Speak Between the Lines

We’ve all heard about the importance of communication in business. Good communication skills are pushed in classrooms, reiterated in workshops to improve business performance, and sold by vendors in almost all disciplines as the one change that will fix your problems. The reason for this is simple: it really is important. Of course you probably figured I was going to say that, but let me explain before you roll your eyes and decide I’m selling something.

What I have noticed most about the people I work with in various business pursuits is their emails. A retail store in Florida had a District Manager who had been promoted through the ranks. He was considered by the company to be one of the better Managers in that area, and when I spoke with him in my store he had good ideas, good plans for implementation, and respect for his employees. Despite that, I’ll always remember him as the man whose emails told me to “sale” more products and to not be a door “greater.” For all his business acumen, that DM was the joke of our store’s management staff because he couldn’t spell in his emails. I don’t believe this manager couldn’t spell the words he constantly misspelled; I think he simply believed it didn’t matter. It mattered to us, because we wanted to respect our district manager and to believe that having his job meant something, and he was proving us wrong. I was pretty caught up in the company’s internal sales pitch when I walked into that management position in Florida; I believed in the company and defended them to anyone I thought might not like my employer. It took less than a year for this manager to turn me from a dedicated employee loyal to the company to someone who passed up a promotion and ultimately left the company.

As a marketer, I have a lot less than a year to catch the attention of my customers and build loyalty. I have something closer to three seconds to make you care what I’m saying. No room for typos, boring wording, or rambling explanations. But marketing isn’t the only place where that’s true. A long-winded training slide is likely to be skimmed at best, no matter how important the core concepts being explained are, unless it also contains carefully chosen wording to keep the reader interested. Even in places where we don’t expect careful word choice, however, it is important. I gave the example of the district manager I knew, but everyone can find an example of someone who has not been careful with their communication and as a result has alienated coworkers, bosses, or worst, customers. A business can’t afford people with under-developed communication skills. Thankfully, communication is something that can be taught. Here are some tips to use and share.

1. Write multiple drafts. Yes, this takes time, and yes, time is money. Just remember, it takes more time for your audience to muddle through an unclear message, misunderstand what you’re saying, and then be corrected than it does to carefully plan and compose a message through multiple drafts.

2. Proofread your emails, and get someone else to do it in case you miss something; you don’t want to be the laughing stock of the department you are sending it to. This takes more time than throwing something together and sending it, but my management staff lost a lot of time making fun of our DM. Do you think your department won’t?

3. Consider your intent and audience. These are often listed separate, but I’m putting them together because I think you can’t do one without the other. Before you write, you need to know what you want to get from your audience, which means you need to know who they are, what they want, and what they can give you in return for your effort. Don’t write a sales pitch to your IT department, it’ll annoy them, but never write an IT explanation to a customer.

4. Be simple and concise. Don’t ramble, however important the extra information seems to you. Include only what your audience needs to know to act, and do so with simple word choices. The more complex word is probably more accurate, but it does less good when your reader chooses not to look it up.

5. Finally and most importantly, organize your message in a logical fashion. The best word choice, proofreading, and planning available will do you no good if you jump between topics with no connections and no warning. It is easy to lose your audience if the structure is difficult follow.