Were you born before the digital age? Do you remember what it was like to get actual letters in the mail from family, friends and colleagues? If you are lucky enough to be born “back then,” when communication was slower and simpler—when picking up the telephone was the fastest way to communicate with someone, then you have an advantage in today’s speed-of-think world.

Contrast the communication flow of yesterday with today. With overflowing email inboxes, Twitter streams, multiple text apps, and sound bites, we are all rushing around with seconds to spare, and real communication has suffered as a result. Emails rush by and get lost in the flood, texts and other messages get unanswered (or misinterpreted). We’re bombarded. And when things slip through the cracks, it costs us time, money and business, and our relationships suffer. Here are a couple of examples:

Not Looking Closely at Subject Lines vs Body Text: We’ve all done it… receiving an email from a colleague, business associate or a client, and skimming the subject line without reading the entire message. If it doesn’t look important, we skip it for later or skip it altogether. Or we might fire back an answer to a question in the subject line, but not see that there were several other important questions in the body of the text. Ouch. How many times have you had someone ask you if you received an email they sent  when it really DID contain something important or timely? What if your boss emailed you a list of questions and you never saw the 5 or 6 in the body of the email? What if a potential client tried to email you and you just never responded? Subject lines aren’t always informative of the body content. People many times slap something in there because they’re in a hurry. By not paying attention, you can lose out.

Not Reading Through: I’ll bet you’ve received plenty of memos, letters and links to websites about upcoming events. And how many times have you skimmed the headlines without reading through the page? Headlines grab our attention, but when there’s finer print on the page, it sometimes gets unnoticed. By not reading the fine print, you might miss important details, like who will attend a meeting, the fact that the time and location changed, etc.

Making Assumptions: Not all communications end up the way they started. Let’s say you’re reading a friendly greeting subject line or opening sentence. You assume you know what the content is about, but what if it isn’t? Let’s say you put it aside. But what if they start out in a friendly way but they end up making a complaint (that you should be responding to) or ask for further details from you? What if a correction of facts was buried in the body copy that was pertinent to something important? You’ve heard the old adage, “To assume makes an ass out of you and me.” No doubt about it, making assumptions without getting all the facts has burned many of us at least once.

What You Don’t Read CAN Hurt You

The lessons in these examples illustrate that not being more careful with communication can cost you time, money, relationships and reputation. So how do we keep mistakes and miscommunication from happening? By making a concerted effort to pay closer attention to the messages we’re getting. By slowing down. By doing a better job of sorting and marking messages that need further attention and making the time to address them fully.

Sometimes it can be a matter of dedicating a certain amount of time each day to look closely at your messages and correspondence without interference. Close the door, mute your phone, and eliminate distractions. It may be hard for you to think of slowing down enough to do that but think back to when something important fell through the cracks for you. What did it cost? 

We could all take a cue from the past, and how people handled correspondence before the digital age. Before junk mail became prevalent, we went to the mailbox each day in anticipation of a letter or a card from someone. Care was taken to fully read letters (and bills) and respond. Mail was hand couriered in the office space. In the Downton Abbey days, letters to the household were hand delivered, placed on silver trays and opened and read carefully by the recipients. In other words, correspondence was precious and treated with reverence. That might seem hopelessly out of date and old fashioned, but I think it’s time we bring a little more of that kind of attitude to our digital correspondence. Paying closer attention could make a huge difference in our relationships and the quality of our lives and businesses… and the success of those who make it a priority. 


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