Your Colleagues Don’t Read Anything You Write. Here Are 8 Ways to Change That.
Long emails and dense, difficult to decipher memos mean modern office communication goes ignored more often than it’s understood.
Published March 4, 2020Updated March 9, 2020
For over a decade, I taught college students how to communicate in professional settings. Every class began with a single, all-consuming thesis: “Nobody will ever want to read anything you write at work. Period.”
That’s a harsh and, perhaps, disheartening warning. Particularly for bright-eyed, soon-to-be employees about to make their dent in the universe.
“It’s not personal,” I would tell them. “We’re just inundated.” Today, information hurtles at us, screaming for attention at an ever increasing volume. The flood alone is a challenge. Unfortunately, we also exist in a web of professional dependencies where individual success hinges upon others’ help, input and buy-in.
The real pain of writing at work only to have our words disappear into the ether — the wasteland of no response — is more than feeling small and disrespected; it’s the professional consequences that compound them.
“Ambiguity is a symptom of immediacy,” Ann Handley, the author of “Everybody Writes,” said. “We dash off emails, Slack messages, texts, or quick-hit memos with neither forethought nor clear intention.”
Beneath these brutal realities, getting busy co-workers and bosses to take action means changing eight things about the way we communicate.
Write less often.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. That’s the cliché anyway. And, of course, it’s cliché for a reason — a hard-wired, psychological reason known as scarcity.
“The principle of scarcity indicates that people want more of what they can have less of,” said Robert Cialdini, Regents’ professor emeritus of psychology at Arizona State University and author of “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”
“Things that are rare, scarce, dwindling in availability become more attractive as a consequence of perceived value,” he said.
To see this principle validated, you can check out Dr. Cialdini’s supermarket study — in which he found that saying “only three per customer” was twice as effective as any other promotion.
Yet scarcity in professional writing is so, well, scarce that its absence is easier to illustrate than its presence. Think of your relentless notifications, your overcrowded inbox, your mounting to-do list, the blinking red badges that cry out. Within that cacophony …
The less we write, the more valuable our writing becomes.
The key lies in a twofold approach. First, keep your casual conversations quarantined from professional channels (except with those co-workers with whom you share nonprofessional bonds). Second, discipline yourself against the very mediums we use.
“Armed with technologies like smartphones, Slack and Skype, it’s easy to operate in rapid-response mode,” said Liz Wiseman, author of “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.”
“Each is short, but the cumulative word count wreaks havoc,” she said, leaving us “continually rejiggering priorities and searching for the signal in the noise.”
To combat this tendency, Ms. Wiseman recommends a 24-hour waiting period. When another recipient could or should answer, give that person the right of first response. “If they don’t respond,” she said, “I jump in. Not with a reply, but with clarification that I’m looking to them to jump in.”
More than a batching tactic, ruthlessly ask yourself:
Do I need to send this now?
If not, do I need to send it at all?
If so, does more than one person really need it?
Use fewer words.
“Brevity,” Shakespeare wrote, “is the soul of wit.” Or, if you prefer your aphorism a bit more down-home, Mark Twain captured the same ethos: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter. So, I wrote a long one instead.”
Other literary greats could be added — Orwell, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, et. al. However, towering classical figures aren’t the only voices pleading for “less is more.” A growing body of recent science has reached the same conclusion.
Take Daniel M. Oppenheimer’s wryly titled article Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems With Using Long Words Needlessly. “Five studies demonstrate,” Dr. Oppenheimer wrote, “that the loss of fluency due to needless complexity in a text negatively impacts raters’ assessments of the text’s authors.”
Translation: Big is bad.
We long for clarity, for other people to say what they mean in as few, short words as possible. Thankfully, there are a handful of easy ways to start mastering brevity.
Put action words in your subject line.
Tell your recipients before word one what’s expected. “If they need to read and comment on it prior to a Tuesday afternoon meeting, tell them.” Ms. Handley said. “Otherwise, you risk them completely missing that comments were needed — at least until you send a frantic email Tuesday morning.”
Instead of, “Agenda for Tuesday,” use, “PLEASE COMMENT: Agenda for Tuesday.” Rather than, “Budget Attached,” write, “APPROVAL FOR ITEMS 9-12: Budget Attached.”
Listen more, “talk” less.
“Many people think communication is equal parts talking and listening, but I argue that it’s 80 percent listening and 20 percent talking,” said Val Geisler, founder of Fix My Churn, an agency that manages campaigns for brands like Stripe, InVision and Podia.
But how do you listen in writing?
Ms. Geisler’s answer: “Ask clear, concise questions so they know they’ll be heard. Pointed questions not only give them more to go off of, they communicate you value their contribution and want their feedback.”
Don’t answer, ask.
Questions are so central, and Ms. Wiseman suggests a way to use them with a twist.
“When we discover issues or problems, we tend to compose an email with a long explanation, our opinion on the matter and what we want people to do,” she said.
But “as our word count grows,” she continued, “co-workers’ ownership of the situation declines and our implied ownership of the situation increases.”
She calls her solution the extreme question challenge, where managers lead by writing only questions: “At most, use one or two sentences to describe the situation; then ask a single question and let the team chime in.”
Invert the order; lead with the need.
Because most of us tend to open with rambling niceties — meant to cover our insecurities — never try to write a final draft on the first go. Instead, allow yourself to throw up a few first drafts in whatever form fits the need, as the writer Anne Lamott does.
Then, flip it.
Take the final sentence or paragraph and move it to the top. Rather than building to the request — and risk muddling the meaning — this inversion forces us to lead with the need. After that, you’ll often find much of the rest can be removed.
Write a people-proof TL;DR.
As a final step — especially for memos, agendas and group emails — add a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), which meets two enemies head on. One, everybody’s job is nobody’s job. Two, deliverables without due dates don’t get done.
Make your TL;DR follow this formula: Who does what by when and how are we going to track progress. (Write this person by person if needed.) If the TL;DR clearly summarizes everything, send only the TL;DR.
Don’t make it about you, or “them.”
Stopping to ask ourselves, “What’s in it for them?” can revolutionize how we write. Unfortunately, not only do we rarely take time to ponder their needs, but most of the ways we’ve been told to go about it are trite and toothless.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Get out of your head and into theirs. Ask yourself, what would interest them? It all sounds great in theory. But in the rush of work, the power to do so evaporates.
When I asked Dr. Cialdini how to practically make communication about them not you, he relayed a story that betrayed my own self-centeredness. Nearing the end of a report due the next day, Dr. Cialdini realized he didn’t have the data to make a confident conclusion.
A colleague, however, did — a rather “irascible, sour” colleague. Dr. Cialdini sent the request and a few minutes later followed up: “‘I know why you’re calling,’ he said to me, ‘and the answer is no. Look, I can’t be responsible for your poor time management skills. I’m a busy man and I can’t go to my archives for you just because you have mistimed your report.’”
Like most of us, the initial temptation was to double down. Instead, he remembered research that suggested a better way. “It was to link us together into a shared identity,” Dr. Cialdini explained. “I said, ‘Tim’ — not his real name — ‘you know, we’ve been faculty members in the same psychology department now for 12 years. I really wish you could do this for me.’”
The data arrived that afternoon. Why? Because he’d incorporated Tim in a shared identity. While similar phrasing could certainly be applied to our writing, the larger lesson can be distilled with a single juxtaposition.
When seeking assistance or buy-in, we typically ask colleagues for their “opinion.” Turns out, that’s a mistake. Asking for an opinion produces a critic. It separates “me” from “you” by leading the other person to introspect alone.
In contrast, when we ask for “advice,” people see themselves as partners. And advice versus feedback significantly increases both the amount and quality of responses.
Watch your pronouns — in more ways than one. You is selfish. So is them. But, we works together.
Will anyone ever want to read what you write at work?
In truth, probably not.
We can, however, make it easy on our colleagues to read it, respond to it and take action. Beyond getting them to pay attention, to write sparingly, to write briefly and to write as us is a gift. A life raft among the waves.
Aaron Orendorff is the vice president of marketing at Common Thread Collective. Previously, he was the editor in chief of Shopify Plus, and his content has appeared on Forbes, Mashable, Entrepreneur, Business Insider and more. He lives in Portland, Ore., with his lovely wife, three daughters and four bunnies. Follow him on Twitter here or on LinkedIn here.