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‘No, Thank You’ – The Art of Polite Professional Rejection

When I worked as a staff journalist and editor, I received dozens of story pitches per day. I regularly rejected 95 percent of them.

These types of cold pitches from external parties are overwhelmingly common in the media industry, but it’s certainly not unique to our field: Businesses work with all kinds of agencies and vendors to get things done, and everyone’s trying to sell something. More often than not, you’ll probably have to reject those offers.

There are three ways people typically decline requests:

  1. Ignore it.
  2. Respond with a “no” and move on.
  3. Briefly explain why they’re saying no, and if possible, offer a different way to work together.

I admit I use the first two response methods often enough, but whenever I can, I try to take the time to give helpful feedback. Does it take time and energy? Yes. But it also helps you improve both your professional reputation and your working relationships.

While ignoring an unwanted offer or request is certainly the easiest and most convenient course of action when it arrives, it actually creates more frustration in the long run. The person on the other end will almost certainly follow up, just in case it got lost in your inbox or accidentally went to your spam folder. Most people will get the hint and give up after a second or third ignored email, but you might earn a reputation as being unresponsive, unapproachable, or even rude.

Giving a simple “no” is certainly better, because you’re not leaving the other person hanging and wondering if you’re interested, but it’s not particularly helpful to either party. Without further feedback, your contact may keep making the same type of offer,rather than adjusting their strategy to find a more effective way to help you.

When you’re drowning in emails, it’s impossible to answer each and every person who contacts you. However, if you do decide to dish out a formal rejection, here are a few tips I’ve learned to soften the blow — and perhaps even benefit you in the end.

1. Be as honest as possible. 

Sometimes there’s a legitimate reason that you need to turn down a request: You don’t have time or room on your schedule, it conflicts with your company’s policies, etc. If that’s the case, let the other person know. But sometimes there really isn’t a “good” reason, other than the fact that you just don’t find the offer appealing. Making up an excuse to avoid offending someone, especially if that person has taken the time to research you and your company’s needs, might seem like the polite path, but honesty is usually the best policy. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m not interested.”

2. Suggest an alternative solution. 

Just because you can’t or don’t want to accept this person’s specific offer as stated, doesn’t mean they can’t provide value in some other way. If there’s a different way for us to collaborate, or if I think a colleague might be more interested in the offer, I’ll say so. If not, I let the person know I plan to file the email away and add them to my contact list — you never know if they might be able to help you out down the road.

3. Let the person know what you’re looking for instead. 

If there’s no possible way for you and this person to work together at this time, consider sharing a bit more about your professional needs. This will (hopefully) help the person on the other end fine-tune their communications with you and only send you relevant information and offers in the future. Better yet, they may know someone else who can help you with your current needs and make an introduction.

If you find yourself giving out the same basic responses to similar types of requests, you can save yourself a few minutes by creating a file of “stock response” templates that can be customized to fit the situation. Just make sure you proofread and fill in all the right names and details!

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Image credit: Steve Johnson/Pexels (CC0)

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Career Advice for New Grads: What I Wish I Knew Before My First Job

Congratulations to the graduating class of 2018. For four (or more) years, you’ve poured your blood, sweat and tears into your studies and extracurricular activities, all in preparation for this day. Every all-nighter, every stress-inducing exam, every term paper will be worth it when you finally receive that long-awaited diploma, which has the potential to open the doors to your dream career.

This time six years ago, I was in your shoes. Days before graduation, I had officially accepted a full-time, entry-level job at a marketing company in midtown Manhattan. I fully believed I was ready to take my first steps into the “real world.”

I felt like I had the hang of working in an office from my part-time internships during college. How different could it be? I’d arrive at 9 a.m., sit down at my desk, do my work and go home eight hours later. I’d get a steady paycheck and paid vacation time, and make some great new friends. That’s what I thought, anyway.

I had a lot of expectations going into my first day on the job. Some of them turned out to be correct, but many of them were quickly shattered. The year that I spent at this company taught me a lot of valuable lessons — both about my career and life in general — that I took with me when I moved on to my next corporate job. Below are just a few of the things I would go back and tell my 21-year-old self, in the hopes that the newest members of the workforce can benefit from them. 

Work might follow you home.

Many first-time members of the workforce make the naïve assumption that work will end when you leave the office. This is how it was at my internships: I never had to worry about what happened once I walked out the door. But when you’re a full-time, salaried staff member, your responsibilities can and will extend outside the confines of your desk. With today’s cloud and mobile tech, people don’t follow the “9-to-5” mentality anymore. While you shouldn’t be expected to respond to your boss’s emails at midnight, there are going to be times when an after-hours emergency pops up, and you may need to be the one who deals with it.

… but don’t let work become your life. 

Just because you can work from anywhere at any time does not mean you should. Yes, you will have to stay late or come in early sometimes, or miss out on a social events because of a big project. But you’re an entry-level employee. You’re not running the company, and the company certainly isn’t paying you enough to spend every waking moment doing work. Set a time each night when you’ll stop checking your emails. If you’re working for a company that expects you to be on-call and working 24/7 (when you were hired for a 40-hour-a-week job), that’s not a place you want to stay at for too long.

You won’t earn everyone’s respect. 

Most of us know that respect in the workplace needs to be earned, especially as an entry-level employee. However, you also have to realize that there will be certain people in the office who will never respect you. They will never see you as anything more than a means to a corporate end, no matter how hard you work or how valuable your contributions are. Don’t fight it, and don’t lash out because of it. Find the ones who do respect you and stick with them.

Speak up about problems (but don’t gossip). 

If there’s a serious problem with the way your boss is running things, you need to speak up. Ask for a private meeting, or if you’re too afraid to approach your boss directly, bring it up to the next person in command. If you don’t say something, the situation will never change. What won’t help anything is gossiping with your fellow lower-level colleagues about how you’re planning to apply to other jobs just to get out. You never know who’s listening, or who will bring that second-hand news back to the boss.

Perception matters, so give 100 percent, even if there’s no reward. 

You’re not always going to get credit for the work you do. As frustrating as it is to receive little to no recognition for the hours you spent slaving over a project, don’t use that as an excuse to slack off and fade into the background. That’s something your bosses and colleagues will immediately notice, and it won’t do you any favors when it comes time for evaluations, promotions, or even future job recommendations. On the flip side, if you establish a reputation as someone who gets things done, solves problems, and eagerly accepts new challenges, you’ll be one of the first in line to climb the ladder.

Your job description will change as you go.

No position is static. When you first start working, your duties should at least resemble the ones listed in the job description. But as your skills develop and the company’s needs change, you may (and probably will) be asked to go in a different direction, take on more work, and tackle some new challenges. You shouldn’t feel stressed and overworked 24/7, but if the boss asks you to do something you weren’t necessarily hired to do, welcome the project as an opportunity to grow and learn. You never know if the experience will come in handy at a future job.

Make time to recharge and take care of yourself. 

Most full-time jobs come with the benefit of paid time off, and they’re there for you to use. Don’t avoid taking a vacation day because you’re afraid your boss will think less of you for taking a day off. Even taking a single day off every couple of months can help you recharge and keep you from burning out. If you’re running yourself into the ground by working nonstop, your performance and overall attitude will start to decline.

Have an exit strategy. 

Unless you hit the corporate jackpot and find a job where you can swiftly move up the ranks, it’s more than likely that your first job is just going to be a stepping stone to bigger, better things. There’s nothing wrong with that, and most companies have come to expect high turnover rates in their lower-level positions. Keep an eye on companies you might want to work for in the future, and network with other people in your industry — both great ways to begin planning your exit, even if you’re happy where you are for the moment.

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Stuck in a Career Rut? Here’s How to Get Out

No matter how much you love your job, there are days that make you wish you could walk out and never come back. Maybe it’s the extra work you’ve taken on since a key colleague quit, or an important project that’s not going quite as planned. Whatever the reason, just about anything in the world seems preferable to dragging yourself into the office right now.

It’s normal to feel like you’ve hit a stumbling block in your career every once in a while. You shouldn’t ignore this feeling, but you shouldn’t let it consume you either. Instead, take some time to analyze the situation. Then, figure out how to move past it.

If you’re ready to break through your career roadblock, ask yourself the following questions, and be honest with yourself when you answer.

Why do I feel stuck?

Pinpointing the real reasons for your slump is the first step to getting past it. For instance, rather than fixating on the feeling that your boss doesn’t like you, think about why you feel that way. Has your boss actually told you or someone else that they dislike you, or do you just feel that way because they rarely acknowledge your efforts, or keep piling work on your plate when you’re already busy? When you can nail down the larger issue(s), you can start thinking about ways to address it, rather than letting your emotions stew and cloud your perceptions.

Who can I talk to about it?

Depending on your circumstances and relationships with your supervisor and colleagues, you may be able to set up a meeting with the appropriate person and discuss the situation. Has a disagreement between you and a team member been causing hostility among the group? Try talking it out with them to see if there’s a way to resolve it. If you’re upset about being passed up for a promotion, ask to meet with your boss or HR to review your career path and find out what you can do to be considered next time. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your problem with someone in the office, confide in a partner, friend, or family member and ask their advice.

What do I love about this job?

You may not be thrilled with your job right now, but try to think about the positive things you’ve gained during your time here, like the skills you’ve learned, exciting projects you’ve worked on, or the great rapport you’ve built with your colleagues. Remind yourself of something you love about your work and focus on that to help you power through any rough patches.

What can I do to boost my confidence at work?

When you feel really good about what you’re doing every day at work, it’s much easier to feel positive about your career. Whether it’s getting around to a minor task you’ve been putting off or sharing a great idea during a meeting, do at least one thing every day that makes you feel confident and accomplished. As that confidence builds, so will your job satisfaction, and you’ll be back at your peak before you know it.

Still feeling like your motivation at work has stalled? It might be time to look for another job — or even start a business of your own. Listen to your intuition and do what feels right; you shouldn’t force yourself to stay at a job you hate.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Image credit: creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos (CC0)

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3 ‘Good’ Work Habits That Hurt You in the Long Run

We all want to get ahead in our careers. Whether you’re an employee hoping for a promotion or a freelancer trying to grow your client base, you probably don’t want to stay stuck where you are forever.

What can you do to increase your chances of moving up in the world? Proactively pitching ideas to your boss or client, taking on extra assignments, and putting in extra hours to deliver work ahead of deadline will all serve to establish you as a dedicated professional with unwavering work ethic. These practices make a good impression and can open up new opportunities for you. But proceed with caution: Going full-force, 24/7 will only burn you out, leaving you exhausted and unable to live up to the expectations you’ve set for yourself and the people you work for.

It’s good to go above and beyond, but you still need to maintain healthy boundaries so your performance doesn’t ultimately suffer. If you really want to get ahead, think twice before you form these seemingly helpful work habits that could actually hurt you in the long run.

1. Saying ‘yes’ to every project. 

In the workplace, volunteering to help your boss with a big project or offering to do something outside of your normal job duties makes you look great. However, raising your hand for every single additional project will only bog you down. Your boss and team members will come to rely on you to pick up any extra slack, which often means mean your regular work — the job you were actually hired to do — ends up falling by the wayside.

The same is true in the world of freelancing. You might want to accept every gig that comes your way, especially if you’re short on cash or need to pad your portfolio. But it’s not good to overload your calendar with tedious or difficult projects that don’t pay enough for the time you spend on them. Believe me, I’ve been there — and I’ve ended up having to “fire” a client or two for my own sanity.

In both situations, it’s best to be judicious with your time and only agree to work you know you can handle. It’s better to say no when you know you don’t have the time or skills, than agree to it and ultimately disappoint your boss or client with the end result.

2. Being available 24/7. 

Do you frequently put in 12-hour work days? Are you notorious for responding to emails immediately, even in the middle of the night?

If you’re trying to win favor by being available all the time, you might be setting yourself up for failure. It’s good to be responsive during the business day, but spending all your waking hours working (even if it’s just on your smartphone while you’re out and about) sets the expectation that you can always be reached, and once people realize that, they’ll never let you take a break.

It’s a bit easier to maintain boundaries when you’re an employee with a set work schedule (in fact, New York City recently proposed a law that would outlaw the requirement to respond to work-related communications after-hours). As a freelancer, you need to be proactive about defining and adhering to “office hours” for yourself, but either way, don’t let work dictate every single moment of your life.

If you’re worried about missing a work emergency, let your boss, co-workers or clients know up front that you stop checking emails after a certain time, but for truly urgent matters (key word: “truly” — as in, absolutely cannot wait until the next morning), they can contact you on your phone.

3. Forgoing a personal life in the name of work. 

We all know technology has blurred the lines between work and personal time. Sometimes, work will interrupt date night or family dinner. You might have to bail on a friend’s party for an important conference or networking event. However, continually skipping out on things like get-togethers, soccer games or even vacations in favor of work will take its toll on you and the people you’re close with. Even though your boss or client might be pleased with having such a committed worker, you need to decide if it’s worth potentially damaging your personal relationships because you missed these events.

Remember, getting ahead is all about balancing what’s good for business and what’s right for you. Not putting in enough effort could cost you a promotion or client deal, but sacrificing your personal life and health to get there might cost you your happiness.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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How to Successfully Mix Personal and Professional Content on Social Media

In the early 2000s, when a pre-teen Nicole made her first foray into the digital world, the idea of “social media” as we know it wasn’t yet fully formed. We had AOL Instant Messenger, MySpace and LiveJournal — digital outlets for adolescent angst, safe from the prying eyes of adults. Facebook was still “college students only,” which meant that what happened at school, stayed at school. Above all else, most young adults on these networks went to great lengths to keep their digital presence on the down-low, lest their parents discover their accounts.

Times have obviously changed. Now, everybody’s on social media — not just your parents, but your friends’ parents, your former teachers, your childhood friends, your co-workers, your boss and maybe even your grandmother. This lack of boundaries has profoundly impacted how we choose to present ourselves on networks where our past, current and future employers see the same posts as the people we hang out with on the weekends.

Because your career and professional reputation are so linked to your networking activities, you want to establish yourself as someone who’s knowledgeable about their industry. But you also don’t want to seem like a robot who only posts about work. Especially for younger professionals, the ideal personal brand on social media offers a well-rounded view of an individual’s life, both in and out of the office.

If you’re looking to develop a single social presence that’s appropriate for all audiences, here are a few guidelines you can follow.

1. Know your network. 

Every social media channel is different and has its own best practices. You probably have accounts on multiple platforms, so it’s important to understand what makes each one unique and tweak your content, format and hashtags accordingly. A platform like LinkedIn, where people share articles and have group discussions, is primarily text-based. Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat, on the other hand, are all about images, and any captions or hashtags take a backseat to the photo itself. Words, pictures or a combination of both are all equally at home on Facebook and Twitter, but the main difference lies in each one’s brevity: A long paragraph is better suited to a Facebook post than a multi-tweet thread.

2. Look beyond self-promotion. 

A social media account that’s all about you can come across as narcissistic, and frankly, a little boring. Rather than only posting your own work, give others a chance to shine by sharing articles, infographics and photos from around the web. Be sure to give credit where it’s due and take time to tag the original sources, as well as one or two people you know who might be interested in it. This is not only courteous, but also serves as a way to spark a conversation. While we’re on the subject…

3. Engage with your connections. 

It’s called social media for a reason. People share content because they want others to engage with it, whether that’s in the form of likes, shares/retweets or direct responses. If you see something that resonates with you, let the sharer know. Following certain hashtags and participating in Twitter chats can be a great way to make new connections and find interesting content. If you find it difficult to keep up with the various groups of people you follow, try using filters and lists. You can also use a social media management tool like TweetDeck (my personal favorite) or Hootsuite to help you stay organized.

4. Think before you post. 

Be careful about how you address sensitive subjects with a mixed audience. For instance, in the current political climate, Facebook and Twitter have become soapboxes for many users’ opinions on politicians, legislation, etc. It’s great to stand up for what you believe in and show your support for social causes, but remember that not everyone who follows you shares your viewpoints. If you post a statement that’s highly polarizing and controversial, you may spark a debate that spirals out of control and ultimately diminishes your credibility.

Everyone has a right to share their thoughts, but before you send yours out, think about what your statement will add to (or subtract from) your public persona. Remember, just because you can post whatever you’re thinking, doesn’t mean you should.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Image credit: creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos (CC0)

How to Beat Writer’s Block When Writing is Your Job

If you’ve ever had to put your thoughts into written words, you’ve probably suffered from writer’s block at some point. Even the best writers face an occasional lull in inspiration, but this can be especially tricky when you write for a living.

Although I’m no longer working as a full-time journalist, I still do a lot of writing every week for my freelance clients, and sometimes I feel like I’ve hit a wall. It’s like not being able to fall asleep when you know you have to wake up early the next day: You watch the time tick by, knowing that each minute you’re not sleeping (or, in this case, writing) is a minute wasted, and there’s going to be hell to pay in the morning.

As I’ve grown as a writer and as a professional, I’ve found a few helpful tricks to overcome the dread of a blank white screen. Here are four things you can do to power through your writer’s block:

1. Create an outline. 

If you have a mess of notes and research links that you can’t figure out how to turn into an article or post, create a rough outline with bullet points and sentence fragments. If you can at least organize the notes you have, you may be able to start envisioning it as a fully-formed piece.

One of my clients has me create an outline like this for every article I pitch, and I found it so helpful that I now do it for all my writing assignments. Having the “bones” of the article in place saves me a lot of time and energy when I revisit it later to begin writing.

2. Write out of order. 

A lot of writers tend to get stuck on their opening line or paragraph. Instead of wasting time thinking about how to start your piece, begin with something from the middle. Use a placeholder (like ‘X’ or ‘…’) for your intro and move onto the next paragraph. Sometimes having the core of your article in place can get the ball rolling and help you figure out what to say in the beginning. I’ll usually highlight my placeholder in the document so I don’t forget to come back to it before submitting the piece.

3. Work on other productive tasks. 

If you’re still struggling, put your writing aside and do something else on your to-do list. Tackle another short but productive task that you’ve been meaning to get to. Checking other things off your to-do list will take some of the pressure off when you revisit your writing. Be sure to set a time limit for these other tasks, too, if deadlines are a concern.

4. Write anything

If all else fails and you just need to get your piece written, get something – anything –down on the page. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad, or grammatically incorrect, or full of typos. Spit out a sentence and work backwards. I sometimes find that it’s easier to edit and rework a bad paragraph than craft a really good one on the first try.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Image credit: publicdomainphotographs | Dreamstime Stock Photos (CC0)

How to Be a Great Twitter Chat Participant

If you’re an active Twitter user, you’ve likely come across — or maybe even participated in — a Twitter chat. These public, hashtagged conversations are usually hosted by a brand or industry expert, and invite followers and strangers alike to participate in a Q&A session around a specific topic. There’s chats about just about everything, from pop culture to media to finance (TweetReports.com maintains a thorough list of active weekly Twitter chats here, if you’re looking for one to join).

There are plenty of reasons to host and/or participate in a Twitter chat. For brands, it establishes them as an authority in their field. By asking fellow experts with large followings to co-host or join in, a company can encourage those individuals to reply or retweet relevant responses with its branded hashtag and expose it to a much wider audience. For individual participants with knowledge of or interest in the topic, a chat can connect them with other like-minded Twitter users.

I’ve participated in a handful of Twitter chats during my career, and it can be tricky to navigate what can sometimes be a confusing and chaotic stream of conversation. If you or your company are thinking about joining a chat, here are a few tips for making yourself stand out as an engaged, helpful participant.

1. Introduce yourself when you join. 

The main host will usually ask the co-hosts and participants to introduce themselves at the beginning of the chat. This helps users to follow along and understand where a person is coming from when they ask or respond to a question. Take this opportunity to share your interest in the conversation, and give a little shout-out to your brand.

2. Always add the hashtag and answer number. 

The whole point of a Twitter chat is to keep the conversation organized with the chat’s hashtag. If you forget to include it, your tweet will likely get lost and not make it to the appropriate audience. I love using TweetChat.com, which essentially turns a specific hashtag into a standalone chatroom. While you can follow an individual hashtag on Twitter’s website or third party programs like TweetDeck and HootSuite, TweetChat automatically includes the hashtag on the end of every tweet you send from the platform, and accounts for that when it displays your remaining characters.

Most Twitter chats are formatted Q1, Q2, Q3, etc. as the host asks the questions. To ensure your responses are properly tracked and seen, you should mark your tweets with the corresponding answer number when a question is asked (i.e., start your tweet with A1 when responding to Q1).

3. Add something unique to the conversation.

If you see a great question that you have a great answer for, it can be tempting to just spit it out immediately. But depending on the number of participants and the speed of their responses, you might just be adding to the noise with your answer.

Before you tweet, see what else has been said in response to that question. If someone else touched on something you wanted to say, reference that person and add your own contribution, for instance, “I agree with @SoAndSo, and also think that (…).” Make use of retweets and quote tweets if someone else’s response reflects your thoughts well enough.

4. Use self-promotional links sparingly.

It’s fine to include a link to your own website or article that perfectly answers one of the questions. It can shed more light on a subject than you can do in 280 characters, and as an added bonus, it will drive some traffic to your site. But if every tweet you contribute is another content link, people will start tuning you out for spamming the chat. Try to limit your use of links and instead try to formulate genuinely useful responses.

5. Thank the host(s) at the end.

At the end of the scheduled chat time, the host will usually send out a wrap-up tweet to close out the conversation. This is a signal for all participants to send in their final thoughts. When the host says it’s time to go, share a “thank you” tweet, tagging any relevant users you engaged with during the conversation. With any luck, you’ll have gained some knowledge and maybe a few new followers.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Image credit: publicdomainphotograph | Dreamstime Stock Photos (CC0)

Meeting a Professional Contact for Coffee? How to Make the Most of Your Time

I often receive invitations from fellow media professionals asking to meet for coffee or drinks. This is a common networking tactic in many industries: Snag 30 minutes of face time with a professional in a similar line of work, and you’re guaranteed to come out of it with at least a few ideas about how to work together.

While I can’t always spare the time, I do try to set up at least one “networking coffee” a month. They’re a more efficient, personable method of discussing possible ways to collaborate than a lengthy email thread or a rushed phone call. It also gets the person a solid “in” with me: I’m far more likely to remember someone with whom I’ve had a face-to-face conversation over someone whose name is buried in my never-ending inbox.

When you’ve only got 30 minutes or less of someone’s already-limited time, you want to make the most of that half hour. Here are a few tips to ensure a successful and productive one-on-one meeting with a professional contact.

Know who you’re looking for — and make sure they can find you.

When you’re meeting someone for the first time, you might waste five or 10 minutes looking around for each other, only to discover they’ve been standing near you the whole time. Hopefully you and your contact will have looked each other up on social media to get a picture for reference, but to expedite the process, you should let them know how to find you before they arrive at the meeting location — for example, “I’m at a table near the back window,” or, “I’m wearing a blue shirt.”

Ease into “business” talk.

Making plans to meet with a professional contact isn’t the same as introducing yourself at a networking event. You don’t need to cram a sales pitch about your agency or clients into a few brief minutes. There’s a little more time for pleasantries and small talk, and you should take advantage of that to build up a rapport with the person. Ask how their day is going, where they live, or what they like about their work before diving into business. Taking a genuine interest in the person as a human being, rather than a means to a business partnership, sets the foundation for a great professional relationship.

Pay attention to information about the person’s job.

You likely already know this person’s job title, but ask them about their work anyway — and then really listen when they answer. You might learn something you didn’t know about working with people at that company. Armed with this knowledge, you can make informed, calculated decisions that help both of you.

Follow up.

Common networking wisdom dictates that following up with the people you’ve met will keep you fresh in their minds and remind them to keep the wheels moving on any opportunities you discussed. Make sure you send the person a quick note thanking them for their time and recapping the conversation you had. It will pay off when the person responds with a potential opportunity to work together.

A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack.

Image credit: creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos (CC0)