• Author:Ben Jones
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“Contempt for the reader; you are showing contempt for the reader…….”

A former colleague of my wife would brandish this phrase at his team when they wrote something that wasn’t tailored to their reader’s needs; it was too long, too hard to follow, too clever for its own good.

This is a harsh (but fair) way of saying, that they did not think about their audience (mostly the reader because we are now addicted as a business community to email, eBulletins, monthly updates, think pieces, presentations, and increasingly blogs) when deciding what to tell them. In fact, tragically it so often feels like an endless stream of consciousness without any thinking being done about the start, middle and end. 

There is pressure on senior people to show leadership, set direction, provide updates and so on, but – perhaps because they are in senior roles and therefore under constant diary pressure – they do not take the time to think about the purpose of what they are saying or writing. They fail to ask themselves the ‘so what’ question. They just write. And write. And write. 

It is the oldest and most important rule of any form of communication – be clear who your audience is, what they want and need to know and what you want them to do as a result. Only having done this can you finalise your message and how you will deliver it.

As the purpose of the communication is often unclear so too the presentation of the material suffers; it becomes dense, muddled, and long. Often it is so long and hard to penetrate that the reader doesn’t even bother. So many important update emails from senior people get filed to be read at a later time but that later time never comes as each time the email appears in the preview pane of the reader’s inbox, its treacle-like awfulness becomes overwhelming and it is found a more permanent home in another folder left to gather email dust!

So often even some basic signposting is missing that would help. We do not see enough people saying this is for information, you do not need to do anything, or this is a must read for these reasons. It is all about the writer and not about the reader. Or worse, they say “FYI” and then hide an action for you in the bottom of the email! 

So much stuff is simply that, stuff. No real purpose (except to be seen to communicate). No real focus, just a lot of words that feel important to them. 

So here are three things to think about before the metaphorical pen hits the virtual paper;
Do I need to send this communication at all?
If I do, is this the right way of doing it?
If you do and it is, what is the shortest, clearest, most interesting way I can do it?

The oft-quoted (and mis-attributed) aside of Blaise Pascal in 1656 is still relevant today; “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” It can be hard to write a shorter email than a longer email, update or presentation as it takes time to collect your thoughts and edit out the information that is not required. But it is so, so helpful to the reader.

It is hard too because we all feel – especially in large corporate organisations – a pressure to prove how clever, informed or expert we are in our field- so we include technical detail, jargon (agghhhh!) and more information than the brain is capable of absorbing at one sitting. And then we commit the other sin in communicating; we just throw it down on the page and expect the reader to make their way through it with linguistic farm implements to cut away at the dense undergrowth of words and dead wood of text. It doesn’t hurt to break up the text with some subheadings, bold some key words, use bullets, numbers, anything to help the reader actually read the text without having to squint or take a short lie down before finishing reading. 

Overall the trick that is missed is to forget that communicating is about relationships. It is about connecting with someone else – and ideally often many, many people, perhaps in many different parts of the world with different values, concerns and ideas. The best communicators make the receiver feel like the message was meant just for them – it is delivered with them in mind. It makes it easy for them to receive it, understand it and respond to it. 

Perhaps next time you have to write your latest update to your team, blog post for the corporate blog or contribution to your staff magazine, you will have more concern for your reader and avoid that drift into contempt. Think about them and how you can make their experience of reading your words as easy and enjoyable as possible. And if you do, you will be standing out from the crowd because most people around you will not.