Sunday, September 7, 2008

Clearly Written Communication: Make Sure the Other Person Knows What You Mean

A college sophomore I know needed to replace all the cell phone numbers he had stored in his own cell phone. So he did what I think was rather clever. He created an event page on Facebook to request that his friends send him their cell phone numbers.

Only there was one tiny problem. He gave the event a weird name – something with letters and symbols that was way beyond my understanding – and didn’t clearly explain what the event was for. After he got several puzzled replies besides mine, he realized that he hadn’t clearly stated the purpose of his event.

I’m bringing this up here as an example of something we all do at one time or another: assume that another person can follow what we mean because it is so clear to us what is needed. What we all need to remember is that another person doesn’t necessarily have all the prior information that we have.

Whatever you write for other people to read must be clear. You need to put yourself in the other person’s place to figure out what he/she needs to know to understand what you’re talking about.

This is true whether you’re writing a college application essay or a memo to your boss about a topic the boss asked you to research or a query letter asking for an informational meeting.

When I was feature editor of the State News at Michigan State University, a reporter on my feature staff said to me, “Phyllis, you know what I mean in this news story.” And I replied, “Yes, I know. But the student who reads this article in tomorrow’s paper may not. You have to write this so that student who doesn’t know what I know can understand what you’re saying.”

The next time you write someone – or create an event on Facebook – make sure that what you’ve said is clear to anyone who does not know the background information that you do. Give the other person enough information so that he/she can follow what it is you’re saying.

If you always keep the point of view of the other person in mind when writing, you’ll be able to earn a reputation as someone who is a good writer and able to communicate well with others. This is a good reputation to have even in the age of IMing and Twitter.

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Sun Singer said...

Quite a few people need to read this post!


Phyllis Zimbler Miller said...

You're so right!