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We’re All Humans Here: Practicing Effective Online Written Communication

Last update 1/28/2020

 

Visual: Opening slide reads “We’re All Humans Here: Practicing Effective Online Written Communication,” presented by the Walden Writing Center.

Audio: Welcome to “We’re All Humans Here: Practicing Effective Online Written Communication,” presented by the Walden Writing Center.

Visual: Slide changes to the following:

In This Video:

Why

  • What does it mean to communicate online?
  • Considerations: Audience, purpose, and tone

What

  • Individual and public written forums
  • Primary focus on individual forms: Email and IM

How

  • Components of an email
  • Strategies for email
  • Promoting inclusivity and belonging

Audio: In this video, we’ll discuss the why, what, and how of online communication. We’ll begin with the importance of clarity and inclusivity in written online communication; review the various forums where online communication can occur; and finally provide specific strategies and recommendations for communicating through email and discuss ways to promote inclusivity and belonging in all of our online communication.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Communicating in an Online Environment

  • Prevalent mode of communication in the workplace and in our online university
  • Multiple contexts and audiences (e.g., colleagues, students, administrators)
  • Written online communication has a reputation for being cold or unclear (Dickinson, 2017), but it’s still a form of interpersonal communication

Our Goal: Make implicit expectations and conventions explicit

Dickinson, A. (2017). Communicating with the online student: The impact of e-mail tone on student performance and teacher evaluations. Journal of Educators Online, 14(2), 1-10.

 

Audio: The modern workplace relies heavily on online written communication, and Walden University is no different as an online university and as a workplace where most of us teach from our home offices. As such, effective online communication is essential for us when working with all communities at the university: other faculty, students, administrators, and staff. Without effective online communication, we can’t successfully work together and teach our students.

However, online communication can have a reputation for being cold or unclear if done ineffectively. Because our audience isn’t immediately accessible in online communication, we can forget that it is also a form of interpersonal communication. Additionally, expectations for online communication are often implicit or assumed. Our goal in this video is to help make these expectations more explicit and provide concrete strategies and suggestions for communicating in an online environment.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Communicating in an Online Environment

Requires strong awareness of audience, purpose, and tone.

  • Audience:
    • Who will be reading my message? What is their context? What are they bringing to this message?

Audio: To begin, let’s build on the foundation of communication, specifically in an online environment. Clear, effective online communication requires strong awareness of audience, purpose, and tone and format, all of which apply to any forum for online communication.

Audience refers to the recipients of your message, in whatever forum that is: Who will be reading my message? What is their context? What are they bringing to this message?

Visual: Slide changes to the following:

  • Purpose:
    • What do I want to accomplish with this message? What do I want to happen after this message?

Audio: Purpose refers to the reason for the message: What do I want to accomplish with this message? What do I want to happen after this message?

Visual: Slide changes to the following:

  • Tone & Format:
    • How best can I communicate to my audience? How best can I achieve my purpose? What level of formality is expected of me or do I want to communicate?

Audio: Tone and format is about how your message is presented: How best can I communicate to my audience? How best can I achieve my purpose? What level of formality is expected of me or do I want to communicate?

These questions apply across communication in an online environment, and your answers to these questions will help you clearly and effectively write your message.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Forums for Online Communication

Individual: Email and IM

  • Can be more personal since the audience is (often) smaller
  • Purpose: Working with specific individuals with specific and actionable information or requests
  • Dependent on your college’s culture

Public Workplace Networks (could include student discussion forums)

  • Can be public to a wider audience
  • Purpose: Can inform individuals; allows for archiving of information or for review by casual readers
  • Dependent on your college’s culture

Audio: How you address audience, purpose, and tone and format is also related to the forum for your communication. In an online environment, there are two main categories of communication forums, although of course these can also overlap.

Individual communication forums include email and IM. These are more personal and direct forums since the audience is often smaller or specifically chosen. Email and IM’s purpose is often to work with specific individuals with specific and actionable information or requests. These can be more precise than public forums. Email and IM etiquette are also very dependent on your college’s culture in terms of how they are used. Some groups may use IM more than email, or vice versa, depending on the group’s culture and needs.

Public communication forums include workplace networks, like Yammer or Teams, and student discussion forums. These forums are more public to a wider audience, all of whom you may or may not know. When using these forums, your purpose may be to inform specific individuals, but using these types of forums allows for the archiving of information for others or access to the conversation by casual readers who may be interested. Use of public communication forums can also vary depending on your college’s culture and use of these forums.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Forums for Online Communication

  • Individual Example Scenario

Working with a student requesting an assignment extension due to illness

  • Public Example Scenario

Discussing with colleagues how to encourage student participation in discussion boards

Audio: Here are two samples of individual and public communication forums. A specific student request for an assignment extension is a good fit for discussion via an individual communication channel, like email, as it is specific and likely private. However, a general discussion with other faculty about encouraging student participation in discussion boards can be a good fit for a public forum, like Yammer, to allow those who are interested to be involved.

Although individual and public communication forums might be used in different scenarios, they all are included in the overarching category of online written communication, so we should always apply considerations of audience, purpose, and tone and format to them.

Visual: Comparing Email and IM

  • Purpose: Working with specific individuals with specific and actionable information or requests
    • Can work in tandem!
  • Email
    • More permanent and long-form
    • Response may take some time
  • IM
    • More transient and concise
    • Immediate response

Audio: Engaging in public online communication forums is usually mediated through your college’s culture. Because of this, in this video we will focus more specifically on email and IM, although our most specific recommendations are around email.

Email and IM can often work in tandem, but it is also helpful to articulate the differences between them. Email is a more permanent and long-form channel of communication. Emails create a record of the communication and can effectively communicate long or complex ideas. Responses to emails vary, but traditionally email is sent without the expectation of an immediate response.

IM is a more transient and concise form of communication. Although Walden’s email system can keep a log of our IM history, it is more like a passing conversation in the hall and more difficult to reference at a later date. Additionally, because IM is more like a conversation between you and another person, it is best to keep IM messages short. IM is used when you need an immediate response from someone, often for quick requests for help or information, or to check in with someone.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Diving Into Email: Subject Lines

  • Purpose is similar to an abstract
  • Should be concise and specific
  • May be written after writing the message

Screenshot: Email sent with the subject line “Next steps for coordinating volunteer opportunity”.

Audio: Because we use email more prevalently to communicate within the university, we’re now going to dive deeper in how to write effective emails. Many of the strategies here can be applied to your other online communications, as well.

First, let’s review the components of an email and how to approach each component.

The first component to tackle is the subject line. It’s easy to overlook these, but in many ways, the subject line serves as your e-mail’s abstract: The thing your reader will glance at when deciding whether to read your message more closely. Subject lines should be both concise and specific. A succinct reference to the message’s purpose will help draw your reader in. A vague subject line could result in your audience not opening the email or unnecessary concern about the email’s content. Omitting a subject line altogether can mean your message will be flagged as spam and not reach your intended reader at all.

Depending on the email, you may decide to write the subject line after you’ve completed writing the message, at which point your subject may be clearer and easier for you to generate.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Greetings and Closings

  • Hello, Dear, Hi
  • Sincerely, Yours, Best, Cheers
  • Signature lines
  • Follow your college’s format/conventions
  • Include identifying information and pronouns to promote inclusivity

Screenshot: Email sent with the greeting “Hi, Amber,” and the salutation “Best”. It also shows the following signature line:

Beth Nastachowski

Manager, Multimedia Writing Instruction, Writing Center

Contributing Faculty, Academic Skills Center

(Pronouns: She, her hers)

Walden University

100 Washington Avenue South, Suite 900

Minneapolis, MN 554401

Audio: Greetings can vary greatly depending on who you are emailing. Salutations like “dear” are more formal and work well when you don’t have a relationship with the person you are emailing, while “hello” is often acceptable in a wide range of contexts. Similarly, closings will vary depending on your audience. Closings like “sincerely” and “yours” are more formal, while “best” is also acceptable in a wide range of contexts. Writers may also choose to use closings like “cheers” that are a bit more informal.

Also include a signature after your closing that includes your identifying information. Even if you include a more informal sign-off in an email with just your first name, having a formal signature to end your email can ensure your reader knows who you are, your Walden affiliation, and how to contact you.

We also encourage you to include your pronouns in your signature. We’ll discuss this more in a later section about encouraging inclusivity and belonging in online communication.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Components

  • Reply/reply all:
    • Consider who needs to respond to your message or be informed by your message

Screenshot: Email sent with the options to reply, reply all, and forward the email highlighted.

Audio: In emails with multiple people, you can choose to reply to the original sender individually or reply all to all individuals included in the email. When emails are with particularly large groups, consider only replying to the original sender to avoid filling others’ inboxes. However, when the intention is to collaborate over email or keep the entire group informed, reply all can be helpful to use.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Components

  • Attaching documents:
    • Attach static documents
    • Share through a OneDrive link when looking for collaboration

Screenshot: Email sent with a document attached.

Audio: You can also share documents via email, usually in one of two ways, depending on your purpose. Attaching finalized or static documents to an email is a helpful way of sharing the document. However, if your intention is to use a document for collaboration, like a shared presentation, you can also share a document through a OneDrive—or other cloud-based document storage system—link. This allows everyone to make their edits or comments in one, shared document, avoiding multiple versions.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Diving Into Email: Draft, Breathe, Return

  • Write a first draft
  • Review for clarity and tone
  • Step away
  • Return to revise

Audio: The next few slides will help you consider the body of your email message, starting with the process of writing your email itself. 

As with any written medium, an email may benefit from a process of drafting to ensure the best possible communication. This is especially important for writing or replying to messages around tense situations. We sometimes react emotionally to messages we receive, and it can be helpful to write a first draft response, step away, and come back to the email to reconsider. This can help you evaluate your clarity and the professionalism and effectiveness of your tone, and revise accordingly.

Similarly, emails with particularly important or overly complex information may need revisions for clarity and organization. Writing a draft and then stepping way can help you consider the email again and revise where needed. Try to read your message through the eyes of your intended audience, which can help you spot where you’ve be unclear or may need additional context.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Diving Into Email: Develop Templates

Templates help a writer

  • Respond consistently and in a measured manner
  • Save time for more personalized information

Audio: Another strategy to help you write effective emails is to create templates for emails you write frequently. This can be particularly helpful when responding to students who may have similar questions or requests. Creating a template can help you ensure you don’t leave out information, such as a useful link or tip. It can also help you respond in an objective and measured tone, particularly if you write the template text at a time when you’re not feeling rushed and can provide your most patient, polished writing.

Many email systems have methods for preserving template text, or you may even use a separate document to house commonly used messaging. Whichever method you use, remember to make the text personal in other ways; template text can sound insincere if it doesn’t quite match the tone or topic of the original question. Using this method should allow you time to personalize the key information within the template.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Diving Into Email: Detect Errors

Use spell and/or grammar check:

  • Run it manually after writing each email
  • Adjust settings so it checks automatically before sending

Audio: The best of us still make spelling or grammatical errors when writing, especially when writing in a medium as informal as email.

We recommend taking advantage of the spell and/or grammar checking features of your email. You can run spell check in Outlook manually after writing each email, or you can adjust your email setting so Outlook will check your spelling before sending your email automatically. This can help you spot typos and spelling errors, especially when you’re writing quickly.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Diving Into Email: Know Your Context

  • What do your colleagues do?
  • What do your students and colleagues respond well to?
  • How long/frequent can emails be before your readers tune out?

Audio: The longer you work with students and colleagues at Walden, the more comfortable you’ll likely be when communicating to them via email. When you consider the elements of an email we’ve already mentioned, such as subject lines, greeting, or tone, pay attention to the norms in your college or program. How does your supervisor approach these choices? Do your colleagues tend to be more formal or informal? Do your students seem to understand feedback better in bulleted lists or in narrative paragraphs? About how long can an email be before you suspect the reader may not persist to the end? The answers won’t be the same for everyone you communicate with, but you’ll likely get a sense of the norms and the most effective ways to reach your audience. Take a moment to scan the last 5 or 10 emails you received, with an eye on these elements. Is your style in alignment? Is there anything you particularly like or find off-putting? This sort of analysis can be a helpful step as you continue to strengthen your online voice.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Promoting Inclusivity and Belonging

  • Online education is sometimes perceived as cold or unclear (Dickinson, 2017).
  • Applies to both students and faculty
  • According to McConnell (2018), increasing a sense of belongingness can help students of color “withstand the challenges of negative stereotypes in the classroom” (para. 7).
  • Small changes can have a large and real impact

Audio: In addition to the practical email strategies described above, we will also talk about how we can promote inclusivity and belonging in emails and in all of our online communication. As we discussed earlier, online communication—and by extension, online education—can have a reputation for being cold or for lacking clarity. This means that online communication can be a particular barrier to promoting inclusivity and belonging in our university community, for both students and faculty. Addressing this barrier is important for many reasons, in particular because research shows that belongingness can help students of color “withstand the challenges of negative stereotypes in the classroom.” It is important that we bring Walden University’s values of diversity, equity, and inclusion to our online communications to help all students and faculty feel that they belong, and small changes to how we approach our online communication can have a large and real impact on members of our university community. We’ll provide three strategies for promoting inclusivity and belonging in our online communication.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Promoting Inclusivity and Belonging

Strategy #1: Provide Adequate Context

  • Explain acronyms
  • Link to information that may not be familiar

Audio: The first strategy for promoting a sense of inclusivity and belongingness is to provide adequate context. As you are writing a message, consider and anticipate concepts or terms with which your audience may not be familiar. Although it’s not necessary to include everything in a message, it can be alienating to receive an email that assumes a certain level of “inside” knowledge. For example, avoid using acronyms without explanation, which can impede understanding and make a reader feel inferior if they don’t know what they mean. You can also link to information or resources you mention in case the reader isn’t familiar with them; this reduces any embarrassment or need to ask for more information.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Promoting Inclusivity and Belonging

Strategy #2: Embrace Multiple Identities

  • Avoid assumptions
  • Provide your pronouns
  • Be teachable

Audio: The second strategy is to embrace multiple identities. The Walden community is diverse, and we want to make everyone, regardless of their identities, feel that they belong. One way to do so is to avoid making assumptions about shared life experiences among your colleagues or students. The Walden community is composed of people with vastly different life experiences, so it’s rarely true that everyone in your environment shares the same frameworks, such as cultural, generational, or geographical attitudes and references. It’s perfectly fine to discuss your own contexts where appropriate, but try to avoid generalizing them to your student or faculty audience.

Another way to embrace multiple identities is to provide your pronouns in your email signature. Providing your pronouns helps others know how to engage you when writing to or about you, and it signals to your colleagues and students that you are aware of the diversity that exists around gender.

Finally, stay curious and be teachable. If students or colleagues feel you are interested in learning more about their perspectives, they are more likely to be open about challenges and to work effectively with you. If anyone lets you know of a communication that made them uncomfortable, acknowledge, apologize, and adjust. Language changes rapidly, so it’s up to all of us to continuously learn from each other.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Promoting Inclusivity and Belonging

Strategy #2: Indicate Importance With Words Rather Than Formatting

  • Use sentence case rather than all caps
  • Use simple formatting

Audio: Our third strategy is to explain the importance of information through language rather than through text formatting. Certain kinds of text formatting can be off-putting for readers, alienating them from the message. For instance, using all caps may seem like a good way to draw attention to information, but many readers interpret all caps as aggressive or yelling. Underlining, highlighting, and bolding can sometimes be helpful to delineate information in writing, but overuse of those tactics can be distracting for a reader as well.

If something you’re saying is critically important for your reader to hear, try to emphasize it in words instead.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Online Written Communication Resources

  • Information about and examples of sharing gender pronouns: https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/diversity-inclusion/pronouns
  • Faculty module Sending E-mails to the Right People, found in myLEARN
  • Writing Center Resources on Avoiding Bias in Writing: https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/scholarlyvoice/avoidingbias
  • Academic Skills Center’s blog post “5 Essential Tips for Email Etiquette”: https://waldenacademicskills.wordpress.com/2019/07/24/5-essential-tips-for-email-etiquette/
  • “Bias-Free Language,” chapter 5 of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (7th edition)

Direct links also available in video transcript or the Writing Center Faculty Toolbox.

Audio: We hope that this overview of how to achieve clarity and inclusivity in written online communication has provided you with help strategies to implement as you work with your Walden colleagues and students. There are many other resources you can look to for additional information, practice, and tips, some of which we have listed here. Note that the last three resources are also available to students, and you’re welcome to share them.

Visual: Slide changes to the following: Questions?

Amber Cook

Stay in Touch: Join the Writing Center’s faculty newsletter by emailing Amber to request access.

Audio: If you would like to follow-up with any questions you have about this video or any other writing-related questions, please let Amber know. She’d be glad to hear from you!