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Roy Atkinson interviews Leslie O’Flahavan, a professional writing trainer and coach, about the importance of clear language.
HDI’s SPOCcast is your single point of contact podcast for service management and technical support insights. For Episode 18, I interviewed Leslie O’Flahavan, professional writing trainer and coach, about the importance of clear language. What follows is excerpted; for the full impact, I encourage you to listen to the entire 25-minute podcast.
RA: You have built your business on helping organizations understand how to improve written communications. What are some of the ways written communications fail?
LO’F: Written communications fail in big ways and small ways, and the small ways usually get a lot of attention—just like when you have spinach in your teeth—when you spell your customer’s name incorrectly, or when you send out an email that says, “Dear <Firstname>” or something like that, it’s really embarrassing, and that’s a small kind of a failure. I’ll call that the “blemish” kind of writing failure, with a really obvious error that makes everyone roll their eyes or titter behind their hand.
But written communications fail in much bigger ways, and these are actually more damaging to our goals of providing support; they’re more damaging to our business reputation. These big failures are ones such as making it unclear in your writing what the person receiving it should do. Lots of times in technical support we’re trying to explain to the customer what they should do, and if your writing leaves the customer wondering, “What should I do here?” that’s a big failure.
We also fail when we use words or concepts that we understand but the reader just doesn’t, and in technical support, our writing is the bridge between what experts understand and what non-experts need to know. So if you use words, terms, and concepts the reader doesn’t understand, that’s a big failure.
Lots of times, we fail to communicate that we actually care. We communicate efficiently or, hopefully, exactly. But we don’t communicate empathetically or sincerely. And, you know, business doesn’t happen without the caring part.
With all that being said, in my work I don’t take a fail perspective, really; I take a perspective that however well or poorly we’re doing in our written communication right now, there are probably ways we can make our written communication better with a reasonable amount of effort…in a reasonable amount of time.
RA: You do a ton of work with customer service departments and customer service organizations…. Is clear and correct writing and communication a form of good customer service, and why do you think that, or why not?
LO’F: Yes, indeed—of course it is. Clear and correct writing is a form of being aware of your reader or aware of your customer. That’s all. And good customer service comes from being aware of what your customer needs. So, if you write clearly, you communicate clearly; you’re showing your customer, “I know what you need. I care enough to be sure my communications are correct and they’re easy to read.” The increased amount of effort a writer makes to make the communication clear and correct works exactly in inverse to the amount of effort the customer will have to exert to understand it. So, if the writer does more, the reader gets to do less, and making things easy for customers is what good customer service is all about.
I would argue that the units of effort the writer would expend to make something easy to read payoff in multiples, because often in customer service we have hundreds of readers for the communication of an individual writer.
RA: How can the importance of clear language get the attention of business leaders? Because we tend to think that technology is going to fix everything, right? If we just get the right technology, everything’s going to be fine…. We communicate with each other in so many different ways, and yet there’s not the idea that this communication should be clear and correct and simple to understand.
LO’F: I think the more prominent a business leader is, the more successful, and the more attention that person gets, the more likely it is that person will be straight-spoken and candid. Clear communication is tied to authority, and when you are authoritative, when you’re knowledgeable, when you’re successful, when people listen to you, usually, you are a clear communicator. And it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: Do you become a clearer communicator—a less frightened communicator—because you have become successful…or do you become a leader because your communications have been clear all along?
I’m not sure. But if we think about it, the people at the top of their game and the top of the org chart often are clear communicators themselves. They are confident, they’re authoritative, and they have swagger, and that comes out in clarity.
So, I think that managers who are rungs below a business leader on the org chart…can sell clear communication to a person who uses it at the top of the organization…. I think managers who are advocating for the budget to hire an IT communicator, which is, I think, a great choice that they should make the case with research and with what I would call case stories.
So, we can make the case with research that clear communication is worthwhile simply by demonstrating that some of our very well written self-service content…is offsetting communications to our contact center or our support organization, that’s quantitative research that should make the case for clear communication.
I think it’s fascinating and quite wonderful how much change we’re going through now, and there’s no useful point to being a contrarian or a snob about how writing used to be. Things change, and they’re changing very quickly now, and the best thing we can do is help people—especially in the workplace—cope with how quickly they’re changing.
About Leslie O’Flahavan
Leslie O'Flahavan has delivered writing courses for support center staff, customer service agents, and social media managers, helping thousands of professionals hone their customer-focused writing skills. She helps support organizations train agents to write well in all service channels, measure the quality of their writing, and revise and maintain their entire library of canned answers. Leslie is the instructor of three writing courses for Lynda.com (LinkedIn Learning) and coauthor of Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents. Visit her E-WRITE website, follow her on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.
Roy Atkinson is one of the top influencers in the service and support industry. His blogs, presentations, research reports, white papers, keynotes, and webinars have gained him an international reputation. In his role as senior writer/analyst, he acts as HDI's in-house subject matter expert, bringing his years of experience to the community. He holds a master’s certificate in advanced management strategy from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business, and he is a certified HDI Support Center Manager. Follow him on Twitter @RoyAtkinson.
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