Judith Meriwether interviewed me on KRVS. We discussed Professional Writing at UL. Listen here. Judith asked how my connections working overseas impacted how I think about professional writing. My first thought was “audience.” We need to consider our audience and can’t assume our audience shares our values, understands our sense of humor, understands our local expressions…
In the interview, I mentioned teaching in the United Arab Emirates. My experience teaching in the UAE made me rethink how I communicated. As an experienced teacher, having taught in the U.S., Japan, and Korea, I thought I could communicate effectively across cultures. I had lost my New Orleans accent. I spoke clearly. I thought if students understood the words coming out of my mouth that they could understand what I was saying. The quizzical looks on my Emirati students’ faces told me I was wrong. They understood the words. They didn’t understand what I was saying. They didn’t understand me.
They couldn’t understand me, because I wasn’t speaking to them. I was speaking to past classrooms, to students I had taught in other countries. I didn’t take the time to think about how what I said was understood by these particular students. As the leader of the class, I was expected to lead discussion and control the conversation, but I couldn’t do this effectively until I learned more about my students and developed a keen awareness of how I was being understood. I had to learn to see from their perspectives and understand how my communications were being read. Initially, my assumptions about myself and my students hindered communication. Learning to understand me from their perspectives, helped me become a better teacher. It helped me lead the classroom.
Similarly, we have to learn to see our writing from the perspective of our audience. What does the audience need from me? What do they need to understand from my writing? In conversations, we have visual clues to tell us that our message is not being communicated. In written communication, we often don’t know when someone is confused by what we wrote. We aren’t next to them to see their reactions and we aren’t readily available to answer questions.
Most of us are efficient users of language. We say what we need to say to communicate. If we can be understood with a quick phrase, contracted words, or a nod of the head, we disregard formality and communicate. The digital age is making us more efficient in our writing. We can now use emojis to express emotions and abbreviations (LOL) to communicate complete phrases. Certainly, emojis and abbreviations are more concise, but are they clear to our audience. Can we expect our audience to know the short cuts we are taking? How can they understand us if they don’t?
Often our verbal shortcuts don’t resonate across cultural or generational lines. I struggled to decipher my fourteen-year-old son’s text messages, so I told him to write complete words if he expected me to understand him. Now, he does, but his messages are no longer than three words (finished come, 3:00, when coming home). Efficient communication? Yes, because I understand him. I didn’t say he had to write sentences. He is able to communicate with me, because I know the context of his messages. Finished come, 3:30: he needs me to pick him up. When coming home: he’s hungry or wants to go somewhere. We have a relationship and we both understand the context. He can text quickly and efficiently in a way that I understand. His writing is clear and concise to me. It wouldn’t be for anyone else reading the message.
In professional writing, we cannot assume this shared understanding. We write a business proposal to someone who knows nothing about the widget we want to produce. We write a job letter to a human resource manager whose knowledge of chemical engineering comes from the job advertisement. We send an email to a client we haven’t met. In each of these situations, we have to put ourselves in the position of the reader. We have to imagine what our document communicates to a person who doesn’t know what we know.
Communicating efficiently takes time. It takes time to step out of ourselves and see our writing from another perspective. It takes practice to write clear and concise prose that communicates effectively. But, if we want to lead the conversation, if we want our ideas or products understood well, the time will be worth it.
In my interview, I might have communicated some of these ideas, but I didn’t explain them as well as I wanted. The interview was a conversation, an unplanned dialogue. I made the connection between my teaching experience and professional writing, but hadn’t thought about it deeply enough to easily come up with good examples. This blog post took hours to write. If we take the time to read and revise our work, our words will get closer to the ideas we wish to communicate. In conversations, we let generalizations and vagueness suffice. In good writing, we can’t.