What makes good professional communication? A healthy respect for boundaries.

Professional communication is based on customs and socially agreed-upon values. When you meet someone, how do you introduce yourself? In the U.S., we shake hands to greet people we don’t know.

Imagine walking into a job interview and introducing yourself by pulling the interviewer into a bear hug. Does that seem ridiculous? Uncomfortable? Silly? If so, what you’re feeling is a cultural boundary. When we don’t know people, we have a set of behaviors that we use in order to communicate. These behaviors are culturally established, and in the U.S. that means handshakes, not hugs.

Written communication also has rules of behavior that relate to cultural boundaries. When people don’t meet our expectations for behavior, we become uncomfortable.

Consider the following email:

I have an “eye exam” appointment this morning, after that I’ll go pick up the sandwiches for the meeting at noon and bring them in. Then I have to meet Grandma at the doctor’s office at 10. I will be back in time to deliver trays to the Education Room for the noon meeting. After that, you may find me in my office sipping on a cold frosty “one”. Okay, maybe not but it sure sounds good.

This is a real message sent from one professional to the entire office. Does it make you feel as uncomfortable as hugging that interviewer? It should.
Three aspects of this message cross social boundaries:

  • No greeting. Greetings establish the tone of the message. You are starting a conversation with a group of people. Face-to-face, we begin by smiling, waving, nodding, shaking hands, raising our arms for a hug, or saying hello. These behaviors establish that we are about to talk to each other. In email, the greeting does the same thing. A greeting should include a word or phrase like “Hi” or “Good morning” and the person or group’s name.
  • Too personal. The writer dictates everything they are going to do. Remember, this is a message from an office worker to the rest of the office. Do all of their coworkers want to know about the doctor’s appointment and the family member? No. Most people in the office probably don’t care. Personal details are the privilege of friends.
  • Too I-focused. The first three sentences begin with “I,” which signals to the reader that the writer is only concerned with the writer. Professional messages, ones that enhance our credibility, build trust, and create strong working relationships, show that we care about the reader. These messages pay more attention to what the reader needs than what the writer wants. Only two details in this message matter to the reader: 1) lunch will be in the Education Room at noon and 2) the writer will be away in the morning.

Here’s a you-focused, work-content only, revision of this message with a greeting:

Hi, colleagues,

Lunch will be available today, 10/12, in the Education Room at noon.

I’ll be in my office as soon as I arrive with lunch. While I am out this morning, Grant will be available to assist you.

A message like this doesn’t feel like a suffocating bear hug that you can’t get out of; it feels like a handshake. And that’s exactly how our professional messages should be.

This guest post is by Jenny Morse, Founder of Appendance, Inc. In her own words:

Words, language, communication, writing, books, poetry, brains. My background is in creative writing–poetry, non-fiction, and I’ve written a YA novel. Now I train professionals in business writing at companies around the country and at CSU. My expertise is helping people learn writing strategies that enhance their own credibility and build relationships.

The One Skill that Can Make or Break a Company – a guest post by speaker Katie Hoffman

Many companies start with writing – jotting down ideas of a business plan on a napkin, drafting a 5 year-plan, writing down ideas for an investment pitch, and formulating business agreements. But most companies don’t realize writing only becomes more central to a business growing and thriving as employees communicate with each other, clients, and the public.

Just as a thought experiment, what percentage of your work-related exchanges are done in writing? Have you noticed some exchanges that used to take place on the phone or face-to-face have shifted to being done in writing? Think about how you communicate with clients, colleagues, and supervisors, or how you network and maintain relationships – how much is done through email, inter-office messaging systems, texting, or social media platforms? Think about how you plan, execute, report on, and evaluate projects — how much of it is done by writing, sharing, editing, and presenting documents? How much information is communicated in writing about your company through websites, marketing, etc.?

Just working through those questions, most of us would say our workplace interactions and productivity rely heavily on written communications. But the next question is, how much can go wrong and how much time can be wasted if people in a business struggle to write professionally, clearly, and effectively?

As a result, myriad problems can emerge. Inner-office communication culture can slip due to written messages not being respectful or courteous enough, prospective clients can pass on working with a company because they’ve made a judgment about the intelligence and credibility of the company based on problems in written communications, networking and marketing efforts can fall flat because messages are poorly organized for their genre or not appealing to the intended audience, and the list goes on.

While many people earn a position at a company because of their desirable set of skills for performing job duties, many people are not confident about their written communication skills – particularly if they are writing in forms and genres that are new to them. Also, while many companies make efforts to train employees on industry-specific systems, they overlook the need to articulate their business writing expectations and train individuals to meet them. 

This is where Appendance, Inc comes in. Writing is our thing. We are a company composed of women with graduate degrees in writing who have been teaching writing for colleges and companies for years. We want to urge companies to think about how writing factors into cultivating the company culture they want, and then we help them get people at all levels of their company to write effectively for that culture. Some companies want regular training on effective writing to show the value of this skill set and help employees strengthen it, others have just a few individuals that need to elevate their writing skills through individual coaching, and still others want our expertise in crafting or reviewing the writing they make public under their company name. Our services are listed on our website, appendance.com, and we regularly offer writing tips, tricks, humor, and rants on our blog and through our social media channels.

Writing involves skill sets, and we all CAN get better at writing. This means companies can be more intentional and effective with all the ways they do business through writing, and they can craft the company culture they want, simply by improving the writing skills of the people in their company. 

About the Author

Beyond leading professional writing seminars for Appendance, Katie Hoffman teaches Composition and Literature at Colorado State University. She earned her Bachelor’s in English Literature from Ferris State University in Michigan and a Master’s in Rhetoric and Composition at Colorado State University. She has experience training employees, leading professional development workshops, copyediting, and conducting individual, group, and online writing consultations. Outside of work, Katie is a trail runner, mother, bookworm, and swimmer.  

You can check out Katie’s panel 5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Email (and other business writing) on Tuesday February 26th, 11:00am-12:00pm @ The Articulate.