In the novel Emma by Jane Austen—and in the film that’s out now—Harriet Smith shows Emma a letter of proposal from Mr. Martin, a farmer. Not realizing at first that Mr. Knightley helped him with the letter, Emma is quite “surprized” by the strength and style it commands.
“There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense…” (In the movie, we even see how short and neat the letter is.)
I bring this up because in an article on CNN last week, Todd Rogers, a professor of public policy at Harvard University and chief scientist at EveryDay Labs, wrote that there is a problem with the way organizations, schools and airlines communicate in crisis times like this. Above all, they write too long.
“…if there’s one lesson all the coronavirus email writers should take, it’s this: Messages should be as easy to understand as possible. This is difficult in normal times—and is no doubt much more so with facts on the ground changing as rapidly as they are.
“…people have limited attention,” Rogers went on. “This means our attention can be depleted and derailed, and that we cannot focus on several things at once—even though we think we can. Given this, when people are faced with a long, convoluted message, the chances are slim that they will read it, understand it and remember it.
Here are some tips on writing the most effective emails at moments of great importance, the first four from Rogers and the last four from the Business2Community site:
Write in the most accessible way possible. “Use the Flesch-Kincaid readability test (built into Microsoft Word and Google Docs) to test the reading-level complexity of your writing.”
Use as few words as possible. “Shorter messages are more likely to be read (see the long email in your inbox from three months ago that you still have not read).” It was Mark Twain who said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Writing a good short letter is not easy but well worth the effort.
Eliminate gratuitous borders and images. “These can often distract from the message you are trying to send.”
Use a clear structure. “People skim, so help them. As opposed to a multi-paragraph email written in normal prose, consider categorizing information under headings like, ‘What we want you to know’ (or just ‘KNOW’) and ‘what we would like you to do’ (or, concisely, ‘DO’).” Consider bullets.
Don’t joke about the situation. This seems rather obvious but there could be a previous strand that was comfortably funny in the past. Everyone’s lives are so disrupted now that the same strand might come across poorly. Play it safe. Also pause possibly insensitive marketing campaigns—like contests or humorous content.
Don’t take advantage of the situation. “If your product or service is in high demand due to the crisis, don’t raise your prices. While this is a smart practice in normal times due to the law of supply and demand, it’s insensitive and unethical during times of crisis.”
Monitor the crisis and adjust emails appropriately. “Communicate regularly with your audience throughout the crisis. Don’t be afraid to change how you’re addressing or handling the crisis and update your audience with new information.”
Try to help. “Businesses that take action to help those affected by the crisis will connect with their audience on a deeper level. People want to do business with brands who genuinely care.” Maybe you can help set up a relief fund or create educational content that will help your audience navigate or understand the crisis.