Archive for category Communication theory
Ever feel like you’re on a treadmill that’s going faster and faster? That seems to be the new norm, with less downtime to just sit and relax for a moment.
As people feel the constant tug for their time and attention, the importance of clear, concise communications becomes more important.
So how do you reach someone who is reading your message while making dinner, helping the kids with homework, and answering an after-hours text message from her boss?
- Begin with your most important message.
- Use bullets. They help break up copy and make reading easier.
- Opt for simple words and avoid jargon, acronyms, and words that readers may not understand.
- Use examples to illustrate complicated points.
- Offer a contrast or comparison to create an image in your readers’ mind (“The ship is the length of two football fields.”)
- Stay away from too many fine details.
There is a simple secret to improve your writing — and your communications in general. Okay, it’s not really a secret, but it is very, very simple.
Use “you” more often.
Yup, I’m serious. Do that and you’re on your way to being a better writer and communicator.
Have a conversation
Using “you” (or forms of it) shifts your messages from talking at someone to speaking with them, making your message more personal and conversational.
Let’s look at a couple of examples to illustrate:
Old School: “Benefit enrollment packets will be mailed to employee’ homes in November.”
New style: “Look for your Benefit Enrollment Packets, coming in the mail in November.”
Old School: Students should return their permission forms by Tuesday.”
New Style: Please return your permission forms by Tuesday.”
Old School : “Members and their families are invited to attend the annual banquet….”
New Style: “You and your family are invited to the annual banquet…”
Be casual and clear
As you can see, incorporating “you” makes your writing more casual, conversational, and clear, while the old school way of referring to your audience in the third person is impersonal, and frankly, a little boring. And “you” is almost like calling someone by their name, one of the best attention grabbers available to communicators.
So give it a try and let me know what you think. While you’re at it, toss a “we” or two. I think you’ll like what you see.
I was watching morning-after news coverage of the Super Bowl and was struck by the second guessing of both the coaching and commercials. Seahawks fans are upset that the team elected to pass on their ill-fated final possession — an interception ultimately sealed the victory for the Patriots.
Others are angry at a Nationwide Insurance spot, in which a young boy spoke of the things he’ll never do because he was killed in an accident.
Whether you agree or disagree with either of these decisions, what’s interesting is the tide of negative comments on social media:
- “Too bad I don’t have #Nationwide insurance….so I could cancel it after that commercial.”
- “Seriously, who with @Nationwide’s PR/Marketing team thought a commercial during the #SuperBowl about kids dying was an idea worth $4.5M?”
- “That @Nationwide Commercial makes me want to call Geico”
Twitter also chimed in on the Seahawks choice to attempt a pass, targeting Seattle coach Pete Carroll, generally considered one of the best in the game:
- “Worst call in NFL History. Pete Carroll will never recover from this … Horrible! Horrible! Horrible!”
- “Pete Carroll just made the biggest screw-up in Super Bowl history.”
- “This was the mother of all screwups.”
Two lessons here. First, everyone has an opinion, and social media gives them a platform to share —good or bad. While these tweets (or posts) may not represent any more frustration than you’d hear at the water cooler, when combined, they create a wave of public opinion that reaches farther and wider than anything previously available to the everyday person.
Secondly, because of the potential of “bad press” in the social media world, the consequences of errors are greater. While people may not mean any ill intent by posting video of a news anchor accidentally dropping an F-bomb during a newscast, the potential damage is far beyond what existed in days past.
Your turn. Does social media magnify issues, or is it a valuable way for the public to be heard?
I’ve always been a bit of a jokester. In my last performance review, my boss mentioned my sense of humor more than anything else (I hope that’s good).
Years ago, a striking lesson taught me the best way to joke at the office, or anywhere else for that matter.
A coworker on the other side of the building had just moved into a new office, complete with a window — a rarity for that particularly company.
He was sitting there, quite pleased, when I stuck my head in. We chatted, spoke about his kids’ photos, etc, and I left with something like, “Cool office. You look right at home.”
The next day he stopped by my office to thank me. When I asked why, he said, “You’re the only one who didn’t make fun of me.” Apparently, others asked who he slept with to get the office, etc.
That hit me like a lightning bolt, and changed the way I joke with people.
Now, I focus on comments that are funny, but positive. For example, if asked about my boss, my reply is something like, “She’s awesome. The best. Very smart, supportive, and never hits me on the nose with a newspaper.”
Okay, it’s a little corny, but you get the point. It’s clever, gets a chuckle, and leaves a positive feeling.
Do no harm
There’s an old saying about truth in jest, and I’ve learned that negative jokes can leave people wondering if you’re serious. Years ago, at a going-away party, my outgoing boss said, “I’ll miss all of you — well, all but one of you …” I thought he was clearly kidding, but a coworker later asked me who the boss meant.
Be funny and kind at the same time. Sometimes that takes a bit of creativity, but the goodwill it generates is worth the effort.
Your turn? How do you kid around the office?
People are well-meaning and sincerely want to help when giving advice,but sometimes our thoughts come across the wrong way.
Follow these seven tips next time you choose to give advice and you’ll be seen as a confidant and trusted adviser.
Let’s say a friend is thinking about leaving her job. You think it’s a mistake, but before you tell her, ask why she’s leaving. Her response, and the facts she provides, might change your mind.
Support, rather than debate
Sometimes a decision is already made and the best guidance you can provide is helping the person reach their goal. If your daughter wants to backpack across Europe after college graduation, and is determined to do so, work with her to ensure her journey is both safe and enjoyable.
Put yourself in their shoes
Your coworker is miserable in her job and wants to quit. You like her boss and can’t understand why she’d leave such a good company. Telling her that would discount her feelings and potentially drive a wedge between you. Before you speak, remind yourself that we’re all different, and what you consider a great work environment might be horrible for others.
Don’t downplay the consequences
People try to be supportive by downplaying the possible consequences of a potential decision. For example, “The worst think that could happen is you’ll have to get a second job,” or “If it doesn’t work, you’ll only be out $50.”
Problem is, the person giving the advice doesn’t have to deal with the consequence, so of course it’s not such a big deal to them. It’s easy to shrug off the results if someone else is paying the piper.
Whether you agree or disagree with what a person thinks, you’ll go farther with an encouraging approach. For example, your nephew Jimmy wants to play professional baseball. You can tell him that the odds are one in a million, or you can tell him to work hard, do his best, and see how things fall out.
Remember, history is full of successful people who were told they didn’t have what it takes.
This one’s tough, particularly if you don’t agree with what the person is thinking. If I’m not an expert on the topic, I’ll generally defer when asked my option. For example: “Geez, I couldn’t do that, but you may be better equipped to make that choice.”
If the topic is a subject where I do have expertise or knowledge, I’ll either offer an alternative (“Have you thought about calling instead of sending an email?”) or pointing to data that supports an alternative view (“I’ve read that eating a healthy breakfast every day actually helps with weight loss.”)
The reason someone asked for your opinion is that she likely respects you and wants your advice. Remember to return that respect in you interaction.
Your turn. What guidelines do you follow when giving advice?
During a live shot on the news this week, a local reporter caught my attention when she used the word “I” three times in a sentence. Sure, it’s conversational and brings the reporter into the story, but at the same time, use of that pronoun takes away from the subject of the story.
Know your audience
Communicators often talk about identifying your audience. If you’re selling fishing flies, you want to target people who fish. Manufacturing a new soda? Aim for kids and teens.
That’s pretty basic stuff, but writing to your target audience is where many messages fall short.
My favorite example is the typical, annual benefits enrollment announcement that you see at many companies: “Benefit enrollment packets will be mailed to eligible employees beginning November 1.”
In this message, you’re talking at employees, not to them. Contrast the above example with, “Look for your benefits enrollment packets, coming in the mail in early November.”
The second version rises above the first because it 1) carries a friendly, more conversational tone; and 2) speaks to the reader, not from the company. It’s a subtle adjustment, but a very effective technique to improve your writing.
What’s the secret? Be humble, and put readers ahead of you and your organization. Think about what they want to read. It’s human nature to be proud of your accomplishments or your company, but remember that you’re writing for your readers, and the message should focus on them.
Company focused: XYZ Company, the nation’s leading developer of pain-relieving medications, announced a new, over-the-counter medication that extensive studies show significantly reduce pain caused by arthritis.”
Audience focused: Relief is on the way for arthritis sufferers, thanks to a new over-the-counter medication that studies show significantly reduces joint pain. The medication, Pain Away, was developed by researchers at XYZ Company, the nation’s leading …”
While the company was bumped from the first sentence to the second, your message is more likely to be read and remembered because it addresses an issues many readers have (arthritis pain). And that’s what matters.
Being humble does pay off.
You sit, ready to craft an important memo, but find yourself struggling to begin. Staring at the blinking cursor doesn’t help, so you do the next best thing — go for coffee.
Overcoming writer’s block can be difficult. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years:
Just write it
Early in my career, I was working with a veteran PR person on an important memo. As I noodled what to say for the opening, he interrupted, “Type something … Just start writing.”
He was right. If I’m struggling with a lead sentence, I’ll skip it and start with the second paragraph. It helps establish a rhythm and prevents me from over thinking.
Make a list
If I’m stuck, or have a lot to cover, I’ll jump to the end of the document and list key points. It substitutes as a primitive outline of sorts, and lets me focus on how I want to say something, rather than what I should include.
For example, if I’m working on a flu vaccine story for a newsletter, my list might include:
- Free for employees
- Protect yourself and your family
- Evergreen Conference Room
- M-F, 8 – 9 a.m.
- Nov 1 – 15
- Employee Health, ext. 1234
- Remember hand hygiene too
Once I’ve made the list above, I’ll pick a point or two and write a sentence or paragraph. For example:
“Public health experts say a vaccine, combined with good hand hygiene, is the best way to protect you and your loved ones from catching the flu. Best of all, flu vaccines are free for employees.”
You can order the segments later, and once you start writing, you’ll likely see things falling into place.
Talk it out
Good writing is conversational, so think of how you’d tell the news to someone who knows nothing about the situation. For example, work is being done on the plumbing in your office building, and during that time, the facility will be close due to lack of water. So what do you want to tell staff?
“The office will be closed next Friday while crews work to repair a damaged pipe.”
You’ve got your start, now fill in the details.
Walk away (but not far away)
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but when struggling to come up with something, try walking away for a couple of minutes. Grab a drink of water, pop a letter in the mail, anything to clear your head.
Your turn. What do you do to overcome writer’s block?
Think about the changes an 80-year-old has seen. Growing up, the family’s primary sources of news and events were likely the daily newspaper and word-of-mouth from family and friends. Then came the telephone, radio, and television. That generation witnessed a shift in the methods and speed of communication greater than any group prior.
Now we have the internet, email, social media, smart phones, tablets, and apps that will do everything from paying bills to creating a talking Santa cartoon.
Staying in touch has never been easier — while being an effective communicator has become increasingly difficult.
The following tips will help increase the odds your audience will pay attention to your message:
Be clear and concise
Regardless of your field or message, your writing (or speaking) should be direct and to-the-point. If your readers have to look for key message, you’ve likely lost them. Make your point without lengthy introductions, then follow-up with details.
This is particularly critical when targeting younger generations that are accustomed to more direct communication.
Consider your audience
A NASA engineer speaking to her peers would likely use very different language than when addressing a group of high school students on the same topic. Ask yourself what you audience knows about the topic, how much detail is appropriate, and if they’ll understand terminology associated with the subject. If’ I’m chatting with another photographer, I might mention shooting an image with my 135mm at f2. However, if speaking my aunt, I’d simply say I adjusted the camera to blur the background out of focus.
Passion is a double-edge sword. It’s what makes you good at your job, but also makes effectively communicating about it much more challenging.
I’ll explain. You want to tell people about a project, and assume they’ll share your excitement. You begin to tell them the specifics of your work, and before you can know it, they’ve lost interest, either because they can’t follow the details or the story ran too long.
A programmer friend once told me a story about a project she was working on. As much as I tried to follow along, I was lost within 3 minutes. The story continued, with me struggling to keep up. It’s became jokingly known as the “Flat File Story.”
Be timely and time sensitive
Readers are incredibly busy, so you have to reach them where they want to hear the news, and then present it in a way that they’ll want to read/hear.
In my early years, we often drafted newsletter articles or messages from executives that were fairly long, and people seemed to read them. Now there’s great competition for readers’ attention, and you run the risk of losing them with a message that’s too jam-packed. And given the speed at which news travels, by the time you craft your detailed message, it might be old or outdated.
Follow Twitter’s lead
Twitter, with its 140 character limit, provides a great exercise in good writing. It forces you to be direct, clear, and concise. Give it a try.
Your turn. How do you reach your audience?
While the food was heavier (think deep fried pickles) and the pace a bit slower than what we’re use to in the Northeast, the courtesy of the people lived up to its reputation.
People at nearly every turn and every venue, from Atlanta Braves staff to passengers on public transportation, were exceedingly polite to this visitor, with extra helpings of Sir and Thank you. After a few days, I began to think my humble Thank You was insufficient, and started adding a Ma’am or Sir.
The South certainly doesn’t have an exclusive on courtesy — I’ve seen shop owners in New York City go far out of their way to help a tourist — but in terms of consistency, the South gets my vote.
I wonder if the common denominator is that Southerners see people as fellow human beings, while those in the fast-pace, always-on-the-go Northeast see coworkers, vendors, and customers. Either way, it speaks to the power of culture, and its impact on the smallest of interactions.
Your turn. What differences have you seen among cultures or regions?
You’re sitting at your computer (or on the couch with your iPad), ready to start work on a long overdue memo, upcoming speech, or new Facebook post. You’ve got a pretty good idea of what you want to say, and start to type the first letter …
Like the song says, Stop right there …
Before you begin, ask yourself the following questions. Your end product will be better for the extra 2 – 3 minute you take to ponder:
Who is your audience?
What do they already know — and need to know? Is the topic important to them? Are they friendly, hostile, or neutral? In an earlier blog I stressed the importance of speaking to your audience, not at them. While you may be passionate about the topic, it’s wise to consider potential disinterest, perhaps resistance. Let’s say, for example, you have an update of a new, unpopular policy. Remember to show empathy for staff, acknowledging that the change may be difficult.
What is the best vehicle to reach your audience?
Too often we put the cart before the horse and choose a vehicle before deciding on the message or defining the audience. Before settling on a vehicle, look at your options — email, video, team meetings, posters, face-to-face conversations, etc. — and then decide which will be the most effective, given your audience and the message. Remember, the best option is often a combination of vehicles.
What are your key messages?
Your message should be clear, concise, and obvious. Too often, important messages are buried in the fourth paragraph (or closing remarks), and skimmed past by busy or distracted readers. I generally advise people to make their most important points upfront, then support or build on them. Think back to the terrible bombings at the Boston Marathon. Nearly every communication started the same way: Two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Simple, direct, and clear. Details and background followed.
Your turn. What do you think about before beginining a communication?