5 Tips for Clearer Written Communications

When you’re working with a distributed team, your written communications absolutely have to be as clear as possible. A lot of in-person communication has absolutely nothing to do with the actual words we’re using. Body language, tone of voice and other factors that can completely change the meaning of a few words, and they simply don’t translate to email. Using written communications to manage a distributed team can amplify problems, especially when you factor in issues like cultural differences.

Here are some tips for ensuring that your written communications are as clear as possible.

  1. Use precise language. Don’t suggest “doing the thing to the stuff” or anything similar — in fact, removing words like “stuff” and “thing” from your vocabulary entirely is a good plan. Vague words are just an opportunity for problems to creep in. That’s true of jargon and abbreviations, too.
  2. Keep your sentences short. It’s important to remember that the longer the sentence, the more likely that the reader will lose track. When in doubt, err on the side of short, plain sentences.
  3. Reread what you’ve written. Spell check certainly isn’t infallible, and can’t spot if you’ve used a correctly spelled yet wrong word. In fact, it may be better in some cases not to run spell check at all. Look for problems yourself before letting your computer try to solve them, and pay attention to any automated processes your word processor or email client tries to inflict on your writing.
  4. Ask for feedback. If someone isn’t entirely clear on what message you’re trying to send them, make sure that they can easily come back and ask questions. Incorporate that feedback into your writing, as well. If you’ve got the time, rewrite your message to correct the issues it had, if only to make sure that you don’t have the same problems next time. If you’re working on a big document, write up clean versions that make use of feedback, rather than relying on a string of comments, updates or responses that you can’t guarantee anyone will read.
  5. Read messages out loud to yourself. Reading your message out loud to yourself is a good way to check whether what you’ve written makes sense. If you notice yourself gesturing or changing your tone of voice as you read, stop and think about whether you need to add a few more words to convey whatever meaning you were gesturing. If it’s a particularly important message, you might run it by someone else, as well.

The ability to write clearly is becoming more and more important, especially in organizations that work primarily online. Whether you’re using an IM client to plan projects, a robust piece of project management software to keep up-to-date or email just to stay in touch, clear writing will speed up the process and minimize problems.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Sami Keinanen

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