“I never said you stole the money.”
Have you seen that sentence before? That simple phrase is proof that our writing at work must work harder to communicate better.
Here’s how: Read the sentence out loud five times and change the word you emphasize each time. As you do, you change the meaning of the sentence too, like this…
- “I never said you stole the money” means someone else said you stole the money.
- “I never said you stole the money” means I’m defending myself against an accusation.
- “I never said you stole the money” means I implied it at least.
- “I never said you stole the money” means I said someone else stole the money.
- “I never said you stole the money” means I said you stole something else.
That’s one simple seven-word sentence that can have six different meanings! Do you see how that plays out in your writing at work too? You could go through the same exercise with a sentence like “I never said you ruined the meeting” and again have six different possible interpretations.
But that’s how easy it is to be misunderstood when writing at work! And that’s one reason why we have to work harder at writing well!
Writing at work without benefit of body language
And then there’s this reality: Words are only a fraction of how we communicate when speaking. When we speak, 7% of the message received is from our words; 38% is communicated by our tone of voice, and the loudness and our rate of speech; and 55% is communicated by our body language meaning our facial expression, gestures, and posture. That means 93% of our communication is done without words.
If I say “It’s nice to meet you” with my arms folded tightly across my chest, my body language is screaming it’s not nice to meet you, no matter what my words are.
But here’s the problem: When you’re writing at work, you don’t get to use your tone of voice or body language to help you communicate your message. Your business writing alone must do the job.
Or consider this funny church sign. If the person had been saying it to you in person, it would have been clear that the preacher was going to talk about hell, not that listening to the preacher would be like hell:
What’s the lesson here? That we recognize the inherent obstacles to communicating clearly when writing at work.
Writing at work means working harder at writing
Writing at work has to work harder. Texts, chat messages and emails are all too easily misinterpreted to be dashed off.
One study says 64% of professionals using email at work say they have sent or received an email that resulted in “unintended anger or confusion.” When that happened, confusing or vague messages were to blame 19% of the time.
That’s well over half saying a work email either confused them or pissed them off.
That’s why we use emojis, right? I for one am a huge fan of emojis to give more meaning to my business email writing. But emojis not always appropriate. Let’s face it: Not everyone I’m emailing will be okay with a smiley face in my email!
Tips for writing at work without being misunderstood
OK, so now we know the risks we’re taking when writing at work, that we might be misunderstood. What do we do about it? Here are two suggestions for improving your business writing and lowering your risk.
First of all, slow down when writing at work.
Take a little more time if you need to. Focus on what you’re writing. Keep in mind everything above about how easy it is to be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Yes, we work in a culture that worships busy-ness, but you don’t have to play along. You can slow down and be deliberate in your writing at work, re-reading what you’ve written to make sure it’s clear.
Second, put the reader first when writing at work.
Be reader-centric and aware of how you’re coming across. Who is your reader? How much do they already know vs. not know? Why do they need the information you’re sending? Think about the level of detail they need to understand your message. Know their viewpoint and the lens through which they will read your message. (Learn more about this topic with my business email writing class.)
Also pay attention to your tone, especially if you’re in management. You might think you’re quickly dashing off an urgent business email, but you could be offending the person on the other end.
I’ve had that happen! Back when I was a copywriter, I had a bookkeeper who was the nicest person…in person. But she sent emails to clients that were curt and borderline rude. She didn’t do it intentionally. She was simply emailing them their invoices. But the tone of her emails was harsh, and that didn’t go over well when giving someone a bill.
Think of all you’re communicating when you’re writing at work
When you’re writing at work, you’re not only communicating a message. You’re telling someone else how much you do or don’t respect them and their time. You’re telling them you value their opinion of you—or you don’t.
You’re telling them so much more than you realize.
And therein lies the risk. So take some time, consider the audience and resolve to do better.