The Best Tip for Written Communication I Have Ever Learned

Written by Matt Dentino

7 Min Read

We all know that when communicating with someone in writing, punctuation is key to getting the correct message across!  

For example:

The difference between “Let’s eat, Timmy” and “Let’s eat Timmy” is startling! Which dinner invitation do you think Timmy should accept?  

Communication is key in every aspect of our life. Yet, when it comes to our communication at work, both internally and externally, we lose sight of some simple communication truths. We react instead of respond, we overshare, we lose sight of our verbal and written tone, and yes, we often forget the rules of grammar we learned as kids.  The latter often makes for funny memes, but the former can derail relationships with customers…and coworkers! 

When I was a child my father used to perform for us kids an old Victor Borge routine about using punctuation in our speaking to add clarity.  It was called, “Phonetic Punctuation”.  That is not the focus of this blog post today but it’s worth a 5 minute listen when you have time!  https://youtu.be/TIf3IfHCoiE

In an effort to help us communicate more effectively, and with greater Emotional Intelligence, I want to share with you a technique I recently learned called “writing in reverse”. 

Don’t worry you won’t need a mirror to read the results!  

When you “write in reverse,” you…

  • give your audience exactly what they need, in the way they need it
  • communicate your true feelings, thoughts, and ideas with intention, not just emotion
  • get what you need from your audience with less stress and less delay

First a quick story

Several years ago, my boss sent a brief email looking for an update on a task he had delegated:  Set up a sales contest for our team’s quarterly sales meeting using a new “Gamification” software add-on we had purchased for our CRM system.

The only problem was, it had been a super busy month, and I hadn’t done it yet. I still had a couple of weeks to get it ready, but he wanted to know where we stood while also wanting to share some suggestions. 

This triggered me. I know it shouldn’t have; it was a simple request. But because I’d hoped to be further along than I was, my inner voice ramped up the expectation as if I missed the deadline, and I got all worked up. 

Here’s what started going through my head:

  • Why is he asking about this now? 
  • The suggestions would have been nice to hear in the initial meeting, 
  • why is he just tossing them out now—I thought he had delegated this to me.  
  • Doesn’t he trust me to handle it?

His email eventually came across after hours. I just happened to see it pop up on my phone, but didn’t feel like dealing with it so I didn’t respond until the next day. 

When I started writing my response:

Hey Boss, sorry for the delayed reply. I’ve had a lot going on and have just been trying to catch up.  I haven’t had time to do much planning with the gamification contest yet because I’ve been so involved in putting together the monthly reports…

I paused for a moment.

Wait.

What was I thinking?

I imagined what my boss might think reading this. Maybe I was the wrong person for the job. Maybe I couldn’t handle my current workload. 

But here’s the thing: I could handle it. 

Organizing this gamification contest was something I’d been looking forward to. I had plenty of ideas, I just hadn’t gotten to them on my to-do list yet.  After all, the kick-off was several weeks away still.

I needed to rewrite this message, following a simple rule of Emotional Intelligence:   Write in reverse.

 I rewrote my initial message which stated: 

Hey Boss, thanks for your message. Can’t reply this second, but I will get back to you asap …

Then followed up the next morning with:

Hey, thanks again for your message yesterday. Yes, I have some ideas on this and am moving forward. Would love to hear your suggestions, please send them over and then we can discuss. We can also do a call if you like. 

My boss responded with: 

Sounds good! Here they are—look forward to discussing them! 

The Lesson 

When you learn how to write in reverse, you’ll give your audience exactly what they need, while getting what you need from them: freedom, confidence, and peace of mind.

Writing in reverse is simple: reverse the roles of the writer (you) with the recipient (your audience).  The idea is to take their perspective into account when responding.

 In an age when written communication like email, IM, and text messaging rules, writing in reverse is extremely helpful.  It can help to keep you from:

  • writing purely from an emotional perspective
  • writing too much
  • writing what is not helpful to the recipient.

Writing in reverse is Emotionally Intelligent.  It helps you develop your empathy muscle while in addition, it keeps you from letting emotions dictate your message.  By taking a pause, I was able to calm down first, so I could give a more balanced reply—one that wouldn’t make the situation worse.  

Now Your Turn

When you receive a message and are tempted to respond emotionally, write in reverse—by doing the following:

 1. When writing a reply, first acknowledge the initial message. Then, wait.

This puts the sender at ease, so they don’t keep wondering whether you’ve seen the message or not.

It’s great if you can wait at least a couple of hours before responding, it’s even better if you can wait 24 hours (baring any same-day deadline limitation).

2. Write your message and save it as a draft.

Your initial response is likely based primarily on emotion. Use this first draft as an opportunity to “vent.”  Personal Word of caution: Draft your email as a separate email entirely, not as a reply. Don’t add the recipient’s name until you are ready to hit send.

3. Let some time pass; then, review and revise your draft.

Give yourself as much time as needed to allow your emotions to come back into balance. 

Keeping your recipient in mind, ask yourself: 

  • Am I writing too much? 
  • Is the message confusing? Will it raise more questions than it will answer?
  • Is there anything that could be misinterpreted, or that sounds angry, desperate, or emotional?
  • Is there anything unnecessary I can remove from this message?
  • Would it be better to communicate this by phone (or in person)?

Try to keep things as brief yet as clear as possible.

Once you’ve gotten enough practice, you’ll do these steps naturally, saving yourself time and grief.

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