Be a Communications Consequentialist

You just hit post.  You put a lot of thought into your message, you laid it out carefully, and look forward to people’s reactions.  You start getting emails telling you that people have commented, so you excitedly check them to find… that somehow they completely and utterly misunderstood you.  It happens.

One of the worst examples I’ve seen is when American Atheists put up a tongue-in-cheek billboard quoting a Bible verse that endorsed slavery, they were misunderstood as promoting slavery themselves.  Oops.

It’s tempting to blame the audience at times like this, isn’t it?

“How did he miss where I covered that?  There’s a whole paragraph refuting that!”
“She couldn’t possibly have read all the way to the bottom of the post before commenting.”
“Did he think for half a second before opening his mouth? See the quote!”

It’s especially tempting to react that way with misunderstood sarcasm.  I nabbed a screenshot of this image getting praise which says, “Intelligent people understand sarcasm does not equal anger.  Sarcasm is cleverly disguised humor.  It’s not my fault if you ‘don’t get it’.”  That’s the tack a lot of people took after the American Atheists’ billboard – blame the offended people for being stupid.  But does it make sense to blame them?

There’s a vague sense in society that writers and readers each have certain responsibilities. Writers need to use proper spelling and grammar, state their view, and provide supporting reasons. Readers need to read the whole thing carefully and charitably. If someone doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain, any misunderstanding is their fault.

And it IS frustrating when people aren’t reading closely enough, or don’t respect your argument enough to spend the time reading it fully.

But we only have control over what we do, and there are things we can do to entice them. We need to be communications consequentialists – The question we should be asking is: am I doing what I can to maximize the chances of getting my point across?

It’s not enough to do our part and hope readers do theirs.  With a few possible exceptions (graduate-level coursework, Immanuel Kant) readers will stop reading something that’s dense and tough.  Or even worse, they’ll walk away with the wrong message.

If we’re trying to maximize our success, we need to go further and help make it easier for readers to understand us.

Ways to help readers:

Here are some steps I’ve come up with to make it easier for readers to come away understanding.  Since my talents lie in writing over artistic design work, I’ve focused on that:

  • Shorten posts. Presenting readers with an epic saga and expecting them to read it all carefully is asking a lot. Ben Radford has an interesting post bemoaning that people don’t read. It’s 1,380 words – appropriate for some audiences, not for others. If my posts get over 1,000 words, I look for ways to trim them or break them into separate posts.
  • Write for human brains – Your readers are human. So write in a way that humans find engaging. The Heath brothers have a good framework with the SUCCES principles: ideas are easier to grasp and remember if they’re Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Story-driven. Engaged readers will be more likely to read everything, and read it attentively.
  • Break up large blocks of text – I still remember reading Les Miserables in class and facing a three-page-long paragraph. It’s daunting! Without paragraph indentations or images breaking up the text, I know my eyes are prone to sliding. On that note…
  • Place key sections where people will see them - People don’t read, they usually skim. Eye-scan studies found that people are most likely to read a horizontal stripe near the top of the page, a second stripe slightly further down, and then down along the left side – in a vague “F” pattern. Make sure that you’re using that prime real estate for engaging hooks and key points. Bulleted lists, bolded words, and subheadings also get attention.
  • Use subheadings if necessary – As people’s eyes skim and scan the page, descriptive subheadings can help frame the information and help readers keep the flow.
  • Eschew Avoid Obscure Words – See what I did there? Seriously though, while readers *can* look up new words in a dictionary, there’s a good chance they won’t. Besides, studies have found that using big words needlessly doesn’t impress people – you’ll seem more intelligent if you express yourself simply.
  • Doublecheck words with ambiguous meanings – You can cause a lot of trouble when you use the word ‘religion’ to mean the culture and institution, but people think you mean “the set of beliefs“.  A lot of words, even in context, can be taken multiple ways by a reader who doesn’t already know what you’re thinking. If possible, see if you can replace ambiguous words with their intended substance.
  • Be careful with sarcasm – I guarantee that some people will miss it.  Think about whether the joke is worth those misunderstandings (and sometimes it is.)

If we write long posts with unbroken blocks of dry text, ignoring everything we know about our human audience, we can predict failure. Even with these tips, success isn’t guaranteed.  But we have reason to think that things like this make readers more likely to walk away understanding us.

And that’s our goal – being understood, not finding someone to blame.


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