Sharpen your Communications to Cut Through the Noise

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How’s everyone doing? Good?

Just kidding. I know this week’s been a dumpster fire. But you’ve clicked on this post for a reason, so let’s get into it.

Chances are with COVID-19 hitting everyone everywhere, you’ve felt more pressure than ever to communicate effectively at work. That’s true whether you’re a senior executive or manager of a small team or an entry-level employee.

And with everyone feeling this way, you not only have to be clear in your communications, you also have to compete with all the other messages banging about in every inbox and in every corner of the Internet.

So, some tips.

Tip #1: Be as direct and brief as possible. 

We’re all feeling a lot of feelings. You may want to share yours and empathize with others. That’s nice. But doing so at length waters down your communications when people are craving straightforward information.

I like this note from the workout app Aaptive:

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Four sentences, yet information-rich.

OK, maybe that’s not your style. Here’s what you can do instead:

  • Write down everything you want to say, then go back and remove at least a third of what you’ve written. I promise you can do it. Start with removing “that”; it’s almost never necessary.
  • Use the active voice. See which sounds sharper: The premises have been searched by the authorities (passive) OR The authorities searched the premises (active). Look for “by” or “have” phrases to spot passive voice. More here.
  • Read what you’ve written aloud. Saying it and hearing it will help you catch any verbal tangles or run-on sentences.
  • Keep your sentences short. Look for commas. If you can replace one with a period and still make a complete sentence, you can reduce filler words and keep your writing tight.

Tip #2: Write for both scanners and deep-divers. 

I hate the claim “nobody reads anymore.” Not true.

The reality is there are people who skim and others who comb through every terms and conditions statement ever put in front of them. The trick is to write for both.

How?

  • Make use of bold text. Highlight the key points in your communications for those who skim.
  • Make use of bullets. Yes, like I’m doing right now. See how much easier it is to track each new point?
  • Make use of subheadings. I’ve seen a lot of CEO messages this week that use solid blocks of dense text. Stop it. Separate ideas with unifying subheadings to make text easier to read.

Tip #3. Don’t bury vital information. 

OK, I realize the irony of making this the third point. But if you follow the first two tips, you may not need this one because you will have cut all the throat clearing.

Just in case: Do not wait until the end to say the important thing.  

Ever notice how news stories tell you the most important stuff up top? That style emerged so editors could easily chop stories from the bottom-up to fit newspaper space. It ensured they didn’t cut the who, what, when, where, why and how.

The readers of your communications will do the same editing exercise with their attention spans. Yes, even if you’re the boss. Make sure you tell them the critical stuff as early as possible.

Tip #4: Include a call to action and next steps. 

What would you like people to do after reading your communication? Should they call a number? Write an email? Stay at home?

Make sure you’re explicit about what you expect of them and about what they can be doing during this time.

In the same vein, let readers know what steps you’re taking. Be specific.

“We’ll be doing everything we can” may seem like a nice thing to say, but it’s not terribly informative or helpful. Detailing even the seemingly small stuff can go a long way to make your audience feel informed.

There they are—my top tips for how to ensure people actually read your communications. Use even one or two of them and your writing will be a cut above much of what’s out there right now. Promise.

Times are difficult for everyone in our industry. If you’re looking for support or advice or an extra set of eyes on something you’ve written, don’t hesitate to reach out.

It’s going to be critical for you to keep the lines of communication open with your teams in the coming weeks. For more information on crisis communications next steps, check out this post from Dots & Lines Inc. president Katharine Farrell. 

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