By Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk
While I’m not happy to admit this, I’ve reached the age where a yearly mammogram is part of my medical routine. And since I’m a good girl, I made my appointment and had the test done a few weeks ago. I was told that I’d get the test results in 7-10 days, and promptly moved on with the rest of my life. One more thing checked off the ever-growing to-do list.
Eight days later, I got a letter in the mail from the doctor’s office. Expecting an invoice, I went about my regular work and didn’t open it until late that night. When I read it, I was shocked to learn that I needed additional testing based on my results. There was no phone call, no explanation, just a form letter telling me I needed more testing. I have to admit that I was scared to death. It may not be rational, but the crazy things that go through your head when you read those words cause a great deal of uncertainty and fear. And considering my history with medical procedures and professionals, I was starting to feel panicked.
When I called the doctor’s office to schedule my follow-up appointment, I was told the next opening was over a week away. This was too much. Near tears, I asked the woman on the phone if I should be concerned, what the letter meant, and what I should expect. She calmly told me that I had little to worry about since I got the news by letter. “If it were something overly concerning, the nurse would have called you for an immediate appointment,” she said. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Everything turned out okay, but the emotional roller coaster I rode for the 24 hours between getting that letter and talking to the nurse was absolutely unnecessary. Had they explained to me at the first appointment the layers of communication (letter if there is slight concern, call if they are really worried), or had the letter been written differently, I could have avoided the panic I felt. Which got me thinking, how are our communications interpreted by our different audiences? Do we fire off letters and emails without thinking about how they will be received?
Poor communication is often listed as the biggest issue faced at most companies. It, along with finances, is the biggest reason for most divorces. So how do we avoid some of the pitfalls brought on by poor communications and make sure our messages are interpreted as we intend?
Write it with the reader’s perspective in mind. Always keep your readers in mind when you are writing. You, as the author, know all the details of what you are talking about, but remember your readers may not. What may be common sense or well-known to you, may not be the case for your readers. Think about how they will process the information you are communicating and make sure it makes sense from their perspective. Take the time to include references or explanations to avoid confusion. By writing it well initially, you will also avoid a lot of back and forth – and wasted time – down the road.
Have someone else proofread it. It’s always a good idea to have a second set of eyes take a look at your work. And ideally, find someone who may not know the topic you are covering as well as you do. If he or she understands what you are saying and can explain it back to you in his or her own words, you have done a good job of communicating. If not, go back and rewrite, using their input as guidance. And remember, while spell check is a beautiful thing, it misses a lot of errors too. (Check out this YouTube video for a funny take on the things that spell check misses, though fair warning, it’s a bit PG-rated. https://bit.ly/b80Mfz)
Don’t try to communicate too many messages at once. We are all bombarded by tons of emails every day, so sometimes we want to communicate everything we need to say to the reader in one fell swoop. But here’s the problem. If the message you are trying to get across is important and needs a response, it can get lost in all the other things you are saying simultaneously. If it is vital that your reader pay attention and respond promptly, say that up front, and stick to that one message. In an effort to reduce the number of communications I send, I’ve done this myself. Only later did I realize that the recipient never scrolled down to read more than the first paragraph, assuming that was the extent of the email. Regardless of whose fault this was, I didn’t get the response I needed in time to take action. Make it easy on your readers and stick to one message at a time on those topics of great importance.
Keep it simple. I’m sure you spent a lot of money getting your college education, and some of us even went on to get degrees beyond our bachelor’s. But here’s the thing, sometimes using those big college words only makes you look pompous and dilutes your message. I’m not saying that you should always write at a 3rd grade level, but again, keep your readers in mind when you are writing. If they are likely to need a dictionary to figure out what you are saying, you are not communicating, you are annoying, and your message will get completely lost.
Make it active. The same goes for passive language in my book. If there is a way to make it active, do it. Rather than saying, “I think that you may find potential value in perusing the attached article,” instead say, “This article makes some great points. Enjoy.” Many of us were taught to write passively so we don’t sound pushy, or many professional services providers write this way because they are concerned about “giving advice.” But ultimately, it makes the writer sound unsure about what he or she is saying and dilutes the message. If you have something to say, say it clearly and actively.
So, what do you think? What are some of the pitfalls you see on a regular basis? What changes have you made to ensure your messages are communicated – and received – in the way you want? I’d love to hear your thoughts.