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  • Scott McInnes

#40 | Avoiding mixed messages

I was listening to The Decemberists' super album 'What a terrible world, What a beautiful world' the other day. I've listened to it a lot and, in doing so, have subjected the kids to my penchant for a bit of Dad rock!

Sitting at the table, the 13-year old was singing along to the songs, many of which, on closer inspection of the lyrics, may have been just a smidge risqué.

But if you didn’t know that, if you didn't understand the meaning behind the words - and she didn't - then you'd be none the wiser.

And so, she sang along, mumbling the words and enjoying the tunes with the messages in the songs - thankfully - totally lost on her.

And how often that happens at work! How often an email is sent, a presentation given or a conversation had, only for 10 different people to take it 10 different ways.

Why? Because the sender often leaves space for interpretation, whether purposely or not. And sometimes that's OK (where we want people to apply whatever we've told them to their own situation). However, where you want to get a specific point across in a very consistent way, there can be no space for interpretation.

So the sender of the message has to be very specific about the message they're sending and very clear in how they communicate it, regardless of channel.

That's even more important if recipients are going to find the news a bit unpalatable - an office move, a change in corporate direction, a redundancy programme (or NOT a redundancy programme!). And often, messages are dressed up in a vain attempt to perhaps take the sting out the tail. Unfortunately, the ensuing confusion can often make that sting last longer and be more painful!

So how can you ensure that your message lands? Here are a few thoughts.

Start at the end - It's worth thinking about your message - regardless of channel - in terms of what you want recipients to think, feel and do when they receive your message. Nail that and then work backwards to create your message for maximum effect.

JUST GIVE THE MESSAGE! - It seems ridiculous to say, but it doesn't always happen! When we have to give what's considered a bad or negative message, it's tempting to just not say it and skirt around the issue. A better approach is to avoid all the resulting confusion and just say it - 'I'm writing to let you know that at the end of this year we'll be leaving our current head office and moving to three city centre locations. Let me tell you more about what that means for you'. BANG - it's out there!

Use simple words - It's easy to start using big words, formality and corporate speak in the hope that this will strengthen the message. It doesn't. In fact, it has the entirely opposite effect. Using words that aren't easily understood starts to breed distrust (because 'they must be hiding something'), undermines the integrity of the message sender and makes messages longer..........

Keep it short - Rambling on for pages of email or hours on stage and dumping the key message somewhere in the middle only serves to confuse people who, understandably, start to tune out. So keep it short and snappy - people won't think you're being overly direct, they'll thank you for getting to the point.

Bring a bit of emotion - With a difficult message, a bit of empathy can go a long way. "I can imagine that this comes as a quite a shock and all I can do for now is apologise. It's only human to worry when things are changing, particularly when we can't give you all the information. Please rest assured that as I have more to tell you, I will"

So, the next time you're writing a message, think about the five points above as five lenses through which to review your message before you unleash it on the world.

It'll only take a few minutes and could save you hours of pain later!

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