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The Worst Form of Communication

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


The worst form of communication, bar none, is email.

SMS is shorter and quicker, so you would think there would be more scope for misunderstandings, but I don’t. Because when you receive a text message, you know it was sent quickly and you do not expect great levels of care and precision. You expect terseness and you forgive mistakes and careless phrases.

Email is different and the problem is asymmetry: when we send emails we often dash them off, thinking of them as a quick and easy way to get a simple message across – less formal than a report, a letter or even a memo.

Yet, when we receive an email, we are not easily accepting of carelessness and poor wording. We readily take offense at a perceived slight, assuming it was intended or, at best an unintended sign of unwarranted slapdashery.

Consequently, emails cause a lot of unwanted responses from readers who get upset, angry and frustrated.

Remember this: we hardly ever write memos or letters now.

  • So if you are using email as a memo replacement; write it as if you were writing a memo – with just as much care.
  • And if you are using email as a letter replacement; write it as if you were writing a letter – with great care and attention.

Good business email etiquette and practice

Email

Courtesies

  1. Open with a polite salutation. Choose the right level of formality for the situation.
  2. Get their name right.
  3. Plenty of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ will really help.
  4. Close with a suitable thank you, best wishes, regards or yours sincerely.
  5. Include all means of contacting you in your signature and enough information for your reader to identify you, if your name is not likely to come readily to their mind.

Style

  1. Make your subject line count. A good subject line will help readers to properly prioritise your email. A starter like For Action, or Decision please, or Deadline Monday 24 June will alert readers to their need to act.
  2. Keep your messages as short as possible – but never so brief as to seem curt or terse – worse still, if it is too short, it may be misinterpreted by your reader.
  3. Use capital letters only if you want to SHOUT. Be equally sparing with fancy fonts and fantastic colours. Choose a simple style that works well in plain text too.
  4. Grammar, sentences and punctuation are just as important in emails as in letters and reports.
  5. If you want action, be clear about your request.
  6. Numbered points, short paragraphs and headings all make an email easier to read.

Send to…

  1. Think carefully about who needs to get the message and who really will want a copy.  Avoid copies to everyone and cluttering up inboxes unnecessarily. Email unto others as you would wish them to email unto you.
  2. Keep spam, chain emails and unsavoury jokes to yourself. Only forward me something like that which you know I will want to read.

Before Sending

  1. Read it.  Try reading it out loud.
  2. Spell check it.
  3. Check the people it is addressed to are the people you intend will receive it.
  4. Check the attachments – and if they are big consider using a service like box.net.
  5. If it is contentious, angry or otherwise charged, save it for at least 12 hours before re-reading it and adjusting it.
  6. If it is very contentious, angry or otherwise charged, ask a trusted colleague to review it before you send it.

Further Reading 

The Writing Skills Pocketbook

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Report and Proposal Writing Still Matters

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


If only you could say everything in 140 characters… how easy some aspects of management life would become.

Sadly, you still need to be able to write clear and persuasive reports and proposals, so let’s examine the basics.  There are five.

Report Planning

Exercise: Getting Ready to Write

Plan your report or proposal by answering the questions in each of these five areas.

The Message

  • What does your reader want and need to know?
  • When your readers get to the end, what do you want them think that is different from when they start?
  • … and what do you want them to do?

The Structure

  • How will you introduce your report to give a reason to read it in the first place? Right at the start, you need to create tension.
  • How will you structure your report or proposal to keep them reading from start to finish? Your structure needs to be logical and flow, and needs to ask questions to motivate readers to read the next bit.
  • Think Dan Brown… What question can you leave in your readers’ minds at the end of each section?
  • How will you end your report or proposal? This needs to create a powerful urge in your reader to take action.

The Argument

  • What evidence will you present to your readers? What facts, figures, quotations, results will really convince?
  • How will you prepare and present that evidence to maximise its impact and minimise scope for misinterpretation?
  • How will your structure your arguments into a rational analysis?

The Punch

  • What new insights can you offer?
  • What difference does your report make?
  • How can you use the power of emotion to boost the impact of your message?
  • What is the ‘so what?’ of your report or proposal?
  • How will your readers benefit if they accept your recommendations or procure your products or services?

The Polish

  • How will you assure the quality of your work? Maybe someone else will read and review it for you; or maybe you will put it in a drawer for three days before re-reading it thoroughly.
  • What constitutes ‘good enough’? Before you start writing, list the criteria your finished report or proposal must satisfy before it is ready to go to your readers. Use this checklist rigorously after you have written the document.

 

Further Reading 

The Writing Skills Pocketbook

Blog: Ten Ways to Make your Writing Digestible

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Ten Ways to Make your Writing Digestible

Do you ever pick up a document and read it through and then think ‘what was that all about?’

When we learn to write at school our first sentences are very simple and then we progress to using more complex structures and an increasingly wide vocabulary. This trend can continue until we develop our writing style into something quite indigestible.

An Academic Style of Writing

In academic circles I think there is a tendency to write in a complex style and to dress up ideas to look as clever as possible. I saw a step change in my daughter’s writing as she moved from A level to university; her essays became more verbose, the language more complex and I had to concentrate harder to understand them! You can see why this style of writing becomes the norm if you think it will impress the tutors and gain you the best marks (and of course enable you to achieve your word count.)

Business is Different

In business we need to make our writing clear and focused in order to get the message across and achieve our objective. We need to strip off a few years of our education and get back to a simpler style. So how do we avoid the pitfalls of giving our readers indigestion?

Ten Tips

Here are ten tips to help your reader to read, understand and digest your message.

1. Define the purpose of your written communication and identify the readers and what they need from you.

2. Plan your document before you start writing.

3. Give your document a clear structure that will enable your reader to find the information they need. The structure is like a road map that helps your reader to navigate around easily. Different readers will want to read different parts of your document.

4. Use titles and headings to tell readers what is coming – this will enable them to relate this topic to existing or related knowledge and will increase absorption, understanding and retention of information. In a larger document a summary and an index help the reader find the parts he or she needs.

5. Give the most important information first. Most of us are very busy and may not read a whole document, so important messages need to be at the top of the text.

6. Break your document into digestible chunks. Section and paragraphs can be used to break up the text.

7. Bullet points are an excellent way of helping readers to take in key points.

8. Keep your sentences reasonably short – an average of 20 words. Varied length and structure help to make the writing interesting. With very long sentences the short term memory gets overloaded and by the time you reach the end of the sentence, you have forgotten what came at the beginning, so you have to re-read it.

9. Wherever possible write in the active voice – it gives your message more impact and makes it easier to absorb.

10. Use simple words and cut out redundant ones. Go through your text after you have written it and look out for words that can be eliminated.

Enjoy your writing!

A New Management Pocketbook for you to Enjoy

The Writing Skills Pocketbook, by Stella Collins and Beth Curl

This is a guest blog from Stella Collins and Beth Curl, authors of our newest Management Pocketbook, The Writing Skills Pocketbook.

The Writing Skills Pocketbook describes a 3-phase approach to planning, preparing and polishing written communications for the modern business world.

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