How to make sure we are understood in a digital world

Communicating in a digital world

Kirsty Reynolds

This week, Templar’s Kirsty Reynolds  looks at how we communicate in the digital age, offering practical steps on how to keep your intention clear so you’re always delivering powerful written communications.

Undeniably, communication is becoming more and more digitalised – and the world of work is embracing this change. From emailing our colleague on the other side of the room to Bloomberg Instant Messaging, the hours of face-to-face meetings in the workplace are dwindling.

As well as being more time efficient, providing an audit trail and allowing people in multiple locations to communicate, digital communications allow us to control the content of the messages we send. In such an environment, how we construct our business writing is more important than ever.

This is true whether you are a salesperson on a trading floor or a relationship manager emailing a client.

Whilst the benefits of digital advancements are clear, there is a huge component of communication that is missing from the digital experience: human emotion. Any form of writing involves less emotional information than when we talk to someone in person, where we exchange huge amounts of information about intent.

As Nick Morgan – author of Can You Hear me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual Worlddiscusses, intent is fundamentally what humans care about: is this person friend or foe?; are they more or less powerful than me?; are they going to support my ideas?

Why are emails so often misinterpreted?

For millennia, humans have been understanding intent face-to-face and it has become an effortless part of communication. However, across the financial services and business world, we are increasingly turning to digital ways to communicate.

Communicating in digital world

Humans have only been dealing with a digital setting for around 40 years, so we often fall short of communicating what we intended, or misinterpret what others communicate to us.

In fact, Morgan jests that since email has existed, all we have learnt is that using all capital letters means you’re shouting! There is clearly a lot of ground to make up between communication in person and email.

When the human brain is missing information about intent, it very quickly creates information to fill the void because it does not like to be deprived of it. Typically, what it creates is negative information as, from an evolutionary perspective, it is how we kept alive; we default to assuming our counterpart is an ‘enemy’ or may cause us harm.

For example, a simple email to a colleague requesting time in their diary to give some feedback might cause the colleague to immediately assume the feedback will be negative.

You may have intended to use the opportunity to praise the colleague for their work. The reality is that in most professional settings, our colleagues, clients and other counterparts are not the enemy. Time is short and emails are often sent without spending excessive time thinking about how they are received.

How can we mitigate against miscommunication in emails?

Email and other business writing will never be able to achieve the rich variety of signals we send and receive about intent in a face-to-face conversation, but we can be more disciplined about how we approach digital interactions.

Communicating in the digital world

If you are sending an email, the onus is on you to make your intent clear in as many ways as possible:

  1. Plan before you write – be clear on what you want to achieve, how you want the message to be received and what reaction or action you expect to get.
  2. Headline it – use a subject title or opening summary that clearly encapsulates the spirit in which you wish your message to be received.
  3. Spend time – for important emails where you are concerned the content may be misinterpreted, write the email and then read it aloud using different tones. For example, read it in an angry way, and see if the meaning can sustain the anger. As Bryan Garner points out in The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, ‘put yourself in your reader’s shoes’. You can even ask a colleague or friend to read your writing for another view.
  4. Cut the fat – business writing is often full of jargon and buzzwords. Whilst they are sometimes useful for shorthand, overuse suggests you are on autopilot and can leave little room for real meaning in your messages.
  5. Consider using emojis   – whilst emojis are not always seen as professional or appropriate, Nick Morgan argues that they do start to bridge the gap and help with that missing piece of emotional information we use to gauge intent. Perhaps you are not ready to start using them with important counterparts, but they may help your email communication with colleagues.

Care about intent:

Whether you are sending an email to a colleague who you sit opposite, or who is on the opposite side of the world, remember that humans fundamentally care about decoding intent.

When composing our business writing, we need to think about the complete message we are sending, which includes how our counterpart will perceive our intent.

If we fail to consider the human emotional response, we fail to communicate effectively.

As digital communication increases across financial services, our clients are increasingly realising the need to make sure their people can write effectively. At Templar, we assist clients all over the world with their business writing requirements. Our tailored programmes help our clients ensure that the messages they send immediately communicate the meaning intended, with impact and purpose.

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