Episode 149 –The Write Way – Mastering Written Communication

Episode #149
Original Air Date: 03.15.2022

36 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Rob Ashton

Does your written communication land you in hot water? Do you often misinterpret messages you receive? What should a project manager consider before writing that next status report? Our guest, Rob Ashton, is a writer who focuses on the hidden science behind how our reading and writing influences our thoughts and actions. Rob explains how we struggle innately to read and write, and why psychologists call written communication a “low capacity channel.” Rob highlights some best practices to avoid pitfalls, write winning bids, and cut out common workplace communication errors.

Rob explains when it is ok to use instant messaging, text, or email. And, he explains when face-to-face is the better option. Rob coaches us to recognize the warning signs indicating when it’s best to have that face-to-face conversation with a team member or sponsor. Before you write that next report, should you be using bullet points or storytelling? How do you give the decision maker the best information, so that you tee up the right decision? Rob shares how to grab attention in your emails, and he describes a useful acronym, SCRAP: Situation; Complication; Resolution; Action; Polite. Other topics Rob highlights are “garden-pathing”, a good way to start an email, compelling subject lines, and using effective greetings.

Rob’s research in cognitive and social neuroscience, cognitive and social psychology, and behavioral and neuroeconomics gives him a unique insight into how written communication works or (too often) doesn’t. He is also the founder of the global learning company, Emphasis, which specializes in written communication and that has enabled over 70,000 people to make more impact with their professional writing.

Learn More About Our Course by Eric Norman: Effective Project and Program Status Reporting

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"...write as if you are writing for a human because you are.  You know, not for the position.  You don’t look at someone’s job title.  Think of them as a human being.  They are as human as you are, and they’re subject to the same mental shortcuts and the same irritations and the same cognitive biases."

- Rob Ashton

"If you’ve ever thought about reading, reading is a miracle, really, because you see dots and squiggles on a screen or on a page, and you hear voices in your head.  You know, that’s just miraculous, ... it’s very easy to take that for granted and to think that it’s just something we can just do, ...  But it’s really, it’s like the ultimate brain hack, reading and writing."

- Rob Ashton

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The podcast by project managers for project managers. Mastering written communication and focusing on the hidden science behind how our reading and writing influences our thoughts and actions. Hear some best practices when it comes to writing winning bids, pitfalls we should avoid, as well as common workplace communication errors.

Table of Contents

02:02 … Rob’s Background Story
03:17 … Misfired Messages
07:23 … Knowing When to Call a Time-out
10:53 … Recognizing the Warning Signs
12:56 … Effective Writing in Project Management
15:45 … Fluency Heuristic
17:01 … Overloading the Decision-Maker
22:46 … An Attention-Grabbing Introduction
26:57 … “Garden-Pathing”
27:49 … Email Salutations
29:18 … Compelling Subject Lines
30:54 … Words of Advice
34:01 … Contact Rob
35:01 … Closing

ROB ASHTON:  …write as if you are writing for a human because you are.  You know, not for the position.  You don’t look at someone’s job title.  Think of them as a human being.  They are as human as you are, and they’re subject to the same mental shortcuts and the same irritations and the same cognitive biases.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  We are so glad you’re joining us.  If you like what you hear, please visit us at Velociteach.com, where you can leave a comment on our Manage This Podcast page.  I’m Wendy Grounds, and joining me is Bill Yates.  Today we’re very excited about our guest.  We’ve never really talked about written communication.  Rob Ashton has a very interesting background.  He’s actually been in science and research.  And because of that he got into the process of reading and writing because of writing scientific reports and research papers.  But he has a very unique perspective on why so much of our written communication just doesn’t work.

BILL YATES:  That’s true.  Now we’re in a remote workforce more so than ever.  So many of us are working virtually.  So what do you do?  You pop open Slack.  You pop open Skype.  And you pop open Teams.  And you just instant message with your team back and forth, back and forth.  Which many times that’s totally appropriate.  I think as Rob will get into, we have a number of different tools at our disposal.  You’ve got to pick the right tool for the right message, or you’re going to get into trouble.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Right, right.  I’m excited to talk to Rob.  A little bit about him before we get there is he’s the founder of a global learning company called Emphasis, which specializes in written communication.  Some of his high-profile clients have been Big 4 accounting firms, big tech, big pharma.  He’s also done some work with the U.K. Prime Minister’s office at 10 Downing Street, and even the royal household at Buckingham Palace.  So we’re in good company.


WENDY GROUNDS:  Hi, Rob.  Welcome to Manage This.  Thank you so much for joining us today.

ROB ASHTON:  Hey, it’s great to be here.  Thanks for inviting me.

Rob’s Background Story

WENDY GROUNDS:  Rob, before we get into our conversation on written communication, can you tell us how you got into this field and what your background is?

ROB ASHTON:  I started off as a research scientist before a love of words led me into publishing.  So originally trained as an editor.  And I did that for a while, and I found that I guess I just got a little tired of applying the same techniques again and again to the words I was trying to knock into shape.  And I decided that instead of doing that, I would go and teach people to do it.  So I set up a training company to do that, and that was called Emphasis.  And that was 23 years ago.

And then six years ago I decided that I would go back to my roots, and I would start to look at the science of this because there’s very little out there on the science of written communication, or at least in the business world.  There’s a ton of stuff out there in the academic world, but virtually none of it makes its way into the business world.  And I wanted to see why. 

First of all I wanted to see if I was right.  It seemed to work in practice, but I didn’t know why, and maybe there’s better ways to do it.  In fact, I thought that would take a few months.  I gave myself six months, and I thought I’d write a book on it.  And of course that was incredibly naive.  And here I am six years later, finally working on the book.  So it’s been a six-year odyssey to look into the science of written communication.

Misfired Messages

WENDY GROUNDS:  We are very excited about this topic.  We’ve had many podcasts on communication, leadership, those types of things.  But never before have we spoken on communication and the written word.  And I think it’s definitely a very relevant topic to discuss.

BILL YATES:  I think everybody’s going to have to read the transcript closely.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yes.  We will have it all written down there for you folk.  You know, we’ve all had that scenario when you’re having an innocent chat with someone on messaging.  You get that text that comes in.  And you take it the wrong way.  Or it’s what you call misfired messages are going back and forth all of a sudden, and you don’t really get clarity as to what’s going on, and we end up getting in hot water.  Rob, what happens there?  Why do we so often misinterpret these messages that we’re receiving?

ROB ASHTON:  Great question.  It’s something that happens an awful lot.  It’s funny, what you’re talking about there is written communication.  And yet we don’t think of it as written communication.  We’re thinking of it as talking.  You know, we’re chatting.  And in fact you even see it on customer help desks.  It’s called “live chat.”  It’s chat, talking; and yet it’s not talking, it’s writing.  And I think right at the heart of that problem is something that most people don’t realize, and that’s that we didn’t evolve to read and write.

Now, when I say that, I’ve actually taken a lot of flak on social media for this recently by saying that.  People say, what are you talking about?  It doesn’t matter.  We didn’t evolve to drive motor cars, you know.  Why does that even matter?  Or they’ll say, yes, we did.  We’ve been reading and writing for a long time.  And we’ve evolved to do it.  Some people even think we’ve evolved to do it since we started using the web to communicate.  But the fact is that as a species, we’ve been reading and writing for about 5,000 years, which sounds like a very long time; right?  But it’s not.  It’s only a heartbeat in evolutionary terms. 

When you are reading and writing, you are using circuitry that you have developed since you were born.  This is why takes us so long to learn to read and write.  We can understand our parents’ voices, or at least we can react to our parents’ voices, and we can make our presence felt to our parents by crying when we’re babies.  You know, we use our voices to communicate.  We use our hearing to communicate straight out of the womb.  But when it comes to reading and writing, this is something we have to learn to do, it takes years, and we are rewiring the brain.  And what we’re doing is we’re joining up parts of the brain that we evolved for other purposes, such as for hearing, for example.

If you’ve ever thought about reading, reading is a miracle, really, because you see dots and squiggles on a screen or on a page, and you hear voices in your head.  You know, that’s just miraculous, I think.  So it’s very easy to take that for granted and to think that it’s just something we can just do, and we do it naturally, and we do it easily.  But it’s really, it’s like the ultimate brain hack, reading and writing.  We are operating, though we may not realize it, on the edge of our cognitive abilities when we’re doing that.

So to your question, it doesn’t leave much room for things like emotional control.  I think this emotional control thing is one of the keys for why we so often end up in hot water when we’re communicating in that way, when we’re messaging.  It’s why we so often misinterpret things, although there are other things we can dig into there.  But, you know, if you are irritated already, then we often check these things in situations that we would never have been reading in before.  Normally, reading was something we did, you know, you go back a long time, you go back even a couple of decades, you would be reading a book; you would be reading a magazine.  You wouldn’t be doing it while you sat in a traffic jam getting really wound up about traffic.

But when we are already irritated, and a message lands, we look.  That just confirms that we’re right to be irritated, and we start to think that it’s that message that has irritated us, that has made us angry.  So there are all sorts of reasons.  But I think the key to it all is that we didn’t evolve to read and write.

Knowing When to Call a Time-out

BILL YATES:  One of the things that really cracked me up was reading through one of the blog posts that you had about a very innocent question that you asked a teammate that was on a project.  You simply asked for a project status.  Talk us through that interaction.

ROB ASHTON:  But you know, I still remember it like it was yesterday because it had such a profound effect on me.  I sat there in my office.  We were just looking at the screen full of Gantt charts and Trello boards.  And we’d had a standup, one of our regular weekly project meetings on the Monday.  And I think it was Wednesday by this point.  It was the middle of the week.  And that the standup everybody had said, “Yeah, everything’s going fine.”  They’d been really positive about what they were working on.  But as I was looking at those things, I just thought just something doesn’t feel right.

So I just turned to Slack.  And I said to my colleague, “Can you just give me an update?”  You know, just how’s it going?  How is that project going?  And, now, I didn’t phrase it exactly like that.  To be honest, I think I was kind of treading on egg shells.  Maybe I was a little bit hesitant.  I don’t know why that was.  But I certainly wasn’t, you know, I was being very, very polite.  And he just came back with a one-word reply, which was, “Why?”

BILL YATES:  That’s so loaded, yeah.

ROB ASHTON:  Exactly.  Exactly.  And I just, well, how do you respond to that?  I thought, he’s irritated.  It felt like he was irritated.  As you say, it was a loaded, a loaded response.

BILL YATES:  Confirming what you’d already suspected, yeah. 

ROB ASHTON:  Yeah.  So I replied.  I can’t remember what I said.  But I’m not kidding.  Within two or three messages, things were heading south pretty rapidly.  We were heading for an online row.  And the only reason it didn’t go any further was that this colleague had the presence of mind just to call for timeout and say, should we speak about this?  He walked into my office, and he sat down, and we started talking.  As soon as we started talking, the body language changed.  You know, I could just feel my shoulders drop within 30 seconds, maybe a minute or so.  We were smiling.  But it was the relief just washing over me.  And it was because we were using our voices.  And we managed to smooth things over.

There’s even some research to back that up, which looks at the release of oxytocin.  Now, oxytocin is very important when it comes to managing our emotions.  And what the research found is that when we are speaking, and when we are listening to someone, oxytocin is released.  But when we’re communicating the same things using instant messaging, oxytocin isn’t released.  So it’s like we’re communicating with one hand tied behind our back when we’re doing that.  I think in that conversation with the colleague that it’s not too fanciful to imagine that that feeling, that relief I felt as soon as we started speaking to each other was oxytocin.

And the weird thing is that often when we’re doing that we’re in our phones, you know, and we’re actually bashing away a response on our phone.  If we were just to take that device that were bashing away the angry response on and just move it from in front of our faces up to our ears, then we could actually solve so many of our problems.  But we don’t.  We just keep typing.  And I think it’s because we haven’t actually got that kind of, well, psychologists call it “metacognition,” that ability to think about what we’re thinking because we are really operating on the edge.  And psychologists call written communication a “low capacity channel.”  There’s not very much you can convey with the written word.

Recognizing the Warning Signs

BILL YATES:  It’s such a good point.  And to me it drives home the need for, in our case, project managers to know when to use instant message, when to use text, when to use an email, versus okay, this is a higher stakes item.  We need to have a face-to-face conversation.  One thing I loved about your story, where the simple response you saw on the screen was “Why?,” was that you both realized, you know, you recognize, okay, this is only going south. 

This is not going to get better.  I can’t type up some brilliant response that suddenly the skies clear, and it’s a beautiful day again.  I need to have a conversation.  Face-to-face would be wonderful.  But at least a phone conversation.  So what tips can you give us as to how do you know when you need to go to a phone call, or you need to go to a face-to-face meeting.

ROB ASHTON:  There are some warning signs.  For a start, as soon as you start to sense that things are getting a bit tense, it’s like being under the influence of alcohol.  You wouldn’t text under the influence of anger or irritation.  You know, you should definitely stop then.  But if you are angry, it can take a surprisingly long time just to lose that before you start again.  It can take 20 minutes to move on from that.  And everything you do up to that point will be influenced by the anger.  So definitely stop.

But there’s something else.  If you find, even if you’re not angry, if you find that you are trying to couch things to include lots of caveats to qualify what you’re saying, you want to say this but you also want to say that and it’s important you get this in, as soon as things become that complex, then that’s a real warning sign that you should not be trying to do it through the written word.

And that’s not just in instant messaging, you know.  That applies to email, and it even applies to formal documents because we tend to forget that if we’re, say, writing a proposal or a report, we tend to forget that we can also speak either to the person, the end audience, if you like, the end user, or to somebody else who knows that person.  Don’t just rely on the written word, even for that.

Effective Writing in Project Management

WENDY GROUNDS:  I think that would be good to kind of break into the next thing we wanted to talk to you about is effective writing in project management.  So a lot of project managers, they have to write reports.  They have to communicate a lot in their writing to stakeholders and team members.  What are some of the things that project managers should really consider before they write that next report?  What are good things that they should know?

ROB ASHTON:  Well, the three most important things you should always remember when you’re writing anything like that is the reader, the reader, and the reader.  When we are in that mode, we are writer focused.  We’re focused on our needs, we’re focused on what we need to get across, we’re focused on what we want to get out of it.  But we’re also focused even just on getting that task done.  You know, we want to cross that off our to-do list; don’t we.  So everything points to us, to the writer.  And unless you do something very deliberate to focus on the reader, probably the decision-maker, and their needs, you will lose sight of that.  And you will lose sight of that in so many different ways.

So first of all, yeah, definitely think about the reader.  Think about what they want.  Think about what they care about.  It’s so easy when we’re trying to move things forward just to jump in and tell them about this project and say, you know, what’s the funding for it.  Think of it in terms of their priorities, and even what they’re interested in, and start there.  There are some traps you can easily fall into, particularly when you are focused.  When you’re focused on yourself, you don’t bring your A game.  You tend to fall into certain cognitive traps.  And the first one is overload.  So it’s very easy to overload the decision-maker’s brain.

Now, when it comes to making decisions, there’s a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.  The name doesn’t mean anything; but, you know, for those who are interested, if you point to the back of your eye and draw an imaginary line to the top of your head, it’s about there in the middle.  And the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is responsible for making decisions, for problem-solving, and for controlling emotions.  And if you overload it, then it’s only going to go one way.  You’re going to end up with an emotional decision.

We can be irritated.  When we’re irritated, that’s called the “affect heuristic,” you know, it’s a mental shortcut.  It’s like I said earlier, you know, if you’re in a traffic jam, and you get a message, you’re irritated because there’s a traffic jam, but you think it’s the message that’s irritated you.  So likewise if you overload the brain, if you overload the decision-maker’s brain, that can lead to poor emotional control.  They get irritated, and they think they’re irritated with you or with your proposal.  And their gut feel says, nah.  And that’s the other thing.  There’s another rule of thumb called “status quo bias.”  You know, when we’re in doubt we do nothing.  We stick with the status quo.  So there’s a whole range of these.

Fluency Heuristic

But there is a way that you can stack the odds in your favor.  So another one of these rules of thumb is called the “fluency heuristic.”  Now, you know, we hear a lot about these heuristics.  But the fluency heuristic doesn’t get that much airtime, which is a shame because fluency heuristic says that the easier something is to understand, the more likely we are to believe it.  So if you can write something clearly, especially if you can get the reader reading and keep them reading, that’s the thing.  It’s not just about writing in short sentences, you know, or even worse, bullet points.  And we must talk about bullet points, too.  It’s not about that.  It’s about keeping them reading.

Something is really easy to read, then we’re more likely to believe it.  And, you know, you even see this in fake news.  You know, I could ask the question and say, what do you think the population of Sydney, the capital of Australia, is?  Now, you could focus on the question in that situation and not the fact that I’ve just actually fed you a false fact, which is that the capital of Australia isn’t, of course, Sydney.  It’s Canberra.  You know, but you focus on the question.  So – because it’s easier to answer the question.  So the easier what you write is to read, the more likely it is to be believed, and the more likely you are to get the decision you want.

Overloading the Decision-Maker

But I would say that one of the other things, though, and I’ve seen this with a client of my training business, which is kind of my other hat, where they were taking proposals to the board.  This is a bank, and my client was the head of one of a number of divisions in the bank.  And they would need to get a decision to move their project forward from the board.  Every month, you know, they typically had something to take to them.  And what they would do is they would just give them reports that were absolutely stuffed chock full of screen grabs of Excel spreadsheets.  And there was absolutely no engagement.  It was really hard.  They were overloading that part of the brain I talked about.  So they were irritating the reader.  But they were doing it thinking that they were helping.

You know, one of the big mistakes we often make is that, if we give the decision-maker more information, they’ll obviously think we know what we’re talking about.  We think it bolsters our position.  It doesn’t.  And it completely overloads the decision-maker’s brain and makes it more likely that they will fall back on some of these other biases, that they will not make the decision.  And this was happening to them.  In fact, worse than that, what it tended to produce was lots and lots of questions.  And so every board meeting became a battle.  You know, they’d go in with their proposal, and they would come out feeling like they’d been through the ringer.  And man, that was really bad.  And they just lost all control.

One thing they were losing control of was the narrative.  And I mentioned bullet points earlier.  One of the things that bullet points do is they give up all control of the narrative.  Bullet points are just isolated facts, almost.  You know, they’re snippets of information.  We think in stories.  We solve problems in stories.  That voice you have in your head, who’s this guy Rob, what’s he talking about, there’s a voice in our heads the whole time.  And it’s the same with the decision-maker.  They have a voice in their head.  And you need to control that voice.  You need to get control of that as a story and tell the story and lead them through so that you end up with the decision you want.

And so this client stopped writing in bullet points and started writing in terms of a narrative and developing a narrative.  And the first time they used this, not only did they get the decision they wanted, but it happened almost instantaneously.  They were allocated 20 minutes to talk about it, and they got the decision in five.  The meeting ended sooner than expected.  And the client and his colleague came out of the board meeting, and one turned to the other and said, “What just happened?”  You know, they’d never seen – and it was such an easy thing.

I guess the thing we forget is that we’re dealing with humans.  And if people take anything from this conversation it’s write as if you are writing for a human because you are.  You know, not for the position.  You don’t look at someone’s job title.  Think of them as a human being.  They are as human as you are, and they’re subject to the same mental shortcuts and the same irritations and the same cognitive biases.

BILL YATES:  Rob, this is so on point. And you started with the key, which is reader, reader, reader.  When we’re preparing our report or preparing our update on a project, we need to think about the audience.  There’s a segment of one of my favorite stories in “Alpha Project Managers:  What the Top 2% Know and the Rest Don’t.”  It’s a book by Andy Crowe, our CEO.  And in that a sponsor actually shared the story of a weekly update that they received.  They were receiving these from several projects that they sponsored.  And they asked for a half page.

from each of those project leaders once a week.  And everybody was complying except for one project leader.  And that project manager kept giving an 11-pager, and it was information overload.  They weren’t thinking about the reader and thinking about what do they need.  And the response that really sticks with me was the sponsor asked the project manager, “Hey, I’ve asked you for a half page.  What is it that makes you think you need to provide me with 11 pages?  I don’t have time for this.”  And he said, “Well, you need to make time for this because this is important information.”  Again, the value is we should be summarizing and telling the story of where that project is in that current period, and that person was just missing it.

ROB ASHTON:  Yeah, and I think what we do is we underestimate how much other people know, and to overestimate how much we know.  It’s the flipside of the Dunning-Kruger effect.  If you don’t know much about something, you tend to overestimate how much you know about it.  But when you do know a lot, in that situation you are an expert.  You know more about this than the decision-maker.  And therefore you’re in quite a dangerous position because it’s very easy for you to overestimate how much they know about it.  Now, that doesn’t mean that you should then give them 11 pages.  That means you should lead them.

For a start, one of the critical things there is because they don’t know that much about it, they are going to be relying on their working memory.  You know, they don’t have long-term memory to draw on like you do as an expert.  And there’s another very interesting experiment where researchers, they asked students to read 60 sentences.  And then they just asked them to remember the last word of each sentence.  They just said, how many of these words can you remember?  Now, there were 60 sentences; okay?  So what do you think?  15?  12?  Five.  The average was five words.  And in fact some could even only remember two words.

And the reason is it was unfamiliar information.  When we’re reading that, we are relying on our working memory, and our working memory has a very, very limited capacity, can quickly get overloaded.  As we’ve said almost ad nauseam now, people are going to get irritated when they get overloaded.  And it sounds like this decision-maker certainly got irritated, and understandably so, understandably so.

An Attention-Grabbing Introduction

WENDY GROUNDS:  What would be a good introduction if a project manager’s writing a report or proposing something to a stakeholder?  How should they start that introduction that would really grab attention?

ROB ASHTON:  That is such a great question because there’s so much bad advice on this.  Again, you come back to thinking of this person as a human.  What you want to get most of all at the beginning of something like that in a communication like an email, you want to get the reader nodding.  So what you don’t do is just hit them between the eyes with the problem.  You know, I would always start with the position.  I would start with something that they agree with.  It’s kind of like a low-friction way. 

It comes back to this fluency heuristic that I mentioned earlier on.  Something is easy to read.  If you hit someone straight away with a problem, then it’s not easy to read, and you’re going to make them irritated.  So I would do that.  It doesn’t have to be very long, but just say something you know they’ll agree with.

And then, you know, if you’re trying to get a decision on something, then you could introduce the problem then, once you’ve got them nodding.  So it’s a bit like saying, look, here’s where we are, and you kind of go, yeah, yeah, I agree, that’s – here’s where we are.  And then you say, here’s why we can’t stay here, though.  Then it’s like, oh, why?  And then you give them some more facts.  It’s ah, right.  And then you tell them where you think we should go.

BILL YATES:  That sounds like a story, too, yeah, yeah, yeah.

ROB ASHTON:  It’s a story again.  Exactly.  Yeah.  That would be the thing I would say.  Don’t hit people with a problem.  And you know, that applies to other areas of life, as well, even if you’re trying to, say, email somebody in customer service.  Just start with the situation.  There’s an acronym which people might find useful which is SCRAP, which is Situation, where you are now; Complication, why you can’t stay there; Resolution, where you think you should go; and therefore Action, what you should do next; and then always be Polite at the end.  Again, people remember firsts and lasts, says the primacy and recency effect.  So be positive at the beginning and polite at the end.  And above all else, avoid making anybody angry because it’s never going to go your way.

There’s a lot of bad advice out there.  There was a blog post that went viral a few years ago, and it was called something like “How to Write Email Like the Military.”  It got shared an awful lot, and I can see why, because I think it was based on how we wished the human mind operated.  You often think of the human brain as a computer.  That helps sometimes, but it’s not like this kind of biological database that we could just dump a whole load of information in.  We can just give people the facts.

And of course that idea of writing like the military, that was definitely it.  But it’s a lot of trained military, and they’re very big on bottom line upfront.  I can see why.  But this email was advocating that, and with subject lines that were coded so that some were easy to understand, like action or info.  And these were in caps, by the way, which is always a great way to get people on your side, not.  So there were other quite strange ones like coord for coordination.  And then there would be the bottom line.  And then there would be the background.

For example, here’s one.  So “Subject:  INFO [in all caps] Working From Home.”  Shannon.  Going straight in with someone’s name with not even a greeting, nor a hi, nor a morning, no, just Shannon.  And then bottom line, we will reduce the number of days that employees can work from home from three to one day per week, effective December 1st.  Okay?  Background.  Bullet.  This is an effort to encourage team morale and foster team collaboration.  Bullet.  All members of the management committee supported this decision.

Now, people were kind of, wow, that’s amazing, you know, that’s what we should be doing.  And it’s so, so wrong.  I could just see that it’s like how to lose friends and alienate people which is just not going to end well.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, it’s too cold and too detached.

ROB ASHTON:  Yeah.  It can get you in hot water sometimes.  Shorter is not always better, as we’ve seen from the writing like the military.  You know, typically we’re opening emails on our phones.  And again, you don’t know when you send that email where that person is going to be when they’re opening it.  They’ve got a small screen.  And the first sentence has one job, which is to get the reader to read the next sentence.  And if they don’t read the next sentence, then you’re sunk.  You’re not going to get anywhere.  So each sentence should just take you on to the next one.


And there’s another concept in the cognitive science of written communication which is called “garden-pathing.”  It comes from the idea of leading a pig up the garden path.  It’s that when we’re reading something, we’re trying to work out where the sentence is going.  So it’s like, why are they telling me this?  What is this about?  Oh, right, it’s going this way.  And if it suddenly takes a turn and goes the other way, then we have to go back and reread it.  So you stopped reading.

The most difficult thing to do with any reader is to get them reading in the first place.  It’s a bit like trying to bump start a car; you know?  It’s really difficult to get it moving to begin with.  And you put all your effort into it.  But as soon as you’ve overcome that initial friction, you don’t need to apply that much effort.  It has a momentum of its own.  That’s what writing should be like.  You know, you just want the reader to start reading and to keep reading.  So an absolutely great example because if you’re opening an email, the first thing you want to know is why should you read it?

Email Salutations

WENDY GROUNDS:  Right, right.  What’s a good way to start the email?  Should we be saying “Dear,” or just “Hi”?  Sometimes you’ll start an email with a “Dear,” but then later on you’ll just use first names.  Which is the proper way to really do it?

ROB ASHTON:  Piecing together email is still a relatively new medium.  That sounds crazy; you know?  I can remember certainly when I first got my email account.  Now you have plenty of people who don’t use email.  But we don’t have rules.  We still borrow the etiquette from a bygone age, from letter writing.  So sometimes we can use “Dear.”  Sometimes we can be more informal and just say “Hi.”  People often just leave the salutation out altogether, as I say, which is risky.  There is no one-size-fits-all.  There is no rule.  I realize it’s not terribly helpful.  What I tend to do is, if I’ve already corresponded with the person, then I take their lead.

BILL YATES:  Yes, yes.

ROB ASHTON:  So, you know, I mirror their salutations and signoffs.  And if I haven’t, then I err on the side of formality until it’s clear that we can be a little less formal.

I occasionally have to contact academics.  If they’re in that position, they’ve had to work hard for it.  If it’s professor, I wouldn’t go straight in with her first name.  I would use her title.  And then if she then comes back and signs off with her first name, particularly if she’s informal with me and says “Hi, Rob,” then I take that as my signal that I can be informal, too.  But, you know, it’s about respect.  No one’s going to penalize you because you’ve formal at the beginning.  Whereas if you do the opposite, then you could find that you sour that relationship right at the beginning.

Compelling Subject Lines

WENDY GROUNDS:  Very good points.  Rob, when it comes to compelling subject lines, what are some of the things that we’re doing wrong when we write a subject line?  And how’s the best way to grab someone’s attention?

ROB ASHTON:  I think what you need to do is, again, catch attention without being gimmicky.  So as Bill was saying, you want people to know why they should read it.  They’re looking at this long list of emails in their overfull inbox.  Why should they read that particular one?  Now, if it’s somebody you don’t know, then that’s going to be harder.  So it comes back to reader, reader, reader.  What’s the reader interested in?  Why are you writing to them?  Why should they care?  If it’s somebody you know, then you can refer to a situation that you’re both familiar with.  Okay?

So I would take my touchpoint as could be a project you’re working on.  If it’s somebody who’s not in your team, what are they working on?  Think about the things they care about again.  And then use that as your touchpoint, if you like.  You know, without being disingenuous.  It’s got to be a clear link.  It’s no good just mentioning our project, and the email has nothing to do with it.  But I would also try to make it clear that it’s not a problem, that it’s not giving them a problem.  Because those are the emails that it’s a bit like ignoring a pile of bills on the doormat, you know, it’s kind of, yeah, I’ll look at those later, when I’ve had my best coffee.

You don’t want it to be a problem.  There’s no one way to do it.  But if you think of the reader and think of something they’re likely to be interested in, make it clear that it’s going to be an easy thing, so open that email, that it’s not a thing they should be ignoring, again, just remember you’re writing to a human.

Words of Advice

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, that’s excellent advice.  Before we wrap up, can you give us some final words of advice for our project managers, something you’d like them to really take away from this conversation?

ROB ASHTON:  I would say remember you have lots of tools at your disposal when it comes to communicating, not just the keyboard and screen in front of you.  There’s something really seductive about those things; you know?  You just keep typing.  Even when you can feel that you’re starting to get into hot water, even when you feel that you’re not going to get the response that you want, you keep typing.  It’s like that old adage that, you know, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.  The person you’re communicating with is a human. 

So yes, the written communication – and this may sound strange for somebody who’s spent most of his adult life focusing on written communication.  But you can speak to somebody.  You can have a meeting.  Used to be I’d say pick up the phone.  But, you know, now we have Skype.  We have Zoom.  You know, we have Teams.  Use those things.

So I want to talk about one more bias, one more heuristic, which is familiarity bias.  We like what we know.  So if you have an opportunity to make somebody more familiar with what you’re talking about, outside of the proposal you’re writing or the email, or it could be weeks before the decision that you want, then take it because, if the first time they hear about this project or they hear about this topic is when they have to make the decision, again, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back.

There was some seminal study on this, it was back in the late ‘60s, very famous psychologist called Robert Zajonc.  And he placed a series of small ads in the Michigan Daily, which is the University of Michigan student newspaper.  And these are really weird.  There was just a box with a word in it.  Each one was a box and a word.  And they were words like “iktitaf” and “nansoma.”  Your listeners won’t know what those mean unless they are scholars of ancient Ottoman Turkish.  So to all intents and purposes, they were gibberish.

Now, not only that, but this scientist, Robert Zajonc, had tested a whole list of these words to see which ones produced the most negative effect.  So he asked people to read the words and say how does that make you feel?  Does that sound like a positive word or a negative word?  And he deliberately chose the ones that were deemed to be the most negative.  I mean, it’s slightly crazy because they were nonsense.  He took the worst words, the ones that got the biggest negative reaction, put them in these ads, and then just ran these ads for a few weeks, and then surveyed readers and showed them these words in amongst all of the others, and the opposite was true.  Those are the words that came out on top, simply because they’d seen them before.  It’s called the “mere exposure effect.”

So you can use that mere exposure effect by gaining exposure for your ideas outside of the document you’re writing.  Like I say, you don’t just have to use your keyboard and your screen.  You have lots of other things at your disposal.

Contact Rob

WENDY GROUNDS:  How can our listeners reach out to you if they would like to hear more about what you do or just if they have any questions?  What’s the best way for them to contact you?

ROB ASHTON:  Well, if they go to my website, which is just simply RobAshton.com, there’s a contact form there.  And incidentally, if they go to Influence.RobAshton.com/manage, then they can get a free course, a five-part course, audio and email, that covers a lot of the things we’ve been talking about today and more.  That’s free of charge.  So that’s Influence.RobAshton.com/manage.  And if they want to find out anything else about the things we talked about or in-company training, that kind of thing, they can find that on my website, and it’s all on there.

BILL YATES:  Excellent resources.  Rob Ashton, this has been so helpful for project managers to put more thought into how they communicate, to pick the right tool, and then when we are using a written form to really be intentional about it.  Thank you.  You’ve given us a lot to consider.

ROB ASHTON:  Hey, it’s been great.  It’s my pleasure.  Thanks for having me on.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Thank you so much for listening.  We’d love to have you visit us at Velociteach.com to subscribe to this podcast, see a transcript of the show, or to contact us if you have any questions about project management certifications in general.

You’ve also just earned some professional development units by listening to this podcast.  To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com, choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page, click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

2 responses to “Episode 149 –The Write Way – Mastering Written Communication”

  1. Yanet Fikru says:

    Thank you for the great communication tips and I like the concept of “mere exposure effect.”

  2. Sreenivas Kumar says:

    Thank you for Communication Tips

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