How many emails or text messages do you regret sending? It’s a problem as familiar as the common cold, isn’t it? But this isn’t an article about strategies to help avoid sending unnecessarily irate, hurtful, or otherwise ill-formed messages in the heat of the moment. This is about how we show up in our electronic communications in the normal course of our day, generally. Are we conveying what we intend, how we intend it? More importantly, do the words and phrases we craft accurately represent who we are? And do we care?
Let’s start with whether we care. So much of the contact we have with colleagues, clients, partners is the result of sentences we’ve typed into a device. For efficiency’s sake, most of us adopt techniques for grinding out communications under the pressure of multiple deadlines and priorities. Our e-shorthand develops into its own virtual persona. Try reading out loud the words you’ve written in a recent email. Hearing it spoken in your own voice, does it sound like you? Like the You who you want to appear for the reader?
Recently, I was just starting a video conference call with a partner of mine. This was someone I’ve known for a number of years and who knows my personality and my style quite well. A few minutes into this call she said, “I have to tell you, I experience you so differently on our video calls than I do through emails.” I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I appreciated hearing this, and it also bothered me.
If we care about the relationships we’re nurturing, if we intend to motivate others, and if we–as is so common these days–hope to be as authentically ourselves as we go about doing our work, then our most ordinary written communication matters. As much as we’re advised to think carefully about body language and tone of voice, we should also be intentional about who we are in writing.
Here are a few techniques that have helped me strive to show up as the Me I intend to be in my emails and texts:
1. RECITE IT OUT LOUD TO YOURSELF
(I bet you knew this was coming.) It may sound awkward, but this works better than anything for me. In fact, I have edited these very sentences just now because I read them back to myself. I want it to sound more conversational. You see, we often take on a more formal style when writing. In my case, I can come across as curt and abrupt. I’ve known others whose written style comes out as rambling and circular. Reading it back out loud to yourself is a magic solution! You could even take this one step further for something that matters a lot by reading it aloud to someone else.
2. BE ESPECIALLY AWARE OF THE OPENING PHRASE
Our eyes now are trained to glance at the first few words and phrases of just about everything we see. I can think of a few colleagues I’ve worked with over my career who’s email messages invariably got my heart beating just a little faster by the first sentence, even the first few words, they wrote. Just like a good novel, an effective news story, or a compelling blog post (wink, wink), the very first few words and phrases of the most common email or text you send make an immediate impression. You can be a down-to-business type if that’s who you are. No problem with that. Just remember the recipient will see those opening words in their inbox. Make ’em count! Or at least make sure they’re neutral.
3. CREATE PERSONAL TEMPLATES
OK, this takes a bit of effort up front but it pays off in spades. Think about a few types of written communication you commonly send. For example, maybe you frequently have to explain internal policies, or send instructions to your team, or comment on documents others have written, or describe the purpose of an upcoming meeting. Now, develop a template for how you’ll structure each type, every time you write. What’s the opening and closing? Just how casual do you really intend to sound? Do you start with stating what you’re asking and then give details, or the reverse? If there’s lots of detail will you create numbered items or will you keep it in narrative form? Do you aim to inspire, and if so what approach? Will you use storytelling? In other words, what is the formula you’ll come back to as you draft your message? This sounds like a lot of work at first, but if you’re struggling with the feedback that your emails are not always well-received, it’s a practice that will pay off.
4. IDENTIFY INFLUENCE WORDS AND PHRASES
Go back into your email, text messages, or other medium you commonly use. Are there particular words or phrases that tend to show up repeatedly? These may be your unintended default “influence words.” But are they effective? You could identify your patterns for yourself, or you could ask others what they observe. To give you an example, I’ve noticed in my own writing that I have a tendency to use, “I feel like….” I use this instead of “I think….” or “I believe….” Seems subtle, huh? (I also like to use “huh” and “yeah” in my emails. I like the informality, for me.) Maybe for you using the phrase, “I feel like” doesn’t fit. Maybe it would never even occur to you. Now that you see this example, maybe you decide that you like that and adopt it. I also used to write, “Let me explain what I mean…” before I was going to give a detailed explanation of something. Once I realized that, I decided that phrase comes across as a bit too pedantic and that’s not my style. Now I try to avoid it.
5. DON’T WRITE ANYTHING AT ALL
Of course, there’s always the option of reducing the chance you misrepresent yourself in written communication by choosing verbal communication instead. At one point I was in a management role dealing with some inter-personal communication issues between my team and another, mainly triggered by emails. Everyone sat within two hundred years of each other. How ofte did I suggest, “Why not pick up the phone and chat?” Or, “just hold off until you see her later today and go speak.” In order to show responsiveness to a text or email, just say, “Thanks for sending this. I’d like to talk about this further verbally. Can we find a few minutes to connect?”
BONUS: SMILEY FACE OR NOT?
If smiley faces and other emoticons work for you, feel free. These can be a helpful way to infuse your communications with the sensibility you’re aiming for. Just be careful as well that this technique is effective in the professional setting you’re in. Being authentic is one thing, but this is, after all, the professional version of yourself. Personally, I save the sunflowers and blue unicorns for messaging with my mother.
Yes, this all sounds a little inconvenient because you’re busy. But I know you’re like me, and there are times when you realize that the You that you hoped to convey for the reader on the other end just did not show up. The answer to this is at your finger tips, literally. Taking the time to be disciplined in how you show up in written communications will prove well worth your while.