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Why messaging is bad for relations

Updated: Dec 18, 2021

Today, I typed 'Excellent!' and clicked send. This was in response to a colleague's email. She was sending me her daily update, on the progress of some equipment changes at work. I was really pleased with what was happening, and I wanted to acknowledge that before I fell into yet another online meeting that sapped some more quality time away from my day.

It wasn’t until later that day when the colleague and I spoke on the phone, I realised my brief email had probably created more questions than answers. I had broken my own rules of engagement, and not followed my own email principles.

Therefore, our electronic dalliance left her wondering whether I was less than satisfied with some aspect of her progress. Our phone call quickly cleared the air, but it left me rethinking how I approach my emails. It also left me thinking how much is lost in the lack of emotion that can be displayed in any form of written message.

This miscommunication is not limited to email by the way - any form of written communication is susceptible to these same criticisms. Certainly, any instant messaging where brain cells are optional before pressing send. I vividly remember texting my son, telling him I was out and that there was food in the fridge. The reply was 'k'... I thought he had simply sat on his phone and sent in error, but no. Apparently, in some language I don't understand, this means 'Ok'... I was confused by this reponse, so then phoned him to make sure he had got my message - and he told me, 'yes, I have replied'... After listening to the explanation of the whole 'k' thing, I politely explained that texts were not charged by the letter, and that we speak and write in English 'not fucking gibberish'. Communication issues though have been going on for years - in the eighties, I heard a story of a man who went on holiday to the Bahamas with a friend. Whilst there he sent his Girlfriend a postcard every day, with one word on each card. The message he sent was this: 'Found this virgin paradise, it's yours, Matthew'... But absolutely you know that wasn't the message she got, because once air freight had had the cards, and the postman had shuffled up the days, the message delivered was 'Found this virgin, it's paradise, yours Matthew' - same words, completely different message received. How true that story is, I don't know, but its a great anecdote, and makes a point.

So, In summary, I would say it is always best to make a phone call. That doesn't always fit with time, nor does it give a reference point to go back to. My one word response may have qualified the time element, but as for giving a reference point - I would say if you have to decipher a message, the message isn't clear. In any form of business, clear and concise messaging, that drives the required response, has to be the aim, doesn't it?


I mean seriously, this is gibberish, right?

Since technology allowed it, Email writing has always been a balancing act, from striking the right tone to hitting the sweet spot in terms of length. But these days, crafting good emails demands more attention than ever. For many of us, the usual in-person interactions with colleagues are either gone or drastically less frequent, creating more potential for confusion and misinterpretation. It appears that 'reading carefully' is the new listening, and 'writing clearly' is the new empathy.

With this in mind, I decided to create some tips for messaging in the World of 'English Gibberish', instant messaging and email being the new normal.

1. Express empathy In the times before we became overtly aware of our emotional clocks, it wasn’t unusual to read a formal work email with no hint of human emotion. Nowadays though, we have moved to a more sensitive place. The need to give and receive a little empathy is crucial for connecting via email. To pretend that things are humming along, as usual, might come over as callous or tone-deaf. The language we use is critical to signal a sympathetic tone and to establish a rapport, from the get go. Now that requires putting extra thought into messaging, to everyone from bosses and colleagues, to customers, clients and partners. A line of honest vulnerability can go a long way toward strengthening all of those relationships.

How personal you want to get in each message, of course, depends on your relationship with the recipient. But even something so minor as acknowledging a difficult or stressful situation can go a long way toward assuring the recipient that there’s a caring human on the other end of that tough message.

2. Be brief — but not too brief Today, it’s common knowledge that no one wants to receive a novel of an email. Messages that are too wordy run the risk of the reader skimming over them or worse, failing to read them at all. What’s more, around 47% percent of all emails are now opened on mobile devices, which makes brevity even more critical.

According to one study, emails that are short, but not too short (75–100 words) had the highest rate of response. A good rule of thumb is to limit your emails to 150 words or less, and if that’s not feasible, consider breaking the message up into separate emails by topic.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s also such a thing as being too brief — you know the scene, the quick, “OK,” or a terse, “Got it.”, we talked about this in the opening paragraphs. Brevity may make a person appear or even feel more important, but it can also hurt your team and your business. Getting a slapdash email means that the recipient has to spend time deciphering what it means, causing delays and potentially leading to costly mistakes.

Before you fire off an email, take a moment to re-read and consider whether your email could cause misinterpretation or if it fails to transmit any actual information. If you’re in a hurry and need time to prepare a proper response but want to say something, you can acknowledge your receipt and indicate a more fleshed-out reply is coming soon.

In a world where email is increasingly the most essential form of communication, no message should be sent haphazardly.

The last thing any leader wants is a pissed off employee phoning up in an incandescent rage shouting 'what did you mean by that?'

3. Don’t bury the importance Nothing frustrates a busy person, no matter how senior, more than taking the time to read an email and having no idea what to do with it. So, how about we preemptively eliminate any doubts over the goal of your email, spell it out explicitly - upfront. Using techniques from the military, where clear messages can literally be lifesaving. In the military, it is recommended to use subject line keywords that characterise the nature of the message in CAPS, so the recipient immediately recognizes the purpose of your email. For example: ACTION, SIGN, RETURN, or DECISION. At the end of the day, and no matter how important we think our jobs are - the messages these people send, are literally life and death, so maybe we should listen to their common practices?

4. Make sure theres a takeaway

Towards the end of the message, apply a technique that’s standard practice for marketing pros: include a bold CTA or “call to action.” It’s the part that describes exactly what you’d like the recipient to do — preparing a memo, researching a point, returning the data on time etc. If there are multiple recipients, use a simple @ to indicate which instruction is for whom.

In the new normal, where business relies on emails more than ever, a clear takeaway is like a gift to your recipient’s tired eyes. Even if that takeaway is personal good wishes.

5. Take care with the sign-off I think every professional has had a moment when unsure how to sign off, they type a quick “Best,” and hit send. While that may have sufficed in the past, more successful communicators take the extra few moments to dig a little deeper.

By adjusting our greetings and sign-offs, we effectively adjust our social relationships. The way we start and end emails has become a way to establish how we want to relate to the person we’re writing to, in terms of formality, status, and familiarity.

There’s no hard and fast rule for how to sign off. According to one marketing pro, some good options include “May the odds be in your favour” and “Stay safe and sane” — sentiments with a touch of originality and a sense of goodwill and optimism. While humour may be appreciated if you’re close with the recipient, we should stay away from humour if we don't know somebody that well. You never know how things will land. If all else fails, a kind and genuine sentiment, like “Hope you’re hanging in there,” might do the trick.

Lastly consider your name, for my closest team, I will use my initial 'M' to sign off, when the email is light and requiring little thought, and I will use Martin for more formal use. I always use Martin if I am communicating outside my trusted inner circle. This approach is unlike some people who only ever use an initial, in a hope it makes them appear busy and important.

In conclusion, and while there are no write (sic) and wrong answers, a touch of extra effort will go a long way toward improving both your emails, your messaging and your relationship with the recipient.

I call this insanely common sense approach 'Working on Purpose'...


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