- I invest a lot of time in writing them
- In general, people get too many emails, so the fact that mine stood out was pretty cool
- It could mean that my emails (or at least some of them) are achieving their intended purpose of communicating important information
When I think back to all my years of schooling, I can remember only one class related to effective business communication (thanks Dominican University for offering it!). As I move along in my career, I realize how often I reference what I learned in that class, and how basic and fundamentally important this subject is.
We communicate every day – and the more we move up the corporate ladder (or around the corporate lattice), the more essential it becomes. Yet I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in many organizations…the higher up people go, when they should be investing more time in crafting communications, the less time people spend on it. I don’t think it’s ever intentional — calendars fill up, demands and priorities grow, and it’s easy to get distracted and devalue the importance of taking time to craft a well-written message. But before you brush it off and write an email or communication in haste, think about this: if you add the time you spend responding to clarification requests to the time the someone spent asking for the clarification, you have cost your company money (in the form of time). And that doesn’t account for the many people that might have the same clarification need but don’t ask. Wouldn’t it be better to invest those minutes on the front-end, writing the initial communication, to drive towards the action or understanding right from the beginning? Investing time in writing a well-written communication is not an inefficient use of time; on the contrary, it is actually more efficient, not just for you, but for the entire company.
There is also an emotional component cost of unclear communications – they can cause frustration, anger, and anxiety depending on the level of confusion and the subject of the communication.
But here’s the good news: you don’t need to take an entire course in effective business communications to write well. Here are some simple tips (at work or at home):
- Think before you write. What is/are the 1 – 3 key points you want to get across? If you have more key points than that, consider breaking the message into multiple communications. Having too many key points in one message reduces the effectiveness of the communication.
- Should you even write? After you decide on the key messages, ask yourself if email is the best delivery vehicle. We’ve become so email heavy in corporate america that we tend to overuse email as a delivery vehicle. There are some messages that are better communicated in person or on the phone.
- Begin with the end in mind. What do you want people to do or understand most? Start with that first. The further down something is in an email, the less likely it will be read and/or remembered.
- Give clear direction. By when do you need something? Include the deadline date in the email subject line. Who is on point? What are you expecting a deliverable to include? Specify all those details clearly in the email. You get what you ask for. If you get something back that doesn’t meet your expectations, there is a possibility it’s because you didn’t clearly state what you wanted.
- Provide necessary tools. Think through everything someone will need to do what you’re asking them to do, and make sure they can access it. If they need to reference files, tell them where those files are. If you are collecting specific information from a variety of people, create a template for people to fill out so you get the information you need and have an easier time compiling it all together.
- Draft your communication. Then try to cut it down by 30%. We tend to write first drafts in more of “stream of consciousness” format, which means we include a lot of unnecessary words. Cut out what you can so what’s left is the real important stuff.
- Effectively use formatting. Bullet points, tables, and bold font can all be effective ways to highlight key information in digestible ways. Be careful not to overuse, however. If a message is over-formatted it’s overwhelming to the eyes and the reader has a hard time understanding what the most important points are.
- Walk away from your computer. One of the most underused tips in writing is to write and then walk away. Re-reading the message later, after taking a quick break, helps you catch errors and points of confusion that you would’t have caught if you just kept editing without the break.
- Have a second set of eyes review the message. When you think you have a good draft, have at least one other person read it to be sure. This is especially important when communicating messages to large groups. They can help catch points of confusion that you might not have anticipated.
- Triple-check the distribution. This seems obvious, but messages often go to the wrong people when people are quickly writing and sending emails.
- Monitor reply volume. If you’re getting a lot of replies asking for clarification, you might need to send out a clarification email. Recognizing the need and proactively sending out that clarification can save everyone time.
Investing time to write effective communications can save everyone time, frustration and stress—and it can also make you stand out. Here’s to hoping that people are soon complimenting you on your well-written communications!