Leadership advice

Brevity is efficient – until it’s deficient

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

You’re bombarded with communication – text, email, Slack, phone call, Zoom – sometimes all at the same time. When you’re on overload, your written messages may be brief, for efficiency’s sake.

But short takes can be misread as dismissive, frustrated, angry or unhappy, when that’s not your intent.

Misunderstandings happen when:

  • There’s a power differential. You send a carefully crafted request for time off on short notice to your boss. The reply is “OK.” You can’t tell if all is well or your boss is silently resentful.
  • The response is short and negative. You offer to help someone with a project and the reply is “No thanks.” You wonder if the person doesn’t need assistance or was put off by your offer. 
  • The answer is frustratingly ambiguous. You hope to see your story on the homepage so you send a note asking an editor whether it’ll be there and the response is “Got it” with no indication of next steps.
  • A question is heard as a criticism. “What’s the status of that story?” may be a simple matter of curiosity, or need-to-know for planning – but can come across as “Why isn’t it done yet?”
  • The message causes needless work. You asked about two things and the reply addresses only one, so you have to ask again. Or you receive a shorthand response that could have contained a link to a quick solution but doesn’t – forcing you to search. 

I teach managers and teammates that the first line of an email sets the tone for everything that follows it. It doesn’t add a ton of time to start with “No pressure, just checking” before writing “What’s the status of that story?” Or to respond – “You earned that day” and then “OK!”

And – even if you hate emojis – consider applying them to your message when you want to reinforce your positive intent.

Finally, if you have any fear that an important missive of any length might not land the way you intended, here’s my patented preview tip: Read your message out loud – but in a sarcastic voice. It will give you one last chance to tidy things up before hitting “send.”



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