In an ide­al world, com­mu­ni­ca­tion would be easy. We’d imme­di­ate­ly know exact­ly what to say or write. Emails, Slack mes­sages, and reply threads would prac­ti­cal­ly write them­selves. And there’d be no con­fu­sion about what any­one meant, ever.

Of course, com­mu­ni­ca­tion nev­er works that way. We stare at the com­put­er screen try­ing to decide how to begin an email. We mis­s­peak or gar­ble our words. We don’t always con­vey exact­ly what we intend. We mis­un­der­stand, over­look, or for­get infor­ma­tion we’ve been giv­en. We also some­times read emo­tions into words that weren’t what the writer was feel­ing. Or we pack our speech with such an emo­tion­al punch that it dis­tracts from the point we’re try­ing to make.

Writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion often exac­er­bates these issues, a fact that has many lead­ers wor­ried since more peo­ple are work­ing remote­ly and rely­ing on the writ­ten word to do their jobs. It’s no secret that we spend far too much time on email and oth­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools.

For­tu­nate­ly, you don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly need to hire a writ­ing coach to teach your employ­ees bet­ter writ­ing skills—although this can in some cas­es be a good idea. You can sig­nif­i­cant­ly improve com­mu­ni­ca­tion in your orga­ni­za­tion by ask­ing your employ­ees to con­sid­er the fol­low­ing prac­tices in their writ­ten communications:

Break up long sen­tences and para­graphs. A big unbro­ken block of text is like­ly to befud­dle your read­er before they even get to the first word. Long sen­tences and para­graphs also make com­pre­hen­sion and reten­tion of infor­ma­tion much more dif­fi­cult. Note the dif­fer­ences in these two communications:

Sam­ple 1: I sup­port the goals out­lined in the pro­pos­al you sent to me yes­ter­day, espe­cial­ly the need to bet­ter define appro­pri­ate met­rics around the solic­i­ta­tion of cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion scores, and I want to thank you for the thought you gave to propos­ing work­able solu­tions, but I’m not sure if all of the pro­posed solu­tions will work at this time. Let’s dis­cuss it all at our next check-in.

Sam­ple 2: Thank you for send­ing the pro­pos­al yes­ter­day. I appre­ci­ate the thought you put into it. I agree with you about the goals, espe­cial­ly what you wrote about cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion scores. The solu­tions you pro­posed, how­ev­er, may be a chal­lenge to imple­ment right away. Let’s dis­cuss the pro­pos­al at our next check-in.

These sam­ples pro­vide the same infor­ma­tion, but the sec­ond is eas­i­er to fol­low and digest.

Use clear, con­crete terms. Vague words, con­vo­lut­ed ideas, and broad gen­er­al­iza­tions make for easy mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Your read­er will be more like­ly to under­stand your mean­ing if your lan­guage is spe­cif­ic. Remem­ber too that just because some­thing is clear to you doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean it will be clear to your read­er. Com­pare these two statements:

Sam­ple 1: Would you be able to review the thing I sent you earlier?

Sam­ple 2: Here’s the let­ter for Anil I told you about this morn­ing. Would you be able to proof­read it for typos by the end of the day?

The first sam­ple is like­ly to cause con­fu­sion and frus­tra­tion if the recip­i­ent has recent­ly received a lot of “things” from the writer or oth­er peo­ple. In con­trast, the sec­ond sam­ple makes the con­text and the request­ed task clear to the reader.

Pro­vide con­text and direc­tion when adding some­one to a con­ver­sa­tion. Most of us have had the expe­ri­ence of receiv­ing a for­ward­ed email that we’re not imme­di­ate­ly sure what to do with. Should we keep it as a ref­er­ence? Read through the thread? Respond in some way? We haven’t been told. Don’t do this. You should clue the read­er in to what the con­ver­sa­tion entails and what they need to know and do in response. Compare:

Sam­ple 1: Please see below. What do you think?

Sam­ple 2: Please read through the con­ver­sa­tion below and note the prod­uct request from Oliv­er. Is that some­thing you can add to your work this week?

The first sam­ple is like­ly to prompt the recip­i­ent to weigh in on the wrong sub­ject or ask the writer for clar­i­fi­ca­tion before respond­ing, wast­ing valu­able time either way. The sec­ond sam­ple gives clear instruc­tion, sav­ing time.

Avoid unnec­es­sary details. While some con­text is use­ful, too much can over­whelm the read­er and add to the time it takes for the com­mu­ni­ca­tion to be writ­ten, read, and act­ed on.

Sam­ple 1: I ran into Lind­say in the lunch­room and asked her about the Pater­son deal. She asked me to fol­low up with her after her lunch break, which I did, and she gave me per­mis­sion to start on the out­line. She seemed a lit­tle aggra­vat­ed that I inter­rupt­ed her lunch. Any­way, I need to respond to a few emails before I get start­ed on it, but I will get to it after and have it to you and her by close of busi­ness today.

Sam­ple 2: I got the go ahead from Lind­say on the Pater­son deal. I’m work­ing on the out­line and will email it to you and her by close of busi­ness today.

The first sam­ple like­ly has too much infor­ma­tion. The writer may have felt like includ­ing the extra details because they felt bad about ask­ing Lind­say to work on her lunch break, but unless there’s a good rea­son for the recip­i­ent to know those details, they’re best left out.

Save dif­fi­cult or emo­tion­al­ly intense con­ver­sa­tions for calls, video con­fer­ences, or in-per­son meet­ings. These con­ver­sa­tions usu­al­ly require more finesse than writ­ten text can pro­vide. If you antic­i­pate a strong emo­tion­al response to what you have to say, or if you believe the per­son with whom you’ll be com­mu­ni­cat­ing may read strong emo­tions into what you have to say, don’t write to them. Talk it through instead. Let them hear your voice and lis­ten care­ful­ly to theirs.

By Kyle Cupp

Orig­i­nal­ly post­ed on