Misunderstandings happen; and unfortunately, the written word can be prone to miscommunication because it strips away body language and non-verbal cues. Skillful writing can minimize these issues, but even then, they may still occur. So how can businesses respond if documents they’ve produced result in a misunderstanding?
Sometimes the problems are direct and clear, resulting in outright incomprehension.
We have one client, for example, who produced documents that include technical data for a technical audience but would still need to be understandable to nontechnical readers. That’s a tricky balance for any writer, and it’s easy to write a document that one audience will understand but others won’t. “Our biggest challenge,” this client told us, “has been writing to multiple audiences.”
At other times, the problem is more subtle: the reader misses the point without realizing it.
This can happen when the authors haven’t clearly identified and conveyed the most important takeaways. As a result, the reader walks away with the wrong impression. For example, a business proposal might focus too much on the services being offered and not enough on the benefits being delivered that will solve the business’ problem. The reader may then conclude that the business, though it offers the right services, won’t be able to provide the results.
How can companies deal with these situations after they have arisen?
Don’t blame the reader. Even if the reader is genuinely at fault for misunderstanding your message – maybe they misread the material – avoid the temptation to place blame. In the end, the author and the reader are on the same page: both want the document to successfully inform the reader. When that doesn’t happen, regardless of the reason why, the author needs to step up.
Respond promptly. As soon as it becomes clear the reader has misinterpreted or misunderstood the work, provide clarifying information.
Consider the channel. It might be better to opt for a different medium for the response or clarification. For example, an email miscommunication can easily lead to flurry of back-and-forth messages. It might be best to pick up the phone. In other cases, it might be best simply to revise the original document with the reader’s questions or responses in mind.
Get help. In extreme cases, miscommunication can create PR crises. Poorly worded social media messages, for example, can create raging reputational fires that need to be put out. Sometimes professional crisis management advisors can help with the crucial follow-up communications.
Do better next time. Skillful writing can’t necessarily eliminate all misunderstandings, but it can definitely reduce their frequency. Consider the proposal example we mentioned: improved proposal writing means more effective documents that generate more desirable outcomes like sales. It’s worth taking the time to strengthen writing skills because doing so will mean fewer problems going forward.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.