The science of emails #1: write adult-to-adult

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:

  1. we downplay the news because we worry about what others will think of us
  2. 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

  1. Give your reader the facts upfront – in clear, straightforward language.
  2. Don’t downplay the seriousness of a situation.
  3. 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 hello@thewriter.com

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