ASK: 9 Tips for Inspired (and Inspiring) Text Communication

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: text-based communication is extremely difficult. In face-to-face communication, you have three forms of communication taking place at once: words (verbal), voice (vocal), and body (nonverbal). This provides an incredible level of nuance. The meaning of a conversation can change significantly with a fleeting eye roll or minor voice inflection. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that “people overestimate both their ability to convey their intended tone when they send an e-mail, as well as their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages others send to them.”

As tough as it is, text-based communication is also crucial to effective community management, whether through email, message boards, blogs, blog comments, or any number of other forms. Although sites like Utterz.com make it easy to record a quick video or audio message, text still remains the core communication platform for the Web.

In day-to-day community building work, communication is perhaps the most crucial skill to possess. Yet it’s probably the least represented in terms of formal training with most community professionals. Ask a community manager about their formal education and you might find a single business writing class, maybe a speech class, or perhaps a creative writing class.

To help improve your community communication, here are 9 tips for creating inspired (and inspiring) text communication.

1. Every community communication is practice for the next .

If you communicate with your community regularly, you are probably a bit nervous about messing up and saying the wrong thing. (If you aren’t nervous, you’re not taking the communication seriously enough.) It’s hard to know what will trigger a positive or negative reaction amongst the readers, even when you’ve been interacting with the community for years. Your community evolves and changes over time, as does their response to you and your words. Every time you communicate with the community members, publicly or privately, individually or collectively, step back and ask yourself some basic questions:

  • Did the communication drive the goal of the communication?
  • Was the communication reflective of a tone that readers were comfortable with?
  • What were the parts that were misunderstood or required clarification? How could I eliminate those issues in the future?
  • Did the communication inspire conversation and enthusiasm?

This may only take 30 seconds, or it make take 20 minutes. Make the time to assess; the rest of the tips below are only as good as you are at applying them. How will you know how you’re doing if you don’t continue to self-monitor?

2. Spend time on the relationship.

Everyone has that friend, the one that only calls when they need something. The only time they email is when they want you to forward their resume to your boss. The only time they invite you to dinner is when they want you to invest in their new business scheme.

When you reach out to your community, are you that friend? Are you only communicating when you need something or have something to sell?

Don’t forget to build your relationship with your community and your core community contacts before and after you need something, rather than only when you need something. Use Facebook gifts to wish your contacts a happy birthday (Facebook alerts you on the sidebar). Jump into community forum discussions that don’t necessarily have anything to do with your business. Drop an email to one of your community contacts sharing a link to a Web site that you think they might like. Spend time paying attention to the person, rather than the business opportunity and it’ll yield far more in the long run.

3. Write honestly, then dial it down.

Great writing rarely happens on the first pass. Whether you’re writing a forum post or a press release or a novel, you’re going to need to take at least two passes over the content to make it zing. When you write a first draft, you’re setting the structure and laying out the core elements of the communication. The second draft focuses on presentation, cleaning up the content to be conveyed in a way that actually represents your intended meaning.

One issue in particular with community communication is how to convey excitement. In online textual communication, the dividing line between enthusiasm and marketing babble is a thin one; too much excitement and you are a cheerleader, not enough and you’re only interested in “doing your job”.

Here’s a proven three-step process that helps find that delicate balance.

Step 1:
Write the first draft in the exuberant tone that you want it to sound like. Make it as upbeat and over the top as you are really, honestly feeling. Let your own enthusiasm come through, being honest and trying not to add marketing speak. If you were telling your buddy over beers about the cool new project you’re working on, how would that sound in your head? Write that down.

Step 2:
Take your first draft and cut out half the exuberance. Seriously, remove half of the exclamation points, half of the statements like “we’re so excited!”, and half the reasons to buy.

Step 3:
Take one more pass through the copy to clean up the grammar, correct the spelling and ensure the content zings. Take a break, read through it one last time and then fire it off.

Wasn’t that easy?

4. Share your mood and context.

Setting the proper tone in textual communication is tough. Individuals read your content with the mood they’re in, not the mood in which you created it. Without any other vocal or non-verbal cues, jokes are too often misunderstood as insults. Brevity is mistaken for a lack of interest. Clarification is mistaken for a lack of respect. Enthusiasm for dishonesty.

In order to avoid mistaken implication, share your mood up front. Start off an email message with “You’ll have to forgive me it’s been a rough day” or a message forum reply with “I only had a few minutes between meetings, but I thought it was important to reply.”

In addition, share with your readers a bit of your personality to help contextualize the reality of both you and your interest in the communication. BzzAgent recently sent me a “BzzKit” for a new product and it included a campaign introduction letter that started off with:

As a longtime vegetarian, I figured the last thing I’d ever Bzz about was a burger. But when I heard we’d be spreading the word for the new Chili’s Smokehouse Bacon Burger, my heart skipped a beat. Like most of the other vegetarians at Central Hive, bacon is the meat we miss the most.

Not only have a learned a little something about the writer’s personality (crucial in building trust), I’ve understood the vantage point he’s writing the rest of the letter from.

5. Let your personality shine through.

Speaking of learning something about the writer’s personality…

Every time you post a public or private community communication, you’re adding to your online persona – the perception community members have of you, and indirectly the company you work for. Since textual communication is a cornerstone of community engagement, your written communication has significant influence on this persona and thus your reputation.

As modern day consumers, we trust people and are leery of companies. The way we make a distinction between a “person” and a “company” is based on the depth of this persona. As you communicate, let your personality shine through. You don’t want to over do it, a small insight here and there is fine. Share enough to let your readers feel like they’re learning about you, that you’re a real person with real dreams and stories and aspirations. If you truly love the product you’re working with, let the reasons for that come out, honestly and emotionally.

6. It’s not a one-time shot.

Imagine meeting someone at a cocktail party. Rather than a pleasant conversation that unfolds over a period of time, your new acquaintance instead decides to spend 30 minutes delivering an overview of all the things you might be interested in knowing.

Certainly it’s encompassing, but is it good communication? Probably not.

For the sake of efficiency, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to convey everything the audience might need to know in a single communication. While that might be less work for you, can also be less effective for your readers. Don’t be afraid to break the communication into multiple parts. With email, introduce yourself first and ask if the recipient would be interested in hearing about your project before dumping it all on them. In forum posts, focus on one issue at a time, creating multiple separate threads. In blog comments, address one point and then wait for a response before following up.

7. There is no privacy.

Every single communication you develop that is sent outside the walls of your company has the ability to be published for the world to see. Community managers regularly see emails sent to and meant for a single individual forwarded around the community or even published as a community forum post.

While this kind of pass along activity can be more than a little scary, it’s easy enough to safeguard against any ill effects.

  • Include the relevant context of your email so that it’s completely clear to anyone what your content is referring to.
  • Never ever name call, gossip, or vent to community folks in writing. Only in rare cases will you actually do this at all, but never in writing.
  • Make it easy for pass-along viewers to find the specific references, such as Web site addresses.
  • Don’t share top secret information in writing or with people you don’t trust.

Additionally, include copy such as “Between us…” or “For your eyes only…” so that it’s clear that you don’t necessarily want to see the content floating around on the Web. Honest mistakes and misunderstandings seem to be the biggest cause of this kind of information sharing anyway, so be clear from the onset about where you draw the line. Including this copy also makes it less palatable for people to share because it makes them look like they broke your trust.

8. Don’t let it get to you.

The veil of online anonymity creates far too many situations where common courtesy is all but forgotten. The nicest people jot off terse responses forgetting to consider the feelings of the person on the other end of their message. It can be infuriating to hear people trash the project you’ve just worked 80 hour weeks for 6 months to launch.

We all know we’re not supposed to “email mad” because the moment we hit the send button, we’re going to regret it. The same idea applies to all community communication – you can’t let your emotions get the better of you. Try these techniques for getting a handle on those emotions:

  • Step back from the keyboard: Give yourself a break, even if just 10 minutes to break the connection between your brain and the communication.
  • Pass it off to a colleague: If you work with a team, consider asking an unaffected colleague to address the issue you’re dealing with. At least ask them to write the first draft. Their approach is bound to be more reasonable and less emotional, which will help get you back on track.
  • Ask someone to review: If it has to be you responding and you know you’re angry, ask someone, anyone to review your communication. If they think it sounds reasonable, send it. If they can sense the “tone” being overly negative or harsh, clean up the communication.
  • Get it out of your system: Find someone to vent to, let it all out, talk about it until you’re not all that interested in the issue anymore. Take a 15 minute break then try writing a fresh communication from scratch.

Not writing anything, regardless of the level of significance of the issue, is better than writing something you’ll regret later.

9. Review. Your. Writing.

“Fire and forget” has, sadly, become the norm for far too much online communication. It’s amazing the number of grammatical and informational mistakes that can be found in blog posts, forum discussions, email messages, blog comments, wiki articles around the Web (and in my own writing) that could have been caught easily if only the writer had bothered to read over their content once before hitting the “submit” button.

To round out the 9 tips for inspired (and inspiring) text communications, remember that great content takes more than one pass. Write it, take a break, re-read it and make adjustments, and then re-read it once more to make sure it’s ready to post. Yes, you’re busy, but taking a few minutes to clean up your content now saves countless hours cleaning up after a misspeak later.

Bonus tips:

  • DON’T: Use your Blackberry to generate community communications. It’s too easy to incorrectly represent your position, imply a lack of interest, and showcase grammar issues. Wait until you get back to a full-sized keyboard.
  • DO: Consider your response time. Immediate responses say “I’m paying attention”, quick but not instant says “I’m busy, but this is of interest to me”, whereas long delays say “I’m not interested”.
  • DON’T: Use the word “personally” if you don’t mean it. Don’t you love getting form email that say things like “I wanted to personally invite you to next week’s event…” If it’s a form letter, you’re not personally inviting me.
  • DO: Use a specific sign off when using instant messaging. Say goodbye when you’re messaging someone, don’t leave them wondering if you’re still there or if you’ve just lost interest. The rules of good communication apply even when your conversation consists mostly of words like “LOL” and “brb”.

(This content was originally posted at the Online Community Research Network and reposted here with permission)