And this is coming from one of the most loving and empathetic people I know (that’s me – yes, I’m saying nice things about myself. And?)
I’ve believed since I was a teenager that I’m on this earth to love. Empathy is one of my superpowers. I was raised in a family who are incredibly skilled and generous with expressions of love.
But. People are still frikn irritating.
I road rage a bit more than I should. I roll my eyes at people too easily. I’m certainly intolerant with my children fairly regularly.
Now that we’ve established the fact that I’m human and imperfect, I have some advice.
Every day in training rooms, my first task is to connect with every person in the room. I believe they can learn better, I can teach better, and we’ll have a more positive experience if we’ve found some way to break down some barriers and feel a bit connected. It’s the purpose of icebreakers (I just puked in my mouth a little bit). It’s just that icebreakers get used badly so most of us hate them.
In every group, there are always 1 or 2 people I have to try a bit harder with. You know those ones you just don’t gel with? Maybe they have a resting bitch face. Or maybe they don’t laugh at your jokes. Or maybe they only give one-word answers or don’t make eye contact. Whatever it is.
To connect, share
The only way I know to get past that is to keep going until I can find a commonality. To find things in common we have to share stuff. If I want people to share stuff, I have to go first. So I’m an oversharer in a training room. Consciously. Purposefully.
You’ll find out that my moko kauae is still fairly new. That I have grandchildren – holy f*ck – and I’m still surprised by that. You’ll find out I live in Hamilton and that we were once the chlamydia capital of New Zealand.
I talk. I share. Until people start to see I’m just human. A bit of a weirdo. Until they see I might have some things about me that are like them.
Then, ask questions
Then I need to ask enough meaningful open-ended questions to give people a chance to share useful stuff with me.
Commonalities we might find:
things we hate
activities we love
embarrassing experiences we can relate to
schools, towns, countries, trips
If you can connect at a values level, there’s no looking back
The more we talk, the more we share, we inevitably find that we share values. And once you’ve discovered that? Those other difference seem less significant.
You wear a hijab and I wear a moko kauae. Different, right? But both expressions of our identity and the things we believe in. We’re both committed enough to what we believe in to wear it on the outside. To make our beliefs visible in a crowd.
And all of a sudden?
We’re the same. Deep down.
If you want to connect with people, you need to find things in common. Things that build a connection. Do you have a neighbour who pisses you off? Find some things in common. Things you can build on. Connections that will outweigh the irritants. Got a co-worker you want to throat punch? Find commonalities. One of your children who just keeps rubbing you the wrong way? Build on the things you can find in common.
I could use structure in an email to someone I work with, but not to a stranger
I could use structure in an email to a stranger, but not to someone I work with
I couldn’t put a pleasantry in an email to someone I’ve never met before
I’d never write an email to someone I’ve never met before without a pleasantry at the beginning
So here’s what you need to know:
Tone is incredibly subjective
Like, completely subjective. We each feel quite confident when we’re writing, that we’re being polite, or warm, or assertive, or respectful.
And then there’s your reader. Who receives your message based on their history, their own perceptions of the meaning and tone of words, and also their current mood. NONE OF WHICH YOU CAN CHANGE.
We need to mitigate the likelihood of being misinterpreted
There are no guarantees when it comes to writing, because we’re writing to humans, and because language is subjective. But we can stack the odds in our favour. We can write in a way that is both fast, efficient, and less likely to allow the reader to hear an unfavourable tone.
To do that, we need to know 4 things:
1. There’s no such thing as a neutral tone
The absence of warmth doesn’t equal neutral. It equals rude. The absence of pleasantry, friendliness, signs that you’re an actual human, doesn’t create a matter-of-fact tone. It creates abruptness, and opens the door for your reader to decide you’re an asshole – especially if they’re having a bad day.
2. A simple smiley or sad face can help
Emojis are not going anywhere, my friends. Love them or hate them, we can‘t dispute that a simple smiley can lessen the likelihood that a statement comes across as snarky 🙂. Or a sad face makes it less likely that an apology comes across as insincere 🙁.
Will you find some people in business who think that’s unprofessional? Yes. In my experience, about 0.2%. But unless you’re positive you’re dealing with one of those 0.2% (with REAL EVIDENCE to back that up), wouldn’t it make more sense to assume you’re writing to one of the 99.8%?
The written English language is subjective and limited in its ability to express the subtleties of tone. Every little thing we can do to mitigate that is a win!
3. Narrative is risky
Ever heard of emotional leakage? Sounds messy. And it is. When you write in a narrative form, ie sentences and paragraphs, it’s easier for 2 things to happen:
your emotions leak through
your reader thinks they can feel your emotions leaking through
Hence, emotional leakage.
So what’s the alternative? How do we mitigate that? Structure!
4. Structure mitigates the risks around tone
Structure is your best friend in an email. Here’s what it does:
gets your thinking clearer
makes it easier for your reader to skim read
makes your writing more matter-of-fact, less narrative, thereby reducing the likelihood of emotional leakage
makes you look like a badass efficiency freak who everyone wants to work with
When I first started writing professionally I felt really confident in my writing abilities. I’d already been a writer with a masters in creative writing for almost 20 years. I’d published, edited, and taught writing at high schools, universities, and on an international academic stage. I was ready.
So it surprised me just how much editing feedback I got from clients. On one hand, I thought I’d done a good job finding just the right words and weaving and sculpting them in just the right way. On the other hand, my ego thought they should defer a little more to my professional expertise (*roll eyes here*).
In some client organisations, I’d get feedback from 10 or 20 people, much of it contradictory. Faaark.
I’d spend hours sculpting and polishing after the initial drafts. My confidence started to waver. Why couldn’t I get it right?
Well, I gotta tell you, that didn’t last long. I started sculpting and polishing less and less. Each time I’d write and submit work to a client, I’d invest a little less time to that last, wordsmithing stage.
And guess what? I still got the same amount of feedback. EXACTLY. THE. SAME.
You know why?
Language is subjective. Humans are fickle. We’re individuals. With our own experiences, biases, perceptions, values, all of it.
What that means for you and me when we write?
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT.
YOU CAN’T PLEASE EVERYONE.
No matter how much time I spend trying to find the perfect word or shimmery turn of phrase, someone will think there’s a different way to say it. They’ll think there’s a better way to say it.
Write purposefully, planned, and with a strong lens for clarity and your reader’s needs. Follow that with a strong plain language edit and a final proofread. Any minutes and hours you spend beyond that are likely to give you a low (if any) return on your investment of time and effort.
You can’t please everyone. Write what works for the majority, know people will always have ideas about alternative ways to say/write it, and move on. You’ve got plenty on your to-do list, right?
I got mansplained recently, in the most belittling of ways which quickly devolved to mockery and insults when I called him out on it. (In truth, I hurled the first insult.)
He was a PhD student from the local university, social media tells me. He emailed me to tell me about an ‘error’ he had found on my website.
When you put a lot of content out into the universe, people let you know when they find an error. I’m always incredibly grateful and have been known to send off a free book as a thank you.
But this. This was not a friendly Hey, I think I found an error. This was a gloating, condescending, 4-paragraph grammar lesson which was, of course, completely unnecessary. So I told him so. And suggested in future he might approach such a find in a gentler, more diplomatic way, maybe even asking if perhaps it was a mistake rather than assuming he was right and knew better than me. Then I called him an asshat.
What it left me reflecting on was language purists. The prescriptive vs descriptive grammar debate.
In my trainings this is a topic that invariably comes up – because, when teaching the principles of plain language, we have to understand the difference between rules and conventions. In my definition:
Rules = practices that impact on meaning
Conventions = practices we’ve been taught are rules, but don’t affect meaning – they’re just things we got told were right and wrong.
The discussion comes up when we talk about starting a sentence with And or But. Or when we cover the Oxford comma. And someone says, Hey. When does it all end? Do we just give up on the English language and let it all go to hell and communicate through text speak and emojis?
That’s when I explain, well, language has always changed, evolved. And it does that based on usage, not on the rules or edicts of prescriptive grammarians.
Look at Old English. The Middle English. The Shakespeare’s English – which is classed as Modern English but clearly isn’t the English we speak today, duh.
Look. At. How. It. Changes.
I explain that it’s up to each of us to decide where (and if) we draw a line. Are you willing to accept that language changes, that English is and always has been an evolving language, or are you going to stamp your feet and pout and say that what you learned in school is truth, the end, and refuse to accept anything else?
I tell you, if you do that you’ll spend your life telling everyone else they’re wrong and reminding yourself how clever you are for knowing better than the entire universe.
The choice really is up to you. It’s clear where I stand. I’m willing to let go of all kinds of conventions – I only follow what helps readers understand and process information faster. That’s who I’m writing for – not me.
Dear language purist,
You and my PhD misogynist friend should go have a party all by yourselves.
In PR we know what makes a successful apology and what doesn’t. SUCCESSFUL APOLOGY = a conversational, human approach:
Hi ShellyWe’re sorry we got the date wrong for setting up the internet at your new home. We know that was really inconvenient.Thanks for letting us know about the mistake so we could fix it. We’ll do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.Thanks,Your Favourite Internet Provider
UNSUCCESSFUL APOLOGY = the traditional, formal business voice
Dear valued customerIt is with regret that we write to express our apologies for the recent error.There was an unavoidable disruption within our system due to a service upgrade. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.SincerelyJust Another Nameless Faceless Internet Provider
I imagine you would struggle to think of the last time you were happy to read something written in that voice. And I’m not just talking about apologies. So I want to say this to you:
The formal business voice is DEAD.
There is no longer ANY place for it in business today. I cannot find a single situation where the formal voice is helpful. Oh no wait, that’s not true. There is one time: If you want to threaten, use the formal voice. “Should the undersigned not comply with the aforementioned conditions, immediate remedial action will be undertaken.” If you want to alienate and intimidate and put the fear of god (or the courts) into someone, use the formal voice. If you want to achieve almost anything else on the planet, use a conversational voice.
I imagine that so far you’re reading and thinking, well duh, that’s obvious.
But here’s something I’ve learned through training thousands of people to write better in business contexts: Our writer selves don’t know what our reader selves do. You know good writing. When you read (at work) you want clear, straight to the point, no fluff, no mucking around. But when you sit down to write, a completely different set of knowings takes over, and we completely forget what we know as readers (or we think we’re different. Special. Unusual because we want those things. We’re not – sorry ‘bout it. Everyone wants concise, clear, direct writing). Our writer-selves believe:
there are unbreakable rules for good writing at work (and we learned them at school/university)
we’ll sound unprofessional (or unintelligent) if our writing is too casual
the examples of bad writing that we see all around us (that we HATE to read) are what’s expected of us in a business setting, period
Are you scared?
You wouldn’t be alone. I may have just shaken your foundations. Alan Siegel, who’s known internationally for his work simplifying legal documents (while retaining all their legal power), describes what he does as “a means to achieving clarity, transparency, and empathy – building humanity into communications.” I LOVE THAT because right there is my issue with the formal business voice and why I say it’s DEAD: The formal business voice removes the humanity. It takes out the people. It takes out the you, we, us and switches to third person – the client, the user. It removes ownership and accountability and instead just talks about things “happening”, like: Mistakes were made. [isn’t that wonderful? They just happened. No one is to blame.] It is recommended. [By whom? The universe?]
Don’t believe me?
People have been researching this stuff for decades. And we know that a simple, conversational voice is far more successful when compared to the formal voice:
It’s easier to understand
It’s more engaging
It deescalates situations rather than escalating them (the formal voice sounds pompous and the last thing you want when tensions are high is to sound pompous – cos that helps. )
Still don’t believe me?
Think about brands you love.
Think about how they write to you – by email, in agreements, terms and conditions, on the web. They have a conversation with you. They don’t talk down to you. And you know what? If THEY can use a conversational, everyday voice and drop the formality in their business writing, SO CAN YOU. The formal business voice is DEAD. It’s old, shrivelled, fossilised. You’re not! So write like a human. Preferably a live one.