Writing doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes I struggle to find my voice and tone, or even how formal or informal I should be. When I am writing for business, which is where most of my writing is, I find that it is best for me to employ various cognate strategies to make sure that I am communicating clearly.
“Am I being clear?” I ask myself. “Am I engaging people?”
Cognates are things that are related, and in language cognates refer to words with similar meaning or ancestral root language (Cognate, n.d.). They are commonly used to learn new vocabulary and languages. Cognate strategies are used to impart knowledge to the audience. Cognate strategies make up goals for communication that can be applied to writing or public speaking, and include topics such as clarity, conciseness, arrangement, credibility, expectation, reference, tone, emphasis, and engagement (McLean, 2010, p.135). All are important, but of particular interest to a business writer are clarity, conciseness, tone, emphasis, and engagement.
Clarity, which relates to how the message is understood and received, refers to how clearly the communication was made. Strategies around clarity help the audience “decode the message” in order to completely understand it (Simon, 2018). In the past, I have revised and simplified what I wrote in order to make it clearer, realizing that I was being ambiguous or assuming that the audience inferred what I was describing. I find that I am most unclear about a topic when I am either: uncertain of my own opinion about the subject, not adequately informed enough to be a subject material expert and discuss it, or trying to be vague on purpose because I am afraid the audience will not share my opinion. My lack of clarity was usually changed by fixing my word choices and trimming out sentences where I was dancing around the subject.
Conciseness is the extent to which a lot of information is given clearly, while being very brief. Being concise refers to how direct a message is delivered without a lot of filler words (Simon, 2018). In the past, I have rambled and taken diversions in my writing, telling side stories and building a long story out of a point which could be delivered much shorter. Once I realized I was losing the audience’s attention and I was not gaining anything by giving the audience more to process, I began to edit down, trim, and be more concise. Narrative can be important in delivery sometimes but can get out of hand.
Tone can be particularly hard to get right in written business communications like memos, emails, and instant messaging. Tone is the writer’s attitude toward a particular audience or subject, and tone is most often communicated through word choice (Tone, n.d.). As a cognate strategy, tone can even extend past choice of words to your clothing, voice, rhythm of your speech, and body language and contributes to the context of the communication (Simon, 2018). Often, I have said things in a business setting via email or chat that my employees have interpreted as harsh or overcritical. For instance, if I say “The customer is going to be upset if we don’t get this fixed today,” the technician working on the server issue may think that I am blaming them and expecting them to pull an all-nighter to fix the issue. This is such a problem in business that Psychology Today featured an article explaining that most people misinterpret the tone, usually harsher than intended, of emails (Swink, 2013). Grammarly added a tone detector to help combat this problem, which shows writers what their tone sounds like to the recipient (Grammarly, n.d.).
Emphasis is a cognate strategy that add stress or importance to a topic, and lack of emphasis can lessen the impact of other topics (Simon, 2018). It is what shows the relevance of the topic you are communicating (McLean, 2010, p.135). In writing, emphasis can be added by arrangement of words, word choice, or repetition. In business emails, I emphasize what is important by putting that topic in my summary as well as drawing attention to it in the email itself. For instance: “In summary, I am working hard to give the customer solid expectations regarding our timeframe, expected downtime, and costs. More than anything else, I need to have your cost expectations for this statement of work.” Emphasis was added through repetition, putting it last, italics, and saying “more than anything else.”
Engagement, lastly, is a cognate strategy to pay attention to in business communication, referring to your relationship with the audience (McLean, 2010, p.135). The engagement relationship with the audience can be formed during the written message or while speaking, and is created through movement, eye contact, audience participation, the use of images, and word choice (Simon, 2018). Often, a speaker or writer will take steps to build rapport with the audience to build that relationship, by finding common ground with the audience and discussing it at the beginning of a communication. Building engagement can be tricky, but I often do build engagement with my employees like this: “This is a rough time for all of us. I am continuing to deal with this client 7 days a week, and I know that everyone else is tired from this project, too. By working together, I think we can get this behind us.” By writing like this, I am making us peers. My team sees that I am tired and sacrificing my time and energy as much as they are. This rapport builds engagement for the rest of the message I convey.
In conclusion, cognate strategies are useful tools in public speaking and business writing to grab your engaged audience and communicate your topic to them in a way that is clear, concise, with proper, emphasis and with appropriate tone. Without keeping these ideas in mind, it is easy to run astray with communication and lose your audience and leave yourself open for misinterpretations.
Cognate. (n.d.). In Dictionary.com. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/cognate
Grammarly. (n.d.). Using Grammarly’s tone detector. Retrieved from https://support.grammarly.com/hc/en-us/articles/360034328531-Using-Grammarly-s-tone-detector
McLean, Scott. (2010). Business Communication for Success. The Saylor Foundation.
Simon, Grimes, and Roch. (2018). Communication for Business Professionals. eCampusOntario. Retrieved from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/commbusprofcdn/chapter/the-9-cognate-strategies/ [entire book available: https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/commbusprofcdn/]
Swink, David. (2013). Don’t Type at Me Like That! Email and Emotions. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/threat-management/201311/dont-type-me-email-and-emotions
Tone. (n.d.) In Literary Devices: Definition and Examples of Literary Terms. Retrieved from https://literarydevices.net/tone/
Art Ocain is the President & Chief Operating Officer at MePush, Inc. a managed service provider that serves IT architecture, operations, and cybersecurity needs across all verticals. Art has been in IT for over 20 years and has been a tech in the trenches as well as a manager in web hosting, internet service providers, enterprise IT, as well as services for the SMB market. You can read more on his LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/artocain/