How To Write Better Messages: Court Submissions, Letters, Emails, Messenger Texts, Subject Lines, Google Ads, etc. etc.
This is where I am coming from: I live and work in a multi-cultural environment, with at least five (5) spoken languages and with people from six (6) or even more contrasting cultural backgrounds.
I am probably not alone. You surely have also seen over the years countless communication errors that caused big-time damages.
But not only that. Bad communication costs you a lot of time because you have to ask back and forward in order to make it clear what was meant to be communicated. If you know the dangers of bad communication, and in case of doubt, you just ask back. Hopefully.
Being a licensed radio amateur (a so-called “ham”), bad communication goes against my grain. I have learned how to do that better. And if you do the same you will find out that people are grateful for giving them some simple crutches for better communication.
So here you go.
A. Three (3) Simple Communication Principles
It all starts – given a certain context – with applying three (3) simple communication principles from radio transmission:
- for spoken messages, the audio must be complete,
- the message must be complete, whether it is written or audio, and
- the meaning of the message must be clear.
Mess up one of them and the entire communication will fail.
All improvements to your communications follow from the above 3 principles.
B. Seven (7) Simple Professional Communication Rules
Here is a simple set of rules for professional communication in business, in the form of a short checklist:
- Before you start: pause and realize that you are going to make a communication
- For spoken messages: speak slowly, pronounce every syllable, and speak accentuated
- Make short and complete sentences
- Avoid acronyms
- Avoid irony and sarcasm
- Provide some redundancy in the transmitted information
- Written messages: write for someone specific, and at a school level well below your own school level
Let me explain in more detail.
1. Before You Start: Pause and Realize That You Are Going to Make a Communication
Most people communicate without thinking. They have a mouth and they just use it at will because they have always done so. These are the people that communicate without thinking.
That is what I have learned as a radio amateur: before you push that button on your microphone, always know about what you are going to talk. That is why this button is called “Push To Talk” (PTT). How I miss PTT buttons on today´s communication equipment: many useless messages would not go out and we would save a lot of time.
That is also why I recommend that you configure your Outlook email such that sent emails stay there until you explicitly press the send/receive button. That has several times literally prevented me from sending out email messages that I would have deeply regretted being sent out as they were. If that works for me, it may also help you.
In short, this is the Outlook menu that adjusts that behavior:
Remark: This setting is tied to the following registry data, so this setting can also be configured by an administrator through a modification of the registry.
Policy key: HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Policies\Microsoft\Office<x.0>\Outlook\Options\Mail
DWORD: Send Mail Immediately
2. For spoken messages: speak slowly, pronounce every syllable, and speak accentuated
How badly this rule is being ignored by many. You can even measure this, simply by counting the number of questions that are necessary in order to get a specific message transmitted to the recipient.
There are cultures that use to speak fast, such as in India and in Arab language areas, but not only there. Some language areas even tend to cut away or suppress entire syllables from words.
Examples that I have heard include “Robson” instead of “Robinson” (Brazil) or “phi” instead of “five” or “dwell” instead of “twelve” (both India). And there are many more.
In spoken radio transmissions, you say “twelff” instead of “twelve”, and “fife” instead of “five”, although nobody in this world speaks like that. And you say “sree” instead of “three” and “niner” instead of “nine”. All that for the sake of better transmitting spoken messages.
3. Make Short and Complete Sentences and Avoid Acronyms
Here is an example for a Whatsapp message that I have recently received:
[17:29, 12/24/2020] Pat: u mentioned u wanted to feature part of the cover in the book mark once yr picture is removed fr page 3 to 4 there will be an empty space where yr pic was thinking of spreading out the cover picture more to the left to fill up the space we try and show u later
What Pat wanted to say was:
“You mentioned that you wanted to feature part of the cover in the bookmark. Once your picture is removed from page 3 and moved to page 4, there will be an empty space where your picture was. I am thinking of spreading out the cover picture more to the left, in order to fill up that space. We will try and show you the result later.”
The difference in the example above speaks for itself.
Why would one abbreviate the word “you” by the letter “u”, and the word “your” by the two letters “yr”?
The short time that the lazy sender saves by applying sloppy communication is eaten up by the extra time that he has to invest in order to answer questions that will come up: are we talking about two different bookmarks? I am asking because my bookmark has only a photo on page 3, and not on “page 3 to 4”.
And why not using full stops and commas?
4. There Is A Fast Tool For Simplifying Your Texts
Here is a simple tool for improving your texts: Google Translate (click here: https://translate.google.com/)
Copy/paste your specific text into that text box on the left side, then select a foreign language from a different language area, Chinese works. This is what Google Translate made from Pat´s short text above:
Then click the “swap languages” button, see here
That way, the Chinese text moves to the left side. Now choose a language from yet another language area for the right window, let´s say Arabic, Pat´s text now looks like this:
“لقد ذكرت أنك تريد إضافة جزء من الغلاف إلى الإشارة المرجعية بعد نقل صورتك من الصفحة 3 إلى الصفحة 4. تفكر صورتك في توسيع المساحة الفارغة إلى اليسار لملء الفراغ. حاول أن تظهر لك في وقت لاحق”
Now press the “swap language” button again so that the Arabic text moves to the left side. Now choose “English” as the language for the right window. Pat´s text now looks like this:
You mentioned that you want to add a portion of the cover to the bookmark after moving your image from page 3 to page 4. Your image is considering expanding the blank space to the left to fill the void. Try to show it to you at a later time
Compare that result above with Pat´s original text:
u mentioned u wanted to feature part of the cover in the book mark once yr picture is removed fr page 3 to 4 there will be an empty space where yr pic was thinking of spreading out the cover picture more to the left to fill up the space we try and show u later
That result again speaks for itself and for the technology behind Google Translate: Two full stops have been added at the right position. The acronyms have been replaced by proper language. Even the meaning is partly correct.
It is now very obvious which parts of Pat´s original text need improvements, right?
5. Avoid Irony and Sarcasm
You are now moving up in the complexity level of information. While the earlier examples above dealt with transmitting a certain piece of information over a transmission channel, we are now talking about the meaning that is transported in that message.
Irony and its dull-witted sister sarcasm are rhetorical figures for expressing one’s opinion, by using language that signifies the opposite. Why would one use such a technique for transmitting a professional message when it can cause great damage if taken literally?
The background can be the following. In some companies, middle management leadership teams distinguish themselves from the simple men by speaking in codes, by using acronyms, and by using sarcasm in order to express their contempt by hiding it in affirmative remarks. Just google for “smart sarcasm” if you want to find out more. Example: an urgent project has to be completed by a deadline, but requires overtime work. Overtime work has to be explicitly allowed by upper management which cannot be reached last minute. Middle management comments: “As we are not supposed to do overtime, we go home now. Tomorrow is still another day. We can afford that little delay”. And so they miss the deadline.
6. Provide Redundancy in The Transmitted Information
That is what I can tell you from being a communications engineer: it is always dangerous to provide information without any redundancy.
Information can get partly scrambled along the way, it can be unclear, or simply the sender and the recipient have a different background in knowledge.
Here are some basic redundancies that I regularly use:
- writing “21:00pm SG time”, when “9pm” would also do it, for obvious reasons
- in a letter to a patent office: stating the official file reference, together with our file reference, with the name of the applicant, and with the official title of a patent application, when the official file reference would be enough
- using a defined file name format “2ABC appeal letter to patent office ddmmyy.doc” when a file name “appeal letter new.doc” would also do it (with “2ABC” being our file reference, and “ddmmyy” being the actual date of creating or altering that file)
- when starting a new message, referring to that specific message from my counterpart to which I am replying: “in reply to your email of (date)”
7. Written Messages: Write for Someone Specific and At A School Level Way Below Your Own School Level
Many copywriters miss this aspect. Writing in simple language helps you to connect with a reader on an emotional level. Your readers never have to waste their brainpower dissecting your sentences.
The deeper reason for that is that one does not want to make people think, except when you really want them to think.
And there is a free grading tool out there for measuring the simplicity of written texts:
I am aiming to write at the 5th to 8th grade level (age 10-13).
This article that you are reading now is grade 9.5. An average 14 years old can read it just fine.
When your text reads at a 8th grade level it sails right into an adult reader’s brain and it sticks there. A reader spends his brain cells digesting the ideas of your message, and he will not spend brainpower for parsing the message text.
Here is my checklist for writing simple texts
- Never use a 4 syllable word when a 2 syllable word will do
- Using short simple sentences that get right to the point
- Making your paragraphs short and punchy
It is good to keep your texts in the Grade 4-7 range, and even white papers and tutorials below 9 or 10. Since age = grade level + 5, that makes sure that any 14 years old can understand what you have written
For promotional materials: the “You to Me ratio” should be above 1.5:1. It is always good to talk about your reader more than about yourself. So the terms “You”, “Your”, etc. should be present more often than the terms, “I”, “me”, “my”, “we”. A “You to Me ratio” of 1.5 : 1 is good, but more is even better.
The reason for this is that it is much easier to listen to somebody who is talking about YOU than somebody who constantly talks about themselves. It’s more fun and it’s less work. Many times you can twist a sentence around and speak from the reader’s point of view. See? I just did it again.
The You:Me ratio of this message is 1.3:1. Which is one reason why you are still reading now.
So have a specific person in mind when you are writing your message, be it a court submissions, a letters, an email, or a messenger text. Do so even if you do not know the person at the other end. Just image a specific person to be the recipient that comes closest to the person that you think that might be the recipient: that can be your grandmother, the driver of your daily commuting bus, or your sports trainer. Whoever, but they should be a specific person.
You can use this grading tool www.perrymarshall.com/grade for long articles or for short email subject lines, but also for tweets and for Facebook posts.
Example for Using the Grading Tool
I have taken an example from an article on my website (click here).
This is a common disclaimer found in emails. Can you understand it?
The foregoing message may, in whole or in part (including but not limited to any and all attachments hereto), contain confidential and/or privileged information. If you are not the addressee denominated in the foregoing recipient box designated for the purpose of such denomination, or you are not a person or persons authorized to receive this message for said recipient, then you must not use, copy, disclose, or take any action on said message or on any information hereinabove and/or hereinbelow. If said message has been received by you in error, please advise the sender forthwith by reply email and delete said message. Unintended transmission of said message shall not constitute a knowing waiver of attorney-client privilege or of any other privilege to which the unintentional sender may be entitled at law or in equity.
The grading tool says that it is Grade 17.5, which means that only people above age 22.5 can understand it. Probably they can´t.
This is how I prefer that email disclaimer to be:
This message, together with any attachments, may contain privileged or confidential information. Unless you are the intended recipient, you cannot use it. If you have received this email by mistake, please reply to let us know and then permanently delete it. We do not waive any privilege with misdelivered email.
The grading tool says that it is Grade 8.5, which means that only people above age 13.5 can understand it.
The information conferred in both disclaimers is identical.
All clear now?
C. Call to Action
Give the above a test by applying the “Google Translate” test and the “Grading Tool” test to the disclaimer message at the bottom of your own professional emails.
This is a long article. You will probably not remember it tomorrow. Just make sure that you find it again when you think about it when you need it next time. You can probably find it if you search for “language” on my website, in the “Tip of the Week” section.
Martin “Clear” Schweiger