I tuned into one of my favorite podcasts recently—one that covers various geeky topics through in-depth interviews. Listening to these podcasts is one way to feed my curiosity, and I admire the host’s skills.
This episode, every time the host asked a question, the guest wandered around it, working their way toward an answer after many digressions.
This happened not once, but again and again. Every question led to a meandering discursion. The host tried to keep the flow of the conversation moving, but it was a struggle. As a listener, I gave up and turned it off.
Not everyone is good at speaking on-the-fly in a podcast interview. For many, this skill develops over time, with practice and a deep familiarity with the subject. I confess I still work at it.
This experience got me thinking about writing. (To be fair, I’m always thinking about writing.)
When we write for other people, we act as both podcast guest and host. Like the guest, we have a wealth of things to say and an infinity of words at our disposal. As the host, we care about the audience experience and want to follow a general structure.
Too often in the everyday world, we neglect our duties as host. We assume that whatever flies out of our fingertips into a keyboard is good enough—especially in formats that seem spontaneous or off-the-cuff.
Great writing rarely happens spontaneously.
The dangers of casual writing
If you’re writing a book or a blog post, I trust that your writing practice includes a messy first draft and careful revision. (If not, please check The Writer’s Process for advice and a writing recipe.)
But how about other writing—especially the quick notes you fire off in email or on messaging platforms?
No one composes first drafts of text messages to friends—and I don’t suggest you should start. But what about text messages to colleagues? Messages on Slack or Discord channels with teams? Quick email responses to partners or prospects?
These rapid-response channels now pervade our lives. They may look casual and off-the-cuff, with fun emojis and formatting. Much of the content that passes through is ad hoc and improvised, with jokes and lunch plans. Sometimes, though, important communications slip in amongst the chatter.
Business writing in the digital age is fraught with peril for the careless.
If your reputation is at stake, take a moment, lest you sound like that rambling podcast guest.
When to slow down
When you start typing a quick response to an email or message, yourself: does this deserve a moment of deliberation?
Which responses deserve more care? Use these questions as filters:
- Could someone take offense? Are people feeling defensive or insecure about the subject?
- Might this response affect your professional standing? Are you firing off a response for the board, or for a valued customer?
- Are multiple opposing viewpoints in play? If so, consider whether you intend to take sides or build bridges.
- Does this email message thread have legal or compliance implications?
If any of the above are true, step back and be deliberate in your response.
- Organize your thoughts elsewhere before typing in the email or app.
- Think about what the reader needs first, then structure the answer to those needs.
- Write a first pass, then read it again from the other person’s perspective. If possible, let it sit for an hour or overnight before hitting Send.
You may feel too busy to plan first, or worry about people waiting for your response.
When those worries plague you, remember that rambling podcast guest. They would have made a much better impression by taking a moment to gather their thoughts before responding. The same applies to you.
Over time, you should grow faster at sorting and deliberating. You may come up with formulas that help you frame your responses from the reader’s perspective.
It’s better to be slow with a well-considered response than fast with a careless one.
Interested in more on this topic?
Watch the video I did with Erin Lebacqz on Writing with Simplicity (sponsored by WordRake)
Check out the book 33 Ways Not to Screw Up Your Business Emails