Tuesday, November 10, 2009

You are tone blind

All the written electronic communication we do as a society has given us enormous gains, but most of us (including Inc. columnist and business owner Joel Spolsky in an example below) suffer from a frequent inability to accurately read the intention of this type of communication.

We are tone blind. Or more accurately, we are blind to more than a few communication cues that we more easily utilize using verbal communication like intonation and stress.

It doesn't help that we usually think adding emoticons and internet lingo is considered unprofessional and something for texting teenagers.

As humans, understanding someone's intention of their communication is of super importance, but it's not always an easy feat. Here's an example found on about.com:


I don't think he should get the job.

Meaning: Somebody else thinks he should get the job.

I don't think he should get the job.

Meaning: It's not true that I think he should get the job.

I don't think he should get that job.

Meaning: That's not really what I mean. OR I'm not sure he'll get that job.

I don't think he should get that job.

Meaning: Somebody else should get that job.

I don't think he should get that job.

Meaning: In my opinion it's wrong that he's going to get that job.

I don't think he should get that job.

Meaning: He should have to earn (be worthy of, work hard for) that job.

I don't think he should get that job.

Meaning: He should get another job.


Depending on where you put the emphasis in this sentence by using stress, the sentence has totally different meanings. The meaning here was only conveyed because I spent the time using Bold. But often we don't spend the time using tools like Bold and we blast off an email as soon as the words pass our fingers.

Here's an example from the real world I saw recently. Joel Spolsky, a personal hero of mine, wrote a column in Inc. magazine about some growing pains his company might be having. To more than a few people, they felt that the article is a bit of a subtle marketing piece. Right or wrong, that was their opinion. So one guy made a comment about such opinion:

"If increasing your growth rate is your objective, this looks like a very nice first step, Joel. You disguise a PR piece as an objective 'how to' in a national business publication, coming across as an authority, the underdog, and an all around nice guy who really cares about his customers. You're an engineer who claims to be 'weak' in the sales department, but all evidence to the contrary: nice 'sales hack'. Any reasonable person who takes your advice would be a fool if he bought from your competitor. Not bad for a couple hours work. Kudos."

Joel's reply:

"Jeez, everything is a conspiracy on Hacker News. How about I wrote it because I'm a columnist at Inc and I have to turn in one article a month? And how about, they hired me because they like columnists who are actively running businesses to write about the issues they face? (c.f. Norm Brodsky, the other columnist, who has some kind of a box storage business). None of the plumbers and dog shampoo-vendors who read Inc. do software project management. The number of leads I get from Inc readers is laughable. Also, you're confusing sales and marketing. They're different things. We're pretty good at marketing for a company our size. We're absolutely bad at sales."

Joel seems a bit insulted and attacked by the first commenter. Even though the first commenter cleared up in a later comment, that he WASN'T being sarcastic and was trying to genuinely complement Joel on his article.

I imagine this conversation in person would have been much more constructive and useful, if these 2 people were in person or talking on the phone and could read each other better through audible and visual cues like smiles, hand shakes, and the intonation of the comments.

This happens every day for us folks who manage projects and teams online. We have to use email and instant messaging very well to collaborate together. And for many reasons, it's our preferred communication channel at Inkling.

Email allows people to work asynchronously and schedule interruptions better so they can get more work done while they are in a zone. But often a discussion over email can easily turn into an unintended disagreement because the intention of the written word was inaccurately understood.

At Inkling, we've picked up a few habits to try and combat this, which might help others to keep in mind.

1) Emoticons and internet lingo (lol, brb, lmao, etc.) do have a place in "professional communication". They aren't just for teenagers.

A :) easily lets your reader know you are smiling when you are writing your words. Just like a ! helps share that you are heightening your voice or emphasis. Don't be afraid to use these tools even with your clients to help convey your mood and your intonation.

2) Compliment, compliment, compliment. Most of us don't feel appreciated enough for what we do for other people when times are good. And now given tougher economic and political situations, there's an air of stress in many places. Complimenting people and showing gratitude early and often is a big help in producing effective written communication.

Even if a later point you make in your communication is misconstrued, an earlier mentioned compliment or thank you easily sets up a better follow up note or phone call to clear up a matter.

3) And most importantly, know when to graduate communication mechanisms. We graduate to phone calls pretty quickly. It's amazing how often, what seemed like a disagreement over email turns into a very constructive conversation over the phone. Things get cleared up, and intentions more easily understood.

The written word continues to be increasingly important in how we operate together in teams and in projects over the internet. We've learned that it helps to spend a bit of extra effort in conveying the mood and intent of our writing. Hope some of these tips help.

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