Susannah’s blog

Why communicating in writing is so hard

How would you feel if you were asked to bake a cake using one spoon, a bowl and no measuring scales?

Writing isn’t quite as difficult as that, but it’s worth remembering that when you write you are working with just words, less than 10% of the tools of normal communication.

You can’t see your reader, nor can he or she see you. That removes about 65% of our normal means of communication: for example, whether you’re smiling or frowning, whether you’re leaning towards them or slouching away from them, what you’re doing with your hands and so on.

Nor can you hear one another. That accounts for about 25%.

I was writing an email to a colleague when I realised that something I was about to say depended on how she would hear it – the tone of voice – for it to be rightly understood.

It was the simple phrase: “Of course”. My colleague had pointed out something I knew perfectly well but had forgotten to mention in our previous exchange. I wrote “Of course that’s …” meaning “Silly me. I knew that and should have thought of it”. Tone: self-deprecating.

But if she had heard it differently, she might have thought I was saying “That’s obvious. I didn’t think I needed to mention it.” Tone: put-down.

I crossed out “Of course” and found another way of saying what I meant.

Try it yourself. When speaking to someone, you can use the same words to mean different things by varying your tone of voice. When writing, you have to be so careful.

If you think I could help you with your writing, please get in touch.

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