Getting Ahead by Doing it Wrong

January 15, 2014

A recent LinkedIn post by Kevin Roose of New York Magazine suggests that you can get ahead using spelling mistakes and bad email etiquette.  The post cites an exchange between Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook and Evan Spiegel of Snapchat in which Zuckerberg contacted Spiegel looking for a meeting. Spiegel’s casual  one-line response included two fragments, an emoticon, and no closing punctuation.

The post categorized the style as “strategic sloppiness.” It suggests that just as those higher on the corporate ladder can get away with more informality and grammatical shortcuts in terms of communication, subordinates can establish a perception of importance themselves by taking up the same style and cites an example to prove this case.

While the author does offer caveats to this approach, perhaps they don’t go quite far enough. The success of this method of communication is based in understanding the written language well enough to intentionally bend the rules without looking like you’ve failed third grade. If you cannot do this, then the results of “playing fast and loose” in your communication will likely fall flat. You must carefully assess the risk and reward of such an approach, and as with any piece of communication, it is essential to know your audience. Evan Spiegel could really respond to Mark Zuckerberg in any way he wanted as he had nothing to lose in the exchange. He did not at the time intend to sell the company. The exchange did eventually become public, though, and was roundly criticized.

So what does this mean for the average engineer or marketer communicating with clients and colleagues in the workaday world? The speed and ease of electronic communications seem to have permanently bent the rules of formality in business communications. Texting and social media have pushed them further toward casual communication.  Formal salutations are becoming rarer, though I would be loath to call Mr. Zuckerberg Mark unless he has signed his message that way. When creating formal correspondence, however, including cover letters for your proposals, you still need to follow the rules of correspondence.

While a message with some informality and slang added may get some added attention, caution is the way to go to be sure that the attention is the kind you want. Though part of writing in a casual way stems from speaking that way, it remains important to communicate in a way that is true to you to keep you authentic. If you most closely relate to Sheldon from “Big Bang Theory,” then trying to take on a James Dean cool may not be advisable.

All in all, the key is to know your audience as best you can to help you carefully decide whether you can get away with a little casual brash.

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