Becoming a Conscious Written Communicator

Relationships, company cultures, and communities are built – and either made or broken – on the basis of communication.

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.

The Paradox

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.

Grammar Girl
Another fun resource online for all things grammar, usage, punctuation, vocabulary, and more.

Copyblogger
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.

  • http://inklingmedia.net Ken Mueller

    I think in terms of the web, points 3 and 4 are becoming increasingly important. Twitter in particular is the 21st century equivalent of the broadcast soundbites. And of courseeven if we offer a retraction to something we’ve said…it lives on forever and ever…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nor-Akmar-Nordin/100001820377669 Nor Akmar Nordin

    This is a well written article. It inspired me to be more concious on what I write or how do I communicate myself better. Thank you Amber Naslund.

  • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

    I think that #3 – “How does this stand on it’s own, without context?” – is becoming increasing difficult as more people go online and new tools/apps make it easier to broadcast and share. In other words, my @ reply tweet may be part of a longer conversation between one or more people. However, someone may see it as a stand alone tweet or comment and take it out of context. Very hard to control for that, no?

    This sort of thing has been going on for years in traditional media – sound bits from celebrities/athletes that make front page news for example. However, with everything seemingly moving faster, the issue is only compounded.

    All of that being said, I do agree that it is on us – those who create content – to do our best to make it grammatically correct, to avoid spelling errors, etc. But it continues to be a balancing act as I’d rather be 99% accurate but have something “shipped” than be 100% accurate and be “late.”

    Make sense? Agree?

    Great discussion here. Looking forward to the comments.

    *I double-checked this comment for spelling and grammar. Chances are that I still messed up!

  • Vargaslmv

    Well said. I enjoy daily lessons from the book, The Accidents of Style by Charles Harrington Elster. Also, I subscribe to word of the day emails. I incorporate this word into my conversation at some point during the day.

  • http://www.honeybeeconsulting.com startabuzz

    I so appreciate this post, as I am, like you, a “word nerd.” I get terribly bothered when writers cannot be bothered to check for simple mistakes in their posts (articles, books, and so on and so forth). Yesterday, I read a blog post that was short and simple, clearly written with the intention of being powerful in its brevity. The problem was that the word that the author used for his title was one, perhaps, that he had only ever heard, but not seen written. The result was that the terms was completely misspelled (so grossly that it took a minute or two to figure out what he actually meant) and, for me, ended up overriding the point of the post. I simply couldn’t get past it.

    Like you, I don’t feel like archaic rules of grammar should be followed — some were simply products of old typesetting conventions and the like — strictly (though I’m a stickler for some of them), but I do feel like there is a culture of sloppiness whose tentacles are wending their way into what would otherwise be really good writing.

    Grammar matters. Semantics matter. Spelling matters.

    • http://twitter.com/CreativeAgentVA Laura Monroe

      Melissa, you are so right. Even more than that for me, is email communication laziness. Nary a soul is taking the time for proper salutations, clear, concise sentences, and proper subject lines. The new conventions of 140 characters and status updates should NOT be used in emails between professionals especially.

      • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

        Laura: Not sure I agree with this entire reply. Do we always need to have “proper” salutations? I think that the email channel allows for a bit more flexibility. In other words, you do not need to start off an email like a former letter, i.e., “Dear Laura.” Subject lines are an entirely different animal. Too often I get emails with very generic, nondescript subject lines like, “Hey there” or “Question.” Nooooooooo!

        *”Disclaimer”: I work at Blue Sky Factory, an email service provider, so I tend to think about subject lines (& other parts of an email) quite often.

        Love to hear your thoughts.

  • http://www.jasonmkey.com Jason mKey

    Thnx Amber

    I’d recommend having a proof reading partner whenever possible. Always good have to have a 2nd set of eyes on something

  • http://twitter.com/mikegil mikegil

    Hi Amber-
    Great stuff. In addition to the inestimable Strunk & White (word nerds’ Talmud?), I would add a great little book called “Send” about how to be more effective at e-mail, which is for better or worse the most frequent medium for written communications for most of us.

    It’s at http://www.amazon.com/Send-Essential-Guide-Email-Office/dp/0307263649

    Keep up the great blogging!

  • http://twitter.com/RogerLay Roger Lay

    Very timely post, Amber! I read a lot of blogs and other communications that are difficult to read because of misspelled words and incorrect grammar. I guess I am also a word nerd because the use of “your” when it should be “you’re” or “to much” when it should be “too much” is so distracting to me that it is difficult for me to follow the author’s message. And thanks for including the resources. Hopefully anyone who is not sure of their grammar or spelling with not be discouraged from blogging, but instead use the resources available on the web to correct any errors before posting – and learn something along the way!

  • http://twitter.com/colinwu58 Colin Wu

    Thank you, Amber. Nicely said.

    Word nerd? I guess I am one as well. My wife and I have an on going disagreement on the importance of proper spelling and, if not proper grammar, then at least understandable structure. I maintain that a wrong word can not only disrupt the flow, but actually misinform.

    More importantly, I think I am also a communication nerd, if I may coin the phrase. Too often people think that communication means that the person sending the message should send it “loud and clear”, end of story. In fact, there must be some feedback where the receiver can say “Yes, I understand that” or “Say again?”, or even “What are you babbling about?”. When using the written word, this feedback loop is not always there which makes the carefully crafted sentences and paragraphs, leading the reader from one idea to the next, so much more critical. In person-to-person (either face-to-face or over telephone) there is more chance for immediate feedback and correction, which is why, even though I practically live by email, I will sometimes pick up the phone and have an old fashioned conversation. The speed at which issues can be cleared up is orders of magnitude faster than by email or other electronic media alone.

    I love the “for posterity” aspect you mentioned. It’s not something I had thought too much about but, you’re right, everything is being archived now. How will what I write now look in the near or far future?

    Thank you. Always enjoy your posts and your tweets.

  • http://www.dayngrzone.com/ Dayngr

    Another great read. I love Grammar Girl’s tips and I look forward to checking out the books you suggested.

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  • http://www.jimakin.com Jim Akin

    Great stuff, Amber. A couple of additional thoughts from a fellow word-nerd:

    Watch your writing for habitual use of unnecessary words. Prepositional phrases are particularly ripe for this. In a world of tweets, streamlining “because of the fact that” to just “because” isn’t just better style, it also makes room for an extra idea or link.

    On a related note, consider adverbs opportunities to beef up your verbs. Instead of “The speech went amazingly well,” try “The speech amazed them”. Not all adverbs should be expunged, of course, but they can often be replaced with verbs that strengthen sentences, add energy to your writing, and cut down on your character count.

    Finally, a resource I recommend to all who want to invigorate their prose is “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. It’s a crisp, lively guide to better writing that teaches as much by its own example as by its advice.

  • http://twitter.com/apdolan Amanda Dolan

    So happy I read this this morning! I especially appreciated the succinct refresher on those outcomes/intentions that, yeah, we all “know” we should consider carefully each time we communicate (or at least before we click “publish” or “send”).

    I would add that there is now, maybe more than ever, a real opportunity to be specific and communicate through creative, personal experience. An effective way to do this is by forgoing abstractions and taking a little extra time to write with concrete imagery. (Sounds like I’m still in poetry school, right?). But there really is nothing *quite* like the connection you have to someone’s writing when they explain their point(s) with sensory detail – without those big concepts or, really, words that veer into cliche territory. Heavy-handed words (love, intelligence, pride, understanding, happiness, emotional, fear, etc) aren’t nearly as influential as they often are intended to be. Everyone’s talking at once – you have to take the time to a) *find* and b) *use* your individual “voice.” When you’re writing you really should test the creative bounds of the space. Of course this isn’t always possible with microblogging. But if we’re being pushed to focus on a forced-economy of words – let’s at least make the ones we choose count.

    Anyway – love the “word nerd” (great sound). Lots to think about here, thanks! ::sharing this now::

  • Steve Krizman

    Excellent discussion, gang. A couple of additional thoughts:
    1. Take the time. What I write is much better if I have the opportunity to let it sit overnight and come back for a final edit. That’s when I discover that the phrase that seemed so clever yesterday just gets in the way. Or the word I was searching for finally comes to me.
    2. We have to face facts and write shorter. That’s what our main media require and what our busy readers tolerate. It’s hard work. To paraphrase Mark Twain: I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.
    3. Use more visuals and write the accompanying captions or lead-ins to work with them. It’s a lost opportunity when the final product clearly looks like it went down the assembly line from shooter to writer to headline writer to designer.

  • http://www.ianmrountree.com Ian M Rountree

    I need to add http://tvtropes.org/ – mostly because avoiding (or using consciously) commonly used mechanics is important in representational writing. Whether it’s fiction, which is what TVTropes is about, case studies, or interviews – doesn’t matter.

    Any representation of yourself or others – especially groups – requires some knowledge of patterns in representation. In short, stereotypes are there for a reason, both in the positive and negative sense. Knowing what to do with them is important.

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