Written Communication at Work

virtual with people Apr 01, 2024
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Biographers of historical figures comb through letters written to, from, and about their subject to develop a robust understanding of them. I love reading biographies, and one I particularly liked was Titan by Rob Chernow. The paperback is 832 pages about the life of John D. Rockefeller. Mr. Chernow must have chugged through tens of thousands of pages about Rockefeller to complete his biography.

Just think, one day your future biographer may need to comb through letters written to, from, and about you… Wait. That’s not right. They’ll be combing through your emails, Slacks, Zoom chats, iMessages, and project management tools like Asana or Monday.


When it comes to work, each of those tools are useful for different purposes.

Slack and Zoom chats and other products like that are great for bouncing ideas around in a near-real-time manner, pull in new people as needed, and retain a record of, “How the heck did we end up with this idea?”

Email is awesome when you need something to endure or you need to inform internal and external people of something that doesn’t require an immediate response or substantial collaboration.

Conversations in project management tools are great for clarifying tasks and tactics in a way directly associated with the ongoing project. Personally, I think you should avoid using text messages and platforms like iMessage for work. Keep work at work.

At the end of the day, where you have your communication is probably dictated by the culture of your organization, but one thing is for certain: the common thread through each of these platforms is the written word.




There is a process for writing effective written work communication, and I’m going to use the acronym CHAR to walk you through it. Who doesn’t love an acronym that reminds them of their fire pit and the lightly charred marshmallows that form the core of a s’more?

First, Calm down.

“You’re an idiot. I sent you this last week.”

That’s the first idea that comes to mind when someone asks me for something I’ve already sent them. A few deep breaths later and that terse sentence becomes something like, “No problem. I think we may have had an exchange about this last week, but I’ll find it and push it back to the top of your inbox.” There are polite ways to tell people they’re an idiot.

Seriously though, writing an email when your emotions are hot is a recipe for disaster.

When we speak with one another in person, we have the benefit of seeing body language and hearing tone. All of that goes away with the written word. When we haven’t received direction on the tone with which something should be interpreted, most people I know tend to perceive an extreme tone. And usually that extreme tone is negative. When you add angry or frustrated phrases to your message, you heighten that sense of negativity and you potentially hamstring teamwork for at least the near future.

It's better to take a few deep breaths and compose your message from whatever calm you can muster. Sometimes, you may need to just fake it for the sake of organization.

Almost all work requires interaction with others to be successful, so set the tone early that your goal is collaboration, not accusation.

Next, Have one idea.

No one has ever opened a 1,000 plus word email and exclaimed, “Yes! I can’t wait to read this whole thing.” That has never happened. If you can write a 1,000-word message that covers several topics, you can also write three separate 300-word messages.

You may want to go back and find out what you previously shared about the Q3 sales numbers, but that could be hard to find if they are buried in an email that also has information about open enrollment and upcoming changes to the break room. We all know that monster of an email probably has a super unhelpful subject line, too, like, “Important Stuff to Know.”

By separating your ideas into different messages, you expedite collaboration by asking your reader to focus on one concept rather than multitask by trying to address multiple concepts at once. You’ll receive more thought-out responses more quickly by helping your reader focus their energy.

But, Attention still helps.

Sometimes, even focused messages can get lengthy, especially in email. Email is helpful in sharing comprehensive information, but that strength may also make it more difficult for the reader to know what the main idea is and what their next step is. When you write a message, the answer to these two questions should be crystal clear:

What is the most important thing in this message?

What do I want the recipient to do?

The most important thing in the message should smack your reader in the face. If you’re writing an email, put the most important thing in the subject line: “New Break Room Coffee Maker Clean Up.”

Then, focus your writing on the main idea: “We have a new coffee maker in the break room. Periodically, a cleaning cycle has to be run. If you see the cleaning cycle indicator blinking, please run the cleaning cycle. It takes less than five minutes, so you won’t need to wait long for your coffee. This will help extend the life of the machine, so we can all enjoy complimentary coffee for years to come.”

Using bullet points or bolding or highlighting can also draw attention to the main idea and what you want your reader to do.

When days get busy, a lot of your readers may not even care about the lengthy, detailed parts of your message about why something is the way that it is. They just want to know the bottom line and your expectations of them. Because of this, I’ve started putting a one or two sentence TL/DR (that’s too long, didn’t read) explanation at the top of a message and say, “more details below if you’re interested.”

Last, Reread your message.

Reread your message BEFORE you send it.

I am very fluent in English. I can read enough Spanish to help me get around several Central and South American countries. But I have had a few colleagues in the last 20 years that have left me fully stumped in what their message is. Voice to text has made this so much worse.

“Call mom over to my off fist if Sue get offered call before fore.”

This is a literal message I received.

It doesn’t answer my questions, “What is the most important thing?” or “What do you want me to do?” It’s total nonsense. I am pretty good at Mad Gab, but it’s not really a game I like to play at work.

In case you’re wondering, that message was meant to be, “Come on over to my office if you get off your call before four.”

Don’t give your colleagues extra work. Make sure your message makes sense. I even read it out loud usually just to make sure that it doesn’t inadvertently sound angry.




I didn’t include this last piece in the acronym I came up with because it is more of an overarching philosophy as opposed to a process. Before you spend the time writing a message, ask yourself if it should even be a message.

We’re fortunate to live at a time where the methods of communication we have at our fingertips abound. We can go way old school and actually meet with someone face to face. We can call them on the phone. We can use video conferencing. It’s a great time to be alive when it comes to speaking with one another.

Written communication is great, but sometimes a call or a meeting would be more efficient.

If you need an immediate response, better to pick up the phone or jump on a videoconference. If you need to discuss something sensitive, you should probably not start out with written words because tone may matter. If you’ve already responded back and forth more than two times and something still isn’t clear, don’t clog up your inboxes. Pick up the phone.

The more whole our communication is, the faster we build trust.

The more trust we build, the more capacity we have to take risks together. Taking risks is essential for disrupting the status quo and developing competitive advantage. Tone of voice and body language adds to our experience of the wholeness of communication, so when possible, communicate wholly.

When you can’t communicate wholly, remember to CHAR.


By Matt Murphy - VP, Stadia

As someone who works completely remote, Matt has learned the art of connecting with people via emails from all around the world.