Beware of the Pitfalls of Written Communication

Woman writing in journal at patio table
Woman writing in journal at patio table

Written communication is seriously tricky, especially in business. Tone of voice, intention and meaning can easily be misinterpreted. People can and will get offended at what otherwise might seem like something totally inconsequential. At times I've seen discussions go nuclear over something that was said online simply because the intent and tone of voice wasn't understood correctly. So, what do you do if you don't want people to misunderstand you? How do you lessen the possibility of upsetting the person on the receiving end of the email?

Tip 1. Limit Humor
Unless you know someone extremely well, you should limit your use of humor in written business communications. Humor tends to be one of those things that is hit or miss, and when you factor in time zones, perspectives, cultures, and native language, it is easy to see how something pretty simple can go horribly wrong. Humor just doesn't translate terribly well in the business environment. If you want to see how quickly Human Resources or attorneys can get involved, try a little bit of humor in your written communications. Throw in some off-color jokes and it could get really bad quickly.

Tip 2. Limit Idiomatic Expressions

Idio- what? Idiomatic expressions are those expressions that we use in nearly any language, but they may not make sense in other cultures or countries. So when you talk about having a bun in the oven, someone from another country or another culture may think that you're baking bread, not that someone is pregnant. This problem is compounded in English and other languages because we have so many local dialects. Words that are used one way in one country may be something totally different in another. Witness the word rubber. In Britain it means eraser. So, think about what the words and expressions you are using mean, and how you are using them, or you may get some reactions from people that you weren't quite expecting.

Tip 3. Careful with Contractions
Contractions are one of those shortcuts used in the English language. The problem with them is that they are not entirely universal, and they aren't always read the same everywhere. When you start using a lot of them in the written language, you can quickly run into problems. Your end reader may not understand what you wrote and can easily misunderstand you.

Tip 4. Use Simple Vocabulary
This one is pretty hard for me because I am a bibliophile. I love words and language. Unfortunately, most readers read at approximately a high school level. Which means that those arcane, little used words can be hard to read for some people. They may also think that you're showing off when you use those 25-cent words in your writing. It can set the wrong tone and wrong expectation with your communication and generally get you out of sorts with your reader from the early stages.

Tip 5. Break it Up
I realize that in school you were probably taught to write neatly in paragraph form, with lots of supporting evidence. The reality is that most people have the attention spans of gnats, which means that they read something for a few seconds, and hop to the next thing. Big blocks of text just intimidate readers, and they will look at that huge block of text, and just skip to the next thing. My husband will tell me "TLDR" when I write stuff that's too long or too dense. "TLDR" is "Too long, didn't read". It doesn't matter if that email had a ton of important and useful information in it if it doesn't get read. The information isn't conveyed and the objective for the communication wasn't met.

Business writing should be professional and relatively simple. If you follow the principles outlined above, you should be able to communicate clearly with your audience and get your point across, which is the purpose of your writing, isn't it?