In written communication, technical people can sometimes come across as impolite. I see this on Slack (talking down), Twitter (the angry tweeter), in emails (blunt and terse), in blog comments (bitter sarcasm or pedantry), Hacker News discussions (aggressive confrontation), and other places IT builders gather online.
Perhaps you, as just such a technical person, don’t mean to be impolite. Maybe your focus is on efficiency. Get to the point. Say what needs saying, however it comes out. Click send. Job done. Go back to facepalming at the Swagger docs explaining this ill-considered API you need to use.
Here’s the problem with your communications approach. To the person receiving your missive, you might sound like you’re upset. Or tone-deaf. Or maybe just a jerk. You’re presumably none of those things, at least not intentionally. We’re all nice folks who want to get along with our fellow humans, right?
It’s not what you say. It’s how you’re heard.
You need to communicate in such a way that you’re heard as you mean to be heard. If you’re not good at this and want to be, you can improve your messaging.
Before hitting send, engage in role reversal. If you received a message such as the one you’re about to send, how would you perceive it?
A big part of putting yourself in the reversed role is context. As the sender of the message, you have your own internal context that justifies your phrasing. The receiver probably doesn’t have that context. Therefore, you have to think about receiving the message without your own context to fill in the blanks. Would you be offended by the message? Mystified? Irritated? Feel put upon?
If role reversal reveals context problems, edit your message to clearly communicate what you mean to say. The recipient will know where you’re coming from, which will help them interpret your message correctly.
Ask another human to read your message before sending. Ideally, this human is someone you respect for their tactful, thoughtful communication style. If someone just popped to mind and you sighed inwardly…perfect. That’s the human.
Think hard about tone. Your choice of words can soften a blow or sharpen a knife. Indicate sarcasm or share humor. Encourage the reader or depress them.
- If your tone is angry, the recipient will feel attacked or threatened, even if they are not the object of your wrath.
- If your tone is cheerful, the reader is more likely to be open to your words, even if you are sharing something negative.
- If your tone is balanced and considered, you’ll be perceived as thoughtful and trustworthy or knowledgeable.
- If your tone is clipped and terse, the recipient will read between the lines using what few words you’ve written as clues.
- If your tone is sarcastic, that might be misinterpreted by the reader if they don’t know you well or lack “sarcasm sense.”
While we can have a robust discussion on the role emojis play in formal writing 😳, I find that for most digital comms, emojis are an effective way to establish tone. Use them. It’s okay. 👍
Communication builds bridges…or burns them down.
Take the time to communicate well. In the age of remote work, your writing in whatever medium is a digital description of who you are. Make sure readers get the right idea.
For a podcast discussion about effective technical communication, listen to Heavy Networking Episode 568, where I interview Drew Conry-Murray, a career technical writer and editor, and the content director at Packet Pushers. This episode is less about tone and perception and more about helping non-nerds understand nerd-speak. The podcast is free. You don’t have to sign up or fill out a form or select all the boats. Just go listen and hopefully get something useful for the time spent.