Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

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“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good,
Oh lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

— The Animals

Margie Clayman wrote a blog post that caught my eye recently when she noted that we need a “censor button” in social media. Margie wrote:

“On Twitter, unless your account is locked down, anything you say is not just public, it’s searchable. Often out of context. People can very easily spread things that you say to people who don’t even know you. Something that you say in jest can be taken seriously if someone doesn’t know you well – especially if they have never heard your voice and don’t know your tonality. If what you say is deemed super offensive, even if you didn’t mean it that way, you can be unfollowed, blocked, reported, and you can gain a reputation for being crude, offensive, insensitive, and many other things.”

I’ve learned this the hard way, seeing my off-the-cuff tweets quoted in blog posts (thanks, Tim McAlpine).  After I read Margie’s blog post, I saw a tweet from a Twitter buddy who was re-tweeting something from a SXSW speaker:

“Fun to go through the Tweet stream and see how many people misconstrue what I say when I talk.”

My first thought upon reading this: If people misconstrued what you said, it’s nobody’s fault but your own.

My point to all this is this: Whether you’re blogging, tweeting, presenting, or commenting — in social media or in any business context — the absolute most important thing is to communicate clearly. That is, to have your points, ideas, remarks, comments — whatever — received and understood in the way you intend them to be.

I’ve never forgotten a blog post written by Seth Godin back in January 2008. Seth wrote:

“Don’t let the words get in the way. If you’re writing online, forget everything you were tortured by in high school English class. You’re not trying to win any awards or get an A. You’re just trying to be real, to make a point, to write something worth reading. So just say it. “

I took issue with this then, and I’m going to take issue with it now: This is terrible advice.

Don’t “just say it.” Agonize over it. Choose your words carefully. Write it, and re-write it. Two or three times if necessary. (The ironic thing is that Godin commented on the blog post I wrote about his post, and he “clarified” his point. In other words, had he chosen his words more carefully — and didn’t “just say it” — maybe he wouldn’t have been misinterpreted).

Without tonality, without facial expressions, without context — and very importantly — often without any familiarity with you as a person — your written words in social media channels will be interpreted by people who will have very different starting points for interpreting your comments.

Andrew Keen wrote an excellent book called The Cult of the Amateur in which he argued:

“What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.”

On one hand, I couldn’t agree more. On the other hand, I don’t see this as an argument for stopping or preventing people from sharing their observations and opinions. Instead, I see it more as support for the idea that we need to be more “considered” about what we say in social media channels.

The problem — of being misunderstood, of lacking deep analysis — stems from the fact that nobody is taught this stuff. Sure, we’ve had classes in Math and English and so forth, but few people really learn to write critically. Seth Godin can say “just say it” because he’s probably the best writer in the Marketing world (not that I agree with what he says, but the “quality” of his writing is top-notch).

If a large number of people are going to communicate in social media channels, then more people are going to have to learn how to write better and more critically. It’s not simply a matter of being understood or misunderstood — it’s a matter of reputation.

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