Don’t be an Electronic Dicktater

Don’t be an Electronic Dicktater

I just read a Linked-in blog comment by a Communications intern at Unilever, Christine Utugi, wisely reminding us that tone is everything in Communications. What she said was elegant:

“The most important thing about a message is not what you say but how you say it. Your tone can change the meaning of a message and attract unexpected reactions. Have a Tone-cautious day.”

Here is a link.

Her message ought to be obvious, but it got me thinking. Sadly, it isn’t always. And I blame much of it on smart phones. Bear with me.

These days, messages, both received and sent via email and social media, are frequently dictated using our phones’ trusty voice recognition technology. Who hasn’t, usually casually and in haste, dictated an email that was unintentionally cold or angry in tone? And who hasn’t been on the receiving end of an email that stung, only to discover it was innocent and issued in haste?

Like never before, we have to be cautious while we’re swamped at our workstation or on the run, dictating texts and mail messages into our phones and hitting “send.” What we say with our mouths virtually always come across differently in writing. With the electronic devices we rely upon to help to manage our ultra-busy schedules, it’s easier than ever to convey a tone you don’t intend. And that can cost you on-the-job “interpersonal time” that isn’t welcome.

I used to be involved with a call center for a very public-intensive state agency: a tough, tone-intensive job for the representatives. I learned some things from those wonderful professionals keeping a solid grip on an international customer-service hotline, and with good humor to boot. Lately, I’ve been using some of the tips and techniques they taught me in my electronic communications. They’re improved. I hope they will be helpful all who dictate or are new at dictating … and sometimes don’t proofread.



Hotline Advice: Speak with a Smile in your Voice: If you’re like me, and I’ll bet you are, you’re no good on the telephone when you’re angry, frustrated, sad or sick, right? It’s no different digitally. Rule of thumb: If you can’t dictate an email with a smile on your face, think about sending it a little later. Your word choice easily can reveal your state of mind, even when you don’t want it to.

Along those same lines, use emoticons. It sounds stupid and unprofessional, but “:-)” erases all doubt that you are happy; The ever-popular “;-)” erases all doubt you are making a joke; and “:-O” says with a wink: “You’re terrible, Murial!” A chief of staff I once worked for used emoticons without fail. We all hoped never to get a message from him without an emoticon.

Hotline Advice: Disarm with Unexpected kindness: It’s not difficult or time consuming to greet people kindly. It’s especially important with the clipped nature of dictated communications. What you may have said in a cheerful or neutral tone may come across much differently in your communique. Greet co-workers and associates warmly, if briefly, to increase customer satisfaction and productivity.

Compare this: “Hi Jane. Hope you’re well. Need reports on my desk by 5. Thanks 🙂

To this: “Jane, reports on my desk by 5.”

(Hint: With Androids at least, you can just say the words smiley face, and one magically appears)

Hotline Advice: Listen First: Nothing says, “I appreciate you” like responding to an inquiry with a totally useless reply. Given the modern temptation to respond immediately, it’s more tempting than ever to anticipate the request and forge ahead.

Read the message first. We’re all managing first-world problems like running for the shuttle with your brief case falling off your shoulder while trying to balance a Starbucks. So resist the temptation to be immediate. Almost everything can wait a few. Odds are the person who emailed or texted you will be more impressed if you hit them back in 5 minutes with a useable answer than if you send nonsense in 5 seconds.

And then there’s always proofreading. You don’t have to correct every error on your tiny keyboard, but certainly check to ensure clarity and that you aren’t making a terrible blunder as the result of auto correct. It happened to me; it wasn’t pretty. 🙁


Scott VanDeman has been a professional Public Relations practitioner for more than 30 years.

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