The science of emails #3: know the feeling you want to get across

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. Find the first blog in the series here.

#3 Know the feeling you want to get across

In our last post we touched on how emotion can get miscommunicated over email: you read an email one way, when the sender meant it to come across totally differently. Linked to that are the neutrality and negativity effects, which come from the research of psychologist Kristin Byron.

A mismatch of intent and effect

Byron suggests that if you intend your message to seem positive, there’s a good chance it’ll be read as neutral. And if you think you’re coming across as neutral, there’s a chance you’ll sound negative.

It’s about a lack of cues

In email you can’t see people’s facial expressions, body language or reactions. Without being able to see a quizzical look or a raised eyebrow, we don’t know an email is landing badly. Nor can our reader see the smile that tells them that our comment was a joke – not a dig.

Knowing that these effects exist is half the battle

As writers, it means we’ll be more aware of how our emails might be misconstrued. And as readers, it can help us question whether Dan from HR using so many full stops really means he’s annoyed at us. We could give him the benefit of the doubt.

Beyond that, the best way to stop emotion getting lost over email is to pinpoint the exact feeling you’re going for. Think beyond negative, neutral and positive. Do you want your readers to feel relieved? Hopeful? Calmed? Curious? Tuning in to the specific emotion you’re trying to convey will help you review your writing, and make sure you’re using language that evokes that feeling.

A word of warning

If you want your email to convey a positive emotion, don’t default to using lots of upbeat adjectives and exclamation marks. The adjectives will mean you’re telling your reader how you want them to feel, rather than actually moving them to feel that way. This is a great opportunity! What an exciting initiative!

And exclamation marks will likely make you sound over-excited or shouty. Don’t do it!!! (See.)

Three ways to beat the neutrality and negativity effects

  1. Pick the specific emotion you’re aiming for in your reader, and use language that evokes it.
  2. Know that you might have to dial the feeling you’re going for up slightly – it gets dampened somewhere in cyberspace.
  3. Don’t rely on hackneyed phrases, exclamation marks and positive adjectives to create a mood.

If your words need work, get in touch with us at hello@thewriter.com

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