When the Written Word Works - Bob Jenkins

            Speech is the tug of war that pulls us together. Against all odds, the often-ill-defined thoughts of one person are refined and understood by another. Those talking are together sharing context. Perhaps sharing family and home. Gestures and looks confirm understanding and misunderstanding. Questions, requests for clarification, and repeating what was heard perfect the communication. It mostly works whenever the speakers are face to face, in synchrony, committed to the goal of communicating. By contrast letters, memos, emails, texts are far less likely to succeed. Not surprising as they are asynchronous.
            As a corporate cog I watched as memos and emails spiraled out of control, anger and frustration increasing with each reply. When I was relatively uninterested and just courtesy copied, I would smile as it became obvious that the primary correspondents completely misunderstood each other. In my more benevolent moods, I’d show the principals where their correspondence had derailed. Sometimes I’d suggest a meeting, particularly if any were working for me. I’d spout my oft-merited observation: “God invented bureaucracies for His and our amusement.”
            Retired from work, but not yet from life, I offer some ideas about when the written word works. The Holy Grail of written communications is that all intended readers will understand exactly the hoped-to-have-been-transmitted thoughts. That fanciful notion is loaded with two words nearly guaranteeing downfall: “all” and “exactly”. Set realistic goals, aspire for the possible.
            Creative writers need to read elsewhere how to effectively communicate their works. Transmission of understanding may not even be the point as demonstrated particularly by poems. The most effective poem is a polished gem dazzling with facets of metaphor, sights, sounds, and emotional stirrings. Mutual understanding between poet and reader is often unexpected and irrelevant. Short stories, novels, and even essays are beyond the microscopic scope of this essay. We will skate the frictionless pond to pluck the half-frozen, lowest-hanging fruit: the memo.
            Recognizing that even memos sometimes strain against the bounds of reason and any possibility of comprehension, rules of engagement are required. The memo should deal with a single subject, and its success is confirmed by the answer to the following question: Does the reader do what the memo directs or go where and when it directs?
            To increase the odds that your memo will yield the desired results, incorporate all the tricks and wisdom gleaned from your life. I fall back on some corporate confusion culling guidelines that might have originated with Confucius. (1) “Don’t assume or you’ll make an ass out of you and me”, (2) “KISS: keep it simple stupid”, (3) “There’s no I in team”, and (4) thanks to an early departmental mentor: “don’t use any words beyond the eighth-grade level”.
            Words lay the foundation of the memo. Sadly, my former employer’s 20th century mainframe-based word processor that damned words falling above the eighth grade-level is no longer available. In the place of a vocabulary grade-level measurement tool, simply throw out any words that you seldom use, or find hard to spell or pronounce. Even if you are comfortable with every word in the dictionary, admit that you know which words are more of a stretch for your memo readers. Don’t show off.
            Besides eliminating uncommon words, avoid words that introduce ambiguities. Ideally each word’s meaning should be singular. Throw out any words with too many meanings in Webster’s dictionary. Every impertinent word meaning slows the reader’s brain and might outright hijack it, or the reader might shrug and hope the confusion will be resolved later in the memo. Absent a good tool for reducing competing word meanings and resultant ambiguities, read your memo to yourself and imagine you are reading it in the presence of Uncle Jake. That Uncle Jake who seeks to ambush every family gathering utterance with a pun. The moment you sense the ghost of a pun in your memo, bust it.
            Even though the entire memo is built of words, the memo’s successful transmission depends on its sentences. The sentences must be simple, direct, unambiguous, and stripped of passivity. Remember middle-school English. The sentence should not offer any escape clauses. No conditionals, conjunctions, disjunctions, or subordinations. In fact, this injunction should be applied at the memo level: There can’t be any conditionals in the memo. For example, if different directions are intended for old timers vs young’uns, men vs women, democrats vs republicans, compose separate memos for each group expected to follow different instructions. Given the differences among humans, perhaps it would be best to compose a separate memo to each intended recipient. Imagine a world without the group memo.
            Finally, adherence to the following, will improve the odds that the reader will actually do what your memo intended.

1. Make sure that you know what your memo is to communicate.
2. Avoid repetition. Each repetition increases odds of ambiguity and inattention.
3. If possible, offer no reasons, no justifications. See preceding point.
4. Read the memo to yourself silently. Read it to yourself out loud. If you feel a compulsion to do that which the memo requests the reader to do, you are almost there.
5. Finally, if possible, only urge the reader of the memo to do something if they’ve already signaled intention to do it, or if it’s what you think they want to do. Or, ideally, you are already certain they’ll do it, memo or not.
            The following memo illustrates some of the points above and when the written word works:
            To all: Take next Monday off work. Fully paid. Enjoy.

            OMG, you probably didn’t understand this essay. Let’s discuss it Monday.

Bob Jenkins was a mathematician, scientist, MBA, CPA, long-time “corporate cog”, happily married forty-three years, and father of three children with a sprinkling of grandchildren. Then, widowed, empty nested, and retired, he found that tennis and dog walks weren’t enough. With no engaging hobby, he’d often advise others to “not retire without a Plan B”. He enrolled in writing and other e-learning courses and joined book clubs. Since winning a $1000 prize for an essay in high school, Bob had written only when required. After a “respectful” period of mourning, he began dating and married his playwright poet muse. Bob now coordinates classes at Northwestern’s Osher Lifetime Learning Institute, enjoying his renaissance in his twilight years.