The Doctor is IN!

Review of Webinars for Dummies


Sharat Sharan and John Carucci. Webinars for Dummies. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

I read this book hoping to learn some new tips for producing my technical writing webinars. I was very disappointed, but I will at least start with a summary of what I did learn:

  • The authors support the concept that webinars incur fewer lost work hours than traditional stand-up instruction.
  • The book attempts to present a wide spectrum of delivery from a do-it-yourself approach to near concierge (white-glove service). One author, Sharat Sharan, is the co-founder, president, and CEO) of ON24, which provides webinar-based solutions and virtual environments.
  • The authors present a good overview of how to introduce a webinar (p. 77):
    • Present basic operational information.
    • Dissect the session into each major part.
    • List five points about the session (to reveal the structure).
  • They offer a great principle for slide creation: Prioritize keywords over sentences.
  • Chapter 7 provides pretty good options for setting up video and audio. For example, I learned that producing a webinar in a conference room without windows is wise because lighting will be consistent.
  • One really clever phrase that the authors use is the word “deminar”—a product demonstration by webinar.

However, I found most of the book annoying, juvenile, and unhelpful:

  • I tired quickly of its forced cleverness: “A hoodie might be fine for an audio cast, but it may not be the best choice when you are on a video” (p. 161). Why not tell us what to wear or not to wear on video cameras or webcams?
  • Inane metaphors abound. I’ll bore you with only one: “A webinar is not like a Bruce Springsteen concert that can run for hours without a predictable end and nobody minds” (p. 85). The reader soon tires of these useless and silly metaphors.
  • The pictures are mostly inadequate and of poor quality. On page 112, there’s a poorly contrasted picture of a lavaliere microphone. Really? The typical reader would not know what this device is? Page 224 contains a full poster that is all but illegible.
  • The book is very poorly organized. Topics appear to be scattered throughout; many topics repeat in different chapters without explanation or linkage. Chapters 8 and 12 cover basically for the same topics at about the same level.
  • As a copyeditor, I cannot help but notice bad editing and bad grammar—for example, “If you got [sic] 45 minutes of great content” (page 86). Whoever proofread this book must have been asleep: “If you’re not showing your presenter, consider doing it for you [sic] next webinar” (p. 171).
  • The index is poor—the word “webcam” appears only three times in the index but very often throughout the text.
  • Finally, I was offended by the elementary instruction in PowerPoint® in Chapter 6. I cannot believe anyone today needs 101-level instruction in a Microsoft® Office product.

All of that was frustrating enough, but the real disappointment in this book is that the authors spent almost no time on how to deliver training by webinar. The book is heavily skewed toward Big Marketing webinars, a genre that already gluts the market.

(Stay tuned for my upcoming book on delivering training by webinars!)





I can’t help myself! Another left-branching disaster

Left-branching sentences resemble this graphic these sentences start midway in the sentence and ramble on so that you have no idea why you are reading all this material!

Left-branching sentences resemble this graphic. Left-branching sentences start midway in the sentence and branch to the left as they ramble on. You have no idea why you are reading all this material until you get to the point in the middle of the sentence!

I was hoping that my last post would be my last post about left-branching, but my local newspaper made me do this.

Here is their latest violation (I’ve changed the name of the city):

Due to high demand for the [body] cameras as more police departments across the country are using them in the wake of several high profile police incidents, there was a delay in Sandstone police getting their order.

The bolded part of the sentence—26 words—branches to the left from the subject and verb “there was a delay” (10 words). This means that for 26 words, we have no idea why we are reading this sentence. Ah, there it is: Sandstone police received their [camera] order late.

The Text Doctor can’t resist rewriting this sentence to fix the left-branching confusion above:

Sandstone police finally received their body cameras after a delay due to high demand as more police departments across the country are using them in the wake of several high-profile police incidents. [32 words]

I think we can posit two clear rules here:

  • Get to the point of the sentence right up front.
  • Don’t wander around for the first two thirds of your sentence.

Actually, they are the same rule: Bottom line on top (BLOT)!

Learn more about resisting left-branching sentences in Dr. Frick’s wildly popular technical writing webinars.

Why NOT offer webinars? An experienced webinar producer/trainer offers contrarian advice

I had coffee yesterday with another trainer who dismissed webinar training as an option for her: “I’m an extrovert, and I must read my learners’ body language and know where to go next with my responses,” she told me. “I need to see them and they need to see me.”

I didn’t dispute my colleague’s classic rejection of webinars—part of me (the 25-year veteran of stand-up training) agrees wholeheartedly. My recent experience training at a local county office produced a huge “high” as learners interspersed my training objectives with jokes and questions. But the realist in my brain wishes that we lived in a perfect world where all these conditions apply all the time:

  • Travel for training is pleasant and inexpensive.
  • All training classes involve intact work groups located centrally and available for the full day without interruptions.
  • The last two hours of a training day are filled with energetic, lively interactions.

We all know that these conditions are rare or nonexistent. I argue that in the current world of training as I experience it, webinars are my most economical and practical medium. Of course, I have to work around the limitations of webinars with these adaptations:

  • I show my webcam at the beginning and urge them to show theirs briefly (webcams require a great amount of bandwidth, so extended use is impractical).
  • I tell them in the beginning, “For best results, close other programs running on your desktop” because webinar applications usually require a lot of bandwidth.
  • I schedule a chat or poll every 5 to 7 minutes to encourage participation and interaction.
  • I keep surprising them with a constant stream of random funny pictures, jokes, and made-up words (“administrivia,” “automagically,” and “voluntold”). I encourage them to joke back! Most of our humor relates to language and technical writing, of course. (I stole this tactic from a Delta Airlines onboarding video that was so hilarious, I kept watching to the end—a first for me!)
    • For example, on the last slide of my technical writing webinar, I show a picture of a graduating class of beautiful young people and play Pomp and Circumstance as I congratulate them for completing the course.

      A picture that I show on the last slide of my technical writing webinar series while I play Pomp and Circumstance to signify their graduation

      A picture that I show on the last slide of my technical writing webinar series while I play Pomp and Circumstance to signify their graduation

So, you say, there must be SOME situations where live training is more appropriate? Yes, and here are a few:

  • Soft skills training that requires role-playing and face-to-face interactions.
  • Hands-on training on machinery and technology so that a live trainer can help individuals improve performance.
  • Intact work groups where one objective of training is to increase group cohesion.

Nevertheless, webinars don’t have to be boring or even linear—the technology exists to create lively interaction between learners and learners and between learners and the trainer. It’s up to us as trainers to maximize the potential of the technology.

Until I get a private jet, I’ll continue to teach my technical writing webinars—and wear my bunny slippers.





Left-branching doesn’t work!

Please read this sentence:


A group representing Washington County residents affected by the city’s plans for a city energy utility, a major mining concern, the University of Washington, and the city’s Chamber of Commerce are among the entities seeking to formally intervene in the city’s municipalization case before the Washington Public Utilities Commission. [I have disguised the names to protect the innocent…]


Could you process that sentence quickly? I thought not. Not only does the sentence clock in at 49 words (at least double the recommended word count for sentences), it also doesn’t get around to presenting the verb for 30 words. This means that we have no idea why we are reading those initial 30 words listing groups.

The Text Doctor would diagnose this as a classic left-branching sentence, explained by Stephen Pinker in The Sense of Style (New York, Viking, 2014). Contrast left-branching to right-branching sentences in which the subject appears before the verb at the beginning of the sentence so that the reader knows what the sentence is about. Pinker points out that “English is predominantly a right-branching language (unlike, say, Japanese or Turkish)…” (p. 109).

So, let’s recraft that left-branching sentence into a right-branching sentence:


Several entities [subject] seek to formally intervene [verbs] in the city’s municipalization case before the Washington Public Utilities Commission. Among these entities are a group representing Washington County residents affected by the city’s plans for a city energy utility; a major mining concern; the University of Washington; and the city’s Chamber of Commerce.


That’s four more words than the original, but the two shorter sentences are easier to process. As I teach in my technical writing webinars, if you want your readers to read what you wrote, always opt for the shortest sentences possible and almost always revise your left-branching sentences into right-branching.

And, as I did here, always explain your jargon: The terms “left- and right-branching sentences” are classic linguistic shorthand (jargon) that linguists must explain to the 99.9% of the world who are not linguists. And lest you think that nobody but a linguist would care about left-branching, know that your readers do want to process sentences quickly.

Learn more about Dr. Frick’s wildly popular technical writing webinars.

Are three options more persuasive than one in a proposal?

Good things come in threes, they say, and maybe that’s true in proposals as well, if Alan Weiss is right. Weiss, the author of Million Dollar Consulting Proposals, suggests that offering a low-, mid-, and high-priced option in a proposal allows your client (or boss or department inside your organization) to choose based on their needs and budget—and to feel that they are in control of the decision. Weiss claims an 80% acceptance rate for his three-option proposals.

You can see a clear example of his three-option pitch on his website offer to license his Million Dollar Consulting® intellectual property. He provides potential buyers with Option 1 ($5000); Option 2 ($25,000); and Option 3 ($50,000).

I tried his method recently when I proposed a series of classes to a long-standing client. I suggested three pricing options, believing that the client would accept the middle option or possibly the lowest price option. I wish that I could tell you that I was right—but life happens, eh? After much discussion, they turned down all three options. It was a solid proposal and something that, by their own admission, they need. Someday, perhaps, we’ll talk again about my proposal. In the meantime, I’ll keep practicing the three-option proposal when I make other training bids.

What do you think? Could you use three options in your next proposal? Let me know how it works for you!

(My thanks to Tara Powers of The Powers Resource Center LLC for suggesting that I read Weiss’ book).

Questions, questions everywhere–I hope they make me think!

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
Albert Einstein, physicist, 1879-1955

I have serious doubts about Einstein’s not having special talent, but I do believe the second sentence and try to apply passionate curiosity to all facets of my life. I have been especially thinking about curiosity recently after publishing a 3-page article in the AMWA Journal (V3 N2, 2015) titled “Developing Better Discovery Skills.” In it, I list types of questions that are useful.

In this blog post, I’ll write about closed-ended questions and open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions usually elicit a “yes” or “no” answer or specific, verifiable data. These produce valuable answers, but they allow the person whom you are questioning to provide only the specific answer; if you want more information on that topic, you’ll have to continue questioning them. Examples of closed-ended questions include:

  • What format (software) do you need?
  • What is the word limit? Page limit?
  • How many citations do you need me to edit?
  • How will I return my document to you?
  • What style guide should I adhere to?
  • What is the deadline? Can that be extended?

Open-ended questions stimulate thought and encourage continued conversation. These cannot be answered in few words or with a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Examples of open-ended question include:

  • How did we get to this point? What led up to this?
  • Why is it important to get this information out to our people?
  • What are the risks of not sending this information?
  • How will you come to the decision of what to include in this article?
  • Describe the audience, specifically their demographics.
  • What might be the biggest challenges in getting approval for this article?

To accomplish discovery as quickly as possible, it’s important to ask both open- and closed-ended questions in every situation. Before you face a client or attend a meeting, brainstorm all sorts of questions (if you know a 2-year-old, you’ll know what I’m talking about). Even if you don’t get to ask all of them, you’ll have plenty to fall back on.

I brainstorm questions when I’m walking the dog (I wish I could remember to take my phone or something to write with—I do my best brainstorming out in fresh air!).

Left-branching example of the week

A left-branching sentence is one in which the subject and verb do not appear until the sentence has wandered around for quite some time:

“Only offering height modifications in certain areas, explicitly describing what the city wants buildings to look like in [City] Junction and charging non-residential developments a fee to pay for affordable housing are three ideas [City] planners may implement this spring…”

The subject and verb of this sentence is “…three ideas [city] planners may implement this spring,” but we must read read 32 words before we can know what this sentence is all about.

We could right-branch this sentence this way:

[City] planners may implement the following three ideas this spring:

  • Only offering height modifications in certain areas
  • Explicitly describing what the city wants buildings to look like in [City] Junction
  • Charging non-residential developments a fee to pay for affordable housing

This revision also breaks out the long series items into a bulleted list, which makes the sentence easier to scan and comprehend. No extra charge!

We should always strive to make it easier for our audiences to read our sentences.

Business Matters: A freelancer’s guide to business success in any economy–Now on Amazon!

Business Matters_Cover BI’m delighted to announce the publication of my new book, Business Matters: A freelancer’s guide to business success in any economy by XML Press. If you are thinking of becoming a freelancer or an independent contractor, why not learn from all the mistakes that I made in my 23 years in business? I’ll help you figure out what would work best for you in these four critical aspects of business:

  • Strategy
  • Marketing
  • Finance
  • Operations

Available at Amazon in print and Kindle versions and also on Barnes and Noble. Even better, save 50% until Friday, December 13, on all XML Press ebooks through O’Reilly Media (DRM-free ePub, Kindle, and PDF) with discount code XMLPR5. Let me know how you like the book!

Readers write

Here are two recent questions from readers:

Sheri E. asked: “The auditors in my company always write clauses like this: ‘The committee had their meeting on. . .’ Shouldn’t it be ‘The committee had its meeting on. . .’”?

I thought she was right, but I usually confirm my instant judgment with The Gregg Reference Manual, 11th edition. Sections 1019a and 1019b state, respectively:

“If the group is acting as a unit, use the singular form of the verb: ‘The Board of Directors meets Friday.’”

“If the members of the group are acting separately, use a plural verb: ‘A group of researchers are coming from all over the world for the symposium.’”

So Sheri was right, since the committee was acting as a unit to hold the meeting.

Second question

LisaMarie D. wrote: “Could you please let me know the correct way to word this:

‘Over 50% of the population now uses


Over 50% of the population now use’”?

Gregg addresses this question in Section 1024:

“When subjects expressing periods of time, amounts of money, or quantities represent a total amount, use singular verbs.”

In my mind, “over 50% of the population” represents a total amount, so the verb should be “uses”: “Over 50% of the population now uses. . .”

(Incidentally, both of the questions above involve collective nouns―defined in Understanding English Grammar as “a noun that refers to a collection of individuals” and extensively explained with principles and examples.)

My very favorite productivity hack

I used to print my mailing and filing labels using Microsoft® Word’s label templates (a torturous, curse-producing process), but I always worried about wasting the other 32 labels on the sheet when all I needed was one label. The label manufacturer always warned against running the labels through the printer a second time, but really? How wasteful is that?

Then I found DYMO® Label Makers (a half-price sale lured me in to buy a LabelWriter® 450 Turbo). I was hooked after printing my first label. This tiny printer connects to my PC (or your Mac) through a very intuitive interface. I can manually produce a label with a bar code in less than 38 seconds.

But wait! There’s more! To produce multiple labels from a spreadsheet or Word table, I only have to select the relevant rows, click “DYMO Label” in the ribbon, select the type of label to produce, and the DYMO printer spits out the labels instantly. It’s even faster to print from Outlook. Of course, the labels are way more pricey than sheet labels, but I justify the expense by balancing it against the value of my time and the fun I have printing instant labels, not to mention the fact that I can smugly announce to you that I have completed all my holiday mailing―both personal and business―earlier than ever before.

Believe me, when the Apocalypse comes, they’ll have to pry my DYMO LabelWriter out of my cold, dead hands.

What is your favorite productivity hack? Tell us here what productivity aid you can’t live without (and why).