Did you know that your brain has a “mute” button for your speaking voice? When you speak, it dampens the reception of sound waves through the air, prioritizing the sound generated from the vibrations inside your head.
That’s why our voices sound so strange to us on recordings. We grow accustomed to a more resonant voice in our heads. (It’s also why our own singing doesn’t hurt our ears, but the person belting next to us does.)
Is there a parallel in writing?
When we read what we’ve written, we remember the nuanced overtones of what we said, the richness of thought that led us to the words. We know the mood we planned to convey.
But the reader sees only what’s on the page or screen, and supplies their own context and overtones. Often, the prose seems flat.
Worse, the reader may misinterpret mood entirely.
How do others read you?
In a study titled Egocentrism Over Email, researchers found that most people completely overestimated how well others would interpret the tone of an email. On the flip side, readers felt great confidence that they had interpreted the tone correctly.
According to the study’s authors, “People routinely overestimate how well they can communicate over email, particularly when the meaning of the message is ambiguous.”
Yikes. We cannot really hear how we show up in writing.
What should we do?
Get an outside perspective
To get a sense of our writing voice, we need space or get an outside perspective. Editors, beta readers, and can function like tape recorders, letting us know how we really sound.
If that’s not available, try putting yourself into a different mood altogether.
Try on different perspectives
The authors of the email study found a cure for overconfidence about tone: read aloud the message you are writing in a different mood altogether.
Test it yourself.
Write a short email that to colleague about a safe, but ambiguous topic. Like, “there’s cake in the break room.” (Don’t send it and get people’s hopes up, unless you’re willing to leave a cake.)
How might you feel about that topic?
- Are you trying to lose weight? Maybe it annoys you.
- Is there cake in the break room every day? Do you long for pie?
- Are you genuinely happy about it?
Pick one approach and write it: happy, upset, funny, sarcastic, whatever.
Then, print it and read it aloud in an entirely different mode.
If you think you’re being funny, read it as if it were deadly serious. If wrote sincerely, read it in a flippant voice.
Does it work with an alternate mood? If so, you might need to clarify your intentions.
This small act is usually enough to reset our expectations—and to make us take more care in writing.
Want to go deeper?
Read Can You Hear Me: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World by Nick Morgan
Read the study Egocentrism over Email (which I found cited in Nick Morgan’s book)