Today, an important question and topic from BTT regular contributor, Matt Ridings.
I’ve always been verbose. It’s this undeniable need to have people truly ‘understand’ what I’m saying, and it takes a lot of words to try and get nuance across. Combine that with the fact that I’m a very fast typist and you can understand why some of my emails may look more like novellas.
However, in the world of texting, chat, and social media platforms like Twitter where true synchronous conversations take place there is a greater value necessarily placed on brevity.
The danger with writing very conversationally combined with brevity is that it’s very easy to misunderstand the other person. Not such a big deal when it’s a friend of yours and you can simply correct the misunderstanding and move on, but for a community manager or other customer facing personnel in a corporation it can be disastrous.
The Importance of Tone of Voice
We may think we technically speak the same language as the other person, but we don’t. I don’t mean the subtle variations like being from Tennessee and speaking to a New Yorker, or the big ones like someone who speaks little of your language at all.
I mean ‘other people’ like the person who grew up next to you as your neighbor and that you’ve known all your life. You each have idiosyncrasies in the way you express yourselves that while easy enough to understand when heard verbally, can have their perceived meaning completely bastardized when expressed in short snippets of writing.
Primary among these catalysts for miscommunication is the perceived “Tone Of Voice” (TOV). In these digital conversational exchanges we tend to overlay a mental ‘voice’ onto what we are reading. The more closely we know the individual, the better we are at successfully interpreting that TOV.
Lost In Translation
In a customer scenario, however, it is rarely the case that they know the individual they are speaking to so they project a TOV that is tainted by their emotional perspective of the business. It is understanding these factors, and being better able to identify the types of phrases that are more easily misunderstood, that will make for more successful communications in these environments.
For example: If a customer is entering the conversation angry at the company, then a simple statement intended as empathy such as “That’s too bad, so sorry about that” can easily be read as sarcastic, demeaning, and flippant. On the other hand, the statement “First, just let me apologize, that’s unacceptable” is very difficult to misinterpret.
Then there are those phrases that can carry a great deal of meaning, or none at all, depending on the TOV. If you respond to someones statement with “I see”, what did that really mean? Did it mean you said it with surprise in your voice and it was a lightbulb moment of understanding? Did it mean you said it with a bit of disdain and that you were disagreeing with the statement with a roll of your eyes?
As for sarcasm, something I am well acquainted with, just be aware that it’s a black hole at the center of the business communications universe from which there is no escape. Assume that it WILL be misinterpreted.
Identifying and avoiding these communication traps is critical to successful online communications, and should be required training for any customer facing personnel in your business.
Lastly, this in no way means that you can’t be conversational, or that you can’t somehow ‘be you’. There’s no need to feel like you have to pause and parse every word before you say it and speak at a pace that would make Christopher Walken blush. With a little awareness of those grammatical stones that are waiting to trip you up you can avoid them quite naturally and instinctually over time.
What are those phrases that you find easily misunderstood? Please share with the class in the comments below.
Matt Ridings – @techguerilla