We’re in the age of the emoji. Outside of work obligations, fewer and fewer people engage in formal writing; even at work, face-to-face conversation is trending downward, especially as remote jobs are on the rise. As platforms like Slack gain in popularity, modes even as modern as email and instant messaging are starting to feel outdated and cumbersome. At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Here we go again, another blog post about how technology is eroding our communications skills.” And yes, while I do personally think that digital natives bear some of the costs of growing up in the world of AIM, I would venture that the paradigm shift in where we are communicating and presenting ourselves puts an interesting new kind of pressure on the voices of young professional women.
That brings me to the story that inspired this post. A few months ago—and I am not making this up—my phone started to autocorrect “sorry” to “sorcery.” The phase was short-lived, maybe a few days, but every time I typed the apology into my texting app, a pearly “sorcery” would pop up in its place. At first, I thought that I was yet again the victim of a mischievous texting hack from a friend, but when I checked them, my keyboard settings were unchanged. I was truly experiencing some kind of technological fluke.
Fast forward to the point of the story: I used “sorcery” a lot. I noticed myself apologizing left and right for a range of things, from small inconveniences to actual mistakes to things that weren’t even my fault (“I’m sorcery that the delivery guy left your package out in the rain and it got wet!”). Not surprising, I know—women are generally socialized to be amenable and apologetic, and we apologize a lot. What I find interesting, though, is that a well-timed “I’m sorry!” has morphed into a natural substitute for sympathy or other social emotions that get cut out of the equation when texting, perhaps the same way that “haha” is softness or levity rather than actual amusement. Apologizing has become a communications reflex, as texting as a medium doesn’t push its users to be deliberate about what they’re actually trying to express.
Think also about how we literally present in business settings. As norms in many workplaces have relaxed, professional presentations look more like living room salons, and the natural impulse, as so many of us have either lost or never really developed our public speaking bearings, can be to shortchange ourselves here as well. Smart and critical points are interrupted with concerns about the sound system—can you hear me in the back?—and get lost in the distraction. (See what I did there?) Or, we project well and surprise ourselves with our own voices, apologizing for our volume out of a fear of sounding forceful. The difficulty of modulating the delivery overshadows the content. Presenting from a remote location comes with a host of other challenges, starting usually with the IT team figuring out if our audience can see and hear us.
So, technology has added another layer of challenges to the already tricky business of personal and professional communication. Some of it we can’t control, but how do evolve with the times and stop undercutting our own communications skills?
Find your crutch words, and then Ctrl+F and Delete. Do it in your speeches, do it in your speech. I search for “just” in most of the things that I write and snip it out.
Try being “sorry” less often. If you’re actually apologizing for something or expressing condolences, by all means, say you’re sorry. But otherwise, look for alternatives that express what you’re trying to say without leaning on apologizing as much. Try “I hear that” or “that’s too bad” and go from there. (You can always put “sorcery” into your autocorrect and see what happens…)
Take a public speaking class, find a meetup, or practice in the mirror. Some of the fussing that hinders clear presenting comes from a lack of confidence. Practice and build up those skills. Or, pick up some pointers from professionals to finesse your actual presentations—I took a class on presenting visual information with Edward Tufte last summer and got so much out of it.
Assert your opinions. One of my favorite professors in college would immediately interrupt us if we started an answer with “I think.” He tried every day to remind us of the importance of being confident and firm in our thinking and then communicating that to the world. He always said it was a lesson to impress first bosses and grad school teachers, but the older I get, the more I see his advice as a lifelong tip.
By eliminating some common communications pitfalls, we’re freed up to focus on the important things, like content and connection. What are your crutch words? What are the challenges you perceive in communicating?