Author Archives: Thea Glidden

The Magical Number Seven

If you want your audiences to remember what you have to say, there are techniques that can be used to help people retain your message. Grouping information into bite-sized chunks can help readers recall important content you want them to remember. This is called chunking.

In the mid-50s, cognitive psychologist George A. Miller, wrote about the concept of chunking in a paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” Long story short, human memory can store up to seven bits (chunks) of information in short-term memory, plus or minus two. In other words, some people can store nine chunks of information, others five, thus the “plus or minus” part of the equation. This is why phone numbers are seven digits (or they used to be!).

These chunks of information can be stored in short-term memory for about 30 seconds before it is forgotten. If you look at billboards, notice that the ones you can remember as you drive past. At 70 mph the industry average time for reading a billboard is six seconds. So, around six words is all you get for your message. Continue reading

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Know your audience

We all have to write material to influence and inform people, but before doing anything, it behooves us to think about who our audience is and what we want the take-away message to be.

For example, if you are writing a business memo, your intended audience is probably people with whom you work. What and how you report information should vary depending on the reader. When we talk to people face-to-face we adjust our speech to be sure we are communicating our message but many people don’t think about this when writing. Different audiences have different levels of understanding based on age, level of experience with a given subject, education, and interest.

The importance of your audience

Understanding your audience is important when making decisions about what information you should include, what kind of supporting details the reader needs to understand about your topic, and how you should structure the hierarchy of information. If you are writing to persuade, you need to be able to appeal to and address a specific group of people. Continue reading

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Top 10 email best practices

  1. Get to the point. If action is required, say so at the start of the email. Don’t tell a long story with the requested action at the end.
  2. Keep it short. Break up your text into short paragraphs or bullets. If there’s a shorter way to say it, use it. Remember what we already know—people get too many emails.
  3. Put important information in bold so it’s easier to scan. If you’ve addressed an email to several people with an action for certain person, bold that person’s name.
  4. Assume it’s public. If people want to read your email and share it with others, they will.
  5. Refrain from using colored text, background images, sounds, or animation. Your emails will be hard to read, difficult to reply to without converting to plain text, clog up email storage because of file size, and are just plain irritating.
  6. Proofread it and check your spelling. Nothing says “I don’t know what I’m talking about” than misusing and misspelling words. Bad grammar can lead to confusion. Here’s a Grammar checker.
  7. Use Bcc: for group emails. When sending group emails, list the recipients in the Bcc: field. The recipient will get a copy of the email but the others are protected from the view of the other recipient – some of whom they may or may not know.
  8. Never expose your contact’s addresses to strangers. Long lists of email addresses at the beginning of an email is an immediate sign that the sender is either a novice or doesn’t care or respect other’s privacy.
  9. Do not type in all caps. Typing in all caps is yelling. Also, studies* have shown that it takes longer to read text typed in all caps. *More info on reading paper vs. online.
  10. Don’t send emails when you are angry. If you receive a nasty email, do not respond immediately—if at all. If you don’t have something constructive or nice to say or at the very least sternly professional, just hit delete.

Words of Advice
Think twice about adding an inspirational quote at the end of your emails, especially one with religious overtones. What is inspirational to you may not be inspirational to your recipient. Better safe than sorry.

Forwarding political, humorous, or religious emails has no place in business communication. Create a general message that you are not a forwarder of jokes or inspirational messages and you don’t open attachments in order to protect your computer. They’ll get the message.

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Effective emails: From subject lines to signatures

Since we retain so little of what we read it’s especially important to communicate effectively when we send emails. There is a lot that can be misinterpreted, especially when people are busy.

Subject Lines
People who get a lot of email scan the subject line to decide whether to open, forward, file, or trash a message. If your subject line is vague—or even worse, if it’s blank—you’ve missed your opportunity to inform or persuade your reader.

If you don’t put a subject line, you’re sending the message that your name in the “From” line is all your recipient should need to make it a top priority. This is arrogant and thoughtless. Take advantage of the opportunity to get your recipient thinking about your message before even opening it.

Over 35% of SPAM is detected from an email’s subject line. The definition of SPAM is irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent to large numbers of users. How much of your email that gets through SPAM filters is SPAM? A lot! How much of daily office email is irrelevant? A lot! Be considerate.

  • Subject Line: Important!  What is important to you may not be important to your reader. Rather than announcing that the secret contents of your message are important, write a headline that communicates the message: “Emergency: Cars in lower lot will be towed in 1 hour.”
  • Subject Line: Quick question  If the question is quick, why not ask it in the subject line?
  • Subject Line: Quick question  Particularly irritating is the email where the sender has left the subject line from an earlier email but the contents now have entirely changed to something new. It doesn’t help anyone to have a subject line that doesn’t relate to the message.
  • Subject Line: Follow up about Friday  Fractionally better—provided that the recipient remembers why a follow-up is necessary.
  • Subject Line: File you requested  If you’re confident that the recipient will recognize your email address and is really expecting a file, this would be fine. But remember, many people get virus-laden spam with titles like this. The more specific you are the more likely a spam-blocker will let your message through.

The general rule of thumb in email marketing is to keep your subject line to 50 characters or less. BUT, what if it’s being read on a smart phone? They get cut off at 20-25 characters. And it could be embarrassing. Test your subject lines.

There are online tools to check your subject lines on various email clients. Your emails and subject lines look different in Outlook on a desktop vs. Gmail vs. Yahoo! Mail, vs. on a Blackberry.

Here’s what the results of a subject line tester look like:subject line tester example

Greetings and Salutations
Email greetings and salutations matter. They are the bookends of what you want to communicate. Start and end your emails professionally. Be polite without being too familiar.

Greetings to avoid:
• Hey there,
• What’s up,
• To whom it may concern,

Better options:
• Dear,
• Greetings,
• Good morning,

Salutations to avoid:
• Cordially,
• Yours truly,
•  xoxo (and all derivatives)
• (none)

Better options:
• Kind regards,
• Sincerely,
• Thanks,

More on email sign-offs and etiquette can be found online, as well.

Email Signatures
Give the recipient information to contact you without having to look it up.
Sometimes a return phone call is warranted—or a visit to your office. Include phone, fax, physical address—whatever would be included on your business card.

Email signatures: Virginia Tech Style
The Virginia Tech Brand Guide specifies a preferred email signature. The font should be Ariel or Franklin Gothic and your title should be in bold.

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Communicating Purposefully

Communication is a critical function in all of our lives. By communicating purposefully and focusing on results and relationships, effective communication strategies generate solid results with multiple audiences.

This blog will cover a multitude of topics to encourage an environment of open communication that is results-driven and strategically focused. From writing effective emails to learning how to clearly explain the benefits or results of a program or service, from learning how to listen and receive instructions to dealing with day-to-day problem-solving, good communication cuts down on misunderstandings, increases productivity, reduces confusion, and helps deliver a better end result.  Many rules of communication are unstated and assumed; unless everyone knows what is expected, misperceptions and frustrations can flourish. Continue reading

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