The next two days were spent wandering around casinos with a dazed look on my face. Although I usually have a dazed look, it was even worse when I was in the casinos. Why? The noise factor.
If you’ve been in a casino, you know how noisy they are. There’s a constant hum of people talking, bells chiming, slot machines whirring, glasses clinking, music blaring, cell phones ringing, and the periodic, manic scream of “Wheel…of…Fortune!” All in all, it’s so noisy, you can barely speak to the person next to you. After awhile, the strain becomes too much and I feel like I need to get out of there and retreat into a quiet, peaceful place. (Good luck finding that in Las Vegas, by the way.)
Background noise interferes with our ability to send and receive clear messages because it creates auditory confusion. The same thing can happen in our written documents, too.
How can a piece of writing have background noise? Simple. If our document contains elements that distract the reader from focusing on and understanding our message, it contains a form of “background noise.”
For example, misspellings can be a speed bump on the smooth path of comprehension. A misspelled word will trip up our readers and cause them to look more closely at our mechanics, meaning they’ll have less energy to spend on understanding our message.
Punctuation errors can do the same thing. For example: joining together two sentences with a comma can interfere with comprehension, there are other problems that arise from faulty punctuation, too. (So did that previous sentence put your teeth on edge? It’s weird how that works, huh?)
Using technical jargon, acronyms, and in-house buzzwords can create background noise, too, if the audience doesn’t know what those terms mean. So can using a tone that’s too abrupt or too fawning. For example, I saw an RFP response recently that answered the question, “Are you an Equal Opportunity employer?” with the answer: “Yes.” A few more one-word answers, and we might begin to think the writer’s not that interested in winning the business. We see a fawning tone when people use language like this: “We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for allowing us to submit our proposal. We appreciate that you are willing to review our submission, but please bear in mind that we will gladly modify our recommendations if we have failed to address your concerns accurately.” Yecch!
It’s hard to pick up background noise in our own writing. One technique that helps is to read it out loud. Sometimes you will notice problems faster when you say the words than when you read silently. Another good idea is to have somebody else (somebody who isn’t familiar with your topic) read through your work with full permission to question everything as ruthlessly as possible.
Ultimately, clear communication means getting our message across effortlessly. The reader shouldn’t have to strain to “hear” us. After all, the first principle of persuasion is always clarity. If somebody doesn’t understand, they almost never buy.