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Does Everything You Write at Work Get Read? (Part 1 of 2)
Probably not. To ensure that happens, the article that follows—“Your Colleagues Don’t Read Anything You Write. Here Are 8 Ways to Change That,” by Aaron Orendorff (edited for clarity and space)—offers some tips.
Long emails and dense, difficult-to-decipher memos mean modern office communication goes ignored more often than it’s understood. However, the real pain of writing at work only to have our words disappear into the ether — the wasteland of no response — is more than feeling small and disrespected; it’s the professional consequences that compound them.
“Ambiguity is a symptom of immediacy,” Ann Handley, the author of Everybody Writes, said. “We dash off emails, Slack messages, texts, or quick-hit memos with neither forethought nor clear intention.” Beneath these brutal realities, getting busy co-workers and bosses to take action means changing eight things about the way we communicate.
1. Write less often.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. That’s the cliché anyway. And, of course, it’s cliché for a reason — a hard-wired, psychological reason known as scarcity.
“The principle of scarcity indicates that people want more of what they can have less of,” said Robert Cialdini, Regents’ professor emeritus of psychology at Arizona State University and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. “Things that are rare, scarce, dwindling in availability become more attractive as a consequence of perceived value,” he said.
To see this principle validated, you can check out Dr. Cialdini’s supermarket study — in which he found that saying “only three per customer” was twice as effective as any other promotion. Yet scarcity in professional writing is so, well, scarce that its absence is easier to illustrate than its presence. Think of your relentless notifications, your overcrowded inbox, your mounting to-do list, the blinking red badges that cry out. Within that cacophony …
The less we write, the more valuable our writing becomes.
The key lies in a twofold approach. First, keep your casual conversations quarantined from professional channels (except with those co-workers with whom you share nonprofessional bonds). Second, discipline yourself against the very mediums we use.
“Armed with technologies like smartphones, Slack, and Skype, it’s easy to operate in rapid-response mode,” said Liz Wiseman, author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. “Each is short, but the cumulative word count wreaks havoc,” she said, leaving us “continually rejiggering priorities and searching for the signal in the noise.”
To combat this tendency, Ms. Wiseman recommends a 24-hour waiting period. When another recipient could or should answer, give that person the right of first response. “If they don’t respond,” she said, “I jump in. Not with a reply, but with clarification that I’m looking to them to jump in.”
More than a batching tactic, ruthlessly ask yourself:
- Do I need to send this now?
- If not, do I need to send it at all?
- If so, does more than one person really need it?
2. Use fewer words.
“Brevity,” Shakespeare wrote, “is the soul of wit.” Or, if you prefer your aphorism a bit more down-home, Mark Twain captured the same ethos: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter. So, I wrote a long one instead.”
Other literary greats could be added — Orwell, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, et. al. However, towering classical figures aren’t the only voices pleading for “less is more.” A growing body of recent science has reached the same conclusion.
Take Daniel M. Oppenheimer’s wryly titled article “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems With Using Long Words Needlessly.” “Five studies demonstrate,” Dr. Oppenheimer wrote, “that the loss of fluency due to needless complexity in a text negatively impacts raters’ assessments of the text’s authors.” Translation: Big is bad. We long for clarity, for other people to say what they mean in as few, short words as possible. Thankfully, there are a handful of easy ways to start mastering brevity.
3. Put action words in your subject line.
Tell your recipients before word one what’s expected. “If they need to read and comment on it prior to a Tuesday afternoon meeting, tell them,” Ms. Handley said. “Otherwise, you risk them completely missing that comments were needed — at least until you send a frantic email Tuesday morning.” Instead of, “Agenda for Tuesday,” use, “PLEASE COMMENT: Agenda for Tuesday.” Rather than, “Budget Attached,” write, “APPROVAL FOR ITEMS 9-12: Budget Attached.”
4. Listen more, “talk” less.
“Many people think communication is equal parts talking and listening, but I argue that it’s 80 percent listening and 20 percent talking,” said Val Geisler, founder of Fix My Churn, an agency that manages campaigns for brands like Stripe, InVision and Podia. But how do you listen in writing? Ms. Geisler’s answer: “Ask clear, concise questions so they know they’ll be heard. Pointed questions not only give them more to go off of, they communicate you value their contribution and want their feedback.”
(Part 2 will be published in the July issue of Writing Tips.)
- May 16th and July 4th are both National Barbecue Day
- Sixty percent of grillers say they barbecue year-round.
- In 1897, Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer of Pennsylvania patented a design for charcoal briquettes.
- On August 30, 2013, Monterey, Mexico, set the record for the largest barbecue ever: 45,252 people attended.
- The most popular foods for cooking on the grill are: burgers (85 percent), steak (80 percent), hot dogs (79 percent) and chicken (73 percent).
- Barbecues have been a White House tradition since Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809).
- The world record for the longest barbecue was how many hours: 25, 51, 80, 98?
(Fun Facts Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Word of the Month
capricious | kuh-PRISH-us | adjective
• impulsive, unpredictable
“Keith was irritated by the new HR Director’s capricious statements during the corporate meeting.”
Wacky & Wise Websites
Click here to discover 25 interesting facts about the Earth’s oceans, for example, there are 20 million tons of gold in the oceans.
Click here to find out what dogs see when they watch TV.
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SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Choose the word that, when inserted in the blank, best fits the meaning of the sentence as a whole.
“The jellyfish’s slow pulsing action propels it in a graceful, seemingly _____ drift, but its tentacles contain a poison potent enough to stun a swimming human.”
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
The word barbecue comes from Taíno—an Arawakan language of the Caribbean—via American Spanish. The form barbacoa appears in Spanish by 1555 in The Commentaries of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca: “Every eighth day they came laden with venison and wild boar, roasted on barbacoas. These barbacoas are like gridirons, standing two palms high above the ground and made of light sticks. The flesh is cut into steaks and then laid upon them and roasted.”
The word barbacoa first appears in English in 1625, but in the sense of a raised corn crib or granary. In 1697, William Dampier uses the word barbecu in his book A New Voyage Round the World to refer to a raised sleeping platform. From these uses, it seems likely that barbacoa or barbecue originally referred to any raised platform, and only later specialized to mean a grill for cooking meat.
The verb form of the word, meaning “to cook on a barbecue,” appears in English in 1661 in Edmund Hickergill’s book Jamaica where he describes the cannibalistic practices of the natives of Guiana and Surinam:
But usually their Slaves, when captive ta’ne,
Are to the English sold; and some are slain,
And their Flesh forthwith Barbacu’d and eat
By them, their Wives and Children as choice meat.
Answer: The jellyfish is presented as seeming the opposite of harmful, so only “harmless” fits the logic required by the conjunction “but.”
Fun Facts Answer
The longest barbecue marathon in the world is 80 hours. The record was set by Jan Greeff in association with Char-Broil, LLC., at an event benefiting the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, in Columbus, Georgia, on April 27, 2014.