I prefer e-mail, because it's such an effective way of getting information to somebody without running the risk of becoming involved in human conversation. --Dave Barry, American humorist and author
I read the above quote years ago, and couldn't help but laugh. Nowadays it rings even more true, except it's not just email. Texting, social media, collaboration tools -- we communicate via writing now more than ever.
For all the beauty and nuance the written word has to offer, we are forced to acknowledge its limits. Written messages are often the source of misunderstandings, confusion, and wasted time. In business, deals are lost, relationships broken, and opportunities ignored because of bad writing.
So how do you improve your written communication? Make sure you avoid the following six mistakes. While you're at it, double check that you're not doing these four things, either.
1. Not saying thank you.
Remember what Mom taught you?
As we move across business battlefronts with lightning speed, politeness and niceties have become casualties of war. But people do business with people -- specifically, with people they like. And few words have the power of these two: Thank you.
A short message of appreciation goes a long way.
2. Not knowing your audience.
When writing, you have to know your recipient. For the hyper-efficient, direct and quick is always preferred. Too much small talk in an email is viewed as a waste of time. For others, being too direct is interpreted as curt, dismissive, and rude.
In the end, whether and how you choose to adjust to others is ultimately your decision. But knowing both your audience and how to adapt to them will get you quicker results.
3. Using too many exclamation points.
We know you're really, really excited to make a bid on this new project. But as business writing coach Ann Zuccardy points out, overuse of this emphatic punctuation mark is asking for trouble. Comparing it to the pumpkin spice fad that's taken over society, she explains: "While there's nothing wrong with pumpkins or spices in moderation, you can't just add them to any old thing and expect not to be mocked. The same goes for exclamation points."
So how much is too much? Zuccardy continues:
"Count how many paragraphs your email contains and how many exclamation points you used. If the ratio is 1:1, it's time to edit relentlessly. My rule of thumb is this: If you must use them, use only one exclamation point per professional email. More than that and you risk not being taken seriously even if the content of your email is dead serious."
Words of wisdom.
4. Expecting your partner to get ambiguous statements.
Ever try to be sarcastic in a written message, and it blows up in your face?
Without cues such as facial expression, body language, and tone of voice, it's difficult to know how our message is being received. And if we sense tension during an online chat, it's equally challenging to adjust our own tone.
So how do you do it? Keep mistake number two in mind: If you don't know your audience well, proceed with caution. (Better safe than sorry.) If you're familiar with your partner, a smiley or emoticon can help establish tone and communicate your message more effectively.
Just don't overdo it. You're a professional, not a 14-year-old texting with friends.
Added tip: As much as we love written communication, sometimes it saves time (and a relationship) to simply pick up the phone or set up a quick meeting.
5. Never using small talk.
Imagine the following scenario: You receive regular messages from a particular recipient. The wording may vary, but it always reads something like this:
Hi Justin, I need help with _____ . Any way you could provide me with that?
Nothing wrong with that message -- once in a while. But if this person only ever sends requests for help, the relationship becomes one-sided, and you begin to resent those messages. The time between your replies will lengthen with each request.
But what if the relationship is one-sided? What if the only time you will ever message this person is when you need something?
Remember, it's easier to help people we like. So be likeable. Take a moment to ask how things are going. Make brief conversation. You're probably not the only one who's requesting things of them; ask if there's something you can do to make the process smoother (extra information you can provide, if you should batch your requests, etc.). Be sincere -- not just because you want something from them, but because you want to contribute to a pleasant working relationship.
If you show authentic interest in others, they'll reciprocate -- and you create a (virtual) environment where others enjoy working with you.
6. Writing too much.
Small talk and a sincere desire to help have their place, but they are easily overdone. The single biggest mistake in email: writing too much.
If your messages are always written to address every detail, others will dread receiving them. Additionally, resist the urge to take that jab at a colleague, partner, or client -- even if they did something genuinely dumb. Clear up any misunderstandings, but don't waste time defending your actions. If you simply must explain your full position, do so over the phone or in person.
Rule of thumb: When in doubt, leave it out.
Eliminate these mistakes, and make the written word work for you. Instead of against you.