Ever had the situation where you read an email or a blog post and you quickly dash off a few words in response only to have the person at the other end explode with rage over what you said. The only trouble is that you didn’t mean it the way it was taken. You thought you were saying something very different and you had intended to be constructive… and then all of a sudden you are in the middle of World War 3.
It has happened to many of us at one time or another. But why? When we communicate in writing, we are missing a large percentage of the verbal and non-verbal clues that “flesh out” the message. These messages give richness and texture to what is being said and help provide additional meaning. These clues can totally change the meaning of words from a positive to a negative and visa versa.
Ever heard the saying “it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it”. This truism shows how embedded into our psyche the importance of all the other clues that go around words are. When we take out 75% of the clues, it is hard to get a clear and consistent message.
When you add in the challenge that not everyone is wired to respond to the written word, it can become complex to get your point across. Some people are wired to respond more to sound and others to feeling and movement rather than words on a page. You need to adjust your words to make your communication clearer for all preferences.
In business, how does this play out? I have seen CEOs send “messages to the troops” via email or newsletters, only to find that the words acted more as a demotivator than a motivator. I have seen people dismissed over something that started as a simple email. I have seen performance reviews spiral into disaster over a written comment from an employee or manager.
I have also seen websites with less traffic than they should have, marketing materials binned rather than acted on and product names the subject of laughter and internet jokes… all based on the words that had been selected by the company.
So here comes the heresy. Words on the page are not enough. You need to use the right words in the right circumstances, taking into account all the possible ways that the words could be interpreted. You need to have a clear intention and understanding of what you want to achieve from the communication before you say the first word.
In some situations you will need to ensure your words have extra clarifying features added -images or clear graphic design to illustrate the points you are trying to make. You may even need to explore the addition of video or audio to your message for greater clarity. A professional copywriter can also help you hone your words.
But, even if you do all of this, there will be times when you get “interesting” reactions. If you are caught in the situation where you are on the receiving end of something that seems a bit abrupt or rude, stop and breathe. Pick up the phone or go and see the person to gently let them know that you have interpreted their words one-way, and give them a chance to explain what they intended to say.
Ask for more clarification in a non-judgemental way along the lines of “can you tell me a bit more about why you feel that way”. Teach your team that it is fine to ask for more information and clarification rather than simply reacting.
This of course doesn’t extend to stinging explicit abuse or verbal attacks. In the internet world, this sort of behaviour is labelled as coming from a troll, and even the most perfectly chosen words will sometimes attract troll-like behaviour. Just know that good rarely comes from directly engaging a troll in an exchange of words. If the troll is in your workplace, do not respond but take it directly up with your HR Manager or CEO, as this is inappropriate workplace behaviour and they have a role in ensuring it is stopped.
The bottom line is that words are often not enough to communicate what you need. By taking into account the context, audience, communication preferences and intention then you will improve your written communication and get better results.