But How Do They Understand You?

The real point is not only do they understand you – the real point is how they understand you.

I remember thinking I was a pretty hot writer as I applied for my first jobs – first with a newspaper, then as assistant director of public relations at a major university. And grammatically I was pretty good, after Miss Cook and Mr. Hood turned me loose!

Then began the slow realization that to succeed in business, it takes a lot more than correct grammar. That was when I began to understand that there are important differences between academic writing and business writing.

Don’t get me wrong here – as we have discussed many times, and as you will find each week in this newsletter’s Quick Tips video, grammar is incredibly important.  It is the basis for writing correctly. Next, understand that there are differences in what is “correct,” for each application. Think of it this way: There are two parts to writing: (1) the mechanical, or grammar and usage issues; and (2) the practical, or results-getting side: how to make this specific piece of writing work in the environment where it needs to get results.

You start with your message, which then goes through your (the sender’s) “filters,” through a  “channel,” such as an email, a text, a phone conversation. After going through the receiver’s “filters,” does the receiver get the same message you intended to send?

Sometimes people think of this process as being somewhat like the children’s game, “telephone.” And if you consider the “filters” as being those giggly little kids either trying to make the outcome funnier by changing a word or two here, or who, for whatever reason, were not clearly understood by the next child whose ear was whispered into, I guess they were.

So in the game of telephone, did the message sent equal the message received? Probably not. One of the favorite messages when I was a kid was, “pressing papa’s purple pants,” which usually came out something like, “pop, pop the bandanna.” Whereupon everyone would laugh uproariously, and the game was considered a big success. Because the purpose of the game was to get laughs!

But how funny is this kind of misunderstanding – or for that matter, any type of misunderstanding – in the business situation? How does it affect comprehension, or how the reader feels about you, your message, or your organization? And how in the world could they have misunderstood what you meant?

Of course, incorrect grammar and usage is a filter, as are word choices and cultural, generational, and regional practices and understandings.  Tone – the relationship that the writer sets up with the reader – also comes in very strongly here. Then consider expectations: What was your reader expecting you to say? Consider the reader’s biases as well as your own.

Stop for a minute here, and add two more possible filters you’ve thought of.

Now for a few practical examples:

  1. Are you yelling at someone? To someone? For someone? Do you hear the difference? Many people may use, “He was yelling at me,” for all of it, when they might mean, “He was yelling to me,” or, “He was yelling for me.” Taken literally – a tremendous difference both in meaning, and in tone! And a great opportunity for those filters to create, or change, or create a misunderstanding of what you meant.
  1. My Webster’s gives “variety,” and “diversity” as synonyms, until you get to the very bottom, where you find “variety” implies things to choose among, while “diversity” implies a number of items. Small differences that can make a difference.
  1. Have you ever had someone call you because they thought you had given them a “no,” when you had actually said, “yes”? And then say, “Oh, I didn’t see that”?
  1. And did you ever get marked down because you used a “frag”? While you would never use a sentence fragment in formal, or academic writing, research shows that sentence fragments can be highly effective, both for enhancing understanding, and for generating specific results.

Academic writing is neither any better nor any worse than writing for business. Each has its own purpose: Academic writing is meant for scholarly academic pursuits; business writing is meant to generate results in the business situation.

As you think of them, comment to share some filters that you’ve thought of.


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

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