Kids who suffer from mild communication disorders, even a single speech-related error, are more likely to experience limited social interactions than their peers, 2015 study found. Five years later, in the midst of social-distancing mandates and stay-at-home orders, we're finding the reverse may also hold true: Limited social interaction is negatively affecting our ability to communicate.
Full disclosure: I'm not a researcher, and I have limited data to support that assertion. But I am an executive editor at a B2B marketing agency, and over the past several weeks I've reviewed a ton of content—all of it written by editorial pros in quarantine—that creates distance between the writer and the reader.
It's not intentional, but it's happening.
And it raises important questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic is altering our ability to connect with each other through the written word.
Spatial Distance and Point of View
Any content creator worth their salt understands the value of speaking directly to the reader. In the agency world, our clients rely on us to write content that creates connections between brands and audiences. But if our writing feels sterile and remote, we've failed.
One of the best ways to create a connection involves using the second-person point of view. In second person, we use pronouns like "you" and "your"—language that engages the reader on a personal level and contextualizes the content to the reader's own circumstances. We instill the second-person concept in our writers from day one at the agency, and they're usually obsessive about working it into their content.
Several weeks into remote work totality, I started seeing drafts written entirely in the third person. Instead of "you" and "your," "it" and "they" and other third-person verbiage littered the drafts. Although it began as a trickle, within a week's time there wasn't a "you" to be found in at least half the drafts I edited.
There's nothing inherently wrong with the third-person point of view. In fact, certain scenarios require it. For example, my soon-to-be son-in-law is a mental health counselor, and when he writes session summaries, his employer wants him to use third person, because it distances him from the material and positions the counselor in the role of an observer.
That's the rub. Third person creates distance; second person removes it.
None of our writers realized they were suddenly switching to third person. Not one. But here's my nonscientific, mostly qualitative explanation for why it happened: The writers (like the rest of us) are living in a state of isolation, and we're bombarded with messages about the importance of maintaining that separation. Our thoughts, our behaviors, even our fashion choices are governed by the need for distance. Over time, that need is finding its way into our writing.
Like it or not, on some level, we're all coming to terms with this new spatial imperative—and in some cases, it's changing the language and structure of our written communication.
Fortunately, we've addressed the problem at Walker Sands, where I work. Our editorial process caught the third-person drafts before they reached clients' inboxes, and our writers are paying closer attention to point of view in their work.
But I can't stop thinking about how our current reality is influencing the way we think and communicate. If even minor communication deficits created long-term social challenges for the kids in that study, then it seems possible, maybe even likely, that our lack of social interaction is limiting our ability to communicate effectively.
As a writer and marketer, I have a vested interest in effective communication: It's my bread and butter. But no matter how you earn a living, you too have a stake in this. Language removes barriers, and if the words we're writing suddenly create distance between us, that's a problem.
With that in mind, you can counter the effects of social distancing and create connections in your communication and writing:
- Monitor the pulse of your team. I've worked with a lot of writers in my career, enough to know that writers' thoughts and emotions often bleed into the content they create. As a leader, you need to know how your team is feeling and keep an eye out for anyone who is struggling due to a lack of social interaction. Chances are the issues those team members are experiencing will eventually affect their writing and interpersonal communications.
- Humanize your brand's voice and tone. More than ever, it's important to speak like a human. Your tone doesn't have to become saccharine (please don't do that), but it should convey a little more empathy and understanding than it did a few months ago. Today's audiences crave human connection, and if your brand provides it, they'll remember you for months or even years down the road.
- Be intentional about language. Words matter. They always have. But now that we're even more reliant on written, visual, and audio content, words are currency. They're the tools we depend on to bridge spatial gaps and build relationships. So, whether you're writing an article for the company blog or drafting an email to a family member, choose your words carefully, and look for opportunities to create connections with language.
Someday soon (fingers crossed) we'll leave our homes and return to spaces full of in-person meetings and physical interactions. The world will be different, but the need to create connections through writing and other forms of communication will remain the same.
By understanding the value of language and paying closer attention to the words we use, we can improve our long-term ability to create connections both with audiences and with acquaintances.
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