In a time before they wore white satin and sang in high voices, the Bee Gees warbled:
"It’s only words
And words are all I have
To take your heart away"
Even though - ironically - they dropped a grammatical clanger in the first line, the brothers Gibb were ahead of their time in pinpointing a huge dilemma in our digital age.
So much of our existence now depends on the written word: in social media posts, texts and emails. We've all had to become superhero writers, able to grab a message and leap tall buildings in our response. The problem is, much of the time we crash and burn – and aren’t even aware of it.
It’s a fact that when we write, we really do only have words – they’re all we have to “take the heart away” of our reader. There’s no body language or vocal tone to give the other person a clue about what we’re really on about. Sometimes we feel the need to add a smiley or sad face to our writing, because we know full well that our words alone won’t cut it.
In a social sense, we can survive by blundering through because everyone else is doing the same. But in the business world, sub-standard written communication is costing us, big-time.
It used to be that businesses and organisations could have some degree of control over the quality of information they put out to the world at large. Those days are gone. Consider this:
Staff have huge communication clout. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, ‘regular’ employees are now seen to be more credible than the CEO. Thanks to social media, people can see deeply into your organisation and they’re more likely to believe someone like themselves, than the boss.
Employees have never had more access to communication tools. We used to stress over whether to allow staff to be on Facebook in work time. We could permit it or not, because the business owned the communication infrastructure. Now, it doesn’t matter what we think because everyone’s tapping away on their phones and tablets at any time of day.
Most people don’t know how to write a good email. We don’t teach employees these skills, we just assume they can do it. But the proof is against us. Literacy levels in Australia aren't healthy. A recent report comparing Australian high school students with 65 other countries showed we’re slipping further behind in maths and reading skills.
A bad experience has long-term impacts. Unclear, inaccurate and badly written email and other communication frustrates readers and leaves your business open to ridicule. We’re operating in a Reputation Economy, where people form opinions about your organisation based on what they hear from others. And if they’ve had a less than happy experience thanks to bad communication, they’ll tell their friends. Not only their friends; each of us is now a significant contributor in our very own ecosystem of influence. A dodgy email from your organisation can easily ricochet through global networks and do damage in places you’d once never imagined.
How do we address this? We need to teach staff how to write well – with such clarity that the reader gets the message first time, every time. Think of the angst that would save, along with the time taken to answer follow-up inquiries. Even bad news is digested more easily if it’s communicated clearly.
Any email will benefit from these steps:
1. Plan ahead. Yes, even a brief email will be more effective if you take a minute to think about why you’re writing it. What do you want the result to be? And most importantly,who are you writing to? Think about your reader – I mean, really think about them. Picture them, or if you don’t know them, imagine what they might look like. How much do they already know about what will be in your email? Do you need to explain things from the ground up, or can you assume a certain amount of knowledge?
2. Build rapport. Once you’ve pictured your reader, try to put things from their point of view rather than from your perspective. Write directly to them, as though you were communicating face to face. Use “you”, “we” and "I" rather than bureaucratic jargon. Are you emailing them because or a problem? Acknowledge the effect or inconvenience the issue is likely to have had. If you can connect and show you’re really interested, you’ve opened the door and are in with half a chance of getting your message across.
3. Keep the tone conversational, and always appropriate. Some people turn into bureaucranazis the minute they start typing an email. Lighten up a little. You’re a person, communicating with a fellow human. Have a conversation with them, even if it only consists of words typed on a screen. Don’t get so chatty that the tone is inappropriate (avoid “Hello” at the start of an email – it makes you sound creepy). Think friendly andprofessional.
4. Use simple words. Winston Churchill said, “short words are best, and the old words, when they are short, are the best of all” – and didn’t he know a thing or two about communication. Using big words to try to sound powerful or important will just make you sound like a wally. Are you trying to impress someone (which you won’t), or is it more important that you’re understood? Go for short, commonly-used words that people will know. Leave the high-fallutin’ stuff for another time.
In an email, words are all you have, as the Bee Gees sang. But they’re not just words. They’re powerful tools that can create bonds and help to build reputation. Use them wisely, to capture the heart of your reader.