to omitting, equipping and deferring.

Except kidnapping doesn't comply. And anything with an L on the end gets doubled regardless...

Tell you what, go and live in Italy.


June 2009

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Use Tongue-Twisters for Phone Calls

Big phone calls don't have to get you nervous and tongue tied.

When I was going to read a live radio bulletin, I used to warm up with tongue twisters. This works best if you anchor a feeling of calm and control to reciting them.

Use three or four that exercise different parts of the mouth, and notice yourself becoming more relaxed and confident with each one.

"Around the ragged rock the ragged rascal ran" is a good one. "She sells sea shells on the sea shore" is another favourite. "Red lorry yellow lorry red leather yellow leather " is just awesome, and I always conclude with "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers..."

Choose more here:


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Market your way back to economic growth

Imagine that the ebbs and flows of economics are like a night out at the Shepherds Bush Empire. There's an impenetrable dancing party during a band, then people leave to get a drink. That's the time to ease your way to the front for the next act.

If you examine pretty much any recession, you'll see that the firms that advertise do best, and lead the way when the recession ends. This feature from Harvard Business School is a bit old, but the principles are still sound:

While your competitors are cutting back on promotion, you have the opportunity to build a larger market share.

Then you can take advantage when the market expands again.


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Put event dates in the subject line

It's been in your in-box for ages, an email about a coaching weekend, waiting 'till you have time to look at it. Now you've read it, you fancy it... and it's finished.

Whether you're promoting a picnic or reminding colleagues about a critical meeting, the date is the most important thing to flag.

So put it in the subject line. e.g. "Team Building Evening - Thu 25 June"

It'll remind your recipient every time they look at their inbox.


May 2009

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Caps Lock Cured!

So, you've just TYPED A LOAD OF CAPITALS because you had CAPS LOCK ON BY MISTAKE! Doh!

Don't re-type it. Word has a cunning plan.

Highlight it and use Shift + F3 to scroll through UPPER CASE/ Title Case / lower case. Try it!

Better still - prise the caps lock key off your keyboard. I did. When do you ever use it?

Or disable it using one of these links (I haven't tried them - they seem to be for Windows OS. And the link may not show in IE. Try Firefox.).


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Words that look Fantastic!

I just have to share this with you. Take 5 minutes out to check these infographics:

Even if you don't care for the information you just have to read it!

So my tip is to think carefully about how to organise and present a piece of information. Don't let it go until you feels like it's effective.


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Similar Words, Different Meanings

Principle means a law or ethical rule, e.g. Archimedes' Principle, or to agree to something in principle. Principal, meanwhile, means foremost or leading, e.g. principal boy or Principal Skinner.

An effect is a thing. To affect is an action. Getting these right can have a positive effect. Getting them wrong may affect your reputation.

The abbreviation i.e. means 'that is', while e.g. means 'for example'. Use i.e. if you're defining or rephrasing something, and use e.g. if you're offering an example (an 'eg-sample'???).

If you follow me on Twitter ( my apologies, as this will be old hat to you. Acknowledgements to Writersworld.


April 2009

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Do you write like a woman or a man?

If you should ever want to write like the opposite sex, here's how.


This web site claims to tell if a man or a woman wrote a piece of text.

I gave it an Oxford Word Barber newsletter and it said I was a woman because I used the words 'with' and 'if' a lot.

Try it with text over 500 words long...


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Getting Googled

Writing for a web page?

A Google searcher types in keywords, typically one or two, so select your target and be there for those keywords - write something people will search for.

Definitely include your name or other word people associate with you. Searchers may be using Google to find you specifically.

Other educated guesses on how to get Googled include:

- keyword in domain name : if someone searches for 'onions', then '' will be best, and '' less good.

- multiple use of the keyword, but not so much that Google thinks you're trying to trick it. Also, use keywords near the beginning of the page, e.g. "Hello, if you want onions then we're the biggest onion sellers in Lincolnshire".

- Keywords in large, bold or italic

- Don't have your keywords as graphics. Google can't read a picture of a keyword, although it can read PDFs.

Finally, a quote from Google: "Provide high-quality content on your pages, especially your homepage. This is the single most important thing to do."


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Schedule your writing for best results

I found this article which compares ten professional non-fiction writers and when they write.

It seems they start in the morning with a little ritual, and work in isolation in 3 hour bursts with lots of coffee, spreading the work over several days.

This last point is important - start days before deadline to allow thoughts to settle, and to include polishing and rechecking.

For great ideas people often find late night is best. Dreaming is the 90% of the iceberg of writing.


March 2009

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Write less to be heard more

When you write a document or an article, go back through your message and dump about 40% of it.

That's how much sounded good the first time but doesn't really add anything.

Here I'm talking superfluous pompous words, ideas that aren't part of your main point, and unnecessary adjectives (how much of this sentence was actually unnecessary?).

One great tip is to lose the first line. Yes, I know it was your great idea to draw people in, but you'd be surprised at how often you can chop it to add impact without losing relevance.


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Writing for the web? Work in F patterns.

When you're on a web page, don't you scan just for what you want?

If a line starts with something dull, dense or irrelevant you move on to the next paragraph. Result, your eyes make an F pattern.

If you write for the web, be meaningful with your first few words - for each paragraph . F is not for fluff - people are extracting information. F is for Fast.

- Use bullets

- Keep paragraphs short

- Collect related ideas together.

This web site has an eye tracking heat map for where people look on a web page. Brilliant!


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Yes, I Tweet

It might be the new CB Radio, doomed to be a graveyard in a months, but for now, Twitter really is happening. It's a microblog where you can hear and tell in tiny reports what's going on with other Twitterers.

Celebs will Tweet that they missed lunch because they did an interview. Friends will Tweet they're working late and listening to Fine Young Cannibals. Experts will share quick tips.

Twitter is one of the tools Barack Obama used to get elected. Eddie Izzard's Tweets are... well, wonderfully Eddie Izzard...

Read more at Graham Jones' excellent blog:

editing - technical – marketing – scripts – bids – business – web copy and blogging - academic
Got a question? Call the Oxford Word Barber on 07 7654 80625 or email me