A Business Communication Reading List

A month ago to the day, I provided a crowd-sourced list of recommended readings for the career-minded. I didn’t have room in that post to talk about all the excellent suggestions from one extraordinary friend. Jill Stewart is a professional lecturer at DePaul University’s College of Communication. I’ve never told her this, but hand’s down my favorite business class in college was Business Communication. I thought I’d ace it without breaking a sweat. Boy, did I have a rude awakening!

My professor, lo those many years ago, showed me that communicating in business is hard. It’s also vital to career success.

I was reminded of all of this when I read Jill’s reading list, provided here verbatim. If you can find a smart, dedicated professor like Ms. Stewart, take her class and heed her words. Next best thing: Dip into this list. You can let her know what you think here.

Books on how to improve your writing

Clark, How to Write Short (2014) and Writing Tools (2008)
Danziger, Get to the Point (2001)
Gray-Grant, 8 ½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better (2008)
Fiske, The Dictionary of Concise Writing, (2006)
Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (2008)
Kallan, Renovating Your Writing, (2013)
King, On Writing, (2000)
Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences about Writing (2012)
McCormack, Brief (2014)
Norris, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2016)
O’Connor, Woe is I (2012)
O’Connor, Words Fail Me (1999)
Rubin, Hey Wait How Do I Write This Email? (2015)
Strunk & White, Elements of Style, (1999)*
Watt & Bradford, An E.B. White Reader (1996)
Yagoda, How to Not Write Bad, (2013)
Zinsser, On Writing Well (1998)

Online resources, tips

American Copyeditors Association
AP Style Guide
AP Style Quizzes
Flesch Readability
Grammar Girl
Harvard’s Shorenstein Center’s Journalist’s Resource (for PR practitioners, too!)
The Publication Coach
Owl Purdue Online Writing Lab
Ragan’s PR Daily
The Writer’s Almanac, American Public Media
Writer’s Circle

Articles on writing tips

BrainPickings Blog (link is to a sample post)
Writer’s Digest (link is to a sample post)

* I do have to add that if you are new to Strunk and White’s legendary The Elements of Style, be aware that much has changed in language since E.B. White updated the work of his beloved teacher, William Strunk, Jr. Mind you, I used to consider this my bible, carrying a ragged, coffee-stained copy with me from apartment to apartment. But I now realize most of the rules have become quaint. This was a recent shock to me. I recommended the book last year to a dear friend, and then revisited it with her. It was sort of like visiting the house you grew up in, realizing it wasn’t an extravagant, magical palace as you remembered it. I still adore White’s short fiction and essays, his The Second Tree from the Corner — both the short story and the collection named after it — will blow the top of your head off. His mastery of language is that impressive. Likewise the book Jill listed as well, An E.B. White Reader. But if you buy The Elements of Style, listen to this podcast by the delightful John McWhorter for a strong dose of context.

For more career advice, these are two posts I reprinted on my blog from an Accenture Career site:

Tips for career-building reading in 2018

This blog post originally appeared in an Accenture Careers blog.

Building your career in 2018? Or perhaps you’re looking to make a change in your current situation. Either way, you may be surprised to learn how educational and inspirational your reading list can be.

Here’s a recommended reading list to get you started. The list is curated by me and a few of my friends and colleagues.

Let’s get started

To begin, I’ve put together tips on how to get the most value from your reading time. Let’s call it a Reading List User’s Guide.

  1. Choose books as wisely as you choose friends. Author and entrepreneur Jim Rohn once wrote, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The same can be said for the authors you welcome onto your bookshelf or into your Kindle. In many ways, I consider authors I respect actual friends. For instance, early in my career, when I had my own direct-response consultancy, I would silently thank Peter Senge for what he had taught me. I would walk into a potential client’s business for the first time and apply the knowledge I gleaned from reading his book The Fifth Discipline, which focuses on how organizations “learn to learn.” I would look around at office dynamics and know with surprising accuracy just how much of a “learning organization” I was observing. No company is perfect, but Senge had trained me to see the extent of each organization’s “learning disabilities”—and by extension, whether they would be good customers for what I was selling. Now, that’s a valuable friend!
  2. Ask if popular books have truly earned their status. Good business books, like good speeches, should provide a strong mix of inspiration and education. Ask friends who have read a particular book what specifically they learned, or how they were moved. Listen closely to their answers. Much of the business world is ruled by groupthink, “FOMO” (fear of missing out) and trying to impress. Those impulses aren’t good enough reasons to read a book, even if it’s the one “everyone is reading.” It’s a surprisingly rare business book that deserves its popularity. I’m thinking of books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which rode best-seller lists for literally years, and remains one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time.Don’t be put off if your friends talk more to inspiration than education. The same year I first read (and learned a ton from) “7 Habits,” I was also deeply inspired by a different book, called The One-to-One Future. It was in the very early days of CRM (customer relationship management). And boy, did it inspire! It literally caused me to change my career path, a decision that is one of the best of my life. Last year, I derived similar inspiration from another book, The Business Blockchain. I haven’t changed my career yet, but you never know! (And thanks to Accenture’s deep involvement in blockchain, a lateral move within our organization isn’t out of the question for me.)
  3. Vary your reading diet widely. Non-fiction books don’t have to be formally about business to help you with your career. When I read Dr. Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, I realized that I wasn’t communicating clearly with roughly half the professional workforce (i.e., women!). By an embarrassing coincidence—and as though the world had a painful lesson to teach me—just as I was about to start the book, I nearly lost a client because she gave her instructions in something Tannen calls “rapport speak,” while I was hearing her through the filter of “report speak.” I screwed up an assignment and only realized how it happened after reading and internalizing the book. How’s that for valuable career advice!
  4. Read the way you learn. Educational research teaches us that humans have preferred ways of learning. You may not take to the written word. Today, that shouldn’t hinder you. Don’t pay attention to those who stigmatize “hearing” a book instead of reading it. If audiobooks work for your style and your schedule, go for it. I’m currently “reading” a book in three different formats at once. I have a hardback copy of Ron Chernow’s dense Alexander Hamilton for the tactile pleasure of its pages, and its many illustrations, paintings and drawings. I also have an e-book copy to read when I’m traveling, since the hardcover takes up a lot of luggage space. And finally, I have an audible copy, for when I’m working out or taking long walks. I did something similar, and for similar reasons, when reading the outstanding Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize in Economics winner Daniel Kahnemann. Remember what I said about authors being like friends? Just like real friends, sometimes, once you deem them worthy, you invest the time and money needed to spend time with them. Good books, like good friends, are worth it.
  5. Use books to focus your thinking. To paraphrase the late David Foster Wallace in his famous “This Is Water” college commencement address (Google it; you’ll thank me), the worst cliché of such speeches is, “An education isn’t about filling us with knowledge but about teaching us how to think.” It’s easy to find that insulting. It’s not. He points out that “how to think” is not so much about the capacity to think, but the choice of what to think about (getting us back to point 1, above). Books that help us build our careers direct our thinking in important directions. This is crucial, because there is a lot of other stuff that really doesn’t matter. They’re distractions preventing us from doing great things.

More Reading Recommendations

So, in crowdsourcing my network, I’ve compiled a list of reading material that will both educate and inspire. Mine are sprinkled throughout the five points above. Happy reading.

Test Tube T-bones

A magazine article I read as a kid has stayed with me all these years. It must have been 1970. Back then Time was an important window to the world (scary thought). In this piece its editors wanted to dazzle us with visions of the future; 50 years hence to be exact. They had a staff artist sketch the predictions of a jury of futurists. The result is a picture of the men and women who would inhabit the U.S., circa 2020. These people, it didn’t escape my notice, were the young adults I would come to know when I was as old as my grandparents.

You could see in those sketches the time’s many revolutionary changes. The forecasters used as their starting blocks the recent revolutions in feminism, fashion and technology — and probably many more. They ran feverishly from that spot, only stopping when the horizon gleamed brightly with geo-domes and hovercrafts. Sometimes optimistic, the depictions were mostly just plain weird.

True, there were a few on-target predictions. I especially recall the general metrosexual appearance of the men.  It seems that by then facial hair will be outlawed, or perhaps cured. The men were also uniformly round-shouldered, presumably made so by the helpful toilings of brawny robots. As for the fairer gender, I was a little too young then to notice, but yes, the women of the future will be plenty hot … if you go in for the boyish, fashion model types.

A Thin Future

Conspicuous by today’s standards, no one depicted in this lineup looked even remotely in need of Jenny Craig. The effects of the Earl Butz / Nixon Era agricultural policies had not yet materialized at the time of the article, so the futurists couldn’t factor them forward to today’s ever-expanding American waistlines. Corn crops were not yet heavily subsidized. The cost of food on American tables was three times higher in 1970 than it is today, factored for inflation. Futurists had no inkling of a time where cheap corn-based calories were the norm and rates of obesity and diabetes were through the roof.

Those postcards from the future seemed lightweight in other ways as well.

There were many small gaffes. Example: There were no tattoos or piercings. There were several glaring ones, too. I recall that all the Americans were WASP-white. (This was after all from a time in our history when, until a few years earlier, Crayola was able to unironically label a salmony-beige crayon “Flesh.”) Also, inexplicably, everyone in 2020 will wear long robes. Did you know this? Apparently we’ll all look like we just stepped out of the shower.

The Future, Now and Then

Why do I bring all this up? I occasionally read freshly-minted portraits of the future, and I find it fun to compare the way they make me feel now versus back then. I’ve just read a new glimpse of our future, and I can tell you this: Our future, four decades ago, may have looked weird, but today the future just looks gross.

I’m referring to the recent New Yorker story about meat that is being cultured in the lab. Yes. Right now, in 2011. Food scientists are taking stem cells of our holy trinity of animal protein – cattle, chickens and pigs – and culturing them in a nutrient-rich broth. As you may know, stem cells are capable of turning into any of their owners’ tissues. Scientists are flipping the cellular switches to Muscle and seeing what happens.

What they’re finding is plenty: The promise of cheap, plentiful meat. This is meat free of corn-fed, antibiotic drenched, water-guzzling, e-coli-growing livestock. Yes, all this from clusters of cells multiplying with abandon in labs far from their genetic benefactors.

These scientists are also finding that by “folding” sheets of these cultured cells onto themselves, they can create what will look like ground meat. Future research will look at the next step, using 3-D printers that issue bubbles of specialized cells instead of colors of ink to “print” lab-grown steaks, cutlets and chops.

Is your mouth watering yet? No, mine isn’t either. But if you care for the fate of the earth you may want to stay seated at the table.

Solving Several Global Problems At Once

In that May 23, 2011 issue of the New Yorker, Michael Specter describes this strange but thrilling convergence of people and technology. He writes, “[This is] a new discipline, propelled by an unlikely combination of stem-cell biologists, tissue engineers, animal-rights activists, and environmentalists.”

A brand new discipline is a big deal. The father and elder statesman of this one is William van Eelen, an 88-year-old Dutch native; part-time scientist, and full-time zealot. He is the focus of this New Yorker piece. Specter reports that van Eelen has pursued his dream of feeding the world from a Petri dish since the 1950s. We learn that he doggedly championed his cause in (not surprisingly) the face of decades of aggressive skepticism and even derision. It has only been relatively recently that technology and world events have caught up to him and begun to propel his work forward. A dozen years ago he achieved an important milestone. He was granted U.S. and international patents for his Industrial Production of Meat Using Cell Culture Methods.

Why are environmentalists among its supporters?

For all the carbon emissions they are responsible for, you’d think every beef flank and chicken breast we eat arrives at our plates from the back of a Hummer. According to the piece, “our patterns of meat consumption have become increasingly dangerous for both individuals and the planet …”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the global livestock industry is responsible for nearly twenty percent of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions. That is more than all cars, trains, ships and planes combined. Cattle consume nearly ten percent of the world’s freshwater resources, and eighty percent of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat.

There is also a cure for individual crises: “According to a report issued recently by the American Public Health Association, animal waste from industrial farms ‘often contains pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria’ … Seventy percent of all antibiotics and related drugs consumed in the United States are fed to hogs, poultry, and beef.

“[Also,] the World Health Organization has attributed a third of the world’s deaths to the twin epidemics of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, both greatly influenced by excessive consumption of animal fats.” The article made the point that by re-engineering the meat that’s being cultured, we may someday be able to dine on burgers more akin to health food than heart-attacks-on-a-bun.

Phasing Out the Factory Animal

That’s just the humanitarian outlook of in-vitro meat. Let’s not forget the “animalitarian” perspective:

By 2030, the world will likely consume seventy percent more meat than it did in 2000. The … implications for animal welfare [are daunting]: billions of cows, pigs, and chickens spend their entire lives crated, boxed, or force-fed grain in repulsive conditions on factory farms.

We’re reassured in the article that the cure for these social ills won’t leave a bad taste in our mouths. The fact is, we’re not talking about artificial meat. It’s the real thing. This is hard for people to grasp, as demonstrated by the way Terry Gross of Fresh Air struggled with the idea in her recent interview of Mr. Specter.

He concedes this point, and its general lack of appeal, “Nearly every person I told that I was working on this piece asked the same question: What does it taste like? (And the first word most people blurted out to describe their feelings was ‘Yuck.’) Researchers say that taste and texture – fats and salt and varying amounts of protein – can be engineered into lab-grown meat with relative ease.”

What won’t be easy is scale.

This work is being done by scientists now in tiny quantities, with muscle tissue no larger than contact lenses. What is needed is a transition from science to engineering. Rallying the financing for this won’t be easy until more people can see a shared vision of the benefits of in-vitro meat.

But don’t despair. Just as the space program in the 1960s prospered because the science was already in place, the scientific underpinnings of industrial meat exist today. What is lacking is awareness. That, and the leadership necessary to tackle tough problems like global warming, and human hunger and illness, in the face of a future that makes us all a little queasy. It’s one thing for a nation to get behind men on the moon. It’s another to look forward to tucking into a test tube T-bone.

Photo credit courtesy The Big Scout Project via Creative Commons