Say What You Mean to Say (in writing)

person at keyboard
by Emily Munnell

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new normal. Everyone is working remotely, and turning to applications like Zoom, FaceTime and Microsoft Teams to preserve face-to-face interactions. At the same time, we are relying on written communications more than ever before.

The tricky bit about communicating primarily through the written word is that you can lose nonverbal clues that help the messenger be understood. Saying, “Are you kidding me?” in writing could mean, “I don’t believe you.” Or, “That’s really messed up.” But it could just as easily mean, “Wow! That’s very impressive.” Who is to say, if a written message is the only source?

Shortcut communication tools like emojis can be especially damaging to communication in the workplace. If you make a suggestion and a co-worker responds with the thumbs up emoji, does that mean your co-worker heard what you said and has no argument or truly likes the idea? Of course, it could also be a sarcastic response. Hmm…now you’re overthinking something that could be clearly communicated with a few simple words.

Whether we are attempting to collaborate via chat, email, or text, it’s important to make sure our message is clear, concise, and helpful. Technology tends to generate a more casual mode of communication, but misunderstandings could lead to embarrassing mistakes or have repercussions you never intended.

Here are some tips to help you polish your prose, keep your writing easy-reading, and help ensure the correct message makes it through!

Write it down. It can always be fixed.  Sometimes, the most intimidating thing in the world is a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen). As Nike says, “Just Do It.” Another great quote to remember is from author Terry Prachett, who said, “A first draft is just telling yourself the story.” Get something down. Don’t try to edit as you go. Get it all down, then review it. Spell Check is your friend, but it has its drawbacks. Once you have your words edited, pause to read them loud. If you stumble, you’ve discovered a problem that will probably trip up your readers, too. Fix it. Then read it aloud again. Listen to the words. Does it make sense? Are all the points in the proper order? If someone said this to you, would you know how to react? It may sound like this method takes a long time, but it goes quicker than trying to edit as you go or attempting to make each sentence perfect the first time.

Let it flow naturally.  It’s an old saying, but write as you would speak. Don’t ponder every word. Just say what you want to say. If your writing is coming off as stilted, it’s likely that you’re using words and sentence structures that you would never use in a verbal conversation. Don’t think of writing out instructions; think of your writing as explaining something to a friend. Imagine the conversation and let that inform your writing. Proper grammar is still important; in fact, it is vital. But your overall effect will be clearer and the information better-received when you are writing in a friendly “voice” that makes you seem like a helpful teammate.

Watch your tone.  Our new normal has created a case where please, thank you and other pleasantries go a long way. If you’re reaching out to someone you haven’t spoken with in a while, take a moment to ask how they’re doing. That’s what you would do if you were talking to them in person. Yes, we want to be concise, businesslike and get to the point, but we’re human, and in this weird, isolated world we’re living in right now, being nice is—nice!

I hope you find these tips helpful. If you have tips of your own, please share. This blog, like most things we write today, is not carved in stone. It can always be edited and added to.

Happy Writing!