bug repellent

a blog by @captainsafia

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Writing to win friends and influence people

Communication is important. This is a point so obvious and indisputable that I won’t dive into here. Being able to communicate effectively with romantic partners, co-workers, family members, contractors, doctors, and even the people you’re not in the mood to talk to is key to existing as a person on the planet.

I don’t think anyone has mastered the art of communicating all the time effectively. Mostly because the measure of effectiveness is subjective, but also because it’s hard.

At a fundamental level, communication is all about building a connection with the people you are speaking with. Easier said than done. I spent some time thinking about the writing techniques that I use in business and personal writing to connect more deeply with the people reading my writing.

1. Don’t start sentences with a verb, start with a pronoun.

Pronouns are cheap. They only cost you a couple of extra letters, but they go a long way into making your terse messages seem personable. When you start a sentence with a pronoun (“Delete this line of code.” vs. “You can delete this line of code.”), you make the statement seem less like a condescending command and also empower and center the reader of the statement. Empowered readers are happy readers!

2. Use a single sentence to describe the context, use links and references for anything extra.

One of the hardest parts of conversing in a work setting is making sure that the person you are talking to understands the context behind what you are trying to communicate. Context is things like the history of a long-standing bug in the product, information about a client’s needs, and so on. I tend to be the kind of person who spends a lot of time re-explaining the context. I’m trying to shift to a more effective strategy where I provide the context in a single sentence and links elsewhere. For example,

“This pesky bug is a result of the plotting library we use (link to details), but we’ve discussed several possible solutions (link to details).”

A neat side-effect of this is that it forces you to actively document details so that you can easily reference them later.

3. Formulate a request as a question.

This is a pretty popular technique that you might be familiar with. Instead of saying “Call me at 2 pm.” Ask “Can you call me today at 2 pm?” Why does it sound so much nicer? For the same reason #1 does. It centers the reader and gives them power and agency. And again, empowered readers are happy readers!

4. Share your state of mind with the reader.

Life isn’t always perfect. Maybe you got stuck in horrible traffic this morning. Maybe your coffee machine broke (I’m so sorry). Maybe you’re having trouble with family. Your state of mind affects the way you write. If you trust the person reading your communication, let them know what’s going on. Preface your email or comment with a “Writing this in a crowded train” or “I haven’t had my coffee yet but all this is with good intent.” In addition to clarifying the emotional intent, messages like these also build a sense of trust and intimacy between you and the reader.

5. Don’t write in haste.

This tip seems rather obvious. Although your writing may be brief, the time you take to write it should not be. Once you hit the Enter key, you can’t take those words back so don’t write something you’ll regret.

And that’s all I’ve got! Hopefully, you picked up on the general theme of these tips: be intentional about the words you use and how people might interpret them. It’ll leave an impact way beyond what you wrote.

Do you have any tips for communicating politely but tersely in your work life? Let me know on Twitter!