So when did jeans become appropriate business wear?
I was training at Air New Zealand a few years ago and I walked down a corridor behind two senior pilots. They were wearing dress shoes, business shirts, and jeans. And it dawned on me, all things change.
At some point, jeans became appropriate business wear.
I wonder when that change happened? I wonder what the process was? I wonder how rebellious that first man wearing jeans to work felt, and how much shit he got about it?
I wonder how strongly he just didn’t give a fuck anymore because he realised that his pants didn’t affect his ability to do his job well.
I wonder about this because, #plainlanguage.
Plain language and change
People ask me all the time, when did plain language become acceptable? Appropriate? How come we’re still resistant to it?
Why did we ever even write formally? What will people think if I use plain language?
I have so many answers to these questions. So many thoughts. Lots of educated opinions, assumptions based on experience, and conclusions supported by research.
But for me the most important thing is to draw the parallel:
Yes, once upon a time, jeans were considered UNPROFESSIONAL. Yes, once upon a time, a more personal, conversational voice was considered UNPROFESSIONAL.
All things change, my friends.
Plain language is EVERYWHERE
Take a look around you.
Plain language really is everywhere (as are jeans at work).
It’s in the emails you get from your utilities providers, your insurance company, your airline.
It’s in the terms and conditions you’re signing (if you’re lucky).
It’s in government communications and forms and systems.
Where it isn’t, necessarily, is in your own business documents and communications.
Because there’s a preponderance (*not a plain language term but I just like it, ya know?) of examples of old-fashioned, overly-formal, ineffective documents in most workplaces.
And because, when things are in writing, we think they’re set in stone.
And because, that first time you need to write a report, what do you do? You go find one that’s been written before, and you emulate it.
Before your first day at work, you look at what others are wearing to work, and you emulate it.
The very practical part of me is cringing as I write this.
Do we really need to have a discussion about whether it’s better to email or phone? Is this really a question we need to ask?
IT JUST SEEMS SO FREAKING OBVIOUS!
It is a question I get asked often in trainings, so here are a few things to consider.
When to email and when to pick up the phone
Is the person likely to be available right now?
If it’s office hours and they spend a lot of time in the office, there’s a good chance they’ll be available, and a phone call might be the best option. If you have reason to believe they’re out of the office or away from their desk, email might be better.
Or how about this – try to give them a quick call, and if you have no joy, THEN flick them an email. Problem solved. You don’t have to be a mind-reader.
Will their answer to your first question determine the rest of the direction of the conversation?
Then a phone call is likely to save you huge amounts of time.
Often a 3-minute phone call can replace literally hours of regular to-ing and fro-ing of stilted email conversation.
Be efficient, people!
Is there a chance someone might misread/misinterpret/take offence?
Then pick up that phone.
This is one of the most important times NOT to use email.
It’s also a situation when you probably need a written record of the conversation, but this can and should probably happen AFTER the verbal conversation. Read more on that below.
Is it a simple question but the response might take a while to explain in writing and that might lead to follow up questions?
Then pick up the phone.
You’re much more likely to have a complete conversation in one go rather than dragging it out over hours or days.
Are you a slow writer?
Then pick up the phone.
That’s just smart.
Is this person more likely to call you or email you?
Take their lead.
If they regularly call you, you should take that as an indication that it’s their preference, and just call.
If they’re a more regular emailer, they might be more introverted and more comfortable with email. Or they might just think that’s more appropriate – you could call them once and see how it goes.
Get a sense of their comfort level with that approach, or even—hold onto your hats—you could ASK them what their preference is!
How many people need to be part of this discussion?
If it’s more than 1, email is probably better.
Although if it’s 2 or 3 people, and it’s a tricky conversation, you could consider calling each one, then following up with a group email to confirm the outcomes of the conversations.
Do you need a (digital) paper trail?
We often do. But that shouldn’t mean we rule out the possibility of a phone call.
If we need something on record, that might mean there’s some tension or sensitivity around the subject. Which therefore means it’s better navigated verbally, through 2-way conversation that can have instant, responsive interaction – email doesn’t have that ability.
So pick up the phone. Have the conversation. And then follow up with a clear, relaxed, structured email to create the record.
(I do have some very important advice around how to write that email so you don’t shoot yourself in the foot. More on that here)
An almost last thought
If you try calling and don’t get through, but you still think a phone call is going to save time, how about shooting through an email that just asks them to give you a quick call?
Yes, you CAN do that.
What if I get it wrong?
Guys, there just isn’t a right and wrong here.
I think that’s what people are worried about – what if I get it wrong?
Well, I think that’s called being human. We can only do our best. And mistakes are part of life.
Pause, think through some of the considerations above, and then do the damn thing whichever way feels best. You’ve got shit to do.
I think most of us are smart people. We know that lots of things are best done in person or over the phone rather than through an email conversation.
Things like getting something sorted when there’s confusion or tension or differing opinions or an issue to resolve, for example.
BUT, we also usually want a record of that discussion, so we do the “conversation follow up email.”
And that’s where we fuck things up.
Where do we go wrong?
You see, in conversation, we soften.
We use our natural, conversational voices, and we more naturally choose words that don’t inflame.
BUT. Sit down to write that email, turn on your writer switch and with it a level of formality you probably feel the conversation requires, and all of a sudden you’re doing damage to a situation you had just successfully resolved in person.
Let’s play this through
You’re a manager.
Your team is having some challenges with the way another team is providing information to them. You call the other manager. You know there’s a chance they’ll get defensive, and so you have a careful conversation, and voila – issues addressed, decisions made – resolved.
Now, the conversation follow up email, with your boss (who’s also Karen’s boss) cc’d.
There’s nothing inherently WRONG with that email. The words are not, on the surface, offensive words, But without the ease and reassurance of a conversational voice, it could absolutely cause you problems.
Revive the tension that had dissipated during the phone call or conversation
Undermine the way you navigated the tension in the conversation
Lead Karen to think your record of events puts her team in a bad light, and have her feel she needs to correct the record or save face somehow.
1. Make sure every word is a word you would say face to face or in a phone conversation. If you’d say hi, write hi, not hello. If you’d say thanks, write thanks, not kind regards.
2. Have a line before you get into the guts of the email that is a human acknowledgement of that conversation. Thanks for your time on the phone. Great to talk to you. Thanks for helping me get that sorted. Thanks for making some decisions about X.
3. Now use headings for the chunks of info you need recorded. Some headings could be:
5. Now insert a line at the end that allows the other person to safely come back with a correction or addition without being argumentative: If I missed anything or got something wrong, just let me know!
6. Wrap it up warmly with a thanks or a talk soon or a have a great day, and BOOM.
That’s it from your friendly #RockstarWriter today.
Psst! If you’re really looking to end the email torture forever, I can help!
What if I told you that there is actually a simple, incredibly fast formula to writing an email, and it’s actually proven to get faster replies, increased buy-in and approvals, and make you look incredibly professional, confident, and efficient?
Well, there is. And it uses: – neuroscience to influence how the reader processes your message, and psychology to leverage on how we know readers behave at work. You could sit down right now for ONE HOUR and learn how to use it and never look back!
I know you think there are things you have to tell your reader so they’ll understand the findings, or the recommendations, or the actions, or whatever, but the simple fact is, they’ll skim/skip/ignore anything until their questions are answered.
GIVE them the answers to their questions first, and then TRUST that they’ll read the rest of the document so they can understand the justification for those answers.
Also, see point 3.
3. They WON’T read that email/report/proposal like a novel, from beginning to end – they’ll jump around.
Make the document easy to navigate at a glance.
You want to renovate your kitchen. You get 3 quotes/proposals. Do you read ANY of the words/pages/sales pitch before you find the quoted price?
Ah – NO.
You skip everything until you find the price.
If you think you have to write a document in a certain order so the reader will read it in a certain order, you’re mistaken. #sorrynotsorry
No matter how much you want to believe that your reader will read 10 pages about the experience and values of your company and the quality methods and materials you’ll use and why they should pick you over your competitors, no one – AND I MEAN NO-ONE – will read any of that until they’ve found the price of your quote.
When reading for pleasure, sure, we’ll read from page 1 and work our way through.
When reading in business, we simply don’t.
So like I said in point 2, answer the reader’s questions first.
And the discussions around apologies and saying sorry are, well… rigorous!
If you’re one of those people who has a strong position on simply never saying sorry, you might want to stop reading because SPOILER ALERT:
This post is about how and why I believe you should.
Saying sorry is a bigger philosophical discussion than just in terms of writing
I just want to acknowledge that, and let you know this
post is about using the word sorry in your emails. That larger philosophical
discussion needs to happen somewhere else, and your company’s lawyers might
want to weigh in on it.
I guess there’s some belief that saying sorry is somehow admitting legal responsibility or culpability. I can’t credibly speak to that, but I can say that if there’s legal risk in saying sorry, I can live with it. Out of the millions of times in my life I’ve used the word sorry, there’s a high percentage of times when it helped me reach a good outcome, and absolutely zero times I’ve got myself into legal hot water. I’m happy to continue carrying that level of risk.
Using SORRY when apologising by email
It’s pretty simple. Read these out loud:
I apologise for XYZ.
I’m really sorry for XYZ.
Now I’m not asking you to read those out loud with your writer switch turned on and ask yourself which one sounds more “professional” when you imagine yourself writing it.
We apologise for any
inconvenience this may have caused. #killmenow
We know this was really
inconvenient. We’re sorry.
Put simply, if you need to apologise in writing, you should use the word SORRY. It’s helpful.
Using SORRY as a conversational word in your emails
There’s a school of thought that says people (especially
women) should have stronger, more assertive (more ‘traditionally masculine’?)
voices in the workplace, and so they shouldn’t soften with words like just
(And holy fuck if you read that and equate feminine energy and power with sexuality and assume I’m promoting women using sexuality as leverage, you and me need to TALK. Plus, I just wrote you and me, not you and I. Ahuh.)
And so if I consciously CHOOSE to soften my messages, as a
diplomatic and strategic and generous way of achieving an outcome, I will.
Empathy is one of my superpowers (didn’t you feel it oozing
out through that fuck you just then?).
I can put myself in someone else’s shoes and imagine how it would feel to receive that message with the sorry, and again without the sorry. If I believe the sorry is going to feel better for them, I’m likely to use it.
So, after all my rants, so what?
Fuck the words –
If you need to apologise in writing, use the words you’d say out loud.
If you have to apologise face to face in the media, don’t
read a written apology. Those are shite.
Trust that things you would say to people’s faces will
translate best into the written word.
If you’re really looking to end the email torture forever, I can help!
What if I told you that there is actually a simple, incredibly fast formula to writing an email, and it’s actually proven to get faster replies, increased buy-in and approvals, and make you look incredibly professional, confident, and efficient? Well, there is.
And it uses: – neuroscience to influence how the reader processes your message, and psychology to leverage on how we know readers behave at work.
What if I said you could sit down right now for ONE HOUR and learn how to use it and never look back? Less-chasing. Fewer games of email tennis. Significant amounts of time saved. Significant increases in productivity.
And that’s not clickbait. Writing saves lives. Actual lives.
So when accountants bring me in and call my work a soft skill, that fucks me off.
But anyway… that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
I’m here to talk about my growing list of names of people whose lives my writing has saved. And how you can do the same.
Last year I overheard a conversation about someone’s toddler with severe asthma. They listed a number of incidents where the toddler was in life-threatening situations because they lived too far away from hospital and even an ambulance. They’d had to drive to meet the ambulance on the side of the road a number of times, because waiting could have been fatal.
Every one of those incidents was a situation that could be resolved with a nebuliser in their home.
If they had that, they wouldn’t have needed the hospital or the ambulance. But they had asked their GP multiple times if one would be provided. He had said no.
Enter: your friendly badass rockstar writer.
The power of written records
I knew that
when things are in writing, on record, it’s much harder to say no.
I knew that if you need to advocate for yourself in the medical system, that there’s a powerful approach you can use (thanks, Twitter):
ask for a test or an assessment or a medication or a treatment and the GP says
no, ask them to put your request and their denial of that request on your file.
It means that if, somewhere down the line, it turns out that you were right to make that request and the GP made a wrong call, there’s a record of that. That’s risky for your doctor. It doesn’t look good.
So, often, you asking for that will make them change their mind. Not always. It’s not a guarantee. But if you do it when you need to, then when and if you need it you have evidence to show:
how you’ve been advocating for your
own wellbeing, and
how the system has been responding.
I whipped up a document
So if we go back to the toddler and her asthma, I whipped up a document. I think it took me 17 minutes.
The document was a template which put the family’s request for a nebuliser IN WRITING, and listed recent incidents as evidence to support that request.
The family took the document to the doctor, and HELLO, nebuliser in the home.
Just like that. After months and months of distress and worry.
The document was simple. It was SO FAST for me to throw together.
And so started the actual list of lives my writing has saved.
My list is growing
This week I
added one of my daughters’ names to that list.
I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve written in the last 2 weeks, cc’ing in the universe, to push back against systems that aren’t providing her with the care she needs.
It has been a battle, I tell you.
But every email I’ve written, every time I’ve hit send, I’ve increased the power of my voice in advocating for her.
I’ve created an evidence trail of what’s been happening, what she needs, and HELD THE PEOPLE AND ORGANISATIONS ACCOUNTABLE.
But at the
end of a long day where I’ve added 14 powerful emails to the paper trail
and my daughter is still alive and is the safest she’s been in months, I wanted
to tell you.
Don’t forget that writing saves lives.
A word of caution
kind of writing to be as powerful as possible, you need it to be sharp. And
when I say sharp, I mean: