The written record of our work activities exists mostly in emails, texts, chats, and pings that we fire up from laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Speed is of the essence. Quite often, we write in clipped fragments in response to an already old thought.
More often than not, our telegraphed back-and-forths create additional confusion and add, rather than save, time to our busy schedules. So here are a few tricks I’ve learned. Some are for writing. Some for reading. All for better communication.
If you want to be understood avoid run-on sentences that include in one long stream the different points you want to make but rather think about your starting premise and use bullet points and highlight essential concepts with a bold or larger font or with a color anything that won’t make the reader gasp for air before the full stop—like this:
Who hasn’t received a forwarded email with “See below. Thoughts?” If the “below” is a simple, clear email, this economy of words is appropriate. If the “below” would need seven pages to print, you may want to consider starting with a summary like this:
Here are the basic points of the email trail below:
Cryptic questions lead to confusing answers.
Weather a chat, piNg, test, emaill, or ful-bodied xposition of you’re deapest toughts, its not cuul to make the reeder tryand figure our what your saying. Reed eat twize. Edit yours Elve.
Whatever it is, read it slowly, carefully, and fully. Then read it again. Scanning is not reading. We move so fast that we might focus on our assumptions rather than the text.
A first glance may look like this: “Johnny … extraordinary … $20,000.00 … raise.” But a careful read may reveal a different reality: “Johnny, that was an extraordinary screwup that cost the company $20,000.00 in overages and you your raise.”
A too-quick reply based on your first impression (with you perhaps thanking your parents, the Academy, the company’s leadership for their trust in your performance, etc.) would generate confusion and reflect poorly on you. Catch yourself speeding, and slow down.
Also, the top sentence is not the whole paragraph. Email providers allow a glimpse at the first few words, which are never the full picture. Make sure you’ve read the entire message.
Email title: Client meeting. Body’s top line: “Everyone liked the idea of showing up to the client meeting dressed in fuchsia…”
At the client meeting, Johnny, in matching shirt and pants of a color closer to mauve than fuchsia, wonders why his teammates are dressed in ordinary clothes and he’s the only monochrome. “But the email…” he mumbles.
Full body text of the email: “Everyone liked the idea of showing up to the client meeting dressed in fuchsia … but we quickly dismissed it as infantile. Plus the clients would be turned off.”
Sometimes a simple question requires a simple answer.
(A) What time is the meeting?
(B) 9:00 AM PST
However, though it may seem expedient in the moment to reply strictly to what’s asked, oftentimes this can quickly grow into a time drain.
This holds true for the presentation you’ve been asked to write, the call to the vendor to plan the photoshoot, and basically any single question anyone asks of you. Write, revise, and complete the presentation as if it were going from your screen to the client’s. Ask the vendor all the questions someone else will expect you to answer. If, in the process of your research, you receive an incomplete reply, don’t wait until someone else points this out to you.
If you put a little thought and time into it, you’ll save yourself and others a lot of spin—and your thoroughness is certain to impress.
(A) Is the meeting at the client’s or here?
(B) At the client’s in the Peninsula, DJ is driving. Meet us downstairs.
(A) Perfect. Thank you!
Following the tricks just mentioned tends to generate happy replies. People appreciate any little thing we do that contributes to an easier workday.
On the other hand, a half-baked answer, an unclear question, a reply that generates duplicate work, and a glaring typo are all guaranteed to annoy. We reply in a huff. Irritation shows. Now we are stuck in a longer process of clarifications, explanations, and apologies. Another time drain. And not a particularly good relationship-building tool.
I have found myself looking at an email reply that seems completely off the mark from what I asked. Why should my answer be rude when I can settle for passive aggressive? (“As I mentioned before, client LIKES fuchsia.”) Only to discover that maybe my question was convoluted, or that I had not mentioned the client’s favorite hue, or that I’d forwarded the wrong email trail.
New trick: backtrack. Think it through. Restate your purpose, clearly this time. (“Forgot to mention…” “Perfect. May I add another request…” “Thanks for the prompt reply. I’d like to make a change, though…”) Put a smile in your words and it will shine through. Now you are generating good will and people are happy to interact with you because you say please and thank you and you don’t lose your cool.
Additional trick: Always assume the other person’s best intentions. Are they new to the agency or to the account? Have you ever asked this type of question before? Could you have misled them? As soon as a well-known trio of angry letters starts to form in your mind, let it translate as “here’s another Wonderfully Talented Firewoodian trying to do their best.” Offer your help. Gain an ally.
In conclusion, talent, collaboration, and humility, in no particular order, are Firewood’s top marks of distinction, even on a Gmail ping. And never forget this adage: imagine you are the last person who’ll read this before it goes on CNN. Enough said.