Friday, October 05, 2012

We Love Puppies and Rainbows

When  I saw Jennifer Thompson from Selective Insurance in one of my writing classes, I immediately remembered a comment she made in a class she had with me earlier this year. She said that while she felt comfortable about her ability to get to the point, she wanted to improve her tone by putting into her written messages more "puppies and rainbows." I laughed then and seeing her again several months later, the comment remained fresh.

What Jennifer meant was adding more of what I call context language, the nice-to-know or helpful-to-know information, to support the content language, the need-to-know information. Here are three examples, from different fields, of writing without context language followed by examples that try to balance content with context.

Example 1: Retail - from a Sales Associate to a Customer 
Content Language Only: We do not sell that product in this store.  
Content Language with Context Language: We're sorry that we have run out of stock for that product because it's so popular. If you can't get to our crosstown store, we'd be happy to get one from there into our store within three days or have the store mail it to you for a nominal charge.
Example 2: Business to Business - from a Client to a Vendor
Content Language Only: Your invoice is incorrect.
Content Language with Context Language: We see a discrepancy between your invoice and our attached record of the services you provided. Would you please clarify the difference with a breakdown of the services rendered or readjust your invoice accordingly?

Example 3: Internal Corporate: from the IT Help Desk to a Senior Manager
Content Language Only: You did not send us your slide deck.
Content Language with Context Language: We want to ensure that your presentation goes as expected, so please send us your slide deck today, and we will load it for you tomorrow morning.

Notice the value added in the second draft of each message. In the first draft, the writer gets to the point but would be far too blunt if the relationship with the reader were not well established. In the second draft, the writer still gets to the point but provides reasoning or simple good manners.

Yes, Ms. Thompson might have called context language "puppies and rainbows," but she was not downplaying its importance in driving home a message. She's smart enough to realize that she works for a client-focused company. 

Be sure to balance content with context. Too little context will make you come across as blunt, insensitive, or thoughtless; too much of it will make you look ingratiating, verbose, or unfocused.  Thanks for the reminder, Jennifer.