Lost in Interpretation?


We do our best to both inform and connect with our readers—especially these days, when we may never get to meet or talk with some of them any other way. Relationships in today's work climate are often forged solely through writing—especially emailing.

But how can we be sure the words we choose will accurately inform our readers and create trust and connection? Words often mean different things to different people, so it can feel risky to write exactly what we want to say and then sit back and hope no one misinterprets what we've said.

A participant in a recent business writing workshop shared a perfect example. She and some colleagues were planning an event, and needed various colors of paper for one of the event's activities. They ordered green paper from the warehouse, expecting to receive colored paper to use alongside the yellow and blue paper they already had.

However, when my participant and her colleagues received their shipment of paper from the warehouse, it wasn't the color green at all. It was white! Whose fault was this? Why wasn't the warehouse staff fulfilling requests correctly?

Well, actually they were fulfilling requests correctly. The paper the warehouse sent was white alright, but it was also green: it was recycled, eco-friendly paper.

Both groups were "right," no one was "wrong," and yet the central goal hadn't been met—all because of interpretation and misinterpretation.

What can we do to prevent this kind of situation? After all, a request like "Please send two reams of green paper" sounds pretty darn clear. It's not as if the event planners had written badly or anything!

To reduce the chances our words will be interpreted differently than we intended, we can think about our reader in new ways and adjust our writing content and order as needed. Let's check out the following specific strategies:

  • Consider your reader's industry when thinking about what words will mean to them.

  • Think about your reader's cultural background when choosing the right words.

  • Provide a small, concise amount of context to ensure your message hits its mark.

Considering your reader's industry and work setting

Our gut reaction to words—or our very first thought in response to a word we read—often depends on what we're exposed to, and what we talk about, every day. We each work within a workplace culture and use a set of terms common to our industry and work culture. Words with multiple meanings or applications take on different meanings in our minds first, depending on what we're used to.

Let's consider the word draft—a word with multiple meanings. Although we generally know this can mean a few different things, I'd guess the first meaning we think of might depend a little on what culture we work around or what conversations we're used to having. I'd guess our interpretation of draft could depend on our work area:

  • People working in facilities might first think of a breeze or an airway or vent.

  • Folks working within or alongside military operations might first think of a war draft.

  • Writers and editors might first think of multiple rounds of written documents.

Considering your reader's cultural background

Our work industries are part of our culture, but so are our generational groups, the places we grew up, and the norms we've followed and languages we've used in our lives. Thinking about our readers' cultural background can further help us anticipate how they might interpret specific words. Let's look at a few examples:

Generational Culture: The story above, about green paper, provides a great example of the impact of generational culture on interpretation. My participant explained that the event planners were an "older" group while the warehouse workers were "younger." Perhaps younger generations have been using "green" to represent environmental friendliness for a greater percentage of their lives than older generations have.

The Impact of Languages: Use care with words with multiple meanings by considering what meaning a reader will likely think of first. Consider a sentence like "Let's pool our money to buy a new printer." This may make sense easily to native speakers, but when we consider a reader's potential gut reaction, people newer to English might first think of the swimming area since that usage is more commonly taught and used.

Providing (concise) context when needed

When we're not sure how a reader will interpret a given word, we can provide context as a preventative measure. Don't worry though: this doesn't mean we'll ruin our writing's clarity, brevity, or concision. We can provide context quickly and without wordy fluff.

Actually, we can often convey context in a single word. Let's try this with sustainable. In this case, we can just add an adverb first: economically, environmentally, energetically, or financially, to name a few. This one word situates the reader and sets them up to interpret the word as the writer intended.

Similarly, we can provide a brief amount of context by offering a sentence leading up to the one with room for interpretation. For example, if we're saying a department has adopted "sustainable measures," we might first offer a sentence like, "The department has analyzed its carbon footprint over the last year." Or, we might lead with "The department has analyzed the efficiency of our processes," suggested a different interpretation of the coming word "sustainable."

As we've discussed before, most of our readers are busy—and often a little stressed too. When we're stressed or tired, our brains more easily jump to the first interpretation of a word we're used to. Caring for our readers, then, also means anticipating how words might "sound" on their end. Thinking ahead about specific words that might get misinterpreted can go a long way towards maintaining good relationships and ensuring mutual understanding.

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