Abundant Optimism

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How to Improve the Clarity of Your Written Communication

by Tamara Martfeld

If you are in a position to read business memos and other business communication, especially communication from areas other than that in which you work, you will likely see several examples of writing styles which make general communication harder. I will address three of the most common communication barriers:

The first barrier is referring to the subject without stating the subject, such as “This letter is in reference to the subject referenced above.” or “This is in reference to your letter dated xx-xx-xxxx.” without ever mentioning the topic of the letter. In the first instance it is much more clear and frequently more concise to just mention the subject and continue the paragraph. For example, “There is a new policy for how vacations will be approved.” In this case the reader does not have to disrupt the flow of the reading to refer to the subject line to determine the topic of the letter. This is also helpful when the subject line attempts to summarize in a single line more than one topic covered in the communication or is otherwise unclear. In the second instance the reader may have written several letters to the person replying or there has been too much time between the original letter and the reply for the sender of the original letter to remember the topic of the original letter. In either case, if the reply does not ever mention the topic the reader may have to find a copy of the original letter, if one was kept, or try to remember what was stated. If the reader cannot find the original letter or remember what it was about, communication does not occur. To clarify your writing simply state the topic of your communication in the first line or two.

The second barrier to communication is the use of unidentified acronyms. I have seen sentences which contain four or five acronyms which are never identified anywhere in the communication. I have also seen documents which are several pages long which use many acronyms identified early in the document, but so many acronyms that the average reader has no chance of remembering all of them. If a communication is one with no long-term value which is directed to people who use these acronyms daily the heavy use of acronyms may be acceptable without hurting the communication. However, if the audience is not known or if the document has any chance of being saved as part of the history or documentation of a program, the business, or even as a legal reference, it is better to keep the acronyms to a minimum. For example, I have done research within my work and come across documents which had to be saved by law which contained acronyms no longer used and no one who knew them was still around. As a rule of thumb, ALWAYS identify the meaning of any acronyms used within your document. If the document is more than one or two pages long, keep the acronym count to no more than five. If the document is broken down into chapters I recommend identifying the acronym in each chapter in which it is used – some people using the document may go only to the chapter referring to the information needed.

The third communication barrier is the use of jargon and uncommon words. Not using jargon and uncommon word becomes more difficult the longer one works in a given field or becomes more educated because the words become part of ones vocabulary. People who read a lot may also have a problem using uncommon words regardless of their formal education. If you are a heavy reader, have an education beyond 12 years (high school in the United States of America), or are in a field which uses jargon on a regular basis (almost any job applies here), a secret to help minimize the use of such words is to try to direct your written communication to someone in the 8th grade. I specify written communication because with oral communication you can usually tell when your message is not being received and rephrase what you have said until the listener understands, maybe helping the listener expand their vocabulary. If giving a speech, aim the speech to the background of those listening, or if you do not have this information, keep it simple. This is not meant to be an insult to the reader. It is to ensure that the reader understands the message regardless of the reader’s background. As you can see from my own writing I am frequently not successful in reaching an 8th grade level, however, in the attempt to reach that level what I write is significantly revised.

The purpose of any communication is to have the message sent received with full understanding. Incorporating the suggestions above will help you make sure your message is received with better, if not complete understanding.

Have a wonderful month!