6 ways to improve your written communications
These are universal strategies for effective emails, social media posts, text messages and official reports
By Steve Knight, Ph.D.
While formal memos and letters may be long gone, we’re communicating with the written word more than ever before, now via email, social media, text messages and more.
The platforms may have changed, but certain universal truths about effective writing remain. Here are some tips that can help you with anything you’re writing, from a two-sentence email to a formal report.
1. Write with a goal
Before beginning any form of written communication, it is important to spend a few minutes establishing a goal or intended outcome. In a world influenced by social media, many communications lack clarity, other than updating the world on what the writer had for dinner.
Taking a brief pause to focus on the ultimate goal of your communication is well worth the effort. When there is not a clear outcome, it may be better to table the message and incorporate it into a subsequent message.
2. Style matters
The speed of communication, coupled with the need for instant gratification, has created an expectation that communications are not only shared rapidly but are reviewed and responded to immediately. This accelerated exchange has lured many of us into responding with quick excerpts and text language that may be inappropriate for professional communications.
For example, the auto-correct feature on your mobile device is sometimes helpful but often erodes both form and professionalism. Therefore, it is important to focus your attention and review your communications prior to hitting send. Format, syntax, grammar and spelling often help people develop a first impression that may be difficult to overcome.
3. Be concise, except when you shouldn’t
Conciseness is not a new concept in professional communications. Adding more words doesn’t make you sound smarter or more prepared. However, the proliferation of written communication media that restrict our available word or character count has swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. These restrictions force us to be overly brief, and sometimes the lack of punctuation or a misunderstood abbreviation can cause more headaches than the extra 20 seconds you need to use proper syntax and spell things out. Just ask any shortness-of-breath patients who’ve ever wondered why their patient care reports say "SOB" under chief complaint.
4. More is not always bad
While clear and concise communications are preferred, there are times when lengthier communications are appropriate. It is important to know your audience. For example, if your audience doesn’t share the same technical expertise or understanding, concise communications that assume too much about the reader’s base knowledge may be less than optimal. However, a balance must be achieved to understand when to transition to verbal communication rather than written communication. For example, tasks and assignments are good for written communications, but if it’s necessary to explain the tasks or assignments, they are better left to direct verbal exchanges.
5. Public information and the echo factor
For those of us who work in public agencies or communicate with public agencies, it is important to review our written communications through the lens of public consumption. With some exceptions for privacy protection and quality improvement, nearly every written communication to or from a public official can be legally obtained by members of the public or the media.
Even in private organizations, we should ask ourselves how we would feel if an email, memo, presentation or report appeared on a popular citizen advocacy blog, in the newspaper or on the evening news, because it easily could.
In addition, when communications are digitized, they can be reproduced, disseminated widely and easily stored — meaning they could spread across the world and still be around long after we’ve all retired.
6. Ask for clarification
Finally, when you read a policy, memo or message written by someone else, keep in mind how difficult it sometimes is to write clearly and concisely. If something seems confusing or unclear, ask the writer to clarify rather than assuming you know what he or she meant.
Encourage colleagues and subordinates to have someone review written communications before they are widely disseminated. Sometimes it’s impossible to know how others will interpret something you’ve written until it’s too late, and while you might know your intent, the true meaning of the words is in the reader’s mind, not the writer’s mind.
About the author:
Steve Knight, Ph.D., a Fitch & Associates consultant, brings more than 25 years of fire and EMS experience to the firm. He served for nearly 17 years as assistant fire chief for the City of St. Petersburg, Fla. He has been a subject matter expert for both the National Fire Academy and the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE), a nonprofit corporation that serves as the governing body for the organizations that offer accreditation, education and credentialing services to the first responder and fire service industries.