Communication Crossover principles: how “make your writing easy to read” principles also apply to difficult conversations
I am so fortunate to have a second guest blogger this month – this time it’s the fabulous Tanja Gardner, across the pond from me in New Zealand. Tanja’s focus is on clear communication – she’s a copywriter extraordinaire but here she cleverly notes the ways in which the same principles apply to verbal communication as well, particularly during those ‘difficult conversations’ we sometimes need to have. You can find out more about Tanja below. I hope you learn as much as I did from this great article.
Many of the principles of writing readable web pages are just as valid for conversation
I’ve talked a lot lately about how to write web pages that are easy for people to read onscreen. If you’d like to know more, you can find “Make Your Web Page Crystal Clear”, my free guide to the topic, here.
But something occurred to me as I was talking to Leanne about the topic for this guest post. I’m also a Communication Studies graduate. And I realised that the principles of readable writing are really just the principles of clear communication, tweaked slightly for a written medium. That crossover is especially true for situations where you need to have “difficult conversations” and your communication needs to be even clearer than usual.
Don’t believe me? Here are five ways that the principles of “easy-to-read” writing cross over and apply every bit as much to difficult interpersonal conversations. Ready?
1. Assume the person you’re talking to is easily distracted
It’s a basic principle of writing for onscreen readers that the folks you’re writing for are busy, impatient and easily distracted. They might well have ten different windows open on their screen, and eight different tabs in their browser window. And that doesn’t begin to address what might be going on for them outside of their computer – a noisy environment, other people, physical discomfort, etc.
Now, you might think that it’s easier to keep someone’s full attention if you’re sitting face-to-face with them. And to some extent you’re right – they won’t usually have a computer to distract them. But there’s still everything going on in their external environment – and, perhaps more importantly, everything going on in their heads.
We humans are often godawful at focussing on one thing at a time. Even if we’re not actively multitasking while someone’s talking to us, we rarely focus 100% on what they’re saying. Our minds flit back and forth between:
- what the person who’s talking is actually saying
- what we think they mean by what they’re saying
- what whatever they’re saying might end up meaning for us
- what we’re going to say in response to what they’re saying.
Plus, if we get truly distracted, thoughts of what we’ll have for dinner, what needs to go on the shopping list, and what we still have to do today can also intrude.
Communication Crossover principle 1: realise that the person you’re speaking to might get distracted, and be willing to gently bring their attention back to you.
2. A powerful conversation has a single purpose
In Make Your Webpage Crystal Clear, I mention that a powerful web page always has a single purpose. It might be to communicate specific information, introduce a particular service, or persuade your reader that something they hadn’t thought about before is important.
Once you know what that purpose is, everything on your page needs to support it. Anything that doesn’t needs to either be deleted or moved to another page. Otherwise, it will dilute the message on your page, and confuse/frustrate your reader.
Likewise, a powerful conversation (especially if it’s potentially a difficult one) needs a single purpose. It might be to tell someone that something isn’t working for you, or to ask for something from them. Anything that doesn’t contribute to that purpose needs to be tabled for another, later conversation – otherwise, you’ll end up going offtrack.
Communication Crossover principle 2: know the purpose of your conversation before you sit down to it. Once the conversation happens, be prepared to acknowledge anything that doesn’t directly contribute to that purpose, and table it for later.
3. Structure the conversation to make it easier for the other person to process
Another frustrating aspect of communication is that our minds aren’t generally linear. Instead, they tend to wander here, there and everywhere, making random connections and flitting from topic to topic.
To learn and process new information, however, we need some form of structure. We need to know in advance what’s coming up to give us a framework that we can “hang” new information on. That’s why easy-to-read web pages need a clear, logical structure with informative subheadings that tell readers what to expect next.
In much the same way, our more difficult conversations are usually most effective if we give them some kind of structure up front. Imagine a conversation with someone where the first thing they say is that they really hate the way you do something. Now imagine they tell you first they want to talk with you about a problem they’re having, and that they’d like your help to fix.
Which would put you in a better mindstate to hear and process what they had to say?
Communication Crossover principle 3: create a brief structure for the conversation, and introduce the topic before diving straight into the first point.
4. Leave enough “white space” around your words
Many website owners don’t realise just how vital a role formatting plays in making their web page easy-to-read onscreen. Or if they think about it at all, they only think in terms of their colours and fonts.
The truth is that one of the most powerful techniques for creating an easy-to-read web page is good use of white space. White space is the blank space on your screen – the areas where there are no words, images or patterns. It doesn’t have to be white, of course: it’s just whatever solid colour your page background is.
White space on a page helps your reader to subconsciously figure out which information belongs together and which doesn’t. Used well, it shows how everything on the page relates to everything else. Without it, everything you write crashes into everything else, and your reader ends up overwhelmed and again, confused.
The same principle holds in conversations too. The person you’re talking to needs silent “white space” to process what you’ve said to them. They may also need time to think of how they’d like to respond. If you fill all the available “conversational page” with what you want to say, the information can crash and swirl for your listener – leaving them feeling frustrated and annoyed.
Communication Crossover principle 4: create and use the “white space” of silence in your conversations so your listener can think about what you’ve said and respond if they want to.
5. Use words your listener understands, in ways they’re familiar with
The final aspect of easy-to-read web pages I suggest that website owners look at is their language. Remember that different people use different words to mean the same thing: and that the same terms can have different meanings for different people.
In Make Your Web Page Crystal Clear, I explain that every unfamiliar word your reader has to stop and figure out is more time they have to take away from absorbing your message. The same thing’s true in a conversation. If you use terms your listener hasn’t heard before – or worse, terms they know, but with a totally different meaning – then one of two things happens.
The first is that you confuse them and make them feel stupid for not understanding you. The second is that they think they’ve understood you – but they take a totally different meaning from your words than the one you intended. Neither outcome is likely to result in clear, powerful communication.
Communication Crossover principle 5: use language your listener understands, in the way they’re most likely to take the right meaning from your words.
Over to you now – any further thoughts?
I’ve summed up five of the most obvious ways I can see the principles of writing easy-to-read web pages translating into interpersonal conversation. However, because some communication principles are universal regardless of the medium, there are no doubt a whole bunch more of them.
Which other ones occur to you as you read through my list? And how could you put the Communication Crossover principles I’ve listed into practice in your next difficult conversation?
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://claimyourtreasure.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/tanja.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Who is Tanja Gardner?
Tanja Gardner is a professional copywriter, word weaver and story sculptor at Crystal Clarity Copywriting Ltd. She helps difference-makers like you write with concise, creative clarity that your readers intuitively “get”. That means they understand EXACTLY what you offer – so you can make more of a difference in their lives.
Or, discover how to write a scannable web page that people actually read with her Make Your Web Page Crystal Clear guide. It’s completely FREE when you sign up for her short-‘n’-sweet weekly writing tips. [/author_info] [/author]Share