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The Weight of Words - a Textual Musing

The Wainhouse Research Blog

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on Unified Communications & Collaboration


The Weight of Words - a Textual Musing

By: -
30 Jun 2017

We like to message each other. A lot. Consider, the first email was sent in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson. To himself. "The test messages were entirely forgettable. Most likely the first message was QWERTYIOP or something similar," he said. 

Today, the average office worker receives 121 emails. Every day. There are an estimated 3.7 billion email users, sending 269 billion emails. Every day. (Except my kids, who I email regularly to do their chores. For some reason, they never respond.) 

How about IM? Did you know the first AOL Instant Message was sent in 1993 by Ted Leonsis to his wife? It read “Don’t be scared … it’s me. Love you and miss you.” What in the world was going on in the Leonsis household, only Ted and his wife know - but I suspect it involved a history of text-based pranks. 

Today, the top ten mobile messenger apps support an estimated 3 billion accounts. In the business world, around 250 million users are licensed for enterprise messaging services. (And my kids? They seem to have no problem texting me requests to buy them stuff - to which I always reply via email ... )

And then, in 2006, a little blue bird flew onto the scene, and we were all introduced to Twitter. The first tweet was sent by Twitter's co-founder, Jack Dorsey:

Then, 20 minutes later:

Jack was a visionary, and his tweet epitomizes what Twitter would become: a platform for quick, short, and misspelled messages with no regard for punctuation or grammar. 

But Dom's tweet, pointing to our pending addiction, nailed it. Consider: there will be more words written on Twitter in the next two years than contained in all printed books. All of them. (p.s. I learned that on Twitter). 

So what, you may be asking? Well, I'll tell you so what: every email, every text, every IM, and, yes, every tweet has a positive or negative impact. The impact is amplified, or mitigated, based on the number of recipients it touches.

Of course, “message impact” is a tricky thing to quantify; but as an analyst and consultant, I’m obliged to do just that. We even created a fancy (read: expensive) formula: 

(Time to Create) + ((Time to Read) *(Recipients)) = Message Impact (hrs)

We use this formula all the time to estimate how much organizational interaction is occurring via text-based messaging. We gather data across email, IM, and other text-messaging apps. We look at the number of messages sent per user. We estimate the average length of each message, and the time it takes to compose them. We determine the average number of recipients, and how long it takes to read the average message. 

At the end of all that averaging, you come up with fancy charts and graphs, and expensive titles like Interaction by Modality, The Organizational Impact of Text-Based Communications, and/or Messaging as a Percent of Employee Interaction. Spoiler alert: it's always ridiculously large.

Counting, weighting, and aggregating interactions by modality may sound fancy, but it's really more time-consuming than difficult. It’s what we don't count, however, that’s vastly more important: the business impact of each message. On average, do our messages solve problems? Increase revenues? Save costs? Or do they do the opposite? Do they waste the reader's time? Demoralize the reader? Perhaps kick off the occasional Reply-All Storm?  

We are getting better at counting transactions, but tying them to business outcomes is still an elusive Holy Grail. So, lacking data, each enterprise self-manages their use of these powerful messaging tools. Culture sets the tone, either encouraging or discouraging message abuse. Those cultures that encourage information sharing, diverse opinions, and positive reinforcement, likely have a positive messaging experience.

But in a caustic environment, text can have an enormously negative impact. Text allows us to interact without the inconvenience of emotional empathy - I can send you a nasty gram with no real-time repercussion. I don’t know, and likely don’t care, how you receive the message – and you have no idea what I was thinking when I sent it. In a caustic environment, negative messages often multiply virally - one nastygram spawns another, then another, and soon the entire enterprise is consumed.   

Let's tie this back to the volume observation. Most organizations interact more via text than they realize. If half-or-more of your interactions occur via text, you should question the impact of each message. Simple things like tone, word choice, and clarity will drive moral, engagement, and productivity. When you evaluate the impact on a message-by-message basis, it's easy to let things slide. But when 50% of your interactions occur via text, the weight of the medium is amplified, and you should look at how text is being used – and how it reflects your culture. 

Final word: the culture conversation starts and ends at the executive level. Each executive word carries more weight, holds more value, and has a larger impact. Their messages are consumed by more of the organization. They set the culture. Their respect, or lack thereof, for the power of text is propagated through the entire organization.  

A positive executive message can drive amazing results across the entire organization - energizing, engaging, and enabling the team. But a negative message will do the opposite - derailing team members, spurring sidebars, creating a lack of focus, and killing productivity.

And no individual’s message has a greater impact than the President of your organization. More than any other individual, your President's messages will enable or demoralize; engage or alienate; encourage or discourage. Indeed, your President has the greatest responsibility to choose their words wisely. Remind them of that, when appropriate – even your President can use some positive direction, on occasion.