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How to Overcome Written Miscommunication: 16 Examples

How to Overcome Written Miscommunication: 16 Examples

In the complex world of business communication, even a small misstep in written correspondence can lead to significant misunderstandings. To uncover how leaders tackle these challenges, we gathered sixteen firsthand accounts from CEOs, Managing Partners, and other executives. From implementing a simplified communication policy to using specific metrics in project updates, discover their strategies for ensuring clarity and preventing miscommunication.

  • Implemented Simplified Communication Policy

  • Clarified Client Expectations with Calls

  • Adopted Clear Summaries and Analogies

  • Avoid Sarcasm in Professional Emails

  • Standardized Documentation and Terminology

  • Prioritize Deliverables with Explicit Deadlines

  • Introduced Bullet Points and Follow-Up Calls

  • Ensure Precise Terminology with Follow-Up Questions

  • Initiated Detailed Client Consultations

  • Encourage Assertiveness Over Vague Language

  • Double-Check Emails for Clarity

  • Specified Exact Times to Avoid Confusion

  • Centralized Work Management for Stakeholder Updates

  • Structured Emails with Follow-Up Summaries

  • Explained Legal Jargon for Client Clarity

  • Use Specific Metrics in Project Updates

Implemented Simplified Communication Policy

While running a global startup with a remote team, I came across a significant misunderstanding due to written communication. We were getting ready to launch an update on Ling, and instructions were communicated through email. It resulted in different team members not fully understanding their roles, leading to a last-minute scramble before the launch. On reflection, I realized that the email lacked clarity and might have been overwhelming due to its length and complexity.

To rectify this issue, I instituted a policy of 'Simplified Communication,' which dictates that our emails should be clear, concise, and replete with action points. I also introduced regular team video meetings to ensure verbal communication supplements the written form. The policy has been hugely successful in preventing similar misunderstandings. In addition, it highlighted the importance of finding a balance between written and verbal communication, especially in a remote setting.

Simon Bacher, CEO and Co-founder, Ling

Clarified Client Expectations with Calls

One specific instance comes to mind when one of our designers sent a client an email outlining the timeline for their website project. Unfortunately, there was a lack of clarity around the specific deliverables and milestones. This led to confusion on the client's end, as they had different expectations regarding when certain aspects of the project would be completed.

To rectify the situation, I immediately scheduled a call with the client to clarify any confusion and address their concerns. I also implemented a new process within our team to ensure that all communication regarding project timelines and milestones is clear and consistent moving forward.

To prevent similar situations in the future, we have started conducting regular training sessions with our team on effective written communication techniques, emphasizing the importance of clarity, specificity, and tone in all client interactions. We have also implemented a system of checks and balances, where project managers review all client communications before they are sent out to ensure accuracy and alignment with client expectations.

Tom Molnar, Operations Manager, Fit Design

Adopted Clear Summaries and Analogies

This happened when our business was fairly new, and we had just started providing CFO services to a law firm. I remember sending out an email outlining our suggestions for improving their expense reporting process. However, the email was quite technical and didn't clearly highlight the benefits in simple terms.

This caused some confusion among the law firm partners. They became concerned about potential additional costs instead of understanding the potential efficiencies. We were quick to address this and got on a call with them immediately. I clarified our recommendations and resorted to using clear examples and analogies to illustrate how our suggestions could lead to cost savings and operational improvements. That was when they had the “aha” moment, and we were able to graciously laugh off the misunderstanding.

I now ensure that all written communications include a brief, straightforward summary of the benefits of our recommendations. I also make use of analogies and simple examples to help our clients see the immediate value in the changes we propose.

Paul Carlson, Managing Partner, Law Firm Velocity

Avoid Sarcasm in Professional Emails

The aspect of written communication that I've seen lead to misunderstandings most often is tone. It's very difficult to convey tone in writing, and there's always the risk that the person who receives the message will read it differently than you intended.

When I've most often seen this be an issue is when people try to use sarcasm or wry humor. This happened within our organization recently. One of our recruiters was frustrated by an ongoing situation with a client and made an offhand comment in an email that referred to them 'rage quitting.' This was meant as a joke, but it wasn't taken that way by everyone, and it ended up causing a bit of unnecessary drama.

Because of situations like this that I've experienced, one tip I have for written communication is not to attempt sarcasm or dry jokes in writing unless you're very familiar with your audience. If it's a message among friends who know your sense of humor, they'll likely be able to tell when you're joking, but other people won't, and you can cause some serious misunderstandings as a result.

Going along with this, the other advice I'd give is—don't make any assumptions based on the tone you perceive in a written message. Before you react or take any steps in response, go straight to the individual and ask them for clarification. A simple one-on-one conversation can often help to clear up these misunderstandings before they can cause bigger problems.

Matt Erhard, Managing Partner, Summit Search Group

Standardized Documentation and Terminology

There was an instance when a brief written note during a project initiation led to a substantial misunderstanding. We had just begun working on a significant software implementation project, and I had sent out what I thought was a harmless note stating, “We should gear up for the ‘big-bang’ launch.” It turned out that some team members weren't familiar with the phrase 'big bang,' usually used to imply a complete, all-at-once launch. This led to confusion and concerns about the project scope and resources.

The struggle to clarify my intentions afterward taught me the value of clear and jargon-free communication. I immediately called for a meeting, where I apologized for the confusion and we unanimously decided on common terminology to prevent such misunderstandings. Internally, I also implemented a 'Documentation and Terminology Standardization' initiative for our cross-functional teams. It emphasized using clear, everyday language to reduce misinterpretation. I believe we must strive for clarity over cleverness in communication to ensure alignment with team expectations and project outcomes.

Gabriel Lukov, Head of Inbound Growth, Businessmap

Prioritize Deliverables with Explicit Deadlines

I would like to share an instance where a misunderstanding involved coordinating a marketing campaign with an external vendor. In my initial email, I requested several deliverables but failed to specify the priorities and deadlines for each component.

The vendor assumed all tasks held equal importance and worked on them simultaneously, causing significant delays in the campaign's launch. To rectify this situation, I immediately scheduled a call to clarify the priorities and adjusted the timeline accordingly.

Moving forward, I implemented a practice of categorizing deliverables by priority and including explicit deadlines in all my written communications. This approach ensures that everyone involved understands the immediate tasks and their respective timelines, minimizing confusion and enhancing project efficiency.

Austin Benton, Marketing Consultant, Gotham Artists

Introduced Bullet Points and Follow-Up Calls

One memorable instance where written communication led to a misunderstanding was during a project with a key client. I sent an email outlining a new strategy, but my phrasing left room for interpretation, and the client misunderstood our proposed timeline. They thought we suggested an immediate implementation, while we were planning for a phased approach over several months.

When the client expressed concerns about the sudden change, I realized the miscommunication was due to my lack of clarity. To rectify the situation, I immediately scheduled a call to discuss the strategy in detail. This conversation cleared up the confusion and allowed us to realign our expectations and timelines.

I implemented a few key changes to prevent similar issues in the future. First, I started using bullet points to clarify important email details. Second, I made it a habit to follow up complex emails with a quick phone call to ensure everything was understood correctly. Lastly, I encouraged clients to ask questions if anything was unclear, fostering a more open line of communication.

These changes have significantly reduced misunderstandings and improved our overall communication. Clear, concise, and open communication is now a cornerstone of my operation, ensuring that my team and our clients are always on the same page.

Ensure Precise Terminology with Follow-Up Questions

I communicate via Slack all of the time, and I think the hardest part when dealing with finances is that different people in companies have different terminologies for words. What one person considers 'cost accounting' has a totally different meaning... It's so important to be explicit and always ask follow-up questions to ensure words are precise.

Initiated Detailed Client Consultations

In our video editing and marketing agency, there was a time when we had a client who emailed us about a video edit, and they were describing certain effects and transitions they wanted. However, due to the lack of clarity in their email, we misunderstood some of their requests and ended up not meeting their expectations fully.

After that experience, we made sure to implement a clear process. Now, we always schedule a detailed initial consultation with clients to discuss their projects thoroughly. We have a set of targeted questions designed to understand exactly how they envision their video, ensuring we capture every detail accurately. This helped us reduce misunderstandings and ensure we deliver exactly what our clients envision.

Encourage Assertiveness Over Vague Language

A lot of misunderstanding stems from obscure language. One example is when people say 'maybe,' 'I'll think about it,' or 'I'll try' when they actually want to say no but are afraid to offend the other party. Case in point, a colleague kept on saying 'maybe' and 'I'll try' about taking the minutes of the meeting one time, when in fact they didn't want to do it but they were shy to say so. When the meeting came, I thought that he would take care of it, but it turned out that he didn't, and he didn't think that I was expecting him to because, well, he didn't say yes.

It's important for people to be assertive in their language, so it leaves little to no room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Don't be shy to say no for fear of offending people, because you're saying no to the task and not necessarily to the person. A clear and resounding 'No' is better than a vague 'maybe.'

Double-Check Emails for Clarity

I once sent a client an email saying, "We need to discuss the budget issues." The client thought we were over budget, but I actually meant we had extra funds to allocate. This misunderstanding led to unnecessary worry. To fix this, I called the client to explain clearly. Now, I always double-check my emails for clarity and ask someone else to review them if it's an important message. I also follow up important emails with a phone call to ensure everything is understood. This helps prevent similar issues in the future.

Specified Exact Times to Avoid Confusion

Here at our organization, we once had a situation where an email about a project deadline was misunderstood by the team.

The email mentioned 'end of day Friday,' which some team members took to mean close of business, while others interpreted it as midnight. This led to missed deadlines and confusion.

To avert future miscommunications, we've made several adjustments. We've actually begun specifying exact times in our messages, like '5 PM EST on Friday.'

We've also started summarizing crucial details and deadlines at the conclusion of emails to align understanding. And to top it all off, we've fostered an environment where team members are encouraged to seek clarifications whenever needed.

Centralized Work Management for Stakeholder Updates

One common mistake is forgetting to include the right people on an email chain or hitting the “Reply” button instead of “Reply All.” That’s why a centralized work management platform is a necessity—it puts all stakeholders in the same dedicated workspaces that update everyone with vital information in real time. You only need to add teammates to relevant projects or tasks once, and they’ll receive message notifications, version updates, and more. This way, you can streamline communications and minimize mistakes rather than dealing with endless email chains and manual, tedious messaging.

Elisa Montanari, Head of Organic Growth, Wrike

Structured Emails with Follow-Up Summaries

A few years ago, we had a big order from a council for our outdoor fitness equipment. We overloaded the email with too much information, and some key details about delivery and installation got missed. This caused delays and client dissatisfaction.

To fix this, we simplified our communication. We put our emails into a structured format, using bullet points and bold text for the important bits, and followed up with calls to make sure the client understood the written instructions. We also sent a summary email after every big conversation to outline the agreed points and next steps. This reduced misunderstandings and improved overall client satisfaction and operational efficiency.

Clear communication is key to customer satisfaction. By simplifying our message, we turned a potential problem into a chance to improve our client relationships and service.

Explained Legal Jargon for Client Clarity

In my early years as an attorney, a slight misunderstanding in written communication led to significant confusion. I was dealing with the transfer of a company's assets to a trust fund. In the legal document, I used a technical term 'assign,' which, in business law, refers to the transfer of rights or property. However, the client, unknowledgeable of the term's legal implications, mistook it for a delegation of duties instead.

The confusion led to temporary financial chaos for the client, making me realize the importance of simple language and clear communication, especially when dealing with complex legal matters. To rectify the situation, I apologized for the misunderstanding and subsequently clarified every legal term used in the document. Since then, I ensure that every legal document I draft is presented in an easy-to-understand format with a separate section explaining all legal jargon. By doing so, I've not only prevented similar scenarios but also helped my clients become more legally informed, empowering them to make better decisions.

Use Specific Metrics in Project Updates

During a major project, I sent an email update stating that a phase was "progressing well," but didn't specify the actual progress percentage. The stakeholders assumed the phase was nearly complete, causing frustration when they learned there was still significant work to be done. To address this, I provided a detailed status report and apologized for the lack of clarity.

To prevent similar misunderstandings, I now use standardized progress reports with specific metrics and timelines in all project communications.

Jeffrey Zhou, CEO & Founder, Fig Loans


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