At Work: Communications (7)

wincity (会英文的红卫兵)

Once I asked an air conditioner salesman his company name. The company is called "The FurnaceRoom Heating and Air Conditioning". I didn't catch the first word so I asked what it was. He said it's "the". I asked him to spell it. He said "T-H-E".

When a user asked me to explain something, I told him that it's governed by meta data, which I pasted right into the email. And I copied my boss. To my surprise, a few minutes later, my boss replied suggesting that I should tell the user about that meta data.

Misunderstanding happens every day. It happens even when we think we are crystal clear. It happens because most of us don't pay enough attention. However, it happens a lot less to a good communicator. Why? Not because he's luckier; rather, because he's more careful.

The key to a clear message is precision.

First, don't be vague. Say exactly what you mean. Once a woman emailed her boss asking if he saw her request for a vacation day next week. Her boss replied right away: "got it". The woman was frustrated because she meant to ask whether her vacation day was approved.

Even if you say what you mean, there're always ways to make your message more precise. Once a scheduled job failed so a file wasn't generated. The admin guy fixed the job and asked me to verify. In my reply, I first wrote, "good, thanks". Then I changed to "it worked, thanks". And finally, I emailed "I see the file now, thanks".

Important facts also make your message more precise. Once I wrote: "I ran our script and got different result from what's in your email". On second thought, I changed it to: "I ran our production script and got different result from what's in your picture". Here "production" is a key fact. And the word "picture" is more precise because his result is in a screen shot. Since my result was in the same email in text form, a casual reader might get confused.

In the same spirit, use specific name as much as possible instead of pronouns. For example, "the failed job took 2 hours to run" instead of "it took 2 hours to run". Or "the injured boy cried" instead of "he cried".

To get your message across, precision isn't enough. Most people would fall into sleep, like me, over a thick book of "precise" tax code. However, most people can easily spot the word "sex" buried in that tax code. Majority of people don't read word by word. They scan. Therefore, we should make our writing scan friendly.

The most cost effective way to make our writing scan friendly is to highlight key words. Key words are the meat of our writing. As long as our readers catch them, we've done half the job. One obvious way to highlight key words is to make them bold. However, it's often enough to just capitalize them. For example: "I am NOT going to the party". Or "we're looking at two DIFFERENT databases". Very often I like to put my key words or key sentences in red.

Believe it or not, transition words can also make your writing scan friendly. Words like "however", "on the other hand", "unfortunately", "to summarize", signal to your audience what you'd say next. Without reading any further, they already got your message, more or less. For the same reason, words like "PLEASE NOTE:", "ATTENTION:", will likely make your readers more alert.

Have you ever wondered whether to write 79 or seventy nine? I always write 79, despite being ordered to do the opposite by a good book on writing. It's much less effort to understand 79. And it's scan friendly.

Short sentences and short paragraphs all make our writing scan friendly. So do plenty of blank lines and lots of white spaces. My favorite is the bullet form. Read this: "I added new records. Then I updated the meta data. And finally I ran the calculation job." Now compare it to:

  1. Added new records.
  2. Updated meta data.
  3. Ran calculation job.

The opposite of highlighting the important is to downplay the unimportant. And they serve the same purpose. I like to label informational emails as "FYI" so my readers can skip them. And they will be more alert when they don't see this label. I like to move the details to the end of the email, often after my signature. Sometimes I even change font size and color to push secondary material into the background.

When talking about scores, sports people don't say "0", they say "nothing" as in "the Jays beat the Yankees 6 to nothing". Or as in tennis, 30-love. The announcers at train stations don't say "5 o'clock train", they say "1700 train", pronounced as "seventeen hundred train".

Why do they do this? It's simple: they've been burned by misunderstandings before. As a result, they want their message to be unmistakable.

Murphy's Law says: If anything can go wrong, it will. Asking the AC guy for the first word gives him a chance to be wrong. Had I asked him what the word was before "Heating and Air Conditioning", I would have been UNMISTAKABLE.

To avoid misunderstanding, I often like to send out a confirmation email to clients with a clear and short question about requirements. They answer either yes or no. It's unmistakable.

If you're unmistakable, you're unlikely to be misunderstood. The word is "UNMISTAKABLE". It should be our goal.

2010-9-25 -04:00
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