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One day, my wife tried to fax something but it didn't go through. She called the company: "I tried to fax to this number: 416-739-2918, but it didn't go through." The woman there asked: "What's the number again?"
Do you think my wife has a communication issue here? How would you have done?
The woman didn't know there's a problem so she didn't pay attention to the phone number. Had my wife said this way: "My fax to you didn't go through. Is the number right: 416-739-2918?" it's unlikely the woman would've missed the phone number this time.
At my first job, I got frustrated often because my boss didn't seem to be interested in what I had to say. Many times, he even ran away right in the middle of our conversation. A long while later, I realized what the problem was. I tended to always start with the reasons, then the conclusion. Or start with the details, then the point. Or the steps, then the outcome. My boss was a fast guy: fast talker, fast thinker, and fast at switching tasks. As a result, he'd easily lose interest unless I catch his attention fast. So the right way is the opposite of what I was doing: conclusion before reasons; point before details; outcome before steps.
Once I was asked to look into a bug in a piece of CSV parsing code. I did a few tests but wasn't able to reproduce the bug. I wrote an email to my boss: "I tested with commas inside quotes for both the description field and the source name field. I didn't find any bugs." Realizing that I was again putting detail ahead of the point, I changed it to: "I didn't find the CSV bug you mentioned. I tested ...." With the first version, my boss had to read a long sentence without knowing what I was talking about. So he may not pay attention. After knowing that I didn't find the bug, he might wonder if I tested the right way. And he had to come back to reread my first sentence. Worse, he might have decided to skip the email right after the first sentence, missing my point altogether. With the second version, he may still decide to skip, but then he already got my point.
Most of us have to write a lot of emails at work. Have you ever put any thought into the subject line? Do you always reply to old messages when you have something new to say and leave the subject as "Re: some old stuff"? The subject line in an email is the first sentence. Sometimes the only sentence read. It's very important to make the subject short and exactly to the point. A good subject line tells the reader what to expect, prepares the reader to look for relevant details, lets the user decide how much time to spend on the email, or to skip the email altogether.
We have to quote other people often in our emails. Do you put your message after the quote? If so, your reader has to read the quote first. Without knowing your point, they have no idea what to look for in the quote. They'd probably read the quote half-heartedly and have to come back later after reading your message. Here the issue is the same: the quote is the detail and your message is the point. And your message should go first.
A few months ago, I signed up with Bell for internet service after a Chinese guy promised me a great deal: $52 a month for 12 Mb speed and 130 GB usage, modem included, plus first 3 months free. He also talked me into 16 Mb service which is more expensive. He said I could downgrade any time during the first 3 months. Also he said the first 3 months there's no usage charge. After I signed up, I found that none of what he said was true, except first 3 months free. I was charged for usage right away; I was not allowed to downgrade; my plan is $62 a month plus modem rental, for only 75 GB usage limit. I had to talk to Bell people often about this. What should be my first sentence?
I thought about it and this is what I said: I wasn't getting the deal I was promised. The rest is detail. And instead of me overwhelming them with details first, they ask for them. And I would tell them one by one, after they already knew what the problem was.
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