Cram Your Suitcase to Become a Better Writer

By Dr. Laura Hills, Blue Pencil Institute,

Packed SuitcaseI’ve always been a good writer. My essays and papers were well-received in high school and college. However, my writing quality went through the roof when I had a writing experience early in my career that taught me how to be clearer and more concise.

I landed a job writing an eight-page monthly subscription newsletter for dentists on how to market and manage their practices. The publisher told me that my job as the sole author of the newsletter was to pack as much good, solid, useful information into each issue as I possibly could. A packed newsletter, he said, gives readers their money’s worth and a reason to renew their subscriptions. “Cut a line here, a word there, and say whatever you have to say in the smallest space you possibly can,” he told me. “Overstuff each issue, just as you’d cram a small suitcase. Use every scrap of valuable newsletter real estate to pack in more great ideas for our readers.” 


I wrote that newsletter – every word, every issue – for seven years. And from that experience, I became masterful at trimming the unnecessary. The lessons I learned from this formative experience are these: A reader’s attention is precious. As writers, we have an obligation not to waste that attention. And, we become better writers when we stuff as much content as we can into the space we have.


What happens when your space is unlimited? Before you begin to write, imagine filling a small suitcase. No one wants to read text that rambles on. Write economically. Trim what isn’t needed. Pack light — only what you need — and use every inch well. Your reader will appreciate your brevity but more importantly, your writing will become clearer, better, and more concise.

Dr. Laura Hills is an author, speaker, trainer, and coach who specializes in personal and professional development for career professionals. She is the president of Blue Pencil Institute, This post is an excerpt from her latest book, They’ll Eat Out of Your Hand If You Know What to Feed Them: Join her mailing list for updates about her latest books, articles, and programs at:


Don’t Be a Corporate-Speak Zombie

Dr. Laura Hills, Blue Pencil Institute,

ZombieThere’s been a movement in recent years for career professionals to liken themselves to businesses. Concepts such as self-branding, personal mission statements, and being the CEO of a company of one are intriguing ideas. They borrow concepts from industry and are designed to help career professionals gain clarity about what they’re doing and to find ways to relate to their audiences professionally. However, it’s dangerous to take this strategy too far, especially when we communicate with others.

Career professionals are not corporations. We’re alive, mortal, and human. That’s our strength. When we speak before others, we have an opportunity to relate to them personally. A great deal of our effectiveness as speakers relies upon our willingness to show ourselves as genuine and human. Therefore, career professionals who communicate effectively don’t sound like walking, talking corporate-speak zombies. They avoid impersonal buzzwords, jargon, and clichés. Instead, they use more natural everyday language to convey their ideas.


Want some examples? Here are just a few of the words and phrases on my corporate-speak zombie list:


mission critical, zero-sum game, procurement, value proposition, re-engineering, mindshare, vis-à-vis, human capital, monetize, incentivize, operationalize, contextualize, and a host of other –ize words.


Do you agree that these words and phrases are overused and predictable and sound more corporate than human?

Dr. Laura Hills is an author, speaker, trainer, and coach who specializes in personal and professional development for career professionals. Join her mailing list for updates about her latest books, articles, and programs at:


Remembering Richard

By Dr. Laura Hills, Blue Pencil Institute, www.bluepencilinstitute.comMemoriam

I have had to say goodbye to my friend Richard, who passed away recently. He was 86, 30 years my senior. And of all the people I’ve known in my life, Richard has held a special place that was all his own.

I met Richard when I was in my 20s and on the speaking circuit for the first time. I was to speak to a professional audience in California at the annual meeting of a large association. The folks who headed the organization knew Richard well and asked him to sit in on my program, check me out, and report back to them what he saw. Richard gave me rave reviews, which helped to boost my career at that tender moment. He then reached out to me after the conference.

At first, I was suspicious of Richard and had my guard up. Back then, I was accustomed to men coming on to me. I thought he was just another guy whose wife didn’t understand him who looking for some fun. But quickly, I could see that he had something entirely different in mind. He wanted to encourage, support, and befriend me – and that’s all. And he did the day we met and for the next 30 years.

I was one of many lucky recipients to receive Richard’s “clipping service”. He loved to read articles, clip them, and pop them in the mail with a typewritten note attached. One of those clippings, from the early 90s, was an article Richard had read about a new profession called “coaching”. His note said it was a profession that was tailor-made for me. At the time I didn’t pay too much attention. But years later, it turns out that Richard was right.

Over the years, Richard sent me crates of oranges at holiday time; articles about investments; newsy letters about his model train club, biking trips, and family; a beautiful wooden rolling pin that he made for me in his workshop; and pop-up holiday greeting cards that decorated our home every December. And every year, we sent each other birthday cards on our mutual birthday, February 7.

I’ve never quite understood what I had done to deserve Richard’s generosity, support, and friendship these many years. But I am grateful nonetheless. He has made a lasting difference in my life and my friendship with him is one of my treasures. I will miss him.

My Advice for a Soon-to-Be Marketing Graduate

By Dr. Laura Hills, Blue Pencil Institute,

Online Marketing Key Can Be Blogs Websites Social Media And EmaiThis week, a marketing student from a local university wrote to me to ask for my thoughts about entering the field. Here’s what I told him. See if you agree:

Marketing is a fast moving train — a field that constantly evolves. What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today and what worked today may not work tomorrow. So to do well as a marketer, you’ve got to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on and be willing and quick to change strategies.

Social media has been a game changer. Not all that long ago you needed loads of money to get people’s attention. Today anyone with an Internet connection who is smart and works at it is in the position to create marketing buzz and scoop up market share. That’s both exciting and scary.

There is creativity in marketing. But marketing relies on being very observant and cool-headed too. Past performance, focus groups, surveys, and other marketing tools can help you predict future outcomes. But these are only predictions. That’s where the creativity comes in. Every now and then someone comes along who breaks all the rules and captures the market. There is science to marketing. But there is also art.

A marketer can never sit on his or her laurels. You’re only as good as your latest effort. Marketing with passion is key to a long and successful career. Care about what you’re marketing, to whom, and why you’re marketing it. Otherwise you’ll spend your life selling more widgets no one needs and not living your passion.

Devote Your Life to Something Lasting

By Dr. Laura Hills, Blue Pencil Institute,

Most of us want toHourglass be remembered for something positive after we are gone.That’s because the personal and professional legacy we leave behind for future generations serves for many of us as a kind of immortality.Our enduring legacy gives each us a way to create something or to influence people while we are alive so that we can endure, even long after we die. Most of us find that idea quite attractive. However, it can be challenging to craft and ensure our legacy when we’re caught up in day-to-day concerns. Legacy thinking requires bigger-picture thinking, and everyday concerns can easily derail us.

The time to start thinking about your legacy is right now. In fact, you can’t wait until your life is almost over to start thinking about your legacy – not if that legacy is ambitious and requires a lot of effort. Carve out some time soon to think about what you want your life to have meant when you’re gone. To what purpose can you devote yourself so that what you work on now and the days ahead lasts longer than you do? Then, make it your life’s mission to ensure and fulfill that legacy. Do this, and your life will be purposeful, fulfilling, and meaningful not only to you, but to the many people who will benefit from your legacy after you’re gone. Does legacy thinking seem morbid to you? It isn’t. It can actually be very uplifting. Try it and see.

How Well Do You Manage Diversity?

By Dr. Laura Hills, President, Blue Pencil Institute,

Assess your diveshutterstock_71958349rsity management skills by answering yes or no to each of the questions below:

1. Do you test your assumptions about the people you manage before you act on them?

2. Do you believe that there is usually more than one way to accomplish a goal?

3, Do you convey that to your staff?

4. Do you have honest relationships with each staff member you supervise?

5. Are you comfortable with each member of your staff?

6. Do you know what motivates each member of your staff, what his or her goals are, and how he or she likes to be recognized?

7. Are you able to give negative feedback to a staff member who is culturally different from you?

8. When you have open positions in your organization, do you ensure that a diverse pool of candidates has applied?

9. Do you orient new employees to your organization’s culture and unwritten rules?

10. Do you rigorously examine your organization’s policies, practices, and procedures to ensure that they don’t differently impact different groups?

11. When they do, do you (or would you) change them?

12. Are you willing to listen to constructive feedback from your staff about ways to improve the work environment?

13. Do you implement staff suggestions and acknowledge their contributions?

14. Do you take immediate action with members of your staff when they behave in ways that show disrespect for others in the workplace, such as inappropriate jokes and offensive terms?

15. Do you make good faith efforts to meet your affirmative action goals?

16. Do you have a good understanding of institutional “isms” such as racism, ageism, and sexism and how they manifest themselves in an organization?

17. Do you ensure that assignments and opportunities for advancement are accessible to everyone in your organization?

If you were able to answer yes to more than half of the questions above, you are on the right track to managing diversity well. Continue to improve your diversity management skills so that you can answer every question with a resounding yes.

Focus on Having the Best of It

By Dr. Laura Hills, President, Blue Pencil Institute,


Are you in a job shutterstock_65135377or other situation that’s hugely stressful? Many people will give you advice about managing your stress. They’ll tell you take daily walks, practice deep breathing exercises, eat the right foods, avoid caffeine, meditate, soak in a hot tub, and so on. In fact, those practices may actually help. But sometimes, no matter what you do, you won’t be able to get rid of the headaches, backaches, insomnia, digestive problems, and other symptoms of your stress. This will be the case when your job or other situation goes against your values, serves no greater purpose, or compromises your well-being and self-esteem. If you’re stuck in a stressful situation that doesn’t make sense, refocus not on making the best of it, but on having the best of it. Look for or create a new opportunity that will be a better fit to your needs, one that will also be more meaningful and personally rewarding. If you’re asking yourself how you can best muddle along, think: Is that the right question to be asking?

Don’t focus on making the best of it.

Focus on HAVING the best of it — and how you’re going to make that happen.


I’m a Role Model? When Did that Happen?

By Dr. Laura Hills, President, Blue Pencil Institute,

In the past weekrole model, three different younger professionals have told me that they look up to me as their role model. These have been unsolicited comments from younger people I know in different fields and who don’t know one another.  It strikes me that somewhere along the line I have morphed into being a person who younger people respect and even want to emulate. Does this mean that I am now a sage? A Wise Woman? Perhaps.

I have learned a thing or two over the years, I suppose. I have accomplished some things too. I’ve raised daughters who have blossomed into remarkable young women. I am married to a man who adores me and who is the love of my life. I live comfortably.  I’ve made contributions to my community. And despite the usual bumps and bruises along the way, I’ve managed to keep my sense of humor and even all of my own teeth. I’m no spring chicken. So, I guess it does seem plausible that I am now a role model.

This is a humbling realization. The weight of that responsibility is just hitting me, and I am awed by it.  It turns out that my own success and the way I’ve carried myself through my life has mattered more to the younger people around me than I’d ever realized or imagined.

On the Passing of My Role Model and Hero, Dr. Joyce Brothers

By Dr. Laura Hills, President, Blue Pencil Institute,

I’m feeling a littDr. Brothersle glum today because my role model and hero, Dr. Joyce Brothers, died yesterday. She was 85. I actually had the chance to visit with Dr. Brothers in her home in Fort Lee, New Jersey in February of 2012. I’m so glad I got to do that and to tell her what she meant to me.

Many people have asked me why Dr. Joyce Brothers (the television psychologist, author, and columnist) was so important in my life. You have to understand that Dr. Brothers was rare if not unique among the women I encountered on television and in movies (or even in my real life) as a young girl growing up in the 1960s. She was a popular television personality at that time, known primarily for her intelligence and her knowledge. But she was also poised, charming, and attractive. And it wasn’t lost on me that she was introduced and referred to as “Dr. Joyce Brothers” always, and that she was accorded great respect by everyone. I wanted to grow up to be just like her — smart, knowledgeable, poised, respected, attractive, charming, and “doctor”.

Today, we see so many different kinds of women on television and in movies. But I grew up in the pre-Oprah generation. The women I encountered back then were for the most part depicted as pretty and evil or daring (Catwoman, Agent 99, Mrs. Peale, Bond women), pretty and stupid (take your pick — there were loads of them, with Gracie Allen leading the way), pretty and a housewife (Donna Read, Jane Wyatt, Barbara Billingsley, Mary Tyler Moore) or smart and unattractive (like Nancy Culp as Jane Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies). In my real life, I knew housewives, nurses, teachers, and sales clerks. I didn’t know a single woman who was referred to as “doctor”.

Dr. Brothers didn’t fit into any category I knew. She was real and she was super smart, accomplished, and pretty. Her example was powerful. I decided as a girl that someday that I would be “doctor” too, just like her, and known for my intelligence, knowledge, charm, and attractiveness.

I watched an interview with Warren Buffet last week, who said that if we told him our heroes, he could tell us who we would turn out to be. I thought immediately that I chose well in Dr. Joyce Brothers. For this little girl with big dreams growing up in suburbia, Dr. Joyce Brothers showed me what I could be, what I could do with my life, that yes, that I could be “doctor” too. I am grateful for the influence she has had in my life.

How Professional Are You at Work? A Self-Quiz

By Dr. Laura Hills, President, Blue Pencil Institute (

The followinshutterstock_61745026 (2)g characteristics relate to professionalism in the workplace. Answer these questions to see if you exhibit a high degree of professionalism.  Answer yes if you demonstrate these characteristics or behaviors at least 90% of the time.

1. Do you have all the skills required to be successful at your job? If not, are you in the process of learning them?

2. Do you communicate well with others?

3. Do your managers deem your behavior to be professional? Does your manager approve of your attire, the hours you keep, the way you conduct yourself in general? Does he or she seem comfortable coming to you with special projects or to discuss problems or ideas?

4. Do you have a high level of integrity?  Do you tell the truth at work? Do you see tasks through to completion and avoid cutting corners?

5. Do you practice the Golden Rule? A true professional treats others with respect and expects the same from them. Do you return borrowed items right away and in good order when you’re done using them?

6. Do you live up to your commitments? In any job, you agree to do certain tasks. Some tasks you must do routinely, without being asked and your employer may ask you to take on other responsibilities. A real test of your professionalism comes in your ability to meet all these commitments while upholding the standards of quality and timeliness set by your employer. Individuals  with a high degree of professionalism make promises to themselves and to others about what they will and won’t do. They keep those promises.

7. Do you report to work at the agreed-upon time (or early), ready to work, and with a cooperative and positive attitude? Do you willingly pitch in during times of staffing or other crises?

8. Do you avoid conducting personal business while at work?

9. Do you take full responsibility for the results of your efforts and actions?

10. Do you continually seek self-improvement and self-awareness by looking for opportunities to enhance your professional growth?

11. Do you keep confidential information confidential?

12. Do you take pride and satisfaction in the work you do?

13. Do you participate in one or more professional organizations?