After giving my dad nose and ear hair trimmers for Christmas, I learned at an early age that people don’t always want what they need. A gift tells the recipient what you think of them. If you aren’t careful about that message, it can be, well, insulting.
Like considering what gift someone would like to receive, it is important to choose your messaging wisely in written communication. Taking the time to tailor messages to your specific audience prevents you from having to mend a relationship after communicating carelessly. Careful, considerate writing saves everyone time and emotional energy. More importantly, when you take the time to tailor your messages to a specific audience, you earn the reputation as a considerate person who is pleasant to work with.
When tailoring a written message to fit a specific audience, here are some questions to consider:
- What is the power dynamic?
- How much context do they need to know to move forward?
- How might my message be received?
Regardless of whether I’m speaking to a superior or subordinate, I always try to build goodwill with that person. However, if I need something done, what I write as a direct request to a subordinate may turn into a question to a superior.
For example, to a subordinate, I might say “Hi, Sam, please send those files by 4 o’clock today. Thanks.” In this email, I am not asking Sam to send me the files; instead, I expect him to do so because it is part of his duties. However, I still do so with a note of appreciation because I would like to maintain a healthy relationship with my employee.
When writing to my superior, however, I might say, “Hi, Janet, I just got an email from the tech team that they will need the audio files by 4 o’clock. I know you have a busy schedule. Will you be able to get those files finished by then?” In the email to my superior, I give her context, so that she knows why I am requesting her to do this extra, time-sensitive work. I know I am not in the position to demand that she do this work for me, so I pose the request as a question and acknowledge that I am adding something to her busy schedule to show recognition of the weight of my request. Knowing whether you should structure something as a question or as a direct request is key to creating, maintaining, and strengthening business relationships. Also, if this task is especially urgent, I may call her – using a different medium – to ensure that she knows I need her help on this project.
Now, if I am messaging someone on my team who is neither my superior nor subordinate, it depends on the relationship that we’ve established. If I work with this person on a regular basis, I will be more casual, aiming for efficiency because we have already built rapport. “Hey, just a reminder – those audio files are needed by 4:00. Can you send them to me by then?” might be the approach I take. I’m casual, but still make a request to someone whose job isn’t to follow my demands. If I don’t work with this person in a horizontal position regularly, I would be more polite and formal since I’m still building the foundations for a respectful working relationship.
One thing I always ask myself is whether my recipient is an expert on the content being delivered. If not, I determine how much information they actually need to complete the next step.
My goal is to give enough information to avoid a back-and-forth email exchange to clarify information I should have initially provided. I want to hit the sweet spot between just enough and not too much context. If I add too much, my reader will get bored and quit reading; if I don’t add enough context, my reader will be confused.
For example, let’s say I am delivering a quarterly sales report to my manager, who isn’t a content expert. In my report, I will give her the key take aways and just enough data and context to explain those take aways. If she wants to dig into the data, I’ll have that available in the appendix. Above all, though, I will structure my report so she can scan and find the information she needs to carry out her next steps.
When I anticipate how my audience might respond, I structure my message strategically. People do not tend to question good news or neutral news, so providing specific details on the front end isn’t necessary, and I can quickly get to the point. The audience wants just enough context to start figuring out their next steps.
However, if I am delivering bad news, I make sure to give context. I want my audience to understand why I am giving the bad news before they become defensive or upset. I soften the blow and give them a chance to understand my rationale if I lead with context instead of bad news.
If I am responding to a customer complaining about a late delivery notice on a product, I will frontload in detail why the product is being delayed. Doing so will show the customer that we are doing everything to get the product delivered as efficiently as possible before they learn that their product will not be arriving by their preferred date. I will also try to provide alternative options to give the customer some control over the results. Writing out these details also shows my recipient that I am empathetic to their predicament and am doing everything I can to meet their needs.
Tailoring messages creates connections because it shows consideration . People sometimes remember more how you said something than what you said or why you said it. That’s why it takes much more time and energy to repair a relationship than to simply maintain a working relationship. So, next time you write, take the time to think about how the message might be received before going with the first thing that comes to mind and pressing “send.”
Not every relationship is as strong as a father and young daughter's, so if you send
someone a “nose and ear hair trimmer” quality message, it may take much more effort
to repair the damage!