Crisis reveals the pitfalls and vulnerability of what you say and how you say it. Often in a crisis the most basic of written communications are deeply scrutinized by both the recipients and third parties. The reader may be under a great deal of stress or unaware of the context of the communication, and thus prone to misunderstanding. Using care in communications is essential to avoiding misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and bad faith interpretations.
Just Say It
When possible, avoid writing. Speak in person or pick up the phone. Speaking directly to a person creates an emotional connection and provides an opportunity to immediately clear up any misperceptions. Email is impersonal, and thus a tempting tool to rely on when faced with a conflict you would prefer to avoid. Who wouldn’t want to avoid an angry phone call? But precisely because writing is impersonal, it strips away non-verbal information such as tone and expression that are important to communication and connection. Whether you are calling an angry customer to reassure them or a close friend seeking reassurance, the phone brings people together in a way the written word cannot. Email can also be inefficient. An issue that can be addressed in a minute of in-person conversation can take hours or days to resolve by email.
When You Write, Write Thoughtfully
Sometimes, writing an email or a letter is necessary, either because you can’t conveniently reach the other parties by phone, or because you want to have a record of your communication. In those cases, keep in mind a saying some lawyers have: “Dance like no one is watching, email like it’s being read aloud at your deposition.” In other words, imagine having to explain your email to a hostile questioner, and write so you can defend your words.
Always Include Context
You should assume your letter or email may be read by people other than the recipient and that they may not be familiar with the context in which it is being sent. It is always helpful to start with a summary of the issue. This can be as simple as something like “As you know I have been out of the office for the last week…” or in more formal letters can stretch to several paragraphs restating a history of prior communications. Including context allows you to frame the narrative in a manner you believe to be most appropriate.
Strive for Clarity
Do not write in a way that can be easily misconstrued. The best way to avoid misunderstanding is clarity, and clarity often requires explicitly stating things you may believe to be known by the recipient or implied by the text.
- Avoid shorthand phrases and inside references.
- Never use sarcasm or make jokes. Even lawyers can make this mistake. When DLA Piper attorneys wrote about how they were billing a client it was all allegedly in good fun. “[S]tandard ‘churn that bill, baby’ mode” wrote one. It was all a big laugh—until the client sued them for fraud and the emails came out in discovery and were splashed across the internet and wielded in court.
- Always clearly and accurately identify who and what you are referring to. “I will do that” and “the Acme Corporation will do that” have very different meanings—don’t write one if you mean the other. “We will do that” leaves it ambiguous as to who “we” is. Avoiding that ambiguity can be as simple as writing “our team” instead.
- Do not speak in absolutes. Saying “I won’t let that happen” carries a very different meaning than “I will try to keep that from happening.”
- Avoid speaking as though you know things you do not. “I don’t have that” is not the same as “I looked for that and cannot find it.”
Take Your Time—But Not Too Much
A written communication is a piece of craft art and cannot be rushed. Knowledge is power, so you need to take the time to learn and understand the facts. Otherwise, it is impossible to state them clearly. Then, take the time to write carefully. Always reread your draft, preferably after letting it sit for a bit. For important communications, have someone else review it. At the same time, remember that a communication too delayed loses much of its power. Communicating needs to be a priority. An email sent weeks after the fact is not the same as one sent the next day.
Your Writing is a Tool—Write Accordingly
A well-crafted email or letter is a tool for persuading the recipient and making a record. Everything you write should be directed to that end. Letting anger and frustration show in your writing might make you feel momentarily better but will generally undermine these goals.
Pay Attention to Tone
It is easy for tone and intent to be misconstrued in a written communication. You should always consider the tone of your writing. While an overly formal communication in the wrong situation risks being perceived as distant or icy, it is often better to err on the side of formality and politeness. These have the added benefit of calming the recipient at no cost to you. Even if someone writes you an angry complaint there is no reason not to respond starting “Thank you for taking the time to write to me earlier today…”. You should assume the recipient is under stress and write accordingly.
Pay Attention to the Details
Pay attention to the details. Have you written the Re: line of your email with care? Are any attachments named in an appropriate manner? Are you sending it to and from the correct email address? Have you used the proper signature block? Are you inadvertently forwarding something you do not intend to? Have you removed the metadata from your letter? A carelessly named attachment can undo all you are trying to achieve.
Writing carefully takes time and effort (and a lot of practice). However, it is a critical skill in a crisis and one that is worth incorporating into all your communications.