COVID-19 Communication: Keeping It Clear

Among the many things that COVID-19 has shone a light on over the past six months is the need for clear, well-written communiques. With so many people working from home and juggling multiple responsibilities, many employees are getting their work done outside of the traditional 9-5 workday. Folks are logging onto their computers intermittently, and at all hours of the day. And because of this, they are leaning more heavily on email to relay important messages to their teams.

Given that this is the case, what can you as a colleague, supervisor, or senior manager do to communicate in a way that promotes understanding and reduces unnecessary stress and confusion?

Focus Your Message

One of the best things you can do is to ensure that your emails are concise and focus on one unifying message. Include only relevant details that further that central message, and leave out the rest. Although it’s natural to want to equip people with as much information as possible, overloading your correspondence with too many specifics can both overwhelm and confuse your reader.

This is true in even the best of circumstances. But it’s especially so in stressful situations like the one we are in now. When people feel stretched to capacity, they find it harder to focus. Reduce their cognitive load by ensuring they only have to concentrate on one main idea at a time. Ultimately, it is kinder to send your recipient two shorter emails than one intimidatingly long one.

See Your Writing with a Critical Eye

Although this next recommendation falls under the category of common sense, taking a few minutes between the drafting and proofreading of your email is also crucial. Allowing yourself time away from the document enables you to view it with fresh eyes, which will help you notice any typos or phrases that need revising. In particular, apply a critical eye to your use of modifiers. Modifiers are words or groups of words that change or modify the meaning of another word or group of words.

To illustrate, consider the difference between these two sentences.

On Friday, the organization decided to temporarily shut down operations.
The organization decided to temporarily shut down operations on Friday.

In the first sentence, the organization made the decision on Friday; in the second, the temporary shut down is to occur on Friday. As you can see, being aware of where you position modifiers in a sentence is key to expressing your desired message.

Another grammatical point to focus on is the use of pronouns. Pronouns, the little words that “stand in” as substitutes for nouns, can make matters murky when it’s not obvious which nouns they’re referring to. Here’s an example:

To ensure everyone’s safety, employees will be prohibited from entering shared office locations until they have been assessed for potential risk factors.

In the sentence above, the pronoun “they” is ambiguous. After all, which is it that needs to be assessed for potential risk factors–the offices, or the employees? Both are possible, and thus this sentence holds two entirely different meanings and implications for the recipients of the message. One person might be left thinking that the shared offices need to be assessed for their overall adherence to cleanliness/social distancing practices, while another might assume that it’s the employees themselves who must be assessed before they can enter the premises. While context can sometimes identify the noun a pronoun is connected to, it’s better to err on the side of clarity by being explicit rather than leave anything open to interpretation.

Keep the above tips in mind, and you’ll be on your way to communicating more clearly during these challenging times. And, should you find yourself the recipient of an unclear message, when in doubt, ask questions rather than assume.

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