Digital Communications… and the Loss of Inflection

I didnt say he stole the moneyOne thing I love about email and text messaging and social media is the level of efficiency and speed with which one can communicate.  It’s quick, it’s easy and, usually, it’s succinct.  In about 140 characters – give or take – one can share information, ask a question, gain answers with the click of a few buttons.

That said, some things are obviously lost in translation.  Specifically, there is a dearth of emotion.  It’s very hard to “hear” someone through digital communications.  And, sadly, most people do not have a great “email voice” – their words can come across as rude, aloof, curt or the like.  Perhaps that is because it is nearly impossible to deliver a short, text-based message with any inflection – that is, emphasis, on specific words.

My friend, Paul Russell, owns a performance improvement company, ej4, which offers video-based e-learning training.  As part of the work ej4 does, it conveys the importance of inflection.  The example phrase they use is, “I didn’t say he stole the money.”

To explain further, say the phrase out loud (go ahead, nobody else is around!), in each case placing inflection on the boldfaced and underlined word:

  • I didn’t say he stole the money.”
  • “I didn’t say he stole the money.”
  • “I didn’t say he stole the money.”
  • “I didn’t say he stole the money.”
  • “I didn’t say he stole the money.”
  • “I didn’t say he stole the money.”
  • “I didn’t say he stole the money.”

Not only does the phrase sound different each time you emphasize a different word – it also conveys a different message depending on the word that is highlighted.  Without the ability to highlight words in a text message, how does one express intended meaning?

The point, of course, is a word of caution when you communicate with others through digital means.  In order to guard against unintended delivery of your message consider the following:

  1. Re-read your digital communications, preferably out loud, before you hit Send. Be sure the message you are imparting really says what you intended it to say.
  2. Have someone else proofread your work. Obviously, you don’t want to rely on another person for all of your written communications, but, from time to time, when the need arises, have a trusted colleague, friend or family member give your words a once over before you distribute your message across the digital spectrum.
  3. If it is too difficult to convey meaning through the written word, pick up the phone or drop by in person. This is especially true when delivering bad news, dealing with a point of contention or working through a particularly challenging situation.

As with any communications, it is important to manage your personal brand and reputation.  Taking these precautionary measures when corresponding through email, social media or any other digital means will help to protect your persona – in person and bit by bit.

One thought to “Digital Communications… and the Loss of Inflection”

  1. Alana, this is awesome. Thank you. I am sharing it with folks in my office. I am constantly suggesting that people pick up the phone and CALL, or walk down to someone’s office and TALK, rather than sending an email. Email is fine for confirming a conversation or decision, especially when you need a CYA, but the discussion will be much more productive, usually more pleasant, and lead to fewer miscommunications if it’s verbal.

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