The bulk of today’s job-related dialogue, thanks to the revolution IT started, happens between people with multiple tasks and deadlines who aren’t face to face or even talking on the phone.
In our hyper-connected, handheld-device-dominated world, a number of unavoidable truths affecting our personal and work-based relationships have emerged or taken on a new force:
One: Whatever we send out electronically lives forever, everywhere. It has an unprecedented ability to shape others’ perceptions of you, despite any later heartfelt attempt to explain your intemperate zingers.
Two: These electronic, Web-based interactions happen completely outside the context of the intricate, subtle and diverse visual and auditory feedback that has shaped and advanced human culture for most of our evolutionary history.
The risk for misunderstandings, always high when we’re under stress, shoots up.
Three: No one’s immune to the temptation of hitting “send” before thinking twice — whether you’re in the middle of a contentious debate or see a chance to one-up someone who’s been on your back or who has simply irritated you a lot. Think of it as Internet road rage.
Another age-old human trait happily in residence on cyberspace, amplifying its destructiveness, is our love of gossip. That leads us straight to the fourth truth of online correspondence:
No matter how well intentioned you may be or how stubbornly obtuse you think your readers or audiences are, senders bear all the responsibility for a message’s style and its effect, as they always have.
Here are basic recommendations you can do immediately for securing the right content and tone. Think of these as a new set of good habits aimed directly at freeing up your time and problem-solving opportunities, so you’ll be more productive and valuable to your organization:
- Leave out the slang or lingo (something entirely different from shorthand for complex technical terms you’re sure the recipient knows).
- Aim for business-neutral in everything you disseminate: good grammar, correct spelling, a straightforward, even flow (only acronyms in all caps, e.g.) and no profanity or coarse language. When this becomes automatic, you’ll never embarrass yourself when under pressure.
- Measure the length of an email or text you’re sending. Keep the right balance between too short and too long.
At the “too short” end of the spectrum, even when you’re tweeting (not likely in most workplace settings), you often appear blunt, wooden or robotic. People most likely see you as dismissive and curt, unless the situation is truly desperate, and you’re transmitting an S.O.S.
Enliven the neutrality with a measure of friendliness and a personal touch, allowing your personality to emerge, if only for a moment. A simple “hi” or use of a person’s name (depending on what’s appropriate to the particular situation or environment in which you work) makes all the difference.
Fulsome, long-winded missives, on the other hand, look timid or unfocused. Practice shortening your words by considering your audience’s urgent needs, the history of your contacts with them and what they already know about the subject at hand. You want to make your point clear now.
- Read your message aloud before sending it. You’ll go a long way toward avoiding ill will or confusion if you end your editing there.
- Check who’s on the send or reply list. If you’re really concerned about accidentally hitting “reply all,” create a new email and type in the recipient’s address yourself.
- Speaking of the send list, pause and imagine the fallout if what you write were to show up on your company’s website landing page.
That last step will usually be enough to save you from taking three days to apologize abjectly for a 15-second email.
- Help put in place a company guide to best practices in business writing and incorporate it into a formal social media policy. Ask a broad range of employees for input, depending on the need for confidentiality or potential for controversy, for example, related to your organization, the task at hand, a particular department, or your field.
If you already have one, schedule a review of its effectiveness on a regular basis.