A Life Sentence

I don’t know about where you live, but around here, summer ended abruptly this past Monday night at the precise conclusion of Labor Day Weekend.

One day I’m splashing around in my neighbor’s pool and the very next morning I’m rooting through the hall closet, looking for a jacket to protect against the cold rain. I don’t know, maybe Mother Nature has finally gone digital.

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In any case, the end of summer brings with it the beginning of school, a time which, if you’ve got a high school junior lying around the house, means that college campus tours can’t be far behind.

In our case, this year will be our daughter Emily’s turn to drag her aging parents from school to school, in search of the perfect mix of food, atmosphere, facilities, location, student body and, of course, cute boys academic offerings.

Personally, and for reasons I don’t quite understand, I have a very short attention span for guided tours. I’m good for maybe 15 minutes, at which point I begin looking for a place where I can inconspicuously peel off from the pack and grab a cup of coffee in the student union.

Luckily – for my college-bound children, I mean – my wife Linda is exactly the opposite.

Thanks to her work as an independent educational consultant, she goes on tours all the time; she even claims to enjoy them. Just last month, in fact, she notched her 100th campus visit, essentially making her the Cal Ripkin of college tours.

And, as I know you won’t be surprised to learn, she publishes a monthly E-Newsletter for parents.

Here’s an excerpt from one she wrote a couple of months ago:


I’ve just returned from New Hampshire, having visited 12 colleges over five days. This week I head to Vermont and next month out to the Springfield area.

Nothing wrong with that. Friendly, specific, easy to understand.

But that’s not quite what she ended up sending. Instead, I suggested she make one small addition.

Here’s how that same paragraph looked when she published:


I’ve just returned from New Hampshire, having visited 12 colleges over five days (thank you to my tired husband for holding down the fort at home!). This week I head to Vermont and next month out to the Springfield area.

So here’s my question for you: Which woman are you more interested in meeting and/or possibly hiring?

If you’re like most people, the second example – the one with the innocuous extra sentence about the tired husband – is the clear winner.

But why?

It offers no additional value to the reader. It does nothing to make her appear more professionally qualified. It doesn’t make her sound smarter, or more experienced or more hard working.

But it does do one very important thing: Because she shares just a teeny bit more about who she is – behind the professional mask – it makes her come across as more likeable.

And likeable professionals are the ones who get hired.

Not just by consumers either. By other businesspeople.

And not just by casual, chatty businesspeople with nothing better to do.

I’m talking about serious, hardworking, extremely smart, extremely busy businesspeople. You know, the ones you say your clients are and who you therefore believe don’t have time for this “human connection stuff.” (Can you see the “yeah, right” expression on my face from way over there?)

So try this:

Tell more stories.

Share more personal information.

Use more common, nonbusiness language in your business writing (e.g., “holding down the fort”). It doesn’t have to be overwhelming – but enough to give people a look behind the curtain.

Above all, start speaking and writing to your colleagues, prospects, readers, clients, presentation attendees – everyone! – as if you already know them well and with the expectation that your likeable self may be the only breath of fresh air to float through their world all day.

I’ll be hiding in the student union if you need me.


20 thoughts on “A Life Sentence

  1. Joe Kalinowski

    And, we can all reinforce your point about likeability on November 7, 2012 when, if my crystal ball is up to snuff, the more likeable politician (regardless of inherent characteristics and competence) will be the US President in 2013.

      1. Michael Katz Post author

        Great point, Joe. The presidential election, from the primaries through the end, is an amazing display of how likeability can make or break a candidate. Fascinating stuff!

        1. Jay Rosenberg

          May I add that we reserached the personality types of each candidate and their running mate.
          One pair both have the F component. F represents “feeling” and people-orientation when making decisons and dealing with others.
          The other pair both have the T component. T represents “thinking” and task/goal-orientation. They exclude feelings and people, for the most part, when they make decisions.
          My point is that likeability and votes flow to those with Feeling in their personaliity. Along with Feeling in the personality come empathy and understanding of others. Hope this is as intersting to you as it has been to us.

  2. Marcia Nita Doron

    Back to Michael’s post, I try to connect with our clients, prospects, and partners by adopting a friendly tone, including anecdotes, and bits of non-relevant but also non-incriminating personal information.

  3. Don

    I’ve been reading Michael’s newsletters perhaps since the very first one. Next month will mark one year since I started my own newsletter and I literally used Michael’s as a template in creating my own, at least in terms of the structure and writing style. I try to start each issue with some kind of little personal tidbit, like back-to-school in our home last month or how I’m not much of a do-it-yourselfer in an article about DIY SEO or hiring a pro. Michael’s advice is so logical and common sense, which is what makes it so useful!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      And nice to have you along all these years, Don!

      On the same topic, I was talking to someone yesterday – very smart, several advanced degrees, etc. – but who is really having trouble bridging the gap between the personal stories and the expert information he possesses. But without that, the things he wants to communicate are just inaccessible to the non-expert audience he needs to reach. I think he’ll figure it out eventually, but it’s definitely a new way of communicating for many people.

  4. Claudette Pelletier-Hannah

    Even here in Canada we watch some of the seemingly endless (oops, sorry) nomination and election process in the U.S.
    Michelle Obama gave a great speech the other night which was ALL about the personal stuff: their humble beginnings, the President as a man, a husband, a parent etc. etc. which makes you relate, connect and love them both all the more. That is, if you’re a Democrat . . . or a Canadian.
    Michael’s right again.

  5. Paula Whitacre

    I send out a monthly newsletter with writing tips (how to write effective e-mails, speeches, etc.). The “open” rate is good, and I usually get a few emails back from readers. But the issue with the best open rate and number of follow-up emails BY FAR was last month, when I described a local history project I am working on as a volunteer.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Interesting, isn’t it? I find a similar thing – most of the comments I get relate to the story within. People tell me about their kids, or their dog, or whatever.

  6. Elizabeth Stanley

    I feel the same about college campus tours. Luckily my daughter took one look at the University of Rochester and said that would be her early decision and she didn’t want to visit ANY more schools! Yipes, I thought. But she went there, got a generous financial package and was named to Phi Beta Kappa. Wow! One proud mama llama.

    I include personal touches in the first paragraph of our Bullfrog Films newsletter. The summer edition included “tap a ripe watermelon or grab a juicy peach.” Poets make the best business/sales communicators!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      You’re making me hungry, Elizabeth!

      And my older brother also went to UofR so nice to hear about your daughter. I have fond memories visiting him as an impressionable high school student!

      1. Marcia Nita Doron

        Meet another UofR grad, me!

        I visited 16 colleges with each of my two children and the likeability factor was key to their ranking of their first choice school. Harvard, for example, was surprisingly warm, friendly and reassuring (“If you’re accepted here, we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you succeed). Whereas Yale said, “It’s a sink or swim environment here.” That was a very cold comment for an aspiring freshman to hear. In the end, one child went to Smith and the other to Hamilton (small, friendly schools).

        1. Michael Katz Post author

          That’s interesting, Marcia. I hadn’t thought of it from the perspective of a college’s personality. But I agree, it makes a difference.

          I remember at my own college orientation (McGill University) the guy opened with, “take a look at the person sitting on your left and the person sitting on your right. Only one of you will be here at graduation.” Nothing like that for creating a team atmosphere!

  7. Evelyn Starr

    Congratulations on this awesome milestone, Michael!

    I include not only personal information as I tell stories to open my newsletter, but also pop cultural references that resonate with the ideal client I target. In this way, we connect as likeable people who share similar memories. One of my most read newsletters was the one with the picture of me with Fred the Baker (“Time to make the donuts.”).

    I hope the next 300 newsletters are as much fun for you as the first 300.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks on the congrats, Evelyn!

      And that’s a great point on the pop culture references. I find that for some people the personal sharing is just too personal, and also for larger companies where the “my dog ate a muffin” personal experience approach doesn’t work, using other, nonbusinss happenings or insights as a lead in is very effective.

      I think much of this is about helping people engage a different, nonbusiness side of the brain in the sharing of a business lesson. I’m reading the book Imagine at the moment, which talks a lot about creativity, where it comes from and the benefits of seemingly unrelated things in helping people understand, solve problems and remember concepts. Fascinating stuff!

  8. Diane Spadola

    So I will admit it is difficult to lose the business language sometimes. But I find that I can tell stories in a very funny way, so now I try to write as a would talk. Since my newsletters are about party planning, everyone can relate to the hilarious party disasters I discuss, before I share the good tips! And although my clients might nEver be so Ill prepared as to have a malfunctioning chocolate fountain spinning melted fondue around the dining room at half the speed of light, they take delight in the visual image, as well as my suffering. I hope it makes me more likable! In addition, children were literally “climbing the walls” to get at dessert.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I find those chocolate fountains at once both disgusting and compelling! I bet those kids were licking the walls too.


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