Innately, we as humans want to be heard, informed and aware. When communicating, we crave the nod of the head from others that says “I see you, and I’m giving my attention to what you have to say.” When being communicated with, we hope that the other person is doing so with the intent to connect, to give us knowledge or information we didn’t have, and with our best interests in mind. We seek to both understand, and to be understood.
As a result, how we communicate matters. Our spelling and grammar matter. The way we express our thoughts matters. Understanding the definition of the words we use matters, too.
Not a small order, on any front. And yet, as our mechanisms for communication grow ever fractured and dispersed, those elements are as critical as ever.
Communicating well with the written word requires a bit of thought. Conscious execution, if you will.
Yet the demands today for speed often usurp that thought process. Sometimes by necessity. Often times because we’re overwhelmed and reactionary. Sometimes, because we underestimate just how important that communication might be.
And the more that happens, the faster it happens, the more effectively and frequently we need to communicate. Which means we’re ever more overwhelmed, which makes us sloppier and less aware of the impact of our words. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, but I think there are some things we can consider overall that can better shape communication, and it’s something that I’m always working on, so I’d love your take on it too.
Text As Our Chosen Medium
In an era where words and text are increasingly our chosen form of communication, things like vocabulary, grammar, and semantics play a role, because we’re cramming communication into shorter bursts and our snippets are often disconnected from one another, missing things like context or nuance. Most certainly, we lack body language and facial expression to supplement our words with more subtle and unspoken human elements of communication.
Our ability to apply basic rules of language is an important factor in how effectively we’re able to get across an idea or a point. Our choice of words helps illustrate the tone and attitude we’re trying to convey. And our awareness of our audience’s personality, values, or situation helps us choose an approach and words that are most likely to resonate with them and encourage them to communicate in return.
I’m fully and admittedly a word nerd and I love what words are capable of expressing, maybe more so than most. I’m sure I get more fidgety, too, when they’re used poorly or incorrectly. But I’m not advocating for fancy language. I’m not suggesting that we get all fussed up about obscure rules of grammar or lexicon that are likely antiquated, either, and I make errors in written communication with the best of them.
But I *am* advocating some diligence and paying a moment of attention to our written words. If we are advocating for the power of the web and the information we spread across it, we need to shape our skills to make the most of the medium we’ve chosen..
We See Words First
How we communicate in writing is now a fixture in our personal and professional appearance, and people will judge us accordingly. It’s part of what people see when they look at us online, failing a physical presence and an ability to hear how we deliver our thoughts verbally. Same holds true for branded or corporate presences online. It’s not unlike the rest of our visible appearance, like how you dress or present yourself.
If our words are how we’re expressing our ideas or expertise, we can and should expect that people will assess the quality of those things accordingly. When we use short, unthreaded and asynchronous tools to communicate too, it’s important to be mindful of not just what we say, but how we say it. Communicating consciously helps us eliminate as many variables as possible in interpretation and understanding on behalf of those we’re talking to.
Considering Outcomes And Intentions
Being deliberate about communication means asking yourself a few key questions each time you’re about to say something, whether it’s a short tweet or a longer form blog post.
1. “Why am I bothering?”
Knowing why you’re about to say what you’re going to say dramatically increases your chances of saying it clearly, with the right approach, and to the right person or people. It can also help you realize when maybe – just maybe – you shouldn’t say anything at all.
2. “Who might this affect?”
This is important both in context of who might be impacted by a lack of information as well as who could be benefitted or better informed if they had it. Could you loop in more people? Less? Are you providing all of the pertinent details? It’s also good to keep in mind that if you’re communicating in a public forum, your information and responses can be observed by others, even if it’s not directed at them. That leaves impressions, for better or for worse.
3. “How does this stand on its own, without context?”
If someone comes in and reads what you’ve said, is it easy to misinterpret? Is there a great deal of context or background necessary to explain, and can (or should) you provide that? If it were you reading what you’ve written or posted, how would you interpret everything from the information to the tone and delivery? That includes email, folks.
4. “What’s the potential lingering impact of this?”
If you’re writing a post for your company blog and you’ve taken a combative or deliberately inflammatory stance, how will that look and feel six months or a year from now when the dust settles but it’s still showing up in search results? Are you comfortable with how much proofreading you’ve done for content that has a level of permanence (even Tweets are being archived in the Library of Congress)? How is that email going to make someone feel later, whether a day or a month or a year?
Is that a lot of overthinking? That’s for you to decide. But given the impact that our written communication can have on our work, attitudes, relationships and the like, I think it’s worth an extra few seconds to consider.
Make It Better
Okay, so we’re not all immaculate communicators. But we can be better communicators if we’re to rely on the world of words and text to convey our thoughts, opinions, and values more and more. Here’s a few resources that can help.
Common Errors in English Usage
Created and maintained by an English prof at Washington State, Paul Brians. If you’re unsure when to use affect vs. effect or reign vs. rein, this is the site for you. It covers perhaps hundreds of commonly misused words, phrases, and expressions.
Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com
This seems like a basic, but if you’re not sure the meaning of a word, look it up before you use it (or interpret it). I look up several words a day when I’m not sure, and before I include something in a blog post in which I’m not 100% confident. The bonus is the more you look up now, the less you need to look up later.
Another fun resource online for all things grammar, usage, punctuation, vocabulary, and more.
Spend time just in the copywriting section of this powerhouse blog, and even if you’re not writing copy per se, you’ll find some wonderful advice for simply communicating more clearly and effectively through the written word.
Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
A couple of great books that aren’t directly related to communication skills, but can help you shape your perspective about why and how humans communicate and connect with each other.
What Would You Add?
Do you have resources or ideas that can help people improve their written communication? Tactics that have worked for you (or lessons you’ve learned when they haven’t)? I’d love to hear more about your thoughts and contributions in the comments.
This is a topic I’ll be exploring more and more, given how pivotal I think good communication is in business today. Would also love to know what topics, perspectives, and angles you would find useful or helpful as you consider how you communicate in your life and work.
Thanks for weighing in.