The sound of good writing

ear‘People read with their ears, whether they know it or not.’ – William Zinsser

Some years ago now, I was hired to coach a small team of people whose job it was to handle the ‘difficult’ customer service issues for a large utility provider.

The utility’s policy was, wherever possible, to deal with the customer service issue by phone, and then to follow up with a brief letter or email confirming what had happened and outlining what would happen next.  The people I was to coach were the people who would be drafting those letters and emails.

We spent our first session discussing the purpose of the letters and looking at some of the things that should be included as well as some of the things that might usefully be excluded.  I am pleased to report that the participants quickly grasped the concepts and I went home that night feeling that the assignment was going to be a doddle.

But then came the second session.

The second session was where the participants got to put pen to paper – or, more correctly, they got to put their fingers to their keyboards.  And the results were not great.  Yes, they generally managed to cover off the key points.  But the style and tone of their missives was almost universally ugly.  Any goodwill and rapport that the agents may have managed to establish in the course of their telephone conversations was likely to be quickly undone once the customer received the follow-up letter or email.

It’s not easy to explain style and tone to someone who has only ever thought of style as something to do with hair and tone as one of the knobs on a hi-fi system.  Eventually, I asked one of the chaps (Brian, as I recall) to stand in front of another of the participants, Dorothy, and read her what he had written.  And, after some hesitation and much frowning, he did.  Or at least he tried to.  It was a lumpy performance at best.

‘Now, on the basis of what you have just heard, what do you think of Brian?’ I asked Dorothy.

‘That he’s a smart-arsed prat who doesn’t even slightly care about my problem,’ she said.

Brian protested.  ‘That’s not fair,’ he said.  ‘OK, it may not have sounded very good, but the customer isn’t going to be listening to it, she’s going to be reading it’

However, as Mr Zinsser observed, people read with their ears.  What they ‘hear’ inside their heads is a very important part of the communication.

I think it is always a good idea to read what you have written – aloud – before you send it.  If what you have written doesn’t sound good to you, then it’s unlikely that it will ‘sound’ good to your reader.

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