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How To Say What You Mean

It's up to you to mean what you say.

by Kindra Foster (September 20, 2004)

About three years ago, when I was working as communications manager for AccuCut, I put an article on my schedule for a specific magazineís next issue. The editor always asked for articles by the 8th of the month, which meant that the material would be due in a little more 30 days. I went about my business, keeping the deadline in the back of my mind and on my electronic calendar Ė feeling clever to have booked the article and perfectly comfortable with the time frame.

A few days after booking the article, I received another call from the editor wanting to know if I was going to be able to provide the article. I was puzzled. Why was she calling me so early to confirm? "I meant the article would be due the 8th of THIS month!" she said, panicking when she realized I had planned it for the following month. A classic case of miscommunication.

In any business, itís critical to learn how to communicate correctly with words Ė either verbal or written. A little slip of a word here or there can cause mixed-up messages and chaotic scrambling to make up for a misunderstanding.

Never fear. Although we wonít ever perfect human communication (thatís part of our charm and challenge as a species), we can avoid problems with a little forethought. Enlist the following four simple rules to increase the odds of your messages succeeding as intended.

1. Say it early.

Plan ahead, and deliver messages in plenty of time to allow for a "margin for error." If you send a business plan to the bank on the exact day itís due, for example, your banker canít read it and troubleshoot before it must be turned in for approval. Leave a margin of time appropriate to the project. You might send a memo a couple of days before the date inviting a colleague to lunch, but send a memo about a holiday luncheon for the entire staff at least three weeks ahead.

2. Say everything.

We tend to make assumptions. When I accepted the assignment to write an article by the 8th of the month, it was almost the 8th of the current month. I didnít know the editor was a little behind and needed the article NOW! She could have told me, could have made it sound a bit more urgent. On the other hand, I could have confirmed the day AND the month, even if it seemed obvious.

Remember the newspaper reporterís old routine: who, what, where, when, how and why? Answer all of those questions in any message you say or write and youíll be less likely to leave something out.

3. Say it with feeling.

Itís easy to forget this one. We think we must be professional and brief, which is true. However, we sometimes allow that to keep us from being human, and there is much more to human communication than words. When you are speaking, look a person in the eye; use body language that communicates your interest and concern. The person actually will hear you better when you demonstrate your connection with them in these ways Ė and more easily recall what you said!

When you are writing, add occasional comments that connect emotionally with the recipient of your message. Email, a relatively new medium for messages, is notorious for sucking emotion out of communication and causing misunderstandings.

Donít send an e-mail like this one from Susan: Sam: The meeting is at 10 tomorrow. You need to bring the Simmons report. Susan

Do send an e-mail like this one from Alex: Sam: The meeting is at 10 a.m. tomorrow in the main conference room. Will you please bring the Simmons report so we can review it in reference to the companyís new promotions? Iím looking forward to it. This is going to be a good year. Alex

The addition of two small sentences at the end of Alexís note will increase Samís motivation immeasurably. Wouldnít you rather go to that meeting than the one with Susan? The note from Susan sets a tone of harshness that could undermine everyoneís enthusiasm. (By the way, in Alexís note, did you notice the addition of specific information, ala step #2?)

A note of caution: adding emotion doesnít mean adding volumes. Add just a sentence or two in strategic places for specific reasons. No one needs unnecessary words in this age of information overload.

4. Say what you want.

Itís usually a good idea to begin messages with foundational information the recipient will need in order to understand the message. However, sometimes we get so wrapped up in the information stage, we forget to draw a conclusion. Take a moment at the end of your message to clearly state the action you hope the recipient will take. Here are a few examples of sentences you could include toward the end of a memo:

"Let me know if you have any conflicts; otherwise, Iíll see you there at 10 a.m."

"Please list admirable qualities of the printing company and send to me by Monday, so I can flesh out the letter of recommendation by Wednesday."

"Please keep this confidential."

Last Minute Messages.

When I learned the editor needed her article immediately, I sprang into action and wrote it, of course. Iím a professional and I wanted her to know she could count on me, even when the going gets rough. However, I learned my lesson. I didnít assume anything, in spite of the tough deadline. I double checked my research and tightened my text till it squeaked. Do what you have to do, but make a mental note: next time plan ahead, donít assume anything, add an emotional connection, and ask for action.

(Note: Kindra Foster is owner and principal writer/editor of Foster Executive Writing & Editing, based in Lincoln, NE. She helps companies in many industries say what they mean, but specializes in the crafts industry, of which she has been a part for almost eight years. She also has done a great deal of product name brainstorming. To reach Kindra, email kfoster2@neb.rr.com or call 402-325-0457.)



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