Pick Up the Darn Phone and Talk

Business Man Talking on PhoneI’m worried. I’ve been worried about the quality of communication in the United States for a long time. For longer than I can remember, I’ve said the hardest thing for humans to do is communicate effectively. I think our increasing reliance on written communication is worsening the situation.

Which is a strange thing to say as an introvert who makes his living as a business writer specializing in copywriting and policy and procedure writing. Perhaps I’m biased in thinking that writing well is difficult. As a freelance writer and editor whose purpose is to help business owners and managers have more compelling and easy to understand writing, I see a lot of bad writing: marketing copy that confuses rather than motivates readers–or even worse–is simply ignored, and operations policy and procedure manuals that don’t provide enough information or are outdated.

Maybe I think the increasing reliance on writing is worsening the quality of our communication because of my age. I’m 53 now, and I remember the time before texts and emails replaced handwritten letters. Back then more care was taken to write well. Sentences and words couldn’t be quickly corrected, so more forethought was given to what was written. Consequently there was greater reliance on telephone and face-to-face meetings to quickly provide information. Writing took too long.

In 1967 Dr. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, concluded that body language conveyed 55% of meaning, tone of voice 38%, and words 7%. That’s the study people have used for years as a source on how important body language and tone of voice are to verbal communication. While the study’s results and findings have been greatly overgeneralized, Dr. Mehrabian states on his website that his findings are applicable to communication of a narrow range of subjects (feelings and attitudes), I do believe physical cues and tone carry more weight in conveying information than the words used.

With written communication, there is no body language or vocal tone readers can use to clarify what the writer means, so structure, word choice, and  grammar become extremely important. Besides body language and tone, there’s another element that’s often overlooked in communication–the listener’s or reader’s own subconscious biases and unquestioned assumptions. Together those biases and assumptions filter and reshape meanings—especially when the sender and receiver have different biases and assumptions.

Have a liberal and a conservative read the same factual statements and each will draw different meanings. I’ve begun to think much of the written material we receive is like Rorschach ink blots. The meaning people understand in their brain is greatly influenced by their personal viewpoints rather than the intrinsic meaning of the words themselves as society become more polarized.

Add in external factors such as the information tidal wave and demands for increased output, and it’s a wonder people correctly understand much of anything.

There is still a place for writing–thank goodness or I’d be out business. Marketing products and services still requires writing. When information needs to be referred back to, such as business policies and procedures, writing is significantly more effective than verbally repeating instructions.

Just remember, and this from a freelance business writer, if you need to convey information quickly and clearly to one person, don’t spend time writing a text, email, or letter. Pick up a phone and talk to them or see them face-to-face. You’ll save time and your message will be better understood. There’s already too much misunderstanding in the world. Don’t add to it.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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2 Responses to Pick Up the Darn Phone and Talk

  1. Your article reminded me of an incident that illustrated how much people project their own feelings into words they read. When Obama was first elected, my sister (a staunch Republican) declared the country was ruined. I called her and said “Define ‘ruined'”. Working together, we came up with 6 objective indicators that we thought could define how the country was doing. I checked the status of those indicators and put the data away for 4 years, when I checked them again. 3 of the indicators were to the negative, and 3 were positive. Finding this interesting, I posted the data on my Facebook page and was inundated by angry messages from liberals and conservatives alike who felt the data supported their point of view. I took it down within a few days.

  2. Bruce, I’ve had similar experiences with a good friend of mine with opposite political views. I would spend an hour or two writing an email to refute his assertions and then discover he misunderstood my carefully explained reasoning. I also discovered I frequently misunderstood his writing. I should point out we were both technical writers at the time, so we both knew how to write well. We eventually agreed to not have political arguments using email. Face-to-face communication was by far the better way to exchange ideas. That experience underscored the effect of often unrecognized biases and assumptions in communication to me.