More than any other type of comms, emails run the risk of coming across the wrong way. And when it comes to communicating about coronavirus, the particular words we choose matter more than ever.
We recently ran a webinar where we shared three psychological effects that come into play when we’re writing and reading emails. And the tips to overcome them.
Here, we’ve summed up all the good stuff in three blogs.
#1 Write adult-to-adult
Which means avoiding the Mum effect. ‘Mum’ stands for minimising unpleasant messages – something we all have a tendency to do.
No one likes to be the bearer of bad news
When we have to do it, two things tend to happen:
- we downplay the news because we worry about what others will think of us
- we sugarcoat the message.
Both can be dangerous, because there’s a good chance that your reader won’t understand the seriousness of your message. So you need to write adult-to-adult, and give your readers the facts upfront.
Honesty is the best policy. Especially when communicating with higher-ups
One study found that there’s a particular tendency to soften bad news when it’s being passed to someone more senior. (Lee, 1993). As the news goes up the chain, the Mum effect is amplified.
Physics Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman calls this ‘managerial isolation’. The people at the top don’t get a clear picture of the problem.
Feyman investigated the fatal 1986 Challenger disaster, when the US space shuttle broke apart 73 seconds after take-off. When he asked the engineers who worked on the shuttle to give a probability that its main engine would fail, they said 1 in 200-300. The head of NASA’s estimate was 1 in 100,000. (Have a read of this Psychology Today article for more.)
Leaders need a full picture of what’s happening – so fight your natural instinct to fudge bad news to your bosses.
Next time you have to deliver a difficult message over email, try these three things
- Give your reader the facts upfront – in clear, straightforward language.
- Don’t downplay the seriousness of a situation.
- Don’t sugarcoat your language.
Next up in this series, we’re looking at avoiding the egocentrism issue – or, in simpler terms, how to get over yourself.
If your words need work, get in touch with us at email@example.com
On BBC Radio 2, Jeremy Vine was talking about a workshop where a group from Walsall Council were asked to use Lego in an activity. The participants weren’t happy and the workshop was being mocked online. (You can read the article here.)
Well, I called into the show. Have a listen - I’m on at 1hr50.
Here’s my take: play is fine, as long as you pitch it right.
We’re huge advocates of interactivity in workshops. We’ve rallied against ‘death by PowerPoint’ for 20 years now, and that won’t be changing. It baffles me when people are herded into windowless, stuffy rooms and sat in front of a presenter and a PowerPoint for hours, if not days, at a time. It’s a passive learning experience. And a boring one to boot.
I learnt the other day that when you’re a participant in a workshop, your body becomes depleted in glucose in the same way it would if you were working out a mathematical problem*. Learning is hard work. So the last thing you want is for it to be dull too.
Building stuff with Lego, playing with plasticine, doodling. It might sound frivolous, but it can be really valuable. Play is a great way to get people thinking differently. It can unlock ideas and keeps people engaged.
When we design workshops for our clients, we think really hard about making them enjoyable and attention-keeping.
We’ve got references to Star Trek and Sherlock in our grammar workshop. We use Beyoncé lyrics to teach people about the passive voice. We have people thinking about their bucket lists so they can get better at writing bullet points. We channel poets and journalists when we want to show how to write persuasively. We get people up and moving and playing.
Because we know that it helps the learning stick.
But - and it’s a big but - we never do it for the sake of it, and we always think about who we have in the room and what’s going to work for them. It should never, ever be cringeworthy.
Join us for a workshop and you’ll see what I mean. Lego may or may not be included.
*That's from Roy Baumeister’s book Willpower.
Recently we’ve been writing some video scripts to launch a tone of voice. They needed to be funny, and it was interesting to see what worked and what didn’t.
Here’s my theory: In life, things can be one-beat, two-beat or three-beat funny. And you have to pick the right number of beats for your message, audience, and how long you have their attention for.
On screen it’s physical comedy like Del Boy falling through the bar. In writing, it’s stuff like simple puns.
Something unexpected, like this error message.
Or this bin lorry’s strapline.
When it’s good, one-beat funny can show a pop of personality. It takes no work on the part of the reader to ‘get’ it. And it’s handy when you don’t have your audience’s attention for long.
Dad jokes tend to be two-beat funny (or cringeworthy). My favourite joke from my Dad was when he called me one day and we had this conversation
Dad: Charlotte, we’ve seen a celebrity stabbed in London!
Me: What?! Who?!
Dad: Ummm, Reece…Reece something.
Me: Reece Witherspoon?!
Dad: No, it was with a knife! Bah ha ha ha! (Hangs up).
Kudos Dad – two-beat funny.
It’s what you see in observational comedy, where the audience needs to make a connection.
Like this Nytol advert.
Using this kind of humour is good for when you know you have your audience’s attention for more than a second or two. It tends to sound more intelligent or sophisticated than the one-beat kind. (With the exception of some dad jokes.)
This is where the audience has to engage their brain a little more to get it. Like this poster from The Economist.
This sign that went up when this electronics store closed down.
And that whole suite of ads from Spotify.
Beyond being three-beat funny
It’s where things get more surreal and you’re asking your audience to suspend belief or enjoy the ridiculousness of what you’re saying. Or they have to have some inside knowledge to get it.
Like Lewis Capaldi’s album launch ad.
This kind of funny can be risky, because there’s a good chance you’re going to alienate a portion of your audience. But the pay-off is big for those that do get it.
Why am I sharing all this?
If you’re wanting to get humour into what you write, here’s my advice:
- if you don’t have much time with your audience, go for one or two-beat funny
- for more high-brow humour, go for two-beat funny or above
- only do something beyond three-beat funny if you know your audience, or they know you, really well.
And with that, I’ll leave you with my favourite joke.
Q: What’s the difference between a kangaroo and a kangaroot?
A: One’s a kangaroo and the other is a Geordie stuck in a lift.
You. Are. Welcome.
Microsoft has announced that Word is getting an injection of Artificial Intelligence. And if the comments on the BBC article are anything to go by, we should all be worried.
I think we should reserve judgement.
What Microsoft says
According to the Microsoft blog, this is about things like “calculated average time to read the document, highlight extraction, as well as familiar fixes for spelling and grammatical errors and advice on more concise and inclusive language such as ‘police officer’ instead of ‘policeman’.”
Can that really be that bad?
It could promise productivity, more confidence for people in their spelling and grammar, and formatting options to make your main points clearer.
The current version of Word
It wants me to avoid contractions, and cut words that I’ve included for a reason. But I can, and have, chosen to ignore those suggestions. And that’s the thing. We have choice.
How AI and us humans can co-exist
Regardless of what Microsoft launches, it still needs someone with purpose, emotion and a deft hand to make sure the reader gets the point. Microsoft says it too. “Writing requires a dash of uniquely human creativity. Artificial intelligence alone cannot do it for us, at least not very well.”
Let’s not fear what we don’t yet know
This change could make our lives easier and help us avoid being a blatherskite.*
Just as long as we can still choose to say things like ‘blatherskite’.
*Blatherskite: a person who says things that are meaningless and foolish.
By Charli Nordone, UK Creative Director
The UK’s third favourite word, as of 21st September 1980.
How do I know that? Well, a while back I bought a copy of The King’s English for 50p at a secondhand bookshop and today, out fluttered a newspaper cutting. And it was all about words. Beautiful words.
Since it’s World Book Day (and since, sometimes, we just like to write about our love of language), I thought I’d share my treasured find with all our fellow word nerds out there.
The most beautiful English words (according to Sunday Times readers in 1980)
- Melody and velvet (it was a tie for the top spot)
Just reading those words transports me to a more a peaceful place in a time gone past.
The article then gives some example lists from specific readers.
Lady Katherine Asquith went with ivory, gazebo, syllabub, froth, vacillate, butterfly, phylloxera, hummock, mannerism and echo.
Six-year-old Natasha Henley chose beautiful, jewellery, Emma (her sister), ballet, necklace, dress, garden, bird, fairy and flower.
At the end, the journalist thanks the contributors, and says: ‘the sound, shape and sense of your words continue to flood the mind with their beauty’.
My question to you is, what words flood your mind with their beauty?
Comment below, or let us know on Twitter. And a very happy World Book Day to you all.