Jill Geisler: Make sure your written communication hits the mark

March 28, 2024 2:21 pm

The best leaders are good communicators, whether speaking or writing. That’s why it’s important to periodically assess how well you’re performing in this area. My last column offered tips to improve your presentations. This one is designed to help upgrade your writing game, focusing on memos, email and social media.

1 Maximize memo impact

Whether announcing a new hire, laying out an overview of a new project or sharing news about a successful quarter, you want the message to be clear, concise and memorable. Keep the following tips in mind to make that happen.

Assume short attention spans. Give busy people a reason to read your message, right from the start. (For example, note how I started this column simply and succinctly. I put a stake in the ground for the importance of good communication and told you what you’re going to learn.) Don’t waste a reader’s time with wordy messages. Or as my very tough high school English teacher demanded, “Squeeze the water out of it!”

Break up copy. Long sentences can be confusing. When you’re about to write the word “and” in a sentence, consider putting a period there and starting a new sentence. Avoid dense paragraphs. Break up copy with white spaces. Why?

A sentence like this one is more memorable.

Write the way you talk. Skip formality and management speak. Too often, leaders’ messages come across as inauthentic, buttoned up or lawyered up for no good reason. Be yourself.

Avoid passive voice. Look at the difference between “Mistakes were made in the process.” and “We made mistakes in the process.” One is muddy. The other is direct. If the active/passive voice thing is confusing to you, do this when writing: Think of the song: “I Shot the Sheriff.” That line is an example of active voice. If it were in passive voice, poor Eric Clapton would have to sing, “The Sheriff was Shot by Me.”

Use hyperlinks. Make it easy for people to learn more about something you reference. If calling attention to a news story, research or something on a website, insert a hyperlink. It’s courteous and makes it more likely people will dig deeper.

Love thy editor. All writers benefit from an editor’s help. The more important the message, the more important it is to get a second set of eyes on your draft. Editors check for spelling, grammar, clarity, logic, accuracy and even sensitivity. They’re the advocate for your readers — and for your reputation!

Do the skeptic test. Some messages sound great in our heads but aren’t well-received. When writing about touchy topics or to skeptical staff, read the message out loud in a sarcastic voice before sending. Really. It’s a great way to check if the words could land differently than you intend.

2 Elevate email correspondence

You may dash off so many emails that it’s automatic. Make sure you do it strategically, with a focus on clarity, brevity and user-friendliness.

Use clear subject lines. Don’t send emails without one. It’s bad form. Think of them as headlines to get attention and to be easily searched later.

Help staff prioritize. If your email isn’t urgent, make that clear. Emails from supervisors can cause people to drop what they’re doing to reply. If you don’t need immediate action, say: “When you can.” Or use “AYC” for “at your convenience” in the subject line or body copy.

Watch your timing. If you have a great idea in the middle of the night and want to share, don’t send it then. People whose bosses email them at all hours often think the boss expects them to be on duty at those times, too. If you’re afraid you won’t remember your inspiration, write it in a draft. Save it. Then send it during office hours.

Start smart. To avoid misunderstanding, use the first line to telegraph your intent. When a manager sends an email asking, “Where do we stand on XYZ?” the recipient might read it as: “Why isn’t it done yet?” That wasn’t what you meant. You just needed information for a meeting. So start with: “No pressure, just checking for the monthly meeting. Where do we stand on XYZ?”

Bold names. Here’s an email trick to get people’s attention. If mentioning multiple names, type them in bold. Folks have short attention spans, but are drawn in when their name jumps off the page — and more likely to pay closer attention.

Highlight points. The format of this column practices what I’m preaching. Instead of writing these tips in essay form, I made each point visually stand out with a short, bold title. So if you’re scanning, you could quickly pick those most interesting to you. I also used the same sentence structure. Each title starts with a verb, making each a call to action.

3 Strengthen social media presence

Smart leaders use social media to an advantage. Think in terms of authenticity and engagement.

Develop a social media strategy. Know why you post. Are you building a brand, engaging with the public, trying to be part of a professional community or simply sociaizing? Just remember, whether it’s a personal or professional account, your posts reflect on your organization.

Consider your digital legacy. Assume everything you post is forever — and will be seen and shared. Bad jokes, political snark, shameless self-promotion — anything — could come back to haunt you. Post things you can proudly stand behind, now and in the future.

Share with care. The more any social media item triggers your emotions, the more you should confirm its veracity before sharing. Don’t pass along things that outrage you, tug at your heartstrings or seem like an important warning before finding out if it’s true. Leaders have a special obligation to fight disinformation. If you need guidance, I highly recommend the News Literacy Project’s great work.

Send messages with a personal touch

Here’s a bonus tip: When I ask managers in my classes if they’ve saved personalized notes of praise, appreciation, encouragement or celebration from a boss, many say “yes.” Your handwritten note or thoughtful card takes a little extra time and effort. Recipients know that. That’s why they value those personal messages — and the leaders who send them. 


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