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Think before you speak (or write)

August 14, 2013

Today’s post was written by Jennifer Shelby, CPSM, account director at Rhino Public Relations and Director of the SMPS Boston CPSM Committee. Questions or comments? E-mail her at or visit

communicationAs a young assistant many years ago, I had a colleague who was so unpleasant that no matter what he asked, I resented having to do it. My friend and I used to joke that he could send us to Hawaii for a week and we’d still be irritated because it was he who asked. He had a way of making the most reasonable work-related tasks grueling because of his body language and word choices.

We’ve all been in situations where messages get cloudy by the way in which they are communicated. Email and texts are notorious for this kind of confusion. And, at the pace in which we work, we often don’t have the time or the where-with-all to go beyond proofing for obvious mistakes. But, ask yourself, if you slowed down and checked the phrasing of your message against its intention, would you still communicate clearly?

We come across countless examples of both good and bad communication throughout our lives. We are fortunate to work in an industry where good communication not only counts, but is a skill to be achieved and celebrated. Yet, even great communicators can sometimes go astray.

I’ve had the good fortune of working with an executive coach over the past couple of years, and most of what we’ve discussed has had a profound impact on my career. A particular piece of advice resonated with me, and I draw upon it daily. She suggested that by simply switching out the word ‘but’ for the word ‘and’ you can influence the way your audience receives your message. Think about it:

“The work you did on that project was fantastic, but next time I’d like you to focus on integrating this with that.”


“The work you did on that project was fantastic, and next time, I’d like you to focus on integrating this with that.”

Can you hear the difference? The second is motivational, whereas the first falls into the ‘constructive criticism’ category. Constructive or not, criticism can still be difficult to take.

Another example of this comes by way of my sister, who has a master’s degree in education and teaches fourth graders. She recently read that the way you praise within a classroom can adversely affect your students. By telling one student they did a ‘great’ job on a project, and then telling the next student they were ‘awesome’, the first student might feel negated because their praise wasn’t as energetic or emphatic as their classmate’s.

These examples may seem mundane and obvious. Stop and think, however, about the last time you received an email that immediately put you on the defensive. What a person ‘says’ may not be the issue, however ‘how’ they say it most certainly can be. It reminds me of how parents tell their kids to watch their ‘tone.’ Tone, gesture, body language, volume and punctuation are just as important, if not more so, than words themselves. And yet, simple and slight tweaks to the way we phrase things – in both verbal and written communications – can make all the difference in fostering effective and resilient relationships built on respect and cooperation.

What about you? Has anything you’ve said or written come back to haunt you? Or, do you have any language tips to share? Please comment and let us know if you’ve encountered situations where what you’ve said and how you’ve said it has changed the course of conversation.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Pia Cardinali permalink
    August 28, 2013 12:47 pm

    Well said and so true. Slight changes in how you are asked to do something (or how you ask someone) can make a big difference in perception and outcome. It’s something we all need to be reminded of.

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