Can you tell the difference between these four statements?
Yeah, exactly. Neither can I.
We might be intending to convey any of these:
But how can you tell? More importantly, how can your audience tell?
Communicating through text alone, you lose those subtle audio-visual cues that you take for granted and subconsciously process during in-person interactions. This causes misinterpretation, aggravation and plain old confusion as everyone projects their own biases and assumptions on the digital conversation.
It's a little bit like learning to read the formal version of another language, and then trying to have a chat with a native speaker. Your words themselves may be correct, but there's going to be some cultural miscues, unintentionally offensive phrases and general bewilderment over colloquialisms. ("Bless your heart" is, um, a lot less nice than it sounds.)
This is why emoticons were invented -- to help people bridge the gap between cold, clinical type and warm, fuzzy emotions. (Think something will be taken the wrong way? No worries, put a smiley face after it to ensure the recipient knows it was a joke!) And as text messages became more popular but remained laborious to construct, and social media allowed fewer and fewer characters, and our attention spans got shorter, people wanted an even quicker way to get the point across. Thus were born emojis. (I'm not going to get into those now, but let's just say that, as a former copy editor, they're not my most favorite thing in the world ... sorry, Katie!)
But I digress.
This divergence between what you are trying to convey and what your recipient actually comprehends is one of the single biggest sources of confusion in communicating online, and one of the hardest parts about my job. Minus a broad spectrum of emoticon and emoji offerings in your standard support desk software (that's a joke, I'm totally not advocating that), what's a client success manager -- or anyone who interacts primarily online -- to do?
It's all about finding your "digital voice." First you have to define what you want your voice to be, and then you have to learn how to express it.
When I'm working on our support desk, my digital voice is meant to be friendly, approachable, helpful and reassuring. I want people who talk to me to be comforted and feel like they're in competent hands, even when I may not have an instant solution. I want them to trust that I will either have the answer, or I will find it. (Please note here that it isn't always, unfortunately, the answer the client wants, so then there's a whole new dimension of letting people down gently and offering acceptable alternatives.)
This can be a lot harder than you anticipate. It takes a lot of practice, and not getting defensive when something that you think makes perfect sense turns out to be, in fact, entirely incomprehensible. (I work for a SaaS company. This part is really hard.) You have to learn how to adjust appropriately to your audience's demographics, and integrate feedback into future communications.
It also can require a bit of exaggeration. I often compare my support digital voice to wearing stage makeup. It might be over the top if we were talking in person, but you actually need the extra oomph to correctly reach across the distance. I'm not saying end every sentence with a smiley face (though used judiciously, those can work well), but rather be cognizant of things like how abrupt a really short sentence can sound, and pad in a few extra kind words to soften it up.
You know how you respond to a friend or partner (or your mom...) asking for feedback on a somewhat iffy dish they've cooked? It's kind of like that.
You can also use formatting like bold and italics, of course, but since those don't always translate across platforms, I try to ensure the wording itself can stand alone.
Here are some variations of the relatively ambiguous "No!" in the first graphic:
Or you could always go around the word "No" altogether, with something like, "I'd love to help you with this, but unfortunately we can't ______. However, we can offer _____."
Now obviously, these are mostly specific to my job, but they're a good place to start thinking about how you sound to others. In many situations, this is going to be important. You don't have to be on the support desk to want to communicate effectively with your clients, coworkers or even your friends.
A good rule of thumb for me is if you think something might sound rude, then it probably does. It's worth taking an extra moment or two to rephrase something at this step; it'll likely take even more time to fix a miscommunication later. And as my mother always says, good manners cost you nothing!
How do you ensure your audience is getting the right message? Have you found your digital voice?