The Power and Limitation of the Written Word
The first big message that I've got used to be called the headline rule. Before you wrote something down, and signed your name at the bottom of a letter and sent it to someone, you had to be prepared for it to be a headline in the town where it landed. It's an awareness of the public versus private nature of verbal communication and the written word. My mother used to say, say it and forget it, write it and regret it. Words stay. You've gotta be prepared for your written word to be a headline. In today's world, everything you do in the digital arena, everything you do on a computer, has a digital signature that can attach it back to you. So, when Emily Post was writing her book of etiquette, in 1922, it was about your correspondence card, your social communication. That you had to be prepared to take responsibility for it if it popped up in a professional context. Even if you sent a letter just to one person, someone else could see it. They could leave it on a desk, it could get thrown...
away and picked up by someone else. It had your name on it, you had to be prepared to own it. The same is true for everything that happens in the digital world. Don't be seduced by the illusion of privacy. The places that we interact with our digital devices are places where there's often a reasonable expectation of privacy in our lives. I'm at home, I'm in an office with my door closed, I'm in my car. These are very protected environments. These are environments where we give ourselves permission and latitude to behave in ways that we don't always behave when we think of ourselves as being on a public stage or in a public environment. Unfortunately, the devices that we're interacting with in these very private spaces are some of the most public tools that we have in our lives. Something like two billion people are enfranchised now by technology. And that number is growing all the time. Two billion people, it's hard to even fathom. It's almost impossible to wrap your head around the number of people that are connected by today's technological devices and communication. Don't be seduced by that illusion of privacy. In many ways, what you do in digital spaces is the most public and permanent thing you're going to do. So you don't just have to be prepared to accept the consequences of that message and the way it connects with everybody you're connected to right now, but for all time. For all time, that's almost impossible. When I talk to young audiences, when I talk to teens and college students, the portion of their brain that can conceive of the consequences of actions that are five or 10 years down the road isn't even fully formed yet. I say these words and I know that they can't consciously even reckon with that. But it's an important thing to be able to say to yourself, to hold yourself accountable. Those same young audiences, and this is a bit of a MySpace reference now, SnapChat used to be the most-used social network by people under the age of 24. So I was talking to people about Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and I'd have the young audience member looking back at me, and they're thinking in their mind, yeah, yeah, but I use SnapChat. Those messages disappear as soon as they're sent. I was talking to a high school audience at a technical high school and I Google searched "how to save a SnapChat message." I found multiple ways to do it on the first page of Google search results. I felt even more vindicated when, a couple years later, the SnapChat servers were compromised and all those messages that supposedly disappeared from peoples phones, that had traveled through their servers, were compromised. I like to remind people that no matter how good you are with technology, you're always at the mercy of someone with one level of technology, or technological knowledge more than you. It seems like such an obvious message. I used to include examples of people that got into trouble by failing to keep track of the public versus private divide in terms of their digital communication. There's always an example that is more current than the one that I would build into the program. Look at the newspaper in your home town. Scan back through the headlines for the last week or the last month, you will find an example that's more current than any one that I could show you. And it goes from the local high school to the upper echelons, the highest levels, of business and government. The commonsense mistake. Why is it a mistake? It's not that the person didn't know that they shouldn't have done this. They didn't think about it before they did it. Hold yourself accountable. Think about other people, make choices that build relationships, do it sincerely, hold yourself ruthlessly and scrupulously accountable to a standard of honesty and integrity in what you do. In conversation, we say, don't talk about someone in a way that you wouldn't talk about them if they were standing there in the room with you. Or that you couldn't own that conversation later. Even if you're talking about someone and you're being critical. Even if you might moderate the way that you had that conversation if you were having it with them. Be prepared to acknowledge to them that that conversation happened. The same is true when you do it online. When you do it in the digital environment or space, when you write it in an email, when you text it, when you IM it. Used to call it the headline rule, people don't read newspapers anymore. The bulletin board does still exist. Before you write it down, before you attach your digital signature to it, be prepared for it to be posted on the bulletin board at your office, or the grocery store of your home town. So, a professional space or a public space. Be prepared to own it. I love this slide, I love the bulletin board rule. I've had clients who've told me, you know, you came and gave a talk, and they're talking about bringing me back years later. They say, the bulletin board rule. We actually printed that slide, we hung it up around the office. We're gonna talk about email manners in a second. What's the email that gets people in trouble? Often, it's that email chain that gets really long where some kind of internal discussion that gets lost at the bottom of an email chain, gets sent outside an organization. Someone sends an email, it's a request, that email bounces around internally, people are talking about the client who submitted the request, ultimately the solution gets resolved, the email gets sent back out to them, and that whole internal discussion is included in that email chain. Be prepared to own it. I just sent it to that one person, I didn't think they were going to send it, send it, send it, and then it was gonna get sent back to the client. The public versus private divide. A second thought that I think's really important when we're talking about the written word is that the written word is very powerful. These are words that stay. They are incredibly powerful, and yet there's some things that they're not so effective at communicating. They're great for the who, what, where, and when. They are less effective when it comes to the why. You can do it, you can communicate emotional content with the written word. It's much easier to communicate facts. In the absence of facial expressions, it's harder for someone to know what it is exactly that you mean. I can see the twinkle in your eye, that smile on your lips. I can interpret what you're saying as humorous or funny. It's much harder for me to give you the benefit of the doubt or to make that assumption if I just don't know. And the written word doesn't give me any of those cues. It's true of all kinds of emotional content, not just humor. The genuine contrition when you offer an apology. Your ability to make and sustain eye contact. You don't have any of these other skills at your disposal when you're communicating with the written word. I've heard people say you lose 80% of the information contained within a communication when you go from being in someone's personal presence to when you're talking on the phone. When you strip away tone of voice, speed, and inflection, you strip away another 80% of someone's ability to interpret you. When all you have are your words, there's actually relatively little left for someone to make interpretation. And in the absence of that other information, it's more common for our interpretation to default to the negative. If I send a positive email, that reads positively to me, it probably reads a little bit neutral to you. If I send an email that reads neutral to me, it might read as a little bit critical to you. If I send a slightly critical email, it's likely to be received as a scathing critique. In the absence of other information, people's opinion defaults to the negative. If I see two people whispering over there, I think it's probably about me. And it's probably something bad. So pick up the phone, go see them, give yourself a fighting chance. Particularly if communication becomes stressed, strained, or difficult, or you suspect that you might not be understood. Be extra careful about avoiding difficult situations with the written word. The area that I hear about this is the texted apology. I've gotten the question repeatedly at the Emily Post institute, and it goes something like this: someone did something bad, they texted me an apology, I really don't mind so much about the thing that they did, but do you think that the texted apology is rude? They're bothered more by the perceived insincerity of the apology than they are by the original offense. The other example that comes to mind is the person who's going to be late for a meeting or who isn't able to deliver on some piece of content that they're responsible for, so they send a quick email or text to try to explain that. Oh, running a little bit late. In some situations, this might be a courtesy. You're just letting someone known that you're gonna be late. In other situations, it might be perceived as avoiding taking responsibility for the fact that you're just not gonna be there. Or that you're not able to show up on time for an important meeting. You wanna be careful. It might really be a courtesy, it might even feel like a courtesy, and in some ways in today's world it is a courtesy. I'm running late, send a text, send a message, let someone know. But that doesn't serve as the apology. Definitely check in with that person afterwards, look them in the eye, tell him you're sorry that you were late. Don't use the text or the email to that avoid awkward or difficult situation. I mentioned humor. It's really hard to write funny. Steve Martin gets in trouble when he tries to write funny. You have to be very witty to write funny. People get in trouble with funny when they're doing it in person. I don't know why they were offended, it was just a joke. It's not up to someone else to get your humor. If they're offended, they're offended. It's even harder to deliver a joke well when you're doing it with the written word. You've gotta be really witty. Be extra careful with sarcasm or cynicism. This is one of my favorite pieces of advice. Don't be tempted. Don't think of yourself as witty because you're sarcastic. Don't let cynicism creep in and infect the way that you interact with people in the disguise of humor. Thinking about communicating with the written word is one of the places where you can hold yourself accountable. Would it really be funny if I wasn't here, if I wasn't teasing them? The written word's really powerful. It works great for communicating a lot of things. It's not as good for emotional content. I hear from people all the time. Once things get awkward, pick up the phone. Get up out of your desk, walk down the hall, knock on their door, ask them if they've got a minute. Give yourself a fighting chance.