Information Overload = Information Overlooked
Overheard at an electronics trade show: “If this is the Information Age, how come nobody knows anything?”
Maybe it’s because nobody’s really listening or reading. We skim e-mails and reports and only listen or read the parts we find personally relevant. The irony here is that there has never before been so much one-way “communication”. We all keep sending, though it’s apparent that nobody really wants to receive. Office communication surveys reveal that, in an ideal business environment, each of us wants to be able to contact anyone – instantly – though we, ourselves, would prefer to remain selectively inaccessible.
The overwhelming speed of information, made possible by the new information technologies, is the single greatest (though not the only) obstacle to real communication in business. That’s because, with so much to read, who has time? I know a senior vice president of a telecommunications firm who claimed to process more than 130 e-mail messages a day. This was in addition to his usual full-day agenda of meetings. His coping strategy was brutally simple: at the end of each day, he skimmed them quickly and responded to none. “If it’s really serious,” he claimed, “somebody always manages to reach me.”
My business students tell them that, on average, they spend no longer than two or three seconds (and often less than that) reviewing each e-mail before deciding to read or delete it. How long do you give each e-mail? Think about it: quick peek, who’s it from, what’s the subject line say? Admit it – on those days when your mailbox is clogged with long lists of importuning communicants hammering on your skull for attention, you actually look for an excuse to delete each one, instead of carefully searching for the one or two messages providing important reading. (I know this is what a head-hunter friend of mine does. Processing twenty to forty resumes each day, she looks for a reason to throw each away: “Colored stationary — gone. Cover letter - sorry…”
The Blessed Marshall (McLuhan), patron saint of the technologically-besieged, always maintained: Information Overload Yields Pattern Recognition. In practice, this means that when we’re faced with an overwhelming barrage of information, we each process that information by devising a comprehensive set of personal “in-baskets” or labeled pigeon holes into which we cull and group all the bits of information that are meaningful to us. The key to getting read and understood is putting our own bits of communication into each recipient’s appropriate in-basket. Easier said than done, or I wouldn’t ever get hired to provide communications training.
This process is more or less workable when processing all the crap cluttering your mailbox each day, but what happens to your own enduring missals? How do you manage to slip your own vitally important communications through the recipient’s impenetrable screen? How do you get read?
Keeping it Simple
One thing you do to improve your email “readability” is avoid anything resembling “fancy” writing. The cardinal rule for all forms of communication is: keep it simple. Rigorously delete from your writing anything that sounds “impressive”, anything that resembles “biz-speak”. A good rule of thumb is: any sentence longer than eight words and you’re risking confusion. (However, keep writing eight-word sentences and you’ll risk sounding like Hemingway on a bad day.) The more words that come between the subject, the verb and the object of any sentence, (the ‘who’ does ‘what’ to ‘whom’ of the sentence) the more confusing things get for the reader.
Think about it: “The dog bit Fred.” It’s hard to misunderstand. But start adding words between the subject, the verb and the object…”I awoke in the early hours of a bright Sunday to howls of pain and rage from my visiting cousin Fred who was protesting, in the most direct way possible, that my canine companion, the normally placid Lou, had, inexplicably, extracted a sizable lump from poor Fred’s posterior…” and it’s anybody’s guess what the reader comes away with.
As straight forward (not to say simplistic) as this advise sounds, it’s the hardest lesson for my students to accept. Simple sentences don’t sound “impressive” enough, they tell me. One of the unspoken rules of business prose is that it must make the writer sound imposing, educated to the point of obfuscation. This is a hard attitude to change. You’d need the help of a ruthless copy editor relentlessly cracking knuckles to break deep-set attitudes like those. (I can still feel the ghost of my first copy editor frowning disapprovingly over every sentence I write.) Our goal here is to learn how to create business writing that’s easy to read and understand. We’re seeking to express, not impress. Trust me on this, business writing that’s easy to read and understand is pretty impressive.
The point of all this is that you really don’t have to memorize a dictionary to be a good business writer. (The ‘Conrad Corollary’ states that if you do memorize a dictionary, you end up sounding like a pompous ass – a little black humour.) This should also come as good news to anyone whose first language is not English. Just keep the sentences short and simple and you’ll avoid lots of problems.
That bad business writing is so prevalent should surprise no one. After all, how many of us ever receive formal instruction in business writing? I’ll bet you certainly didn’t learn about it in high school Lit 101. No self-respecting Arts grad ever took such a course. And, unless you were very lucky, you didn’t get much on-the-job instruction either. So how do you learn good business writing techniques?
It’s been said that good writing is like good jazz: you can learn it, but it can’t be taught. I tend to agree. But then, like I said, we’re pursuing clarity here, not high art.
Alright, so you’re thinking: “So if good writing can’t be taught, what staggering insights do your training seminars and lectures impart?” Well, I strive to impart a little bit of business communications “philosophy” and a few simple strategies and writing techniques gleaned over more than 30 years as a professional business writer and university instructor. And some of these communication techniques aren’t even really about the job of putting words together. That’s because a major part of good writing and communicating is about developing a writing strategy, which is what evolves in the planning stages of composition, even before the first draft gets written.
In my seminars, we deal with some business writing and communicating basics and then practice applying them to typical, real-world communication situations. Among many other topics, we typically deal with things like: how to organize routine communications so that readers can find the “real” news fast; how to convey negative news without upsetting the reader or getting yourself sued; what’s the strategy behind writing really effective reports and presentations; how to use graphics to make important information stand out; how to write persuasively – that last one’s a personal favorite of mine. (I believe every type of business communication is actually persuasive in nature – but that’s a subject for another article.)
Thanks for your interest. Your comments are always welcome.